Several weeks ago, my 2-year-old daughter, Orli, woke up screaming. It wasn’t the same kind of cry we normally hear in the mornings — sometimes she’ll just call out “Done!” which, even at 6:30 a.m., is still amusing. And it was early, as in pitch-black-nearly-middle-of-the-night early. When my partner, Ian, went to get her, she was “burning up,” as my mom used to say about my sister and me when we were feverish. I got a thermometer, and then I got another. They both read 103.5. Poor kid. Genuinely sick and miserable.
What followed was a long morning at the pediatrician, waiting hours for a diagnosis of “virus, unknown, keep us posted”; and then days of fever, each a blur of Tylenol and ibuprofen, humidifiers and ice cream. That last one was a concession on the part of Ian, who was anxious about getting Orli to eat something. It proved to haunt us later; Orli would cry for “ice” at all times of the day and night. But once we were reassured that Orli was okay, that her illness would pass and that it was, as they say, “just a virus,” the adrenaline wore off. Suddenly we realized that we ourselves were exhausted. Orli didn’t sleep much during the height of the fever, and as a result, neither did we. Ian bore the brunt of the late nights, staying up with her well past the point that I could no longer function.
After a few days, we were both done, as Orli would say. It was Sunday. And fortunately, we already had a date with the Tias, Spanish for “the Aunts.” It couldn’t have come sooner.
Neither set of Orli’s grandparents lives near us, nor does any of Orli’s aunts or uncles, nor cousins, nor distant relations. We’re a little marooned here in Washington. Orli loves her Tia B, as we call my sister, Becca, and swoons over Tio Mike, my brother-in-law. But they are in Manhattan. If we lived nearby, Becca often reminds me, life would be much easier. I know it’s true.
On the other side, Ian’s brother Josh and his wife, Kim, live in Taiwan, which makes Manhattan seem like next door. We haven’t seen them in several months, other than through grainy Skype videos and an awesome little standalone movie that Josh sent when Orli was sick, in which he read a book to her on screen. For a year they lived nearby, and we grew used to seeing them; we were all sad to see them return to Asia last August, leaving us to fend for ourselves.
But while we aren’t fortunate enough to live near her biological tios, her aunts and uncles, Orli is blessed with two nonbiological tias who live close enough to drop everything and come over.
I first met Stephanie Handel when I attended Camp Ramah in the Berkshires; she was three years ahead of me, and 1,000 times cooler. We met again as adults and were roommates for nearly five years in the late 1990s, post-college. We went through a lot, she and I, before we moved into this more adult moment. Her partner of nearly eight years, Madeleine, is a joy; the type of person you could only wish your best friend would meet, because you would have been friends with her anyway.
And Orli, from day one, has loved her tias something fierce. She’ll take each woman by the hand, leading her gently over to her craft table to show her what she’s working on.
That Sunday, after “the fever,” Tia Maddy and Tia Stephie had bought tickets to a Hanukkah celebration at the local JCC. I was full-out fried and couldn’t have done it alone. Orli, fortunately, was more than content to be with her tias and abandon me altogether. I was able to wander off, alone, for the first time in days.
We have lost something, as a community. So often, we live in bubbles. Driving home from the airport the other night, after another mini-business trip, my taxi driver, a Nigerian man who called himself “Fat Eddy,” though he was very thin, talked of his children. Two of them, he said proudly, were enrolled in university; one was in a master’s program in the United Kingdom. He had surrounded them, always, he said, by fellow Nigerian immigrants. That way, all his friends always had one eye out for his kids and he for theirs.
I envied it a bit, I must admit, as we swirl alone in our little Washington world, our bubble of happiness that is so often composed of just Ian, Orli and me. It’s hard to do it on our own.
Stephanie and Madeleine make us feel less alone. When the five of us are together, it’s almost as though Orli has 100 caregivers. Somehow, adding two feels like adding a dozen. It takes the weight off us, makes the room lighter, allows everyone to enjoy one another and enjoy Orli.
When I first became pregnant, we four adults joked that we should parent the baby communally. Could we have connecting lawns? We’d muse about how to raise children together, watching one another, relying on one another.
Even if Orli’s biological tios were here, she would still love her little extended, intentional family as we do, and be enriched by them, as we are.
Sarah Wildman writes about the intersection of culture, politics and travel for The New York Times and Politics Daily.