The phone call came at one in the morning, just as I was leaving the High-Hat Lounge. My brother-in-law never sounds frantic, and he didn’t sound frantic now. But he was calling me at one in the morning, and that was a first.
My sister was going to have the baby, and they needed someone to watch their toddler. Right now. A car was already on the way.
Two years ago, I became an uncle for the first time, but I’ve hardly spent any time at all with my niece. My sister Meghan and her family live in Chicago. I live in New Orleans. But my summer travel plans had put me, partly by design, in the right place at the right time. They were going to have baby number two, and they needed someone at the house while they went to the hospital. I barely had a chance to say hello to my sister or my brother-in-law before they were out the door, leaving me with my two-year old niece.
“Lulu’s asleep,” they told me. “Just look out for her if she wakes up. She probably won’t.”
And as it turned out, she didn’t. I sat on the couch and dozed off for a while, and around 2:30 in the morning I got the text that my sister had the baby. It had been an emergency. The umbilical cord was wrapped around the little girl’s head and they had to do a Caesarian to get her out. My sister bled a lot. Everyone was scared. All of this while I was lying on the couch, there in case of an emergency at the house that never came.
If there’s one thing above all others that I’m grateful for on this trip, it’s that I was in Chicago for that moment. I didn’t do much. I slept. Ate some ice cream. And after a few hours my brother-in-law showed up and I went home. He looked a little shaken, and it wasn’t until later I found out that he went almost 30 hours without sleeping. My watch had been an easy one.
But it’s the simple fact that I got to be there. That I had a chance to be present for my sister at an unbelievably important moment and contribute something very small at just the right time. I couldn’t have done this if I hadn’t been traveling, and it’s one more notch on the column of reasons why I want to be on the road more. I’ve long thought of travel as something that took me away from old familiar places into new and exciting ones. But I’ve had a sizable paradigm shift over the past two months. This trip has been made up, primarily, of visits to familiar places to reconnect with familiar people, and the old places have become exciting because of the relationships I’m able to nurture when I’m there.
The afternoon after the birth, I went to the hospital to see my sister and the baby. It was, to say the obvious, a special moment. I’ve never held a newborn, and here was this tiny creature, not even 12 hours old, in a little crib right next to my exhausted and smiling sister. I looked at the baby and I started crying. I couldn’t explain it. She was beautiful, but there was something else that I have yet to identify, and have given up trying to. Everything in me wanted to protect this child. Every part of me was ready to face down an army to do it.
I went to Meghan and kissed her on the cheek. She thanked me for being there for them.
“Meg, I sat on your couch and ate ice cream,” I told her. “If that’s helping you out, I’ll help you out every day.”
She laughed it off, but I don’t know if she knew how much that meant to me. In all the years I’ve known her, I honest to God can’t think of a time when I really got to be there for Meg. Of the four siblings, I think we’ve always been the least alike. But when I sat in that room with her husband and her daughter, and I held my brand new niece in my arms and cried while that little creature slept, it all felt just right. This was a gift for me, to be there and get to hold that child.
We’re family. This is how we look out for each other.