I met my nephew AJ when he was two years old. His mom was dating my younger brother and I was very excited to have a potential nephew in my life. I couldn’t have been more happy when that wish became a reality and they both joined our family.
AJ was seriously adorable. He had more energy than all my family combined. The kid was the sweetest to his mom. This ended up extending to all parts of his life and relationships. AJ was and is full of light and life.
When he was six I picked him up from an after school program to take him to karate. We were getting in the car when I heard a woman saying his name. I looked up and a woman was walking toward us with a little boy in tow, likely the same age as AJ. The little boy was wearing a helmet and had some facial disfiguration. I don’t remember this child’s name so we’ll call him Josh.
I got out of the car, uncertain of this woman’s intentions in calling out for him and approaching him.
She asked “Are you AJ?”
She said, “Josh has been talking about you all the time. He says when kids tease and hurt him that you tell them to stop and you are very kind to him. I want you to know how special you are. Thank you for being so sweet and kind.”
Each word filled my heart.
I asked him on the drive how he felt about what she said to him. He said “I just like Josh.” This little guy sure was amazing. Such a beacon by just being fully himself and choosing love.
AJ’s mom and my brother ended up separating and later divorced. I know divorce. I have experienced it quite a few times in my childhood. I knew how hard it would be. As everyone tried to figure how this next season of our lives would work, we lost regular time with AJ. It became the occasional holiday and outing.
When AJ was 12 we stepped up the relationship to being in his life regularly. I remember being nervous picking him up the first time after having seen very little of him in the few years prior. Quite simply, I wondered if he would still like me.
AJ initiated conversation right away, telling me a story from his life. So easy and light. It felt like we had never lost contact. And I really liked him. A lot. He was funny and thoughtful. He was and is a huge guy, but such a gentleness and openness. He’s unmatched in that area.
As the years continued we spent time as often as we could. Sometimes it was frequent, sometimes a dry spell. Regardless of the amount of time that had gone between our visits, we picked right up where we left off and there was always laughter.
The events of the past year made some conversations in my family and friend group very intense and hard. I had endured a sexual assault that massively leveled me. We had talked to all the adults close to us. I had no idea, though, how to tell AJ. I felt protective of him and did not want to hurt his heart. I did not want to burden him.
As is characteristic of this dude, he sensed something was wrong and asked me direct questions about it. I answered honestly. He took it in. He sat with it and we talked about all the other things going on as there was A LOT going on for him.
AJ was turning 18 and he was readying himself to join the Marine Corp that July 2016. We held space for honest talks and then maneuvered to humor. Good stuff. Honest stuff. Life giving stuff. And what an incredible emotional intelligence he showed throughout all of it.
The time I had with AJ between January and July was precious and sacred to me. As my focus began to turn outward to support AJ, I felt relief from the intensity of my internal world that was reeling and begging for healing. By loving AJ and showing up for him, I was healing. Love is funny that way. Loving action changes a heart and circumstance better than any New Years Resolutions ever could.
As the day approached that he was heading out to Boot Camp for the Marines, I was feeling the reality that AJ would be leaving. It never feels like the right time for those you adore to leave you. I knew releasing him was important and love lived out.
AJ sent me tons of things to prep me about what he was going to endure. He was signing up for such a hard time and yet he was facing forward. He was meeting life and saying yes. Unswerving and resolute. He was prepared and ready for what was next.
The three months he was away were actually the hardest for me since the assault. I didn’t necessarily link this to his leaving, though that worry and pain was fully there, too. The hard time just was what it was. Trauma recovery does not ebb and flow in a way that makes sense. It’s painful and overwhelming. It is also necessary to walk through that pain.
AJ endured an exhausting, all encompassing season and landed on the other side. He was officially declared a Marine on 10/14/2016. I couldn’t wait to see him!
I picked him up the very next day and noticed that nervousness rising again. Is it going to be weird at all? Is he going to still like me? He got in the car and said, “I have so much to tell you!” And he did.
Stories of how AJ had overcome, what felt triumphant, what the funny moments were, what comrades he now had filled our conversation. He held his head differently. He walked with the confidence that comes from living the life you challenged yourself to live. I got that familiar surge of pride that I had when he was six years old, reaching out and being loving.
Some other emotions rose up within me, too. Admiration.
I had been feeling shame about how hard the last three months had been, chastising myself to heal faster. I imagined AJ in the Boot Camp circumstances, pushing through, embracing the season of difficulty as a necessary one, and just meeting life with agreement and willingness. As I saw him this way, I saw myself in a new light. He was still standing and so was I.
The constant overwhelming circumstances hurts. The exhaustion hurts. The self doubt hurts. The loss of all things familiar hurts. And yet the human spirit is remarkably resilient and full of life.
This year has been a season of leveling for me, a burning down of life and a wonder if I will survive that heat and pain.
Am I forever broken?
Am I ever going to enjoy life again?
Will I ever be able to live again?
Will I ever rise again?
My nephew held up a mirror of sorts as he shared his lived experience. I started to believe the reflection of healing, living and thriving that was emanating from him and reflecting back to me. I found room in my heart to believe that it could be mine as well.
My nephew is pretty special in that he lives his life as a determined and steadfast participant, co-creating his world with the best next step being his main focus.
My nephew no longer goes by AJ. He gave that up around age 11.
My nephew’s name is Ashton.
I call him Ash.
He helps me rise.