Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Don't Go Breakin' My Heart

When my excellent six-year-old niece was born, I wasn't ready for her. I was hurt - we all were - but I was also self-absorbed, and here she was, not at all whom I had expected, and I didn't know what to do with her. I was afraid of her; she was so small and defenseless but I knew what she could do to me and I didn't want that; I couldn't handle it. I had so much love stored up for someone else, and I couldn't just transfer it to her. So I kept my distance. In my memory, she's like Ruth imploring Idgie to spend time with her; I can see her on the couch, a little buddha propped up against the side, spilling down her chin, trying to talk with her little eyes, and I'm doing up my shoes getting ready to go out, or waiting for her Mother to come back in the room. I liked changing her nappies and feeding her but I didn't like holding her for too long... I didn't think I was good at it, and I didn't want to feel bad for not wanting to do it more, or being more natural, or feeling what I thought I should be feeling when I had my own niece and the baby of my best friend and surrogate parents in my arms. I watched her splosh out of her mother into the midwife's hands, but even then I was too scared to hold her.

When she could walk, she used to come into my bedroom and put on my shoes and bags and walk around in them. I would come home and find them put back, mismatching, or in front of each other as if she'd walked straight out of them. When I was there, she would pretend to talk on my phone while pacing around the room in my hot pink stilettos, in her soft little voice. Her most-used phrases were "What doing?" and "Just having a look" (when playing with something she wasn't supposed to touch). She still didn't have a lot of hair, and there was still something so vulnerable about her, although I wonder now if I project that onto her because I wasn't being what I should have been. Watching her do things like stand for the first time, or say "butterfly", I felt like a spectator rather than an insider. When my one-year-old niece was born last year, I was ready to be her aunty and love her and teach her things, right away. I realised I hadn't felt that way before, and it made me feel so much guilt, and so, so much sadness. My six-year-old niece won't remember her infancy, when I was there, living in the same house but a completely separate life, but I will, and even if I can forgive myself, I will always be sorry. She was just a baby, who didn't know what she was born into, and I was too young and sad and selfish to do anything about it. I think of her, posting my cds in the gaps under the skirting, and eating wine biscuits in the back of my car, and I want to cry. I feel like she earned my love, instead of just inheriting it as her birthright, as she should have; not that I didn't love her the minute she was born because I did, but it wasn't the same. It wasn't what it should have been.

Tomorrow, my six-year-old niece will be seven. She could be turning fourteen; she's always asking questions and pushing boundaries to find out what she can do, and what's going on, and how things fit with each other. She is a constant source of amusement, honesty, love, welcome, and inspiration; not only because she is truly good, but because she deserves an open-ended life, and gives me enough hope for the future that I want to fight for it. She won't hurt my feelings but she won't lie to me. She lights up a room like a little lightning-bolt. One day I know she won't think I'm so interesting anymore; she will be growing and discovering things, and I'll still be the same. Vincent thinks she'll grow to be a person with whom I'll have even more in common, but I know she'll overtake me, and as sad as that thought is, it makes me hopeful as well; she's the future, and it couldn't be brighter. I used to actively dislike children; I didn't think they had any special value... and then she came along and changed everything. I still yell Dummy at kids on Sticky TV who get simple questions wrong, but I know how important children are, and how much better they are than we.

My niece is six years old, and one of the best people I know. She's one of the greatest joys of my life, and while it hurts very much to remember how she and I began, the prospect of growing old in her company - she dropping in to see her old uncle and aunty, driving us to the doctor, letting us tell her stories about when she was young - and always having her in my life, gives me such happiness and comfort that those memories are just thorns on a rose.

Happy, happy birthday, to the most wonderful six-year-old to ever live. Seven to infinity, and beyond.

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