It’s a little early for a Christmas party. But who’s counting. We’re in my sister’s backyard. There are twinkling lights hanging over a fenced area. The whole family is here.
My sister’s neighbor is performing minor surgery on his Harley. It’s loud.
My mother is drinking a beer. I am, too. We are humble, working-class people. If we’re going to have a Christmas party with loud Harleys, by God, we might as well have cheap beer, too.
There is a kid running around. A girl. She is my alleged niece.
She calls me “Uncle Sean.”
My sister talks to the girl in a high-pitched voice. “Tell your Uncle Sean you love him.”
The kid remarks, “UNKO SUH WIGBSKGH SWERW
Now the kid is on my lap. Her diaper is wet, she has green snot running from her nose, and she smells like a pot of collards.
I could just eat her all up.
She looks like her mother did at this age. She has the same eyes. Same personality. It’s a get-your-hands-off-me-I-can-do-it-myself-thank-you-very-much personality.
And I’m going back in time. Decades back.
If I close my eyes, I see my baby sister on her rump in a big hayfield. She’s five. She’s got a dog with her. An outdoor dog, with ticks and fleas.
She’s staring into space. It’s cold. She’s got yellow snot on her upper lip.
“Is Daddy really dead?” she says.
Her face is big. Her cheeks are clammy. My father’s untimely end is fresh on her mind.
“You’re gonna catch a cold,” I say. “Let’s go inside.”
“Why would Daddy kill his own self?”
“You’re gonna get fleas if you—”
“What if YOU die next? What if MAMA dies?”
And the tears come. They’re hot tears. I remember this because they were all over my chest and shoulder.
“Nobody’s gonna die,” I tell her.
“I’m scared. What’s gonna happen to us?”
“I don’t know.”
“I miss Daddy.”
Daddy loved her. She was his only daughter. He’d carry her on his shoulders and display her to anyone who had eyes.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too,” said young me.
“A hundred times a hundred,” she said, hands outward like she was measuring a fish.
“Oh yeah? Well, I love you a thousand times a thousand.”
“OH YEAH? HOW ‘BOUT A MILLION TIMES A BILLION TWO TRILLION…”
“That’s a lot of I-love-yous.”
“…TIMES A GAZILLION, AND BILLIONS, ZILLIONS, TRILLIONS!”
“That’s too many to count. I’d be counting I-love-yous until I was an old man.”
“Yeah, and when we’re old people, we’ll STILL love each other, right?”
“With white hair and everything?”
“And we can eat cake every day?”
“Don’t see why not.”
“LOTS AND LOTS OF CAKE?”
And here we are. Older. No cake, but there’s a toddler in my lap.
The kid’s cheeks are clammy, she’s wearing a winter coat.
My sister is straightening the kid’s jacket, buttoning it up the kid’s neck. She kisses the girl and says, “Now tell Uncle Sean you love him.”
“I WUVOO,” says the kid.
“I love you, too, darling,”
Just like I will always love a girl I once knew.
Times a billion.
Multiplied by the depths of forever and ever.