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My Special Needs Niece

Confessions of “Just” an Auntie
Sep 18 2014
Nicole Black

Note:  This is my sister’s story to tell. She is “just” the Auntie, but she didn’t want to write it all down.
Luckily enough, she just so happens to be related to a writer. But these are her thoughts, her experiences and her words.

Full disclaimer: I’m “just” an auntie. I have no kids of my own. But I love my sister’s kids like they’re mine. I get excited when they master a cartwheel. I’m proud when they learn to tie their shoes.  I even FaceTime them during potty training. And, yes I have sat through dozens of “Let It Go” renditions (with a straight face, I might add).

But there came a day seven years ago that caught me totally off-guard. And the emotions that came with it surprised me even more.

We got my niece’s diagnosis that she has a rare genetic disorder. She’s the 1 in 90,000. She is the unlucky statistic.  I was on the other side of the country, sitting in my high-rise office building when my older sister called me with the news. I fell to my knees sobbing when we hung up.

But looking back, who was I to have such intense feelings? I wasn’t Addison’s mom. I was just the auntie. As an aunt, I’m removed. I can love her as much as I can, but it’ll never be the same as a mother’s love for her child.  So who was I to feel such loss?

And yet there I was, stranded from my family, desperate to be with them at this painful moment and I was curled in a ball of my own.  My niece’s diagnosis touched me and affected me so deeply because she was my flesh and blood. She was my sister’s baby girl.  She has my dimples. How could I not be devastated by this? And in that moment, I couldn’t have loved my niece more.

As I dealt with the news, I turned to the only comfort I had at the time—my coworkers. These were people that in retrospect, I only knew superficially. I knew how they took their coffee and what reality TV show they watched. But these were not my close friends. And yet as I explained through my tears why I was crying unapologetically amongst the cubicles and Xerox machines, my coworkers offered such warm words of sympathy. And shockingly, their stories of diagnoses.

My coworkers that I had known for 4 years were opening up about their own children’s struggles. How did I not know that Debbie’s son has a traumatic brain injury and that everyday before she came to the office she had to be a completely different person than I saw? How could I have not known that Ben’s smiling son in his desk frame has autism?

And the stories kept pouring out of the others. I realized that maybe my opening up to them was just what they needed to share their stories, their paths, their struggles. Their diagnosis days must have been just as hard, but the daily struggles and obstacles that I knew nothing about must have been even more daunting. And yet I never knew. I never saw.

And then it hit me: Everybody is going through something. Often they’re going through it silently. How lonely that must feel. For everyone.

How different would the world be if we all reached out a little more? If we looked for signs that those around us were struggling with something, and all they needed was a little extra love, or patience, or a little slack. 

Truth is, we can find comfort from those around us. And in return, we can be a shoulder to cry on for others, offering words of encouragement to our friends, neighbors and coworkers. All we need to do is open up about our own obstacles and pay attention to others who might be struggling. Give some love, get some love. Share the love.

Throughout the next couple of days, my colleagues kept checking in on me. Asking how my niece was. Asking how my sister was. And even though I was 2,000 miles away from my family, I found some comfort.

I still had moments where I felt silly for being “just” the aunt receiving this attention and love and support. But then I got on an airplane, went home to my family and held that niece of mine in my arms. I smiled at her and she smiled back. And I saw her dimples. My dimples. And I knew it wasn’t silly. I wasn’t “just” an auntie. I was her auntie. And I would be there to walk with her down this path. Even if that means sitting through another slightly off-key rendition of  “Let It Go.”

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Nicole Black is a credentialed elementary school teacher, tutor and substitute teacher. She is raising her 3 awesome kids, volunteering in their classrooms and is just trying to make it to bedtime. Her hobbies include: attending IEP Meetings, sleeping in and searching Pinterest for inspiring recipes that she may or may not ever make. Oh. And she also likes to write.