Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit my best friend. She and her family live across town, so it’s trickier to coordinate, but always such a cherished time. I helped her wrap dumplings, we ate together, and we caught up after a two-month hiatus. She showed me pictures of their daughter at the beach with Tuzi the singing bunny tucked securely under her arm as she dug in the sand. She also showed me the elephant stuffy with a limp neck. Her two favorite things were gifts from me. Suddenly, the guilt I felt for not being around melted away.
Later, her husband returned from the park with their little girl. My niece is a bright-eyed almost-two-year-old with a sweet disposition and mischievous grin. Even through she hasn’t seen me as much as I had hoped, she lit up when she saw me and shyly approached with a stack of books. We read a book of feelings, during which she announced in the third person that she was happy. In the book of animal families, she pointed out momma narwhal, dada narwhal, gramma narwhal, baby narwhal, and then looked thoughtfully up at me. She pointed at a dolphin and asked, “auntie narwhal?”
My friend and her husband are both immigrants, so neither have any family in the country. When I learned they were expecting, I made a commitment to myself to be a part of their child’s life. I saw my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins on a weekly basis and family was a truly vital part of my childhood. I wanted their little one to experience something similar. Her gestation and first year of life were during the peak of COVID-19, so I wasn’t as present as I had wished to be.
Yet, seeing her and her recognition of me, I no longer feel so bad. I noticed the burp rags I sewed had been repurposed as toddler cushions on the rough carpet, the swaddling blanket I sewed haphazardly encased a stuffed pink unicorn, and the elephant stuffy from her baby shower was held close to her chest as we read board books. In a way, I have been present in her life. As she hugged her elephant, my friend reminded her, “auntie got that for you.” And the little girl at my side looked up at me and smiled. I think she’s heard that before, even when I haven’t been there.
I intend to be around more. That little girl’s mother is my chosen family and, by extension, so is she.