Unclehood

Photo: Per H. Olsen

When I created the "Fatherhood" category on my website nearly five years ago, I knew that becoming a dad marked a rite of passage. It never occurred to me that our son James might only live three days, or how having and losing him in such short succession would change me. No man accurately anticipates the full impact of fatherhood. And as much as I knew the birth of our son would better me, I never expected that by his departure I would also gain in courage, compassion, and strength. Truly, it is a remarkable being, who both by his coming and going can have touched my life so profoundly.

I crossed both the equator and the International Date Line this week to meet another remarkable being--my new nephew. He is my wife's sister's child, and, like James, he seems to have inherited his lip line from that side of the family. But unlike our James, his eyes are open, and everything about him is inquisitive and alive. It feels both precious and surprisingly natural to spend time with him--hoisting him up to get a better look at the tropical fish at the aquarium, feeding him spoonfuls of mush, and pushing him through the rainy streets in his waterproof pram in search of great fish and chips.

And so, I embrace a new rite of passage, into unclehood. It has come not without its emotional challenges. This morning, I found myself fuming at an iPod relentlessly holding the day's photos captive. And I realized, after a few deep breaths, that it wasn't the recalcitrant contraption as much as the fact that, when we return, photos are all we will have for awhile. Still, I am doing my best to enjoy each moment, letting my paternal-turned-avuncular instincts guide me, and and my infant nephew's zen-like adherence to the present moment remind me to be fully here--whether examining a leaf or a Lego block together, or taking time by myself in a beach-side cafe to write and reflect, as I am now.

We watched a BBC program last night about the Cuckoo--the bird that tricks much smaller birds into raising its own monstrous young. Watching the tiny reed birds shovel bug after bug into the insatiable infant cuckoo's mouth, my first instincts were sympathy. The Cuckoo is rightly called a parasite, because it shifts the resource-intensive burden of parenthood onto a different species. And yet, it occurs to me, that no effort of caring is wasted--in nature or society. By the reed birds' exhausting efforts, the Cuckoos grow strong, and fill the springtime air with their distinctive call.

Parenthood is ultimately temporary. The impulse to contribute and serve finds new forms over time. And, though the Cuckoo is an extreme, and strange example, it shows that there are many ways in which future generations can and will be served. The ultimate Parent--call it God, Nature, or Goodwill--works through us by simple and necessary acts. In my own journey to understand how best to serve posterity, I adopt this mantle of unclehood, not only as new demarcation on my family tree, but an ongoing commitment to education, assistance, and caring--for children big and small. This realization and re-commitment, not to mention time spent richly with family and friends, has already been worth every cramped hour spent in the airplane's economy seat.

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