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Embrace in-laws as your family
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In the movies, in-laws are bad news.

There's the mother-in-law, a nagging, screeching creature from Hell. There's the father-in-law, a glaring, disapproving statue.

There's the brother-in-law, who is a showoff or a drunk. And the sister-in-law, who thinks you're a bum.

You would never get involved with these people if not for your spouse, who, in the movies, starts looking a little funny, too.

But that's the movies.

I inherited a sister-in-law -- three of them, actually. And they're lovely. Noisy, frenetic, dramatic, beautiful, chatty, opinionated, but lovely.

One, the oldest, really stood out. Debbie. The family story is that we were supposed to be fixed up. But the night we met, Debbie was singing in a local club, and she called me out of the crowd to accompany her on piano. We started OK, but soon she was hissing orders -- "Play faster!" "Modulate!" -- and I panicked. She rolled her eyes at my fumbling.

So much for romance.

It was her younger sister whom I took to and eventually married; Debbie was the maid of honor. She gave a speech as beautiful and lofty as her poofed hair and make-up. And that night we became officially connected through two words and a hyphen.

In-law.

Over the years, I learned the family stories that her siblings knew by heart. That when Debbie was a kid, a dog bit her -- and she bit it back. That boys were always tripping all over her. That her stunning musical talent earned her a scholarship at Wayne State, but she left before finishing to raise her first child.

She was crazy about shopping, loved clothes, was the star of her own little opera, complete with costume changes. She was into art, history, religion, she could talk about Prada shoes and French Impressionism in the same sentence. For an overnight trip, she'd pack three suitcases. Her beauty made people fawn all over her, and you would see bellhops and kitchen workers lugging bags or musical equipment, while she breezed in behind them, smiling like a movie star.

She was loyal, honest, she made things sparkle. She hand-wrote thank-you notes, remembered everyone's birthday. And she would call our house 10 times a day with personal drama -- her three sons, her work, a 20 percent off sale at Lord & Taylor. She was a hurricane, needy, talkative, judgmental -- all the things that are supposed to bug you about in-laws.

But I loved it. She made life interesting -- loud, messy, time-consuming, but interesting.

And then she got sick.

Cancer changes a person's colors, it fades them out. But not Debbie. Nothing could dim that light. She fought breast cancer -- which spread eventually throughout her body -- but she never settled for conventional treatment. Instead, she read and studied and pursued alternatives. She found medicines in foreign counties. She radically changed her diet. She battled that cursed disease for 15 years and never once spent a night in a hospital.

Several times she came back to full diva form, dressed-to-kill, smiling and energized. Then, like a shark's jaws, the cancer would pull her under again.

In the final year, she shed pounds in exchange for sweetness. The more she shrank to a skeleton, the calmer and more at peace she became. She worried for her sons, for her sisters and brothers and mother, for all of us. We held her hands and rubbed her shoulders as she lay in the bed in which she would die.

A few minutes before passing, she mumbled, "I'm ready." Her final whispered word was "Debbie."

Perhaps God was taking roll call.

Christmas is a few days away now, and we are all bracing ourselves. There will be tears. A big crater in our holiday. But I'm glad for at least one thing with Debbie: That I never adopted a phony barrier. Don't let movies define your in-laws. Treat the siblings you gain as new brothers and sisters. Hug them. Kiss them. Embrace their insanity.

And be happy to have them however long you have them. Because they are family. And when you lose a piece of your family, the title never matters.