I took this picture of my niece and myself at the Hollywood Bowl when I went to visit for her birthday weekend extravaganza last month. It is not a very good picture of either of us – she is much more joyful, more animated, more delightful than this picture would have you believe and… well, perhaps it is a perfectly fine picture of me, after all. I have resigned myself to the dark circles that have settled under my eyes during the last couple of months, and while I know I would benefit from better nutrition (note to self: probably take your iron supplement, just saying, wow, so pale…) I have been more focused on… getting through.
But this is not about me, for once. This is about her.
Or, perhaps, it is about love.
My niece was born in a difficult time, with both parents struggling for existence. Or, it might be better to say, my sister struggled for her existence. The father didn’t seem to resist his slide into darkness.
I loved this girl from the minute she was born, with an irrationally huge heart. Her emotional intelligence and brilliant sense of humor seemed to belie her difficult early years, but I think they are as much a symptom of that difficulty as they are her inherent qualities.
When things got too difficult and dangerous, my sister packed her car with as many things as she could, including her daughter, and came to live with me, 500 miles away. She cut off contact with the father, she started a new life. She went to school and got a job and met a wonderful, kind man and married him. They have a daughter, who I also love with every ounce of my being, but there is something different about my older niece.
She turned ten this year, and I see my younger self in her. I see her quick laughter, and see how quickly it turns to self-deprecation. I see her beauty, and I see how beautiful she doesn’t feel. She blushes when I tell her I am proud of her, and I can see her try to organize her feelings, but she doesn’t hear it nearly enough. Her stepfather is loving and kind to her, but it is very different. The little one is his child, the older one is… a little lost.
I want to fight for her, take this one on her behalf, because I have done the fighting and I know what it takes. But I am more aware (with each passing year) that she is the only one who can do the fighting she will have to do. It is almost a guarantee, engraved in stone, that the next ten years of her life will be terribly difficult. And watching someone walk into a fight – a fight that you don’t know how to rig in their favor – is just heartbreaking. I give her love with all my heart, and do everything I am able to do from thousands of miles away to tell her she is loved, is valued, is treasured, is respected. I know my sister does this, too, as much as she is able. I hope that it will be enough.