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“Who will take care of you in your golden years?”

An unmarried male friend with whom I used to go white water rafting recently died in his sleep. His body was not discovered for six days. The news made me realize the same thing could happen to me.

When I was absolutely certain I would remain childless, I began saving money like a mad woman, bought long-term health insurance, and wrote a will outlining my wishes after my death. I named one friend to be responsible for the decision to pull the plug and another as her back up. I told them both I did not want to be kept alive if it was clear I could no longer have any fun or be any fun. I joked that if it gets to the point where I’m not telling stories or wanting to dance, that is the time to set me adrift. I think friends could do this more easily than my older brother who lives far away and is traditionally religious.

I never regarded children as some kind of insurance policy for one’s golden years. My parents flatly refused to move in with me or even move to my city when they got older, and if I had a child I would have followed their example. I took care of my parents when they were dying because I wanted to, not out of a sense of obligation. They told me, “It would not make us happy to know you missed a single beat in your life, sacrificed anything for us, or mourned when we are gone. We have had a wonderful life, two wonderful kids, and a great community. There is nothing more that we could ask for, and we’re grateful and ready to go when the time comes. I teared up when Mom said, “I can’t live forever, honey.” Then she teared up as she told me, “It’s going to be so hard to leave you.”

In lieu of having children to depend on, through the years I’ve forged a community of many close, mostly single friends who take care of one another. Recently one of us was diagnosed with throat cancer. After her surgery, which included a tracheotomy and a feeding tube, several of us created a schedule in six-hour shifts so that one of us would always be with her. We maintained this support from the time she entered the hospital until she stabilized at home months later.

So, what is family? How is it best defined? Must you be related by blood? If that’s true, then how does marriage make a family of the husband and wife? Could a group of dear friends who are witness to each others’ lives, who grow old together and pledge to support one another in sickness and in health, till death do they part, be anything less?