By Linda Nusbaum, MFT
My 20-year-old niece and my 26-year-old nephew came for a visit. They are the fatherless children of my deceased younger brother who died 10 years ago. They came from their home in Reno, Nevada to spend four days with me during the holiday season.
They are my kin and they are my blood. Two words that define the closeness I feel for them. They are my brother’s children. They are part me.
I have kept in contact with them over the last decade. I like to think of myself as a guiding, although distant force in their life. I imagine myself as a stand in for my brother. Cards, phone calls and the occasional visit have defined our relationship, until now. Something happened during this visit, something deep, something more.
My niece prepares me during a telephone conversation before she arrives. She tells me she has more piercings on her face. I take it in and ask about her ears. She has been enlarging her earlobes. She says they are bigger now. “About the size of a quarter?” I ask hoping. “No, Bigger.” My heart sinks but I don’t want her to feel it so I say, “It doesn’t matter, you are beautiful.”
My nephew has been sober for six months. Our phone conversations are hurried and I’m not sure who he will be. He spent the last 10 years in a world of drugs and difficulties.
I worry about seeing them. I worry about things that don’t even have thoughts. I just worry. I remind myself it will be good to see them and that is all that I need to think about. This brings me peace as I try and keep myself grounded.
The day comes and I pick them up at the airport. I see William first. He’s so tall and strapping. He’s a big man and he looks just like my beloved brother. His smile fills his face. It is such a joy to see him and to hug him.
I glimpse Rochelle next and see the additions to her face, but the two hoops in her lower lip cause my stomach to flutter. I glance at her ears and I approach, wrapping her in a hug. The wise part of me whispers in her ear, “Hello, beautiful.”
We pile into the car and normal conversation keeps us occupied. We settle in at my home and begin to relax. It’s the first night of Hanukah. My mother, their grandmother, arrives with holiday bounty. We share a beautiful meal and light the candles. Everyone sings and we play dreidle. It’s a child’s game, yet all the adults are enjoying it. We share each other’s chocolate candy and we laugh. I hear William make clever jokes and I marvel at the man he has become.
I feel something rich in the room. It reminds me of being a little girl and celebrating a family holiday. It takes me back to a time when there were no grownup worries. I think we all feel it. It feels great.
Later that evening William, Rochelle and I are in the kitchen together. Rochelle has her hair tied back, and William asks me, “What do you think of Rochelle’s ears?” I take a breath and remind myself, I am the guiding, distant aunt, the stand in for my brother.
I turn the question back around and ask him, “What do you think of her ears?”
He grimaces and says, “I don’t like them.”
I take a breath and decide to make this a teaching moment.
“Indigenous tribes from around the world adorn themselves in various ways that signify beauty. Some cultures tattoo faces, enlarge lips and some enlarge ears, like your sister. Rochelle would be considered a beauty in these cultures. Rochelle likes her ears. Perhaps this is more about your reaction than your sister’s ears.”
As I say these words I intend this message for myself as well. William nods, “Yeah, I guess you are right.” I see Rochelle stand taller. I feel better, for all of us.
Over the next few days we get used to each other even more. We act silly and laugh a lot. It’s easy, simple laughing, the kind you do with people you know really well, and even though we have spent little time together, we are connected in a way that is beyond our words.
They feel like formed people to me now, not people I have to work on, and I like them. Each on their own tells me about their plans. William talks about continuing his career in the plumbing trade. Rochelle declares she will go to college. I hear the determination in her voice and I believe her. I encourage softly. They will make their own decisions now.
Sometime during the trip I ask William if he sees his dad in himself. He says he’s not sure. After he leaves he calls and tells me he wrote something he wants me to read.
“Sometimes I feel like I live my dad’s life for him. You asked me, ‘Do I see my dad in myself?’ Well, when I’m not pressured to answer a question I can think of so many ways. Certain songs my dad used to like and sing and made him happy, I never used to like them. Now, I actually listen to those same songs and I will sing them with a big smile on my face and I actually like the songs now. It makes me cry tears of joy to remember how happy my dad was.”
William’s words take me to a deep place, where the soul holds truth and purity. It’s the place of my brother’s memories. And now it has also become the home to his child who has found a way to breathe in new life.