Ben Kassoy is going to be an uncle. Help him.
Growing up, my parents would often ask my sister, five and a half years my elder, to take care of me. Jess proved less a caretaker and more a tormenter.
It was benign, yes, but big sis had her way with little brother. She’d charge at me and laugh as I invariably crumbled to the ground in frightened submission. She’d play dead and, at the height of my distress, “come back to life” as the ghost of herself. She’d dress me up in a tutu and re-gender Benjamin Michael as Britney Michelle. Most of the time, Jess’s tutelage left me in tears—or at least pigtails.
The vividness of these memories makes it even more difficult to believe that, in less than a month, she’ll become a caretaker in the truest sense. Jess is going to be a mom. And Britney will be an uncle.
We live in the future. Press a button, and you’re privy to an entire universe of knowledge. Say a word, and a disembodied female voice will tell you where to find the nearest crepe. Thanks to innovation, our reality is science fiction. Thanks to technology, people are post-human.
And yet, even as we depart further and further from our biological beginnings, nothing in our world of the impossible inspires as much awe as the most natural, timeless common denominator all humans share: birth.
I never really thought about it until now—and apologies for stating the obvious—but my sister has a person inside of her. Like, there is an entire lady literally living within the body of another lady. Then, she enters the world and next thing you know, she’s talking to you and, soon after that, pole vaulting or whatever.
“Today, my baby is the size of a grapefruit,” Jess told me a few months ago. Unbelievable: someday, that grapefruit will do long division. I can’t even do long division.
When she’s born, the baby will be named—and the rest of us, renamed. Jess’s husband will be “Dad.” My little sister will be “Aunt.” My parents will be “Old.
I’ll be “Uncle.” Yes, Uncle Ben—ironic considering, like the instant rice, I’m white and warm and rely heavily on the microwave. Along with my new title, I’ll also assume a reassigned role, a redefined identity. I’ve never been anybody’s uncle; now, I’ll be somebody’s uncle for the rest of my life.
I’ve been “son,” “brother,” “cousin,” “guy,” “that guy,” “that guy in a tutu,” each carrying its own connotation about my status. Soon, I’ll be “Uncle” and, implied in my new name, role model, caretaker, and—dare I say it?—man.
Of course, in terms of age, I’ve been a man for years. But, the increased and sustained responsibility of unclehood (uncledom?), of serving an integral role in the upbringing and well-being of another human being feels as though it solidifies my manhood. I’ve been due for a promotion.
Sure, my general goofiness and childish antics will persist, but my niece will never know me as the 17-year-old who, on a dare from older cousins (and, of course, Jess) performed a striptease on a family vacation. Despite the photo evidence she’ll inevitably see, my niece will know me as an independent and full-grown man. To her, I’ll be an adult—or at least as close to one as I can fake.
I will help raise her. I will change her diapers/make myself a sandwich while someone else does. At times, her life will be entirely in my hands. My clammy, nervous hands. If timidly and ineffectively rocking a crying infant doesn’t make me a man, I’m not sure what does.
The obvious main perk to unclehood is that I’m afforded maximum fun and minimum responsibility. Dads are expected to be both masculine and tender, patient and firm. Dads have to present. They have to provide. Uncles, on other hand, just have to show up every few months and not permanently ruin the child’s life (hold her tight, Ben!). My niece and I will live 700 miles apart; for the first time with a female, I’m going to make a long-distance relationship work.
As an uncle, I’m not required to impart knowledge or values of any real substance. Good thing, because I’m mostly an abundance of trivial knowledge and skill. She’ll learn about obscure tennis players and how to stand on her head. Around my niece, I can be whoever I want to be.
Or, more importantly, I can be whoever she wants me to be. My enumerated responsibilities are nearly nonexistent; I am versatile and available. I don’t actually have to shape her; I just have to support whatever shape she takes. I don’t actually have to raise her; I just have to make sure all the blood doesn’t rush to her head.
Whether near or far, I’ll be an influential sidekick parent, always eager to supplement and support. And at the same time, I’ll firmly not be her parent. “Uncle” can mean whatever she needs it to mean. For her, I can be family or friend. I can be solace or escape. Most of all, I can be upside-down.
Over the last eight months, I’ve discovered a new reverence for life, even before my niece’s has begun. Once she’s born, the event will immediately and irrevocably change my world—she’ll be one of the most important people in my life, forever.
My excitement and pride are immense, and I can hardly imagine how Jess is feeling. I’m overwhelmed by anticipation, by the mystery and possibility of her life on the horizon. My niece could be anyone or anything; she is unfettered, a clean slate of boundless potential.
Baby girl, you are infinite. And so is an uncle’s love for you.