"Hiiii Uncle Christophe!"
7:00 pm on the dot. My munchkin is never late. As I swiped to accept the incoming Skype call, I was immediately met with a coy smile on the face of my eight year-old niece. Her excitement was undeniable, which made me feel so loved.
"Hiiiii Vanessa!" I replied enthusiastically, as I smiled back at her.
"Can you please fix your computer? I can't see your whole face."
"Of course I can!" I chuckled.
"Muchhhhh better!" 👌🏽
It's details like that, that show me how much she genuinely cares.
I had a conversation with my sister-in-law Gita, over the holidays, in which she expressed wanting to encourage Vanessa to be more advanced in her school classes. We therefore agreed that it would be a great idea for me to tutor her over Skype once a week. Our designated day for "class"' fluctuates between Tuesday's and Thursday's, depending on our schedules. However, by Monday afternoon I'm usually receiving a text from my little one, anxious to confirm the day and time.
I try to always be ready on time to answer our scheduled calls. Of course things come up occasionally, but overall I want my niece to know that I am a man of my word, and that she can always rely on me to be there for her, no matter the distance between us.
"How was school today? How was your week?"
"It was goooood, oh oh, guess what Uncle Christophe?! I have off next week, it's Spring break. And when I don't have school the next day, I get to stay up until 10pm instead of 9pm! So that means I have a whole extra hour with you!"
"Oh wow, so cool," I replied, "hmmm we're gonna have to figure out something fun to do after we finish with our work!"
"Maybe we can play hangman! Or we can do those words puzzles again? Oh! oh! Or I can show you my rock collection!" she exclaimed.
You'd be surprised at all the creative tasks we come up with to fill our 90 minute time slots, and through a computer screen no less. We have so much fun together.
The benefits of our arrangement are mutual. This weekly interaction has allowed me the opportunity not only to contribute in developing my niece's academic skills, but to also nourish the already present bond we share. I take my role as an uncle very seriously. Being that I myself am so close with each of my aunts and uncles, it is something that is very important to me. All my aunts and uncles have contributed to my life in so many ways serving as sources of crucial guidance and unforgettable fun. Therefore, I am fully aware of how fulfilling & beneficial such a relationship can be. I do everything to reinforce that connection with my own niece and nephews.
"Ok, so my Daddy says I have to finish my homework with you and all our workbook exercises before I can get my tablet."
She lifts up an incomplete math assignment and the scholastic reading comprehension workbook that I had sent her. I have my own copy of the workbook as well. This makes it easier for me to direct her and follow along with her problem solving skills as we go through the various exercises. After a few minutes of working, Vanessa puts down her pencil in a very businesslike like manner and looks up at me.
"Uncle Christophe? Can I tell you something and promise you won't be upset?"
"Of course sweetie, you can always talk to me about anything. What's up?"
"Ok...so I've been telling my friends at school all about you and about our classes every week. Well, I wanted to show them what you look like, so I brought in a picture of you with me to school the other day..."
She seems more hesitant now as I notice her eyes shift to the floor, unable to maintain eye contact.
"And some of the kids had really nice things to say about you, like how cool you were and stuff! I even told them that you wrote a book and that you were an author! But...some of the other kids...well they were really mean and didn't have such nice things to say about you. They said you look gross with that thing in your neck and that you look creepy."
She finally manages to look at me, but in a way that was cautiously gauging my reaction to the news she had just shared with me.
"Honestly, it broke my heart Uncle Christophe. I ran to the bathroom and I cried."
Her eyes were now glossed over as they welled up with water. I could feel a lump begin to form in my own throat as well. I was instantly overwhelmed at the love and affection shown by my precious girl. I looked at her sweet face realizing that another layer of innocence was about to be peeled away as I proceeded to explain to her one of the harsh realities of the world we live in.
"Awww Vanessa, I don't want you to be sad. I understand how you feel, but I want to explain something to you, ok? Unfortunately, you are going to learn that people can be very cruel...some on purpose, others because they just don't know any better. Not everyone is going to like you. In fact more times than not, someone will always have something negative to say. People also tend to be scared of what they don't understand sometimes. Your friends don't know me like you do. They've probably never seen anyone with a trach before and so that's weird to them. Plus, I don't treat them special and spoil them like I do for you. So what they may think doesn't bother me, trust me. I've learned not to care what strangers or people who don't know me think about me. But you know whose opinion DOES matter to me? Yours! Your mommy and daddy's opinion. Auntie Isabelle, Uncle Joe, Uncle Claudie, Auntie Tara, etc. even little Aleks...those are the people whose opinions matter."
"Um Uncle Christophe. No offense, but I think Aleks is still too little to have an opinion yet."
I laughed. She was right, her little brother Aleks just turned one only a few weeks ago. I love the way her mind works, I swear I can never get anything past her. She's always been that way though, so alert. However, my munchkin wasn't so little anymore and that reality was hitting hard. She was growing up quickly, right in front of my eyes and there was no stopping it. Regardless of how much I try to protect her and shield her from "life" she is bound to be exposed to things beyond anyone's control. The best I can do, as her uncle and role model, is to be there to explain things to her, help her to make sense of her own feelings & emotions, and to always support her, no matter what!
"Ugh, thank goodness. Talk about a weight off my shoulders. I was so worried you were going to be upset and cry or something when I told you," she said releasing the tension in her shoulders and letting out a heavy breath, "seeing you not care makes me feel sooooo much better."
"Oh yeah. I'm fine! I'm just happy you know that you can always talk to me about these things. That makes me so proud!"
"Yeaaaaa, I know! Ok. Can we get back to work now? I don't want to talk about this sad stuff anymore."
"Sure we can, haha!"
Again, so businesslike that it made me laugh. As I watched my niece get back to work, I took a second to savor this moment. There were so many nights I lay in bed anxious that my physical inabilities would compromise my role as an uncle. And yet, this was proof that I couldn't have been more wrong about such an assumption.
"I love you Uncle Christophe, ok problem #4..."