This evening, my niece (and goddaughter), is getting confirmed in the Catholic church. My mother is there with her, as is my sister. I am not.
When my niece was an infant, I worked for a few months as her nanny. My brother and his wife egregiously overpaid me to play with their child. I loved almost every moment I spent with my niece. It was through the acts of caring for her—changing her soiled diapers, tickling her tummy on the changing table, re-reading the same picture book fifteen times in a day, spooning sweet potato mush into her mouth only to have her spray it back on me with peals of laughter, pushing her stroller through the hot, deserted suburban streets, ripping off her socks for yet another round of “This Little Piggy”—that I realized I someday wanted to have a child and that when I did, I could manage the practical aspects. Now, she is a teenager, and, after tonight, she will be an adult in the eyes of the church.
I want to be there with her tonight. Even as late as last week, I toyed with the idea of flying or driving so that I could sit in a pew with my family and watch my niece be confirmed. But I can’t. A drive to Missoula and back (for a total drive time of under four hours) two days ago to see a specialist about my bone sarcoidosis made it clear that I couldn’t. I’m still recovering from the Missoula trip. Something about the minute movements of my neck in the motion of the car set off testy old cranial nerve number eight, and I’m still nauseous, dizzy, and half-blinded with headache.
I reason with myself that not being there isn’t such a big deal. “It’s not like I coulddoanything if I was there, right?” I ask myself. This is true. I wouldn’t do much if I attended her confirmation—just like I wouldn’t have done much at my husband’s brother’s wedding, or at my husband’s father’s marriage, or at the opening of my mother’s museum art show, all of which I missed because of my illness. We come to these public events not todosomething, but to bear witness to the turning points in the lives of those we love. If I could be there, I could convey to my niece that she matters to me in ways that transcend any message I’ll write on the belated card I’ll send her. I’m adept with words, but they fall so short of human presence, of the connection of the flesh. I feel robbed by my disease to be present to confirm my love of her, to confirm my role as her godmother, to confirm myself as a part of her life, to confirm a bond that began with sweet potatoes and will last, I hope, a lifetime.
In the ceremony tonight, she’ll confirm her membership in the church her parents chose for her at birth. At baptism, she was a passive recipient; her parents and her godparents made vows standing over her. Tonight, she’ll use her own voice to make her own commitments. I’ll send the aforementioned card; I’ll call her later to congratulate her. I won’t have any words of wisdom for her. What I will say is, “I wish I had been there.” And there is a sort of confirmation in that.