We recently celebrated my youngest niece’s fourth birthday, complete with party and presents. Birthdays tend to be celebrations in my family. My parents always made a big deal out of birthdays during childhood – my sisters and I always had birthday parties and even missed a day of school for special milestones, like turning 13. Since cancer touched my family, birthdays hold even more significance and we’re all thankful for another year to celebrate our lives.
Everyone gets a choice for dinner, type of cake and whether to go out or not. I love this time with family, how my nieces and nephew give big hugs and kisses as they wish you a “happy birthday.” During A’s recent birthday gathering, I couldn’t help but smile as her little brother, B, sang “happy birthday” and my other nieces, 15-year-old H and 13-year-old M, lavished their younger cousins with love and attention.
As I watched my niece exclaim over her presents and express thanks, I felt my heart swell. I’m so blessed to have three nieces and a nephew. A fourth niece is on her way, due in July as A and B’s little sister.
My nieces and nephew have easily wrapped me around their fingers. There is no denying that my heart melts, from their smiles and laughs, conversations, questions and simple activities we do together. I feel a special protectiveness for these children and would easily drop everything to help them. Each of them holds a special place in my heart and touches my life in various, loving ways.
H, our first born. She is smart, artistic and kind to others. She is at times quiet and shy, yet so full of life. I know she sometimes doubts herself, as we all do, but I believe she has the brains to make the right decisions as she grows older.
M, who reminds me of myself at times. She is sensitive, loves animals dearly. She has a wild imagination at times, which I hope she never loses as I’ve never lost mine! She will always be a kid at heart. I am so proud of how she stands up for herself and others.
A is sometimes serious, one who likes to step back and observe people before jumping into a situation. At only 4, she is thoughtful and inquisitive. I love watching her come out of her shell and be more independent as she grows.
And little B, our special boy. He is truly a boy, with his love of trucks, adventurous spirit and devilish laugh. Yet he is loving, cuddles and can so easily make me laugh and forget any problems the day may have brought me.
H and M have experienced loss and challenges at their young ages through unplanned, unavoidable circumstances, yet I feel such pride at the remarkable young ladies they are. A true testament to my sister’s parenting, no doubt. I love watching them grow into their teens, although I at times ache at the teenage drama they face – something we all must endure as we age, but difficult to watch nonetheless as a protective adult. I offer the best advice I can and assure them I am merely a phone call away always.
Then there are A and B, little blessings. They never cease to make me laugh and amaze with the curiosity and smarts that only young kids possess. I love watching them grow and discover new, exciting facts about the world around them. Their questions or matter of fact statements often cause me to bite my lip to keep from smiling.
For all that I do to be there and protect my nieces and nephew, there are moments when they take care of me. I will always recall a moment about a week before my dad died from cancer and we finally recognized his fight was winding was down. I went into my parents’ spare bedroom to have a few quiet moments to myself. My eyes closed tight, trying to fight back tears, I felt this lightweight figure crawl on the bed, wrap her arms around me and whisper, “It’s ok, Aunt Heather. I’m sad about Papa too.” In that moment, 8-year-old H provided more comfort than any adult could have. A week after my dad’s death, kneeling on the sideline, lacing up H’s soccer shoes, she looked me right in the eye and asked, “So Papa died because he had really bad cancer, and you lived because you had good cancer?” My brain rapidly thought how to answer her, how to say there is no good cancer but mine was caught early, Papa’s was not. Instead, looking into those big, innocent eyes, I merely responded “Yes, something like that.” She leaned in to kiss my cheek and said, “I’m glad you had good cancer. Now I better go play good since Papa is watching.” With a glance up to the sky, she took off onto the soccer field. Such is the innocence of children, an innocence I’ve learned to treasure over the years.
I love going to soccer games, gymnastic class, chasing them on the playground and simply reading a book together. I cherish the moments together – camping and hiking with H and M, watering flowers with A and B, movie nights snuggled on the family room floor, playing on the beach during family vacations, “shaking our booty” (as A tells me) in their basement….I look forward to so many more memories with these amazing children. Although I admit I’m not a perfect aunt – as much as I love my nieces and nephew, there are moments when it’s a pleasure to kiss them good-bye and send them off with their parents so I can enjoy my quiet house and a glass of wine! (sorry, kids!)
My nieces and nephew have already learned the value of family and the importance of supporting each other. I’m incredibly grateful to my sisters and brother-in-law law for giving me such beautiful children to love and laugh with, for raising their children to be kind, considerate to others, interested in the world around them and ready for adventure.