My brother-in-law and I did not have a lot in common: male, female; tall, short; Jewish, Christian; smoker, nonsmoker; Northeasterner, Midwesterner; pessimist, optimist. I like music; he loved music to the exclusion of almost anything else. He dressed entirely in black from his boots and skinny jeans to his hoodie; I typically find myself in such colorful attire that I often felt like a clown by comparison. Adam was terminally hip; if I’m ever cool, it’s only by accident.
Although Adam and I ran in different circles and would not likely have met otherwise, when I married Aaron, I promised myself I would welcome my husband’s brother into my life as my own sibling. I chastised Adam exactly twice in the eleven years we knew each other—once for an off color joke he made the first time we met, and once for not wearing his seatbelt in the car. Otherwise, I accepted him for who he was.
Before Wyatt was born, I was not sure what level of interest Adam would have in being an uncle. He had told me more than once that he never wanted to have children of his own. (I found this to be a completely novel mindset as I had been looking forward to motherhood since I was about six.) What use would this Brooklynite hipster bachelor sound engineer with a vagabond lifestyle have for my babies?
As it turned out, Adam made a fine uncle. The kids adored him and my affection for him was never greater than when I watched him interacting with them. He was surprisingly tender and patient, he took care not to smoke or swear in their presence. He always seemed surprised and touched by their devotion to him. Once he gave Wyatt a bunch of CDs—Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, The Ramones—and then they danced in their stocking feet in the living room, “Blitzkrieg Bop” blaring on Wyatt’s little red portable CD player.
When Adam came to visit us, he would typically take up residence on our couch, reclining with his head at one end and his feet at the other, and just let the kids come to him. This did not look like exceptional uncle behavior to me and yet the kids seemed strangely enthusiastic about the arrangement. They would come running to show him something—“Look at this special rock, Uncle Adam!” “Look at my new toy, Uncle Adam!” “Uncle Adam, Uncle Adam, look what I can do with my eyeballs!”— and he would set down his phone to observe and comment on whatever they wanted to show him until they ran off again. When they left, he would turn back to his phone or just close his eyes and wait for the next onslaught. Sometimes the kids would clamber on top of him and try reclining on the couch next to him for a little while. That was about it. Sure, he wasn’t baking cookies with them or playing chase or taking them on outings—he wasn’t really doing anything—but he made himself accessible to them in a way that they appreciated. He was there and that was enough.
To be fair, a lot of Adam’s passivity and lethargy was likely due to his struggle with an addiction to heroin, something he kept hidden from us until the last few weeks of his life. By what must have been a supreme effort, he stayed sober during his visits to our home, so it was likely he was not feeling so great much of the time.
One of the last times Adam visited us before we moved to California, he helped Wyatt make a pillow-and-blanket fort in our living room. Then he went into the fort with Wyatt and spent the rest of the afternoon in there. I should clarify: Adam spent the rest of the afternoon in there, Wyatt, age 4, was in and out, bringing more supplies, going on adventures, asking for help in the bathroom—but whenever he came back, Adam was waiting, reclining on the pillows, his long legs folded to fit inside, waiting to listen to his nephew and accept his adoration. I even served the two of them lunch in the fort, handing sandwiches into Adam’s large calloused open hand under the edge of the blanket.
Two and a half years later, Adam overdosed and died at the age of 33. In the year since, the family he left behind has been reeling from the shock and crumbling in the wake of this irrevocable tragedy.
Tuesday was not a great day. Despite my giving myself a comeuppance on Monday over the glut of screen time I had allowed thus far in the summer, I found my day sidetracked and sucked into some upsetting family dynamics playing out over email, eating up not only time in the day, but much of my emotional reserves as well.
By lunchtime, I was drained.
I looked at my kids, wondering what I could possibly do to fill the remaining hours of the day. They looked back at me expectantly, dressed in a mishmash of pajamas and superhero costumes, hair tousled and unbrushed since the day before. I had no energy for an outing, no creative juices flowing. I just needed to hang in there.
So, I took a page from Adam’s book: we built a fort.
We grabbed every pillow, blanket and chair in the house, dragged them into the living room and made a series of lean-tos all around our couch. This is something we have never done in this house. For the first five months we lived here, we did not have a couch at all and now that we do (a generous gift from my mother-in-law) we find ourselves keeping the kids off of it a lot of the time. They want to run and jump on it, to climb on it and knock the cushions to the ground, use the top edge as a balance beam and the arms as springboards. I am sure they would have many hours of great fun with the sofa if we let them play the way they wanted to, but unlike the old futons that served as living room furniture in our previous home, we need this couch to last us a long time.
“Yay! We can play on the couch!” Wyatt cheered when I first told him my plan.
The fort was a little stuffy, quickly heating up with all those warm bodies under blanket ceilings, but it was cozy and brought my sweetest memory of Adam to the forefront of my mind.
We kept it up all afternoon. I parented by reclining on a pillow and that was all they needed. I was there.
That night, as he put Wyatt to bed, Aaron apologized to him for the recent stress in our lives. We are committed to giving our kids a good life, but they have suffered a number of losses in recent years which we have not been able to shield them from. Wyatt, as the oldest, is especially sensitive to the toll the ups and downs of our year since Adam’s death have taken on Aaron.
Aaron told him he was sorry about all of that and Wyatt said, “It’s okay, Daddy, my life has texture.”
“Texture?” Aaron asked.
“Yeah, texture. Some kids, you know, they just go to school or to camp, come home and play video games, eat dinner, go to bed and that’s it. Their life has no texture, but my life does: I have sad days, happy days… you know, texture.”
Day 6, Tuesday, July 22
Money Spent: $40 – Vietnamese dinner. Phở (a brothy noodle soup) has been my comfort food since Aaron introduced me to it when we were first dating. As we had no food left in the house come dinnertime, and neither Aaron nor I were feeling especially sprightly about rushing off to the grocery store after the day we had had, we decided to walk down the road to try a Vietnamese restaurant we had never been to. I got the vegetarian noodle soup, as always, with plenty of jalapeños and sriracha. The boys split one large bowl between the three of them and begged the baby corn out of mine. Aaron got his own soup and fresh spring rolls to share. It was all delicious, filling and hit the spot. A comforting close to our day.
Miles Driven: 0
Quantity/Quality of Exercise: Just a couple miles of walking.
Toll on House/Yard: High
Screen Time: 60 minutes
Scheduled, over-, under-, or just right?: Under
Activities/Outings: Pillow Fort