Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Toast to My Nephew

I saw you today.

Not the 18 year-old strapping young man who’s preparing to go to college. No. I saw the toddler Daniel, running around the house in his diaper shrieking at the top of his lungs.

To be fair, I was looking at my 2 year-old son, Sam. He looks so much like you at that age, Daniel. He acts so much like you. It’s weird to travel back in time 16 years on a daily basis.

You are my nephew, but you always felt like a little more than that. I was only 21 when you came into the world. I remember that trip home from college. Sleeping until noon in my childhood bed, waking to find Mom sitting next to me. Staring into space.

“Nora’s pregnant.”

I was shocked, unable to breathe, and yet it made so much sense. Nora had been acting secretive, moody. I mean, more so than usual (yuk yuk).

Before the thought could even register, I ran to Nora’s room where I found her sitting on her bed, teary-eyed. I pulled her into a big hug and told her I loved her. And I did. Possibly more so than I ever had.

But I was terrified. My baby sister would never be a baby again. At 15, she would face things that I was nowhere near ready to even think about for myself.

I know you know how hard it was for her. The harsh words she endured from our father, the judgmental glares from the folks in our tiny town, the hurtful words from her classmates. She had well-meaning family members begging her to give her baby up for adoption, and when she wouldn’t listen to them, they begged me to try to help her see reason.

But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell Nora what to do when I’d never ever been in her shoes. She wanted you. She wanted you and loved you fiercely. And her love transferred to me. I found myself so excited to meet you that I could barely think straight.

You came early, as you know. Induced into this world to save your mother from deadly preeclampsia. I wanted to be there when you were born. I was staying at a friend’s house, and they assured me the induction would take a long time and they’d call me when things got going. But you jumped into this world faster than anyone had planned.

You were so tiny. I was scared to death of hurting you, scared to death of the overwhelming love that flooded me. A little jealous that you were Nora’s and not mine.

I was home that summer when you were brand new. Some nights, when you cried, I’d sneak into Nora’s room and pick you up. Those moments when I could soothe you, or feed you, or rock you to sleep, I felt so important. So needed.

I babysat one night. Just you and me while everyone else went out. Everything was fine until you started to scream. Scream and scream and scream. I changed your diaper, I tried to feed you, I rocked you and sang to you and walked the floor with you. Nothing worked. I was sure I’d hurt you, sure I’d messed up. I cried my eyes out, praying Nora would get home soon. When she did, and I handed you to her, you finally stopped crying. That was the night I realized how tough it was to be a mother, the constant work, of course, but also the bottomless worry and self-doubt. That night may have something to do with why I waited another eleven years before I decided to have one of my own. (And I give a massive amount of credit to my baby sister who learned how to be a mom with you, and what a wonderful mother that woman is!)

As you grew, we became buddies. I felt tremendous guilt because I moved to New York when you were just a year old. My heart was so heavy, knowing that I would miss so many important moments of your life. And every time I came home for a visit, it was you I wanted to see first.

And you never forgot me. You’d squeal and run into my arms. And when it was time for me to depart, you’d get so sad I thought I’d die. My heart was ripped out more times in those twelve years than I care to remember.

I can’t calculate the number of hours we played trains together. I was Percy or James or Gordon, but never Thomas. You were always Thomas, getting dirty and needing a wash or overcoming obstacles or just chugging away, happily.

Every year at Christmas, I took the subway to FAO Schwartz where they had a massive collection of Thomas toys. I’d stand there, overwhelmed, until I finally called Nora and made her tell me what to buy. I wanted to bring you there with me, to see you face at the splendor of that amazing store. So, instead, I spent way more money than I had on things I hoped you’d like.

I was so humbled by your love. You LOVED me. Loved me in a way where I could feel it – down to my toenails. The fierce hugs, the sitting on my lap, the requests for books, the “again” when I did that trick where I held your hands and you walked up my legs until you flipped over. Your grand proclamations of “Aunt Randi, I love you!” when I agreed to walk you down to the playground and push you so high on the swings I feared my sister would kill me.

But I worried about you. I worried about what would happen to you. You were a picky eater, wanting little else than Hungry Man frozen meals and juice. Would you grow up to be healthy and strong? Your home life wasn’t ideal, splitting time between two grandparents’ houses, your parents teenagers in a tumultuous relationship. Would you grow up to be emotionally stable? The first school you attended wasn’t a great fit and you struggled to adapt. Would you ever go to college?

Here you are, ready to graduate high school – with grades so good that you got a huge scholarship to a great college. You play lacrosse and you’ve excelled in the band and you’re an independent thinker who loves to argue his viewpoints. You’re tall and healthy and kind and funny. You have a huge heart and you care so much about making this world a better place that I just can’t wait to see what you’re going to do to achieve that. My fears were so silly, so unfounded – and not a single one came true.

And now you’re the cousin that my own kids love so fiercely it’s crazy. They light up when they get to see you, they wear you out by making you chase them or pick them up or push them on the swings. And it’s like I’m watching a replay of me and you when you when you pick up my son and tickle him until he laughs hysterically.

I’m so proud of you Daniel. So proud of all you’ve accomplished, of all your hard work, of your integrity and humanity and intelligence. I have no doubt at all that you will accomplish great things in your future, and that our world will be a better place because you’re here.

But know that, as you walk across the stage to get your diploma, I will be the crazy, sobbing aunt, remember a skinny little boy in a Buzz Lightyear costume – dingy and dirty from months of continuous wear – sitting in my lap, asking me to read the picture book about poop that you couldn’t get enough of.

Congratulations, Daniel. I’m so proud of you.

No comments: