My uncle used to swing me onto his shoulders and fly me around the sidewalk like I was an airplane. It wasn’t piggyback for us. It was real aeronautics, complete with propeller sound effects and a touchdown landing when we were done. I remember giggling for days over something so silly, my imagination ran wild with so many possibilities for our next game, it would carry me through for weeks. Which was, coincidentally, how long it would be until I saw my uncle again.
I think back on it, and realize I was craving a father figure back then, someone who would lift me onto his shoulders every day and give me the love and affection I needed. Don’t get me wrong. My dad was at all the “big” things, like my baptism, and my high school graduation, but those were the only things he really attended. He wasn’t there when I was crying after skinning my knee playing ball in the street. He wasn’t there when I wanted someone to talk to about all the feelings I had during puberty. He just wasn’t there.
And it was easy to blame him because my uncle was so cool. He was the man I would have picked out if someone had asked what my version of a father would look like, even
though he had no biological kids of his own. At times I even hoped that he would be around more, not that my dad would, because my uncle was undeniably cool. That was back in the days when cool was good, and everything else was bad. Cool meant he was awesome in an ’80s kind of way, which was the kind of way I needed.
My uncle bought me my first bike when I was ten, or nine, or whatever age it was. I fell down so many times I would forget I was supposed to be up on it, riding against the wind. But he was there with me, to help me balance even when I felt unbalanced, to get me back up on the horse when there wasn’t a horse to be seen. My uncle stayed there until I got it right, until I was riding around like I hadn’t a care in the world, and I loved him for it. Then he was gone, and I missed him again.
You see, I was a boy, and growing up it was hard to explain these kinds of boy ideas and feelings with my mom. My dad was hardly around, but he was more a stern disciplinarian anyway, and I felt like he was inaccessible in a way that my uncle never was. If my dad was a part of speech he would be a preposition — before, after, or apart. And my uncle was a verb — always active. I wanted to be just like him, to carry with me even just a small part of his essence, so that one day I would be cool too.
Well, that day was yesterday. I don’t even know how to describe my feelings while writing this. Maybe I’m cool, and maybe I’m not. I’m not sure how the adjective would apply these days, in this world of hashtags and virtuality. But I am sure of one thing — I am past the age now that my uncle was when he watched me graduate from high school, when he patted me on the back and told me he was proud of me. And yesterday, my nephew graduated from college. I clapped him on the back and told him I was proud of him. I’m sure it meant just as much to him as my uncle telling me the same thing so long ago meant for me.
As I stood there on that immaculate lawn, watching the boy I saw come into this world enter into adulthood, it was so surreal. He was the boy I helped learn how to read, the boy who spent his summers with us, the boy I put on my own shoulders and pretended he was an airplane. He was the boy who didn’t know if he was going to make it through school, the boy who I gave emotional and mental support to for all of those years. But he was more than that. He was a man, and I was just so proud of him for reaching that destination, for getting done with this one stage of his life, ready to move on to what awaits in the wide world.
And it was real for both of us. While he was no longer that boy, neither was I. I wasn’t just the fun uncle who helped him fly. I wasn’t just the one who took him to the Baseball Hall of Fame, or the one who told him he could when he didn’t think it was possible. I was my own uncle, just twenty years removed, giving him the best of what was in me, just as I had always gotten the best of my uncle. I hope he sees that, after all this time. I hope he realizes that I’ve always had his best intentions at heart. I know he saw the tears in my eyes, tears of joy at him realizing this step of his journey.
Because he is now a man, as I became one so long ago, and I know he needed me as that figure to look up to for so long. But he doesn’t need me for that anymore. I will always be there for him, but I was serious. He is his own man now, just as I arrived at that stage before him, and just as my uncle was there for me then, I am here for him now. I am my own uncle, but not because my nephew is me all over again. He isn’t. I am my own uncle because I see now from the other side of the glass, and while it’s surreal, it’s only natural.
As natural as can be.