A few months ago, I was anxiously awaiting the birth of my sister Beth’s first child. I had some experience being a gay uncle because my partner Justin’s sister had welcomed two precious bundles into the world during our years together; but I was having more trouble wrapping my head around Beth becoming a mom.
First, there was the seeming physical impossibility of the tiny little girl with whom I’d shared a bathtub as a kid now being grown-up enough to produce a child of her own. And then there was the fact that this offspring would share my DNA. I worried what qualities of my family members could end up being baked into this bun in the oven. Would this new person look or think or act like me in some way? And would that be a good thing?
I decided that during the time leading up to Beth’s due date, I would try to send her as much positivity as possible. We ended up sharing expansive conversations during which she shared her feelings and frustrations, and I gave the best advice I could muster (drawing heavily from the TV program Call the Midwife). This back-and-forth stopped abruptly when Beth finally checked in for her marathon delivery. Little bits of news and pictures made their way to us from the proud parents and grandparents, but we were in a holding pattern — eager to meet our new niece but wanting to give Beth time to recover and get used to the round-the-clock rhythms of caring for a newborn. A week went by before my sister gave us the go-ahead to come and meet the little one, Juliana, whom I had begun to refer to as Lady J.
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Mere hours after we made these arrangements, my dear pal Tatiana reached out with news: Shea, a member of our “piano family” that primarily gathers in the gay piano bars clustered around Stonewall National Monument, had suddenly passed. His death seemed surreal, as so many in our circle had been singing and taking pictures with him on his last night out just days before. There would be an impromptu memorial for him the following day — right around the time I was to be meet my baby niece. I fretted. I didn’t want to rush through the special moment in New Jersey, but I was also concerned about the friends gathering back in Manhattan to honor Shea, people who would need hugs and shoulders to cry on.
Meeting Lady J was as beautiful as I could have hoped. She was wide-eyed and happy as I held her for the first time, and she drifted off to sleep in my arms. She and I were inadvertently dressed in matching shades of red, which felt like a good gay uncle omen. Justin held her, too, and although he and I have never planned on having kids, there’s something about seeing the man you’re about to marry holding a newborn. Beth was glowing. Her husband Jacquan and his son, now-big-brother Xavior, beamed with pride. My mom was in her glory, a newly-minted grandmother. My Dad seemed perpetually concerned he was holding the baby incorrectly and would break her. It was an afternoon suffused with a peaceful sense of purpose: we were all there to look out for each other and our brand new family member.
The sun set, and we said our farewells to the happy little family. Justin and I rushed back to make the last hour of the memorial, where I wandered through the crowd, seeing familiar faces tear-stained or bewildered by loss. Maybe it was the natural high of meeting Lady J, but all I could recall were good things about Shea. He had a huge personality, unfailingly warm and enthusiastic, always greeting me with a big, “Hey, Paulie!” When I remembered him, I pictured him singing his favorite songs: “That’s Life” and “What a Wonderful World” and his uniquely raucous rendition of “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I knew there would be times ahead of missing him, but in that moment I was so glad for my wonderful memories of how he had lived: surrounded by people who adored him, a smile on his face, singing with gusto and glee. I can think of little more any of us can hope to end up with in this life. It’s what I hope for, and it’s what I want for my beautiful new niece.
So welcome to the world, Lady J; Shea, we’ll miss you; and happy holidays to us all.
Last modified: December 31, 2018