Pack­ing a year of gun­cle­hood into a box

GA Voice - - Georgianews -

At the risk of of­fend­ing one of my best friends who took some soul-re­veal­ing pho­tos of my nephew at the BeltLine skatepark last week, my fa­vorite pic­ture from this year of gun­cle­hood is a grainy screen­shot from an over-zoomed, head-on video of my nephew ca­reen­ing down a steep hill on his skate­board. His out­stretched arms and anx­ious eyes con­trast with an ex­plod­ing smile, the ter­ror and ex­hil­a­ra­tion in his ex­pres­sion of­fer­ing the per­fect vis­ual for our range of emo­tions over the past nine months.

The screen­shot’s low qual­ity and ur­ban gray­ness, along with my nephew’s mis­matched socks and (fash­ion­ably) ho­ley sneak­ers, give the im­age a dingi­ness that re­minds me of pic­tures from my child­hood in the ’80s. He’s with­out a hel­met and rid­ing in the mid­dle of the street, but de­spite the reck­less­ness and ne­glect hinted at in the pic­ture, I re­mem­ber him crash­ing into me a half-sec­ond af­ter the im­age was cap­tured, his tense body melt­ing into arms he trusted would be there for him.

Upon be­com­ing the le­gal guardian of my 7-year-old nephew last sum­mer, I rec­og­nized my­self at­tempt­ing to give him the child­hood I thought I de­served, be­gin­ning with clar­ity about our roles. I in­stilled in him that if he fo­cused on kid things such as school and ty­ing his shoes, I would take care of the adult things like buy­ing toys and mak­ing food mag­i­cally ap­pear be­fore us ev­ery day.

I binged on school sup­plies be­cause I re­mem­bered the em­bar­rass­ment of be­ing chron­i­cally un­pre­pared; I read him bed­time sto­ries ev­ery night be­cause I still feel the numb­ness of fall­ing asleep in an empty home, or worse, an oc­cu­pied one where no one seemed to no­tice if you were awake or not, there or not. I got him skate­boards and the race car bed I al­ways cov­eted, and took him to mon­ster truck ral­lies and space ob­ser­va­to­ries, and feel mostly suc­cess­ful in giv­ing him a sta­bil­ity and in­dul­gence that I’ve al­ways imag­ined was sup­posed to be in­cluded in child­hood.

I also have a new, un­com­fort­able ap­pre­ci­a­tion for how dif­fi­cult it is to sur­ren­der your life, your de­sires and your pri­or­i­ties for the “My two big­gest fears at the end of our time to­gether are that some­thing goes ter­ri­bly wrong in Chicago, or that ev­ery­thing goes right and he for­gets the spe­cial times we’ve shared.” ben­e­fit of a kid who is clue­less about your ex­is­tence out­side of him. Self­ish­ness isn’t re­ally a “kid thing” or “adult thing,” but some­thing that is passed back and forth be­tween a child and parental fig­ure, and en­joy­ing self­ish­ness with­out abus­ing it has been my home­work through­out the 2016-17 school year.

Self­ish­ness now brings us to the end of our jour­ney to­gether, and I haven’t been able to de­ter­mine whether it is the healthy or dam­ag­ing kind. The plan is for my nephew’s fa­ther to re­sume cus­tody of him once my nephew re­turns to Chicago this sum­mer, some­thing all three of us crave with rea­son­able jus­ti­fi­ca­tion; but, al­though each of us gets what we want in the ar­range­ment, it’s hard to ar­gue it’s in my nephew’s long-term best in­ter­ests to in­ter­rupt the suc­cess and se­cu­rity he’s ex­pe­ri­enced in At­lanta.

Among his sec­ond-grade class­mates, my nephew earned the “Most Im­proved” stu­dent award, an al­most au­to­matic de­scrip­tor for any child who spends a year away from the South Side of Chicago. I’ve stowed the cer­tifi­cate in a box full of ticket stubs and keep­sakes from the year we’ve spent to­gether, which I plan to give him on his 36th birth­day, when he is the same age I was when I un­ex­pect­edly as­sumed cus­tody of him.

My two big­gest fears at the end of our time to­gether are that some­thing goes ter­ri­bly wrong in Chicago, or that ev­ery­thing goes right and he for­gets the spe­cial times we’ve shared. There is so lit­tle I re­mem­ber about be­ing 7 years old, and I hope, whether in two months or 28 years from now, he al­ways knows that I was at the bot­tom of the hill, brac­ing us for im­pact. Ryan Lee is an At­lanta writer.

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