Sunday, January 23, 2011

Uncle Brian

Three and a half years ago I was lucky enough to become an uncle. Two years later a second nephew came into my life. Unfortunately, my nephews live in Colorado and I live in Bulgaria. As a result, I see them far more often in photographs than in person and far less often than I’d like. But when I do have the opportunity to see them, I try to take advantage of it.

This year, they (along with my brother and his wife) visited their grandparents in Belgium for Christmas. I was able to find a cheap flight, so I decided to spend Christmas in Belgium with at least some of my family.

My flight out of Sofia was delayed by fog. As a result, I missed a connecting flight in Frankfort and arrived in Brussels several hours late. A blizzard in Belgium made for an icy runway and a somewhat treacherous landing and slick roads and a slow ride home, but we eventually made it no worse for the wear.

Hoping to see me before he went to bed, my eldest nephew had stayed up as late as his dad and his strength would allow. Sadly, he had fallen fast asleep long before we walked through the door, so our reunion would have to wait until morning.

The sleeping arrangements were such that he and I shared a bed. Weary from travel and full from the first of many delicious homemade Belgian meals, it didn’t take long before I joined him and passed out.

Morning came quickly, but I woke up feeling surprisingly refreshed. As I laid in bed reading, my nephew began to stir. I turned to look at him. He was buried beneath a sheet and several blankets. Only the top of his head was visible. Perhaps subconsciously feeling that I was watching him, he pulled the covers down halfway past his eyes and snuck a quick glance before burying himself completely under the covers. I that split second, even though I saw nothing more than his head from his eyes up, I could tell he was smiling and happy to see me. I waited, and, sure enough, within a few seconds his head reappeared and he tried to sneak a second glance. When he tried for a third time, I buried my own head under the covers the instant our eyes met. This set him off giggling, and, after a short time playing this game, he was ready to wrestle.

For the next five days, I played my expected role: punching bag, human trampoline, and all-around glutton for punishment. On several occasions, my brother, his wife, and I went out to explore the nearby towns and countryside. My nephew was invited every time. Every time he declined, choosing instead to stay at home with his grandma.

The time went all too quickly, and it was soon time for the ride back to the airport. Knowing, perhaps instinctively, that this would be the last time he would see me for a while, my nephew chose to come along.

When we arrived at the airport, my brother got out of the car to wish me well and say goodbye. He then asked my nephew if he could say “goodbye” to me. My nephew said nothing, gave a very brief shake of his head to indicate “no,” and turned from us and stared straight ahead.

My brother then asked my nephew if he could give him a “high five.” My nephew turned to his dad and gave him a high five.

My brother then asked my nephew if he could give me a high five. Once again, my nephew said nothing, shook his head “no,” and turned from us and stared straight ahead.

It was a powerful statement and an awkward situation. One of my main motivations for going to Belgium was to see my nephews. Yet, in doing so, I had clearly hurt at least one of them by leaving so quickly to return to Bulgaria. It would be easy to say, “He’s just a kid. He doesn’t understand. This is life.” But I couldn’t help but thinking maybe he had it right and that I was the one who didn’t understand.

And then I started thinking about my kids - not my kids, my students - so many of whom have been abandoned by one or both of their parents … to be continued.

My eldest nephew.

The little guy. He wasn't walking when I saw him last spring.

Papa chasing the little one.

This is my big brother. I hadn't seen him in almost two years. It's a good thing he didn't spend Christmas in Wisconsin. He might have been mistaken for a bear and been shot. Gotta love the pre-oyster look versus the post-oyster look. At least he didn't ralph like my other brother did when we got together (of course, there was no rakia drinking this time).

Did I mention the food was amazing? I ate two of these guys.

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