In a legal and literal sense, my oldest friend is still a father. Unfortunately, about four years ago he gave in to the mental peer pressure of his meth-addled demons and fell off the minivan, losing more than his fair share of teeth in the process. On the way to his new life of becoming the mad Gypsy king of Oceanside or wherever the fuck it is he dwells these days, he left behind the one thing I thought he’d never abandon: his daughter. She was his pride and joy, his ride or die, his reason to keep on keeping on. Until she wasn’t.
I’ll never forget the night she was born, and I’d better not because she’d give me hell. I had literally just turned 23, and that evening I visited my friend and his girlfriend at the hospital to give encouraging words and meet the new baby. In typical fashion, he managed to weasel his way out of getting me a gift for my birthday. What made it different from previous years was that he had been gifted a once in a lifetime excuse by being able to say “Happy birthday. Your present is that you share a birthday with my daughter”. Although I was highly annoyed at the time, I never would have guessed that his excuse turned out to be the best birthday gift I’d ever receive.
Up until he ran away with the street circus, my friend was a good father. He may not have always held stable jobs, but he made sure that his family was taken care of. They’d do typical parent/child things, like going to the beach or watching movies. He taught her how to ride a skateboard and introduced her to music and sushi.
In February 2020, right before the Covid-19 Pandemic, my friend wanted to spend time with his daughter. He did the thing that he always did and guilted me to pick him up from the trolley station. From there, we went to pick up his daughter. We took her to our childhood hiking spot up in the hills of El Cajon and let her look down on the city, just as we had when we were younger. Then he treated us both to a government-funded, belated birthday meal at Denny’s. That was the last time they saw each other.
She seemed uncomfortable throughout the whole day. If I had to guess, it was probably because her father had become an inconsistent part of her life. She went from seeing him every day to hardly even talking to him on the phone. Maybe it’s because of my own upbringing, or maybe it’s because I’m not as cold as I make myself out to be, but seeing her like this broke me down. In the 15 months since then, I’ve sort of taken up the role as the male figure in her life. Nobody asked me to do this, and I’m grateful that her mother has allowed me to somewhat look after her daughter.
Every time I look at her, I see her dad. She has his adventurous intuition, his excitement for life, and his gentle spirit. She’s always climbing on this or jumping off of that, even though I tend to object in some form of paternal protest. She trusts me with her secrets and takes my advice to heart. We go out for sushi and ramen, sometimes for ice cream. She likes thrift stores, sugar free Monster energy drinks, and anime. She wants to get her lip pierced and dye her hair pink and black.
She brings me a type of happiness that I’ve never quite experienced. Perhaps this is what parenting feels like. There’s this small person exploring the world on their own time, and they’ve allowed you to ride shotgun. You’re there to hug them when they become awash in its beauties, and you’ll be there to help them up when they trip over the roots of its rotten trees. They absorb your knowledge and advice like a thirsty plant, even if they have a tendency to disregard it. For me, this is a birthday gift that keeps on giving.
I can’t say I’ve ever pictured myself as a parent. I was only 11 when my first nephew was born, and since then I’ve always been known as the “cool” uncle who plays video games and likes to make people laugh. When people ask me if I ever want kids, I usually give some default answer like “I don’t want to raise a child in poverty” or “I don’t want to pass all of my mental health issues or my family’s addiction onto my kid”. While those are valid reasons, I’d be a liar if I said fear of the unknown didn’t have an influence my decision.
In the meantime, I’ll just continue being uncle Matt.