To my nieces, decades apart

I was five when they placed you in my arms, a wiggly mass of baby I didn't have a concept for. Pillows sat on either side of us, supporting us both, and I looked at you with wonder. I wanted to grow with you, teach you so many things, be more like a trusted older sister than an aunt - but we moved, and I did not see you again for a long time. When I saw you again, there was another baby that I loved just as deeply, though I did not know how to show it. Life kept us apart, you both grew into women in the blink of an eye - one of you has a baby, the other is getting married. You gained an older sister, I gained another niece I could never hope to know who has a baby I can never hope to know. I hold you in my heart, even if I cannot hold you in my arms.

The cycle continues.

I was eighteen when she put you in my arms - not a sister by blood, but by circumstance - and I adored you so completely. You were the smallest baby I ever held, I took you that night as your mother went back to school for an event, and I did not put you down. Then came the years I held you daily: late nights, early mornings, read to the baby, feed the baby - and I loved you more than life itself. I read the same book a thousand times, I held your hands and helped you learn to walk, I spoke to you so you could learn to speak for yourself. You were given a brother, but you were still my baby - then one day you were gone, and I did not see you again for a very long time. Now I am a stranger to you, but you will always be my baby.

The cycle continues.

I am twenty-eight when they put you in my arms, but I have loved you fiercely since we found out about you. I was the first person who knew you would be a girl; I bought so many clothes and nursery items, I wanted your mother to be prepared, I wanted to be helpful. You came in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy and everyone has held you tighter for it; but when they put you in my arms, I promised I would be different. I would be present. I would fight for you, shelter you, understand you in a way only your aunt can; I would be one of your first best friends, I would always be there when you needed me. For two months, I have tried my best to be there in a way I know annoys your dad, but he doesn't know my heart. He doesn't have to.

It's about six a.m. when your mother puts you on my chest, a sleepy bundle that stretches the length of my torso. You have changed so much in two months: you smile, you wave your little fists and babble at the fan, you like to hang out on your own. I cuddle up to you and try to doze, knowing these moments are few and far between, but my mind races about your future and mine. This time in my life is so uncertain, I feel like I am walking a tightrope suspended over shark infested waters: I have to make the right moves and not deviate from this path. There can be no turning back for me, I have to see this to the end - but when I hold you, I hold the promise of a future.

I want to fall in love and give you cousins, I want to build a home you can know as well as your own. I want sleepovers and birthdays and school plays - I always want to be there. When you're a teenager and feel like your mom just doesn't understand you, I want you to know you can run to me and I will still be your first best friend, while loving you with a depth you will not comprehend until you have your own baby.

In each stage of my life, I have held babies. Rocked babies. Put toddlers on unsteady feet and walked with them. I have given pieces of my heart to little humans to carry away with them, while trying not to be sad when they don't reach back for me. No one will love you the way your mother loves you, but please know that no one can love you the way I love you.

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