Last night a friend had her first baby. As adorable pictures of the new baby flooded Facebook it took me back a few years to the birth of my niece. My entire family was present at the big event, which — aside from the actual arrival of my niece — proved a tad anticlimactic. The doctor breezed in to announce that it was almost time and asked us to leave the room. My sister, stunning in full hair and make-up, finished up her text message and kissed us goodbye. No sooner had we turned our backs to exit the room when we heard the sound of a baby crying. Now I’m not sure if my sister had consumed an entire tub of Crisco the night before or if my niece really just wanted out of there, but it was arguably the fastest delivery on record.
I remember being so happy for her in that moment. Here was this new life — a miniature version of who my sister once was, but also the person she could still be — all of these endless possibilities. And my sister would get to be a part of it all from the first moment, the first breath, the first everything. As genuinely happy as I was for her, I was also deeply jealous because I would most likely never be a parent let alone actually be present at the birth of my child. It made me angry — not at her — but at myself and at Todd and at the lack of a decent functioning uterus between the two of us. Eventually I let go of my misguided anger and embraced my role as Uncle Sean. I accepted that uncle was all I would ever be in terms of children.
Of course I was wrong.
We came to this parenthood thing a bit late in the game, adopting Chris when he was 7 and a 1/2 years old. As a result we missed out on the firsts. We cannot go back in time and feel that moment when he took his first breath or use our phones to record his first awkward steps or shriek with delight when he uttered his first word or bandage his first skinned knee or hear the first measures of his symphonic laugh. Those are moments we will never experience. And it’s odd because most days we forget that Chris hasn’t been with us since that first breath; that he wasn’t born from our miracle uterus. It just feels like he’s always been there.
And it’s the same for Chris. Sometimes he will tell a story about an event that happened before he even knew we existed but in his rewritten version of the story Todd and I are present. Sometimes we’re bystanders, sometimes active participants, sometimes we are his parents.
It’s easy to remember that we had a life before Chris. It’s strange to think he had a life before us.
When I look at pictures of my niece there is no mistaking that she is my sister’s daughter. It’s in her face, her eyes, her nose, her hair, her smile. It’s clear that my niece is not simply the product of my sister’s DNA, but also her experiences and personality. She is the nature and the nurture of my sister.
And while we might share amazing cheekbones and a winning smile, Chris will never have my DNA. He will never have Todd’s cute nose or his adorably flat feet. My son has the genes of strangers — two people who did at least one thing right.
But what Chris lacks in our nature he has adopted in his nurture. It’s in his dry sense of humor. It’s in his overly dramatic sense of self. It’s in Todd’s manner when he dismisses a situation with a single glance. It’s in my voice when he declares himself handsome. So he doesn’t have our DNA. So we get stuck with the less-desirable firsts like the first heartbreak and the first horrible teenage meltdown. It doesn’t matter. Because in the end he may not be of us, but he is us.