I was living in LA when my first nephew was a little over a year and my sister-in-law was pregnant with my second nephew. My brother and his family lived an hour away in Irvine. I fought the ridiculously jammed up traffic every Friday night in order to spend the weekend with them. I was 30 years old and single, which prompted my brother to wonder why I would leave the swinging city to spend my free time in the sleepy suburbs. One day he asked, lovingly and with one eye brow raised, “Why are you always here and why are you hogging my son?”
“Because I want J to think of me as part of the constellation of his caregivers. When he looks up at night and arranges the stars in his sky, one of them should be me.”
That nephew just finished his freshman year in college. He is studying soil science and botany because he wants to make a life for himself in the wilderness. When he had to write a paper about a poem he called me. When he had to write a poem, he called me. And when he had to write his college essay, he called me. My brother likes to say that J is part mine.
I’m sending my jock daughter to California this summer to spend some time with my brother’s family. She’ll watch sports on all 552 ESPN channels on their flat screen HD TV (we don’t have cable and our box TV’s tubes are slowly blowing such that Walter White’s bald head is inflated like Max Headroom’s.) She’ll play tennis and frisbee on the beach. Other family in California want her to stay with them as well. They’ll take her to Disneyland and universal studios and out for ice cream sushi. Everybody wants B to visit. She’s easy going, she’s lively, sweet, cooperative, disciplined and polite.
My husband’s parents passed away when my daughter was a toddler and I was pregnant with Milo. My mother, while dynamic and healthy, isn’t getting any younger. So years ago, when we had to write the important, impossible document saying who would take our children if something happened to us, we asked my brother. He said, “You’re goddamn right I’ll take them. I love that little girl and that fat little boy.”
Now, after telling my brother a particularly exasperating or gruesome Milo story (to which he listens with infinite patience and good humor) I make sure to say, “Remember, if anything happens to me, he’s yours.” My brother sighs. I can picture him rubbing his eyes, running his hands over his close-cropped, greying hair. “Nothing’s gonna happen to you.”
We live without any family nearby. But we’ve managed to make some dear friends, the kind that feel like family. We have dinner most every Friday night with two other families. My kids think of the grown ups as their aunts and uncles and the kids as cousins. My daughter regularly texts these aunts on her own. One taught her how to cook and makes her care packages when she travels with her team. They intervene with me to argue on her behalf for permission of some kind. One of them hands her down clothes.
While my daughter is in California, my husband and I are going to Chicago to pick up a car my best friend and her husband are giving to us. It will take a few days to drive it back. At the same time, Milo is going on a wilderness trek for emotionally disturbed children. I just finished filing the requisite forms, including who to contact should Milo not be able to complete the trek. The Friday night aunts have heartily agreed to retrieve him. When I asked them to make the sacrifice, they each said, “We love Milo, he’s family.”
Knowing that there are people willing to be stars in Milo’s dissonant, awkward constellation helps me keep my faith in the infinite, wondrous arrangement of the night sky.