My nephew Nolan is three years and three months. He is the younger child and only son of my brother, Andy, and his wife. He and his big sister are the only two blood relations my brother has ever known.
My mother tells me that for the first time she has begun to glimpse Andy in Nolan. She doesn't mean that she is just now noticing a resemblance between father and son. She means that she has begun to catch specific glimpses, in Nolan, of the boy Andy was when he first came to our family from Angel Guardian, the orphanage in Brooklyn where he lived, in between foster placements, for the early years of his life.
In the way he runs, she says she sees it: in the way Nolan's body moves when he runs. In the specific exuberance of his physicality. In his shininess. She is catching flashes of Andy, startling and piercing as echoes through time. Nolan is not even yet as old as Andy was when she first laid eyes on him.
For three years and eleven months, Andy was alive in the world and unknown to her.
My mother has said that her worst fear when we were little was not that her children would die but that we would disappear. The thought of our being alive but out of reach, severed even from her knowledge of what might be happening to us, constituted her most terrible nightmare. That it did would seem fairly unremarkable (surely it echoes the worst fear of most mothers), if not for the fact that one of her children had been unknown to her, had been cast loose in the world, away from her arms, out of her gaze, for so long. Never mind that the part of Andy's life that remains invisible, unknowable to her occurred before she became his mother. She is his mother, and this gap must haunt her.
Last night I read Edward P. Jones's story Adam Robinson Acquires Grandparents and a Little Sister. It is a tremendous, tremendous piece of writing, and I will not try to do it justice here, but briefly: Adam gets adopted by his own biological grandparents when he is six. The "city government people" call the grandparents, who have not seen the boy since he was seven days old, to say that they've found him, come pick him up. When the grandparents - real and loving and whole, complicated characters - go to the government building where Adam is waiting, they find that although it is July, "the city government people had dressed him in corduroy pants and a long-sleeved black shirt." Near the boy is a shopping bag, "and someone had penciled his name on it and that someone had misspelled it." Every morning, then, for weeks, upon waking in his grandparents' house, Adam gathers up this shopping bag, which is slowly coming apart, and, in "as submissive a tone as he could muster," repeats, "When I'm going home?"
When Andy first came to our family, his few possessions were in a brown paper shopping bag. The first several weeks, he called none of us by name, referring to each of us instead as "Somebody." I remember this, though I was not quite five. I remember the way he pronounced it: some- bod -y, and I remember the emptiness of the appellation, the impersonal, functional chill of it, not just the empty sound, but the emptiness it made me feel, made me alert to, for the first time in my life. For a long time after he came, he didn't believe it was his forever home, that we were his family for good.
The voice I remember pronouncing "Some- bod -y" is so different from - nothing like - the voice Andy uses today when he addresses his son. Sometimes he calls Nolan Buster Brown, and Nolan's smile is the whole sun in the sky, the sun with butter and sugar on top.
It seems unimaginable that in the same world into which Andy was born, and at an age when Andy had nothing - had not even come home yet - Nolan already has the sun and the sky and butter and a name that gets rightly spelled and a nickname that gets pronounced with warm laughter.
Adam Robinson, in the Jones story, is six years old before he comes home to a home that will be his home for good, and by the time we stop knowing about him, by the time we reach the last page, he doesn't even realize yet that he is home.
When I had my own children, I reeled to learn how full of personhood and history they already were by age one, age two, age three. I reeled to think of my brother, nearly four, arriving into our family with everything he owned in a brown paper bag and no name to call any of us but Some- bod -y. Now I think of my mother, lately watching Nolan run and spark, and of her being taken aback by the clear, dazzling glimpse through him to my brother as he was when he first came: three years and eleven months and new. I find it difficult to hold it all in my head.