It’s a drab Friday in March, the precise sort of damp, gray bullshit characteristic of the intermission between Midwestern winter and spring, when the text finally arrives. “Heeeey Uncle,” it says, followed by a photo of my little brother Bill in a hospital room holding his newborn son, swaddled up like a burrito. A caption arrives: “Am I doing this right? Idk!” “Support that fontanelle bruh,” I reply, along with a dozen 100% emojis.
There’s no element of surprise here. I’ve known this baby was coming for six months and have been gay-shrieking about it on social media ever since. I’ve been checking in almost daily for two weeks — with my brother, his wife, my other brother, our dad — to see if Baby James was yet en route; I’d bought him a tiny, hideously expensive shirt at a Parisian department store while on vacation a month before. Hell, we were all so excited about this baby, my stepmother and I were even talking again. She sent me a text the week before and I replied to the woman with a cat with heart eyes emoji before I could even help myself! This baby had already changed everything! Yet somehow, I find myself floored. Awestruck. I look at the photo again and feel a rush, so strong I get dizzy, of some feeling I don’t quite understand.
I don’t love easily. That is a laughable sentence, and please kill me with a knife for typing it without irony, but it’s the truth. I trust no bitch, as the saying goes — not fully, anyway — because melodramatic though it may sound, I’ve had the sort of life that makes full trust seem like a lapse in judgment. The reasons for this are myriad, but as any good therapist will tell you, it mainly goes back to my mother.
At the time I was lying burrito-wrapped in a hospital bassinet myself, my parents were embroiled in their divorce, and my upbringing unfolded in the chaotic Kramer vs Kramer aftermath. Throughout my formative years it was me and my mom against the world, and we could not have been closer or more emotionally intertwined. But the traumas she’d experienced and pressures she endured often got the best of her, and she’d erupt in ways that would leave me with the sort of anxieties that would force her to explain, over and over, punctuating each word with the cigarette between her fingers to make sure I got the message: “there is nothing you could ever do that would make me stop loving you!”
Nonetheless these doubts lingered. But as much as they did, the desperate rush of love and relief with which we’d greet each other at the airport when I’d come home from visits with my Dad would always set me straight. She’d hug me so tight I could feel her 1980s Suzanne Sugarbaker manicure digging into my flesh, like I might get sucked away by the jet engines outside if she didn’t, and I’d cling to her just as hard. We were, after all, the only thing we had, which is why when she eventually severed ties with me for being gay a few years ago, I was destroyed, almost irreparably. Turns out there is one thing I could do to make her stop loving me. I’ve gotten to the other side, but doing so has required accepting that there is a part of me that can’t ever be fully mended — nothing replaces a mother, after all. And like a character in a bad romcom, I guard that part of me — the gross love part — with a vigilance that is difficult to penetrate.
But the instant my sister-in-law laid James in my arms for the first time, I felt struck by lightning. He was cute and tiny, sure, and had a hilarious, indignant face that made him seem like an old man disgusted by your lack of substance. His little bald head smelled good, as baby heads tend to do, and he was squirmy and squishy and cozy. All of it. I hate everything about everything and have prayed for an asteroid to hit me every night since I was about 5, but I’m one of the few people who sees all the photos you post of your accursed, Satanic kids on Facebook and says “Yep, keep ’em coming. Like button. Heart react.” I legitimately and sincerely love me a good baby, I am the demographic. But this was deeper. This was primal.
He looked me in the eye and I felt exposed. I felt put on the spot. I felt, I guess — god help me — love, but love that bordered on terror and heartache. If I’d been alone, I’d have started crying because (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) what I felt, I think, was something similar to that flood — that overwhelming, floor-falling-out-beneath-you flood — that my mother and I would feel in the airport when I was a kid.
I thought maybe it was just the first-time magic of meeting a new baby, but as the weeks unfolded I found myself fiending for it, for him. As he got old enough to remain sentient while being held instead of just sleeping, he’d stare me down, taking it all in. Once — and I swear to God this is true — he stared at me for a long while and then ripped my glasses off my face as if to better see into my soul or whatever. And as his face reacted to whatever arithmetic his baby brain was doing, I felt a bizarre sense of history, like I could actually feel our place in whatever 40,000-year-old bloodline we’re a part of. This roly-poly little thing staring and squirming, yanking my hair with one fat baby hand and hooking my teeth with the other, was part of me, biologically, cosmically. Between various familial estrangements and the simple passage of time, I’d drifted so far away from these elemental ties that I’d forgotten what they feel like. Which is a long-winded way of saying, this baby did what I’d thought was impossible: insinuated himself right into the hole my mother dynamited through me. It is among the most terrifying things I’ve ever felt.
I have an aunt who I’ve been close to all my life, and as she reaches an age where her mortality is becoming more and more apparent, the impact she’s had on me comes into clearer and clearer focus. My mother taught me strength and survival, but it’s really my aunt who made me who I am. She taught me how to be funny and witty and sardonic, about the saving grace of gallows humor, how to be smart and intellectual and artistic (in a family where such things are either frowned upon or religiously forbidden), and she gave me the one thing I didn’t have but desperately needed in order to become myself: a safe haven. Times and people change, and like many families nowadays, we’re not without our conflicts. But even at our worst, she is the one person with whom I share blood who has never faltered at making me feel like I matter, just as I am. When she eventually leaves this stupid ball of dirt, I’ll be lost for a long time.
I find myself wanting to be that for Baby James — I feel a responsibility to be that for him, in fact. I want to be that one person he knows he can trust, that he never has to question or doubt. But I worry I won’t do it justice — that I won’t do him justice. That I won’t be sufficiently present in his life, or that as he gets older and develops into a person we won’t have enough in common — that he’ll be super into baseball and cars and other boring shit I don’t care about and I’ll be left impotent and defeated, holding the bag of Zadie Smith books and Julianne Moore DVDs and essays on the semiotics of Madonna’s pre-Guy Ritchie canon (which are the only things I have to offer a child if we’re being honest), alone and bereft. Most of all, I fear that my adverse reaction to him — which is how love like this feels to a person like me, an adverse reaction — will somehow taint him, like my brokenness and tar-hearted desperation will rub off on him like dirt. I am terrified I will fall down on the job of uncling him.
But in wracking my brain to figure out how I can take my precise knowledge of Lisa Kudrow’s glue monologue from Romy & Michele’s High School Reunionand parlay it into successful uncling of a kid who, with my luck, will end up being into “Big Bang Theory” or something equally egregious, I’ve realized an important distinction: my aunt’s and my relationship grew out of chaos. She saw that my parents were falling down on the job and worked to fill in the gaps as best she could — and in so doing, saved me. Baby James, thankfully, will never need saving — at least not the type I needed. He was born, on purpose and according to plan, into warmth and stability to healthy, happy parents who actually like each other, and whom I will personally bludgeon to death if they fail him in any way. James is gonna be okay in ways I never could’ve been. There’s nothing my uncling needs to make up for.
So, I’m trying to just let this be. To let his cheeky smile and leg fat rolls, and wrist fat rolls, and ankle fat rolls — this kid seriously has cornered the market for fat rolls — seep into this dormant compartment of my heart or soul or whatever the hell this is; to accept that I am, as much as it makes me want to light myself on fire to say it, still capable of love that surpasses understanding, as it turns out. I resent the living hell out of him for penetrating the retaining walls I’ve put up and destroying my will to die, and someday when he’s older I plan to pithily tell him so, because frankly how dare he? But I think I’ll be forced to temper my indignation a bit, because the unexpected reversal is: instead of me saving James, James just might be saving me.