Thursday, January 13, 2005

If there is a horizontal line that runs from the map, off your body...

In my early teens, I was given the gift of two “cousins,” brought into the world by my aunt-and-uncle-who-aren’t-really-my-aunt-and-uncle-at-all, but who have been members of my family in the truest sense for as long as I can remember. I’ve since been told that in Indian culture, everyone has “cousins” to whom they’re not actually blood-related—and lots of them. That makes a lot of sense to me. Blood relations don’t always equal close relationships, and I’ve never been in the business of trying to bend relationships into something they’re not, simply because there are a few shared genes somewhere in the mix. I’m just thankful for the relationships I have, and happy with whatever form they take.

B was one of my mom’s best friends growing up, and when I was born she just naturally became Aunt B. In fact, as a toddler, I was the one who christened her with the nickname that we all still use to refer to her. Perhaps partly for that reason (and many others) I always felt especially bonded to her. She would come over, toss me around, take me out to give my mom some much-needed time without me (I could be a handful, from what they tell me), take me to church (!), let me go through her purse in search of candy and gum (two things that were pretty exotic to me at the time), and even put up with the grief that I inevitably caused her every time I would suddenly and inexplicably jump into a lake or puddle, touch something I wasn’t supposed to be touching (or worse, break it), or blurt out an inappropriate, room-silencing question or comment in public. (Even then my voice was loud and attention-grabbing.) I remember looking forward to each and every one of those visits; and as I grew up, she was one of the first people to actually start treating me like an “adult.”

So when she married S (recruiting my bro and I to serve as tuxedo-clad ring bearers in their wedding), he naturally became my Uncle S. And when they gave birth to A&J, well naturally they were my cousins A&J. And suddenly I was experiencing things I’d never experienced before: Babies. Diapers. Toddlers. BABYSITTING... Inconceivably, these two people actually trusted the teenage me enough to leave their infant/toddler children in my care on a regular basis. Alone. And for years, I did just that: cared for my beloved little cousins once a week every week, sometimes more, never cognizant of the effect it was having on me.

I’ve never been a fan of children. Never enjoyed hanging around them, certainly have never entertained the notion of creating them, and frankly, didn’t even want to be one when I was one. But somehow, A&J were never children to me. They were my little charges, my big responsibilities. At once my biggest fans and my arch nemeses. And I loved every second of it. So once a week I’d go over there, toss them around, take them out, put up with their grief, and teach and learn and learn and teach. Still not sure which I did more of.

And then suddenly, right around the time I was getting ready to go into high school, they left. Moved away. And not just a-town-or-two-away away. We’re talking other-side-of-the-world away. A place I didn’t even know existed until they moved there. And just like that, without warning, I was left with an emptiness, a hole in my life I never would have known there was a space for if they had never gone. I mean let’s not be melodramatic or anything—life of course went on and it’s not like I was walking around in a fog-like depression or mourning their departure. But I felt their absence. And I did think of them a hell of a lot. More than I probably ever thought I would.

And time marched on. Entire years could pass without a word of contact. And we all got older. And suddenly, I knew firsthand what it was like to keep a mental image of someone frozen in time—to keep them forever the age they were, the way they looked the last time I saw them. To fight back the urge to exclaim, on the two times per decade I’d see them, “Oh my God, you’re so big!” or “Who is this standing here?” or the classic, “I remember you when you were this tall!” And what’s more, to be affected by the awkwardness in a relationship that was once so easy and second-nature. Because you know, adolescent girls aren’t the easiest for young men to wrap their heads around. And vice versa, I’m sure.

And then this year, Christmas of 2004, they came for a visit. A real, honest-to-goodness, spending of the holidays together. It had been years since the last time we had any contact, and my “little” cousins were now 17 and 15. Ugh, teenage girls! But with time, any awkwardness that might have been there evaporated, and spending that time with them was like a great melting. A thaw. A lightness that comes back slowly, for only a few minutes a day, but grows steadily until it’s light and warm 24/7, and you soak it in and wonder how your mind ever forgot what this was like during those six months of cold and dark, when your body remembers this warmth and this light so well.

And that’s when I realized that I kept having the urge to wrap my arms around these two girls; to pick them up and carry them around like I did so many times for such a significant period of my life. I would look at their now grown-up, totally different (almost unrecognizable) faces and intermittently catch flickers of the two little girls I chased around the house and ran with in the yard and swam with in the pool, and wonder why I was feeling so strangely moved. And it felt good to feel that way. Human. All at once I felt so close to them, even though I really don’t know them at all, and so protective of them, as if somehow I’m invested in their futures or they in mine. And I knew that no matter what, no matter when, I would always be there for them, no matter the circumstances. And strangely, that realization felt not like a burden, but more like a right and a privilege. A bond I wasn’t even aware of—one I hadn’t worked to create or foster—was not only present, but stronger than I could have imagined, and quite outside of my control. And for the first time in my life, I’m happy to give up control and just surrender to it. I think my parents would be able to relate.


Anonymous Demarcus Schwenke said...

I am interested in your blogs.

12:32 PM  

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