My husband and I always assumed we’d have children, so it was a bit of a shock to find ourselves in our late forties and still no kids. I suppose at that point many couples turn to IVF or seek to adopt, and while we did consider those options, they all seemed to require more effort and money than we could muster. Over time we managed to bury whatever sorrow or regret we felt and got on with our lives.
Then one day my sister called. She sounded awful. Her son, Santiago, had hit adolescence with a vengeance, and between his cutting classes, smoking cigarettes (and heaven knows what else), late nights out without calling, and utter disregard for my sister and the rules of her house, she was at wit’s end. I was accustomed to serving as a sounding board for my sister, a single mother, and had talked her through many bouts of confusion and insecurity about raising a child (as if I was any expert), but I had never heard her so defeated.
I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went but by the end of it I had agreed to have Santiago come and live with us. My husband and I are writers who both work at home, while my sister, a chef, is required to be out most nights. If nothing else, then, Santiago would have constant evening supervision. But beyond the seeming practicality of the arrangement, my nephew and I have always shared a special bond. We can happily wile away a day together watching films, idly chatting, and cracking each other up over nothing.
On his first night with us I actually crept down the hallway to check on him, as if he were a newborn baby. My husband teased me mercilessly when I slipped back into our room, but I didn’t care; this was my stab at motherhood. So what if my baby was 14 and stank of cigarettes.
When we told our friends we had taken on a troubled teen, they were both impressed and taken aback. Most were of the opinion that we weren’t responsible enough. After all, we’d made it well into middle age without any of the trappings of a settled life; we scrape by, we both work as freelancers, and we enjoy a life of pleasure if not leisure, eating out often and travelling every chance we can. “You need fortitude and discipline to deal with teenagers,” we were warned. “Otherwise they’ll chew you up and spit you out.”
I didn’t take Santiago for the chew-and-spit sort. Still, I was surprised at just how teenager-y teenagers really are. Many nights I stood in disbelief because Santiago, after making a snack, had yet again left the kitchen looking like the Tasmanian devil had just blown through. My husband, a science writer, would take these moments to remind me that the adolescent brain is full of holes, like Swiss cheese; Santiago’s limbic system was undergoing huge changes during his brain’s maturation. I found the image of Swiss cheese reassuring. Until those holes filled in with things like reason, regard, logic, empathy, a disgust for dirty dishes—or at least the desire to wash a dish, just one—there was little point in getting mad over deeds done or not done.
So I didn’t. Not when my kitchen was turned upside down. Not when he didn’t make his bed, ever. Not when his rapidly growing limbs broke my precious teapot that once belonged to my grandmother. Not the night he didn’t call and I sat up till three in the morning imagining every horrible thing that can happen to a teenager out, alone, in New York City. (It’s a very long list.) There were, of course, some rules he had to abide by. No smoking in the house. No drugs. And, we insisted, he had to bathe at least three times a week.
But this isn’t a story about my selflessness, or how I did the right thing. Because in fact, and I think in a good way, I was being totally selfish. For all the mess and the worry, I loved having the kid with us. It was strange, and unexpected lovely, and fun. Homework, amazingly enough, offered some of out best moments. One evening our conversation roamed from the Hundred Years Wars, to whoever first figured out that eating an artichoke might be worthwhile, to Santiago’s uncanny ability as a child to find naked snails seeking new shells to inhabit. At those times he let drop his teenage anomie; the minutes stretched into days, and I was allowed a glimpse—just a glimpse, mind you—of his busy world with its passions (lots of girls) and internecine alliances.
Santiago stayed two years with us, but it was not enough to undo all the damage done. He had lost of whole year of school during the worst of his rebellion, and would need to repeat. But we credit ourselves with helping him to reach the point where was willing to try again; eventually he chose to go to boarding school where, through a program of intense study, he could catch up. On a lovely September afternoon, on what would have been the beginning of our third year together, my husband and I drove him upstate to his new school.
I look back on that period as the most profound of my life. We didn’t really know what we were providing in offering Santiago a safe harbor. But by the end he was able to let go of some of his pent-up anger, regain his sense of humor, and even stop being quite so beastly to his real mother, and I experienced the wonder of making a difference in a kid’s life. More important, for a short but precious time, I got to be the sort of mom that only an indulgent aunt could be. But it felt real, and it was enough.
Bex Brian is author of the novel Promiscuous Unbound, published by Atlantic Monthly Press,and recently completed a new one, Ten Block Radius.