I never thought I'd become an uncle. My sister, Cindy, is mentally handicapped and when most women her age were having kids, she was living at home with our parents, playing Barbies, and too bashful to even speak about boys.
I get sympathetic looks when I tell others I have a mentally handicapped sister. And I'm going off topic for a moment to say that I don't want those sympathetic looks. I'm proud of my sister. She is the heart of our family. Most people would consider her handicap a burden; however, I see it as a blessing. I can sit down with Cindy, laugh as we read all of Clifford's adventures together, and talk, in unusually great detail, about the epic '90s romance that was Tommy and Kimberly from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (she thinks they were soul mates; I think otherwise).
Cindy even calls my fiancé, Jeff, her brother and unquestionably accepts our relationship.
"If anyone has a problem with you guys, they're gonna have to answer to me," she's told me countless times.
Take a moment to think about that. This is a 36-year-old woman who has maintained the heart of a child. Where most people her age cast judgment, she loves. How can anyone ever pity her?
This is all a long-winded away of saying that being an uncle was something I never thought about. I loved the family I had and didn't wonder about an alternate universe where my sister was a mother.
Last year, Jeff's sister, Julie, gave birth to a beautiful red-headed girl named Mira Celeste, and it was then I found myself taking on the role of uncle. And with that new role came a slew of fears I wasn't ready for.
The first time I held Mira, I was afraid. I'd never before held someone that was so tiny and fragile (yes, the first time I held Mira was the first time I held a baby). And that's what shocked me. She was someone. Someone that if I dropped, would be injured. Someone who was not only the perfect blend of her parents, but of Jeff as well. I was instantly in love. How could there have been a world before her?
When Jeff was named her godfather, I saw my fiancé, a guy with an asymmetrical haircut and the very embodiment of Hell's Kitchen cool, walk up the altar at this small church in Ohio, and tear up as the chrism fell onto Mira's head. Jeff and I don't go to church, and I won't say he became a devotee after the ceremony, but, he walked down that altar with Mira, ready for their spiritual journey.
Later, as I was reviewing my notes from the baptism, a thought entered my head. Mira had brought such joy in our lives that I couldn't picture our family without her. However, what claim did I have over this happiness? I wasn't blood-related.
A few years ago, Jeff and I separated. The split was mutual, but everyone in our lives felt the need to take sides (life advice from Uncle Paul: never take a side with warring couples). People who I considered family defriended me on Facebook and friends I had met through Jeff began ignoring my texts. What if 15 years down the road Jeff and I separate again? Would I still be considered Mira's uncle? And would she, siding with her biological Uncle, defriend me from the future Facebook?
Of course, Julie and her husband Kevin have assured me I am Mira's uncle no matter what.
"You're not blood-related?" Kevin jokingly said to me when I was talking to him about this essay. "I hadn't noticed. Should I be treating you any differently?"
Perhaps the best affirmation came from Cindy.
The other day I was on the phone with her when she was telling me she wanted a baby. I never knew Cindy thought about having children. My heart couldn't help but break as she told me she hopes God sends her a little girl one day. You see, Cindy takes a powerful medication to keep her brain functioning. It's had long-term effects on her body. I explained to her she couldn't just go off the medication to have a baby. She could go into a coma or die.
"I don't care what happens," she told me. "I just want to love my baby."
The idea of Cindy giving birth to a daughter then dying was too much for me to handle. I sat alone in my living room after our conversation, watching the sun set over the skyline. I was unable to picture my life without my sister and she was unable to picture a life without a daughter. I couldn't believe how someone, who had so many disadvantages in life, had so much selfless love within her. She didn't care about what happened tomorrow.
As of this writing, Mira is coming to New York to visit for Halloween. The entire family is doing a Flinstones theme for the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze we'll be going to upstate. Mira is going to be Pebbles and I'm going to be Barney (the ultimate non-blood relative). I may not know what'll happen in the future, but I'm taking my sister's words to heart. Tomorrow is irrelevant. I just want to love my niece, and I'll always be here for her.