Some recent events have caused me to reflect on a very important relationship in my life. It’s a relationship that changed me forever and has been the catalyst for a lot of my choices over the last 20-ish years. My very first baby has grown up. Yes, I know I’ve talked about my three kids. But this is not their story. This story is about my other life; my life before a husband and kids. This is the story of my nephew J, who I will always think of as my first baby.
**Disclaimer…I have a lot to say here. Even my super edited version is long winded. You have been warned 😉
J came screaming into this world in the fall of 1989. 10+ pounds of pure baby…and he was beautiful. The day we brought him home will be forever burned into my memory. We laid out a blanket and my sister laid him out on my mother’s bed. Immediately we did what we always did with new babies…stripped him down to the diaper and counted fingers and toes and marveled at this unbelievable creature that had just been produced. I was in awe. Sure I had been around newborns before. But this…I had never experienced pure love like I did that day. I had been a part of this pregnancy with my sister and her then-husband. I had gone to their little apartment prior to his birth and helped set up his diaper station and bottle sterilizer. My mother and I threw a shower for her and I proudly pinned on her corsage. I had watched her belly grow and felt him move inside her. He was a part of my heart long before he was born. In my mind, his coming was going to heal my sister, our relationship, our broken family. He was my hope.
I will share a little back-story. My sister and I haven’t always had a strong relationship. She is 3 years older and as kids we were nothing alike. She is also adopted. It was something that I just always knew but never thought much of. She was my sister plain and simple. This fact, however, affected her much more than I had ever realized as a child. As she got older things become much more strained. The full story of our relationship is something I’m not really ready to tell. Maybe one day, with courage and her permission, I’ll get it all out, but for the purposes of this story I will just let you know that my sister became chemically dependent at a very young age.
When she was 20, she became pregnant with my nephew. Although she and J’s biodad were not married yet, after the initial shock, it was a happy moment. She and biodad had been together for a while and it wasn’t like they were 15. My sister, though struggling with addiction, was always able to hold down a job. She was smart and savvy and was in love with this baby growing inside of her. I also think there was a part of her that thought of J as her hope. For him, she tried to stay sober and clean. For him, she was going to change.
But, as with all people who suffer from addiction, nothing can *make* you change. You have to want it and be ready. Though my sister may have wanted it she was not ready. The day she brought J home from the hospital, in the middle of marveling at this infant, there was a knock at the door…one of her “friends.” And that was it…she was gone…and there we were, my mom and I, me not even 18 yet and she pretty much done raising kids and not exactly stable herself (another story for another time). But there we were, left with this newborn.
Over the course of the next few years, J would be shuffled from house to house. At times, my sister and biodad would try to be good parents and do the right thing. But then I would get the call to “watch” him. Or something would happen and I would have to go get him. They moved from apartment to apartment to biodad’s mom’s house, to our house, J being shuttled back and forth and not getting any sort of stability. But my mom and I, we tried.
He called me Dantie since he couldn’t say “Auntie Katie.” I loved the title. I was not his mom or his grandmother, but I was more than just an aunt. I had a unique title all to myself. I fixed up a bedroom in our house with blue walls decorated with glowing stars. I worked at Sears at the time and was able to get comforters and curtains with the latest children’s characters at a discount. Books, toys, clothes, we did what we could. He was now my top priority. My friends tried to understand. While they were out partying, I was home with J. If we were going somewhere, like the mall or to lunch, they knew J would be with us. He was my shadow and I loved it. It was far from perfect and I made a TON of mistakes, but in the end, I think it was the most “home” he had at the time. At least that’s what I tried to make it.
J had an incredible personality as a kid. He was funny and quick-witted. He spoke to adults easily and had the biggest heart of any child I had ever known. But understandably, there were days that were not so easy. He was angry. Being too young to express any sort of feelings properly, he would just have outbursts. He was hard to control. I wanted to fix things. I wanted to make things better. But I couldn’t. I felt helpless. All I could do was love him. We snuggled a lot. Looking back I realize that learning to handle J really prepared me for raising my son with autism. Although J is not autistic, as a child he needed understanding, patience and a lot of love. I learned how to calm him down. I tried to teach him that hugs do make things a lot better. I wanted him to trust…at least me. All that came back to me when the struggles with my Aiden began.
I was too young to fight my sister and my mom didn’t have any fight left in her. Looking back I wish I had the balls. But, I was afraid that she’d just take off with him and we’d never know what happened. That thought chilled me to the bone. I played her carefully. I wouldn’t let that happen.
She finally had her cathartic moment. Again, another story for another time, but she cleaned up. She divorced biodad and met the man that would become her new husband and J’s step-dad. He happened to be in the program as well. So the inevitable happened. It was time for my sister to step up and be a mom years after giving birth. I knew it was coming. Things were different this time. Her new husband…wow, I hated him. He was hard-headed and no-nonsense. But we were looking at things from two completely different perspectives. He was forcing her to do her job and take her rightful place as J’s mom and give him the stability he needed and deserved. I just saw him as this stranger; someone who hadn’t lived our bad times. Someone who didn’t know me from squat, didn’t know the sacrifices I had made and the tears I had shed in order to keep this kid safe. He just strolled in and ripped my baby from my arms. I was angry. Funny how time and maturity can make you see things that you were blind to at the time. I’m crazy about my brother-in-law now and have a lot of respect for him. I know he did the right thing. J belonged with his mother. She was finally ready…I was a mess.
The day J officially “moved out” was rough. I said my goodbyes and locked myself in my mother’s bedroom. He didn’t want to go. I didn’t want him to go. His tears tore my heart out. But I had to step back and let my sister take over. My time as J’s “Dantie” was over. From here on out, regardless of my moniker, I was just going to be Aunt Katie.
Things with my sister didn’t exactly go smoothly after that. I knew there were transition problems with J but I had to stay out of it. I knew I was supposed to be building this fabulous relationship with my now clean and sober sister but I was angry. It wasn’t too long after all this took place that my mom became ill and I was now her caregiver. My sister visited, but was caught up in a lot of her own family drama so I was pretty much on my own with that. By this point, I was emotionally wrecked and financially ruined and I wasn’t even 30.
I finally pulled things together. I moved on with my life and met my husband. I kept tabs on my sister and J. I was always around if I was needed or wanted. But I stayed out of things. I had to…for the betterment of everyone. My husband could tell you about our first discussion about having kids. I didn’t want them and he did. So my story of my time with J unfolded. I had been through a lot at a really young age and I just didn’t know if I wanted that kind of responsibility again. I cried…a lot. I had finally told my story to someone outside of my circle. Other than Ann, who lived a lot of this with me, he was the only other person who knew how devastated I was at the loss of J. At that time, my sister and I were pleasant to one another but we were not ok. Every time I would see J, every time I would hear about something that wasn’t going all that great in his life, I felt this incredible guilt. I felt like I had abandoned him. I wanted to reach out but I really had no place in his life anymore. I kept telling myself that regardless of what was to happen with me and my sister, one day he’d be an adult and I would make sure that he’d always know where to find me.
My mother passed away Thanksgiving weekend 2003. For the first time in a long time, my sister and I came together. I remember going over to my sister’s house to see J. I had a medal that my mother always wore that I wanted him to have. My father had given it to my mom when they got engaged. When they got married, he had little diamonds put around it and an inscription added. She never took it off. It was the ultimate symbol of love for her and her most treasured possession. I knew she would have wanted him to have it. I sat with him on the bed when I handed it to him. He was devastated. Again, my heart was breaking for him. I knew that it was time to try to work my way back in. I wanted him back in my life. I needed them all back in my life. We all needed to heal.
Thinking back, it was this moment that prompted me to want to pursue my relationship with her family again. After the funeral, we kept in touch. When I got pregnant with Aiden, she was the first person I called. We started letting things go and building a family again. All these years later, my sister finally wound up on my “People I Would Take A Bullet For” list, which I never dreamed would happen. She would tell me more about J and the troubles he was having. He liked to drink. He liked to fight. But yet he still had this incredible heart and always defended the underdog. So even though he would fight, 9 times out of 10 it was to defend someone else. So it was hard to be mad at the kid. He didn’t do anything terrible but just enough to keep him from succeeding. He was his own worst enemy and it was frustrating the hell out of my sister.
I tried just being available for him. I always thought he’d be great working with kids. He is an incredible athlete and would be respected as a coach. He also “gets” kids. They relate to him. My sister agreed. But his interests were in other areas and I didn’t want to push. I had no right to waltz back into his life years later and just expect to pick up where we left off. But I wanted him in my life. I wanted him in my kids’ lives. I wanted whatever relationship he was comfortable with. I didn’t care…I just wanted him around. If nothing else, I became a sounding board for my sister. I wanted to be someone she could safely talk to without judgment to help her work through any issues they might be having.
J and I, well, we have been slowly building on what we started 23 years ago. My door is always open to him and my kids adore him. My sister has also been building an incredible relationship with him now as an adult. She is focusing her attention on helping him get situated and he is succeeding. My sister has also become a trusted confidante and is sharing in our journey with Aiden and the magical world on the autism spectrum. But I hadn’t really talked to J about it. By nature, J is sort of a quiet guy and a jokester. I never wanted to get to heavy or make him uncomfortable. But I’ve always known he feels things deeply. Last week, he posted this on Facebook:
Without saying a word, he got inked for my baby. Words will never be enough to express how seeing that picture made me feel. That he was willing to do that for me, for my son, just spoke volumes. It was more than just a tattoo for my baby. I have been feeling this incredible guilt all these years. We’ve never really sat down and discussed what happened and what he really meant to me…means to me. This showed me that I never had to. He knows. But I’m writing this out for him to read it. To know my story and to know just how much I love him.
So…the recent events…he just got a job working security at a high school. That nut went in there and just told the interviewer exactly what he wanted to say right from the heart. That he wasn’t perfect, that he had his fair share of trouble, but that he wanted to help these kids and that he’d be good at the job. Right then and there he sold it. He also went on to offer his services, free of charge, to the coach. Later, he also expressed to my sister his interest in possibly building a career around working with troubled kids. *BRIGHT RAY OF LIGHT SHINING DOWN…AHA!* He’s getting it! This kid that I’ve been so worried about is having his “aha” moment. And I have never been so proud. He is going to be ok. (and personally, after seeing how he is with my son, I think he’d be a great occupational therapist, but I digress…one day at a time and I’m not going to push 🙂 )
So why am I writing all this out? Well, many reasons. First, I needed to get it all out. I’ve been struggling with these feelings and emotions for a long time. It’s time to put a lot of this to bed. What’s done is done and I can accept the past and move on to our future. Also, I want my kids to read this so they know just how special J is. He’s not just a cousin. In my mind, he’s almost like their older brother. I want them to know that when they need it, there is yet another adult they can turn to whom they can trust. I want my sister to know that I recognize how far we’ve come. That I am so grateful for what we have been able to build, that we have our little family, as dysfunctional as it is, and that I treasure it. And that I am truly ecstatic that she is at the place she is now at with J. I knew they would get there. I want my brother-in-law to know that I love him and I respect him and that I know he did the right thing. I am so grateful for all that he has done for J. And I’m sorry I was such a bitch. 🙂
But lastly, and most importantly, J, this is for you. I want you to know my story…our story…and how much you mean to me. You have always been at the forefront of my heart and that I am so proud of the man you have become. We are family, always have been, always will be. That’s our shtick. I love you J.