Hey, Smiles! Happy birthday!
Wow, it’s hard to believe you’re eleven years old already. “Smiles…” I bet you don’t even remember why I call you that. I know, it’s kind of a silly nickname, but if I’m being honest, I’ve always preferred it to your given name, Francesca. Not that it has anything to do with why I call you “Smiles”. Which brings me to why I’m writing this story.
Your Grandpa Bob loved to tell stories. You know how much he loved you, right? He always began his stories with the words, “I’ve got a cute little story for you…” Remember that? Well, I’ve got one for you, too. I know I’ve told it to you before, but you were very young at the time, so I don’t know if you’ve forgotten it, which is why I’m putting it here. So you’ll always have it with you. So you can read it every year, hopefully on your birthday.
It’s the story of how I met you, and the bond you and I share. And how much I love you, kid. So pay attention.
Eleven years ago, I got a call from your Nana telling me that you had come screaming into the world, on your Grandpa’s birthday, no less. I can’t tell you how happy that made him. You were the greatest birthday gift he’d ever received, and still are. I wanted to rush right over to see you, but I was stuck at my job and couldn’t leave until my shift was over. I also had to pick up my wife- your Aunt Kelly. I know you don’t remember her or that I was once married, but that’s okay. It’s not important to the story.
Anyway, getting to you seemed next to impossible because I had to drive all over town in a ton of traffic. It’s pretty bad in general, but for some reason on this day, it felt like everything conspired to keep me from seeing you. And I wanted to. I was SO excited to have a girl in our family, especially one who would be calling me, ‘Uncle Greg’.
I must have zig-zagged through every empty open spot on the freeway and through every side street I could think of to get to that stupid hospital before visiting hours were up. Every single street was a virtual parking lot. At one point, I was ready to give up, call your Dad, and tell him, “You know what? Forget it- I’ll just see the kid on the weekend!” I didn’t, though- I’m just as stubborn as you are. It runs in the family. Just ask your Nana.
Having said that, my blood pressure and anxiety levels shot through the roof from anger and frustration at having to move at the snail’s pace. In fact, I think a snail may have passed me by at some point. I know some old guy in a walker certainly did. I wouldn’t have minded being stuck in traffic; the only problem was that we were under a ticking clock. The hospital’s visiting hours were nearly over. Plus, your Nana was driving me nuts from calling me every five minutes asking, “WHERE ARE YOU?!”
Made me wish I could apparate (teleport) like in the Harry Potter books. (And yes, as hard as it is for you to believe, Harry Potter existed before you were born, as did the Beatles and Doctor Who.)
Now, you’d think two hours would be MORE than enough time to travel less than twenty miles, but you’d be wrong. Kelly and I spent the majority of it stuck in our car and surrounded by a bunch of slow-moving cars, most of which were honking at each other and trading rude finger gestures.
By the time we made it to the hospital, we had maybe twenty minutes before visiting hours were over. Your Nana scolded me for being late even though there was nothing I could do about it. I was so tired and frazzled that I just wanted to go home and relax. Upon greeting everyone and hugging your Daddy, I was rushed up to your Mom’s room where you were being passed around and shown off. When you got to me, your Dad asked if I wanted to hold you, and I declined. Not because I didn’t want to, but because you looked so fragile that I was scared to hurt you. Your skull already looked like a pickle from you being squeezed out of your mommy. I was a little paranoid it would stay that way, but I was told everything would snap back eventually.
Your Dad insisted on me holding you, saying, “Don’t be silly. You’re not going to hurt her. You’re her Uncle. Hold your niece!” Then he shoved you in my arms.
I took a look at the little bundle in front of me, and though you were all red and wrinkled, you were the cutest little angel I’d ever seen. I fell in love instantly. You had been asleep practically the whole day, they told me. Then you did the most amazing thing ever:
You opened your eyes and looked straight at me. And you smiled.
I couldn’t believe it. When I told everyone in the room, they couldn’t believe it either. You hadn’t opened your eyes since you came spilling out. I was the first thing you saw. Not only that, but you smiled. Right then and there, I knew we’d be close. I knew we had a bond. And that made me love you even more.
It made all the hassle in getting to see you worth it. That’s when I gave you the nickname, “Smiles”.
At first I thought I was wrong, that you looking at me and smiling was nothing more than passing gas, but on your first birthday, I watched you while the rest of the family was outside cleaning up after your party. You were sitting in an easy chair and I was making all of these silly faces to make you laugh. But you didn’t just laugh- you went totally nuts and were screaming so loudly that everybody came running, thinking that I’d hurt you.
Your Dad was like, “What are you doing?”
I said, “Nothing. I was just making the kid laugh.”
You kept rolling around on the seat, laughing hysterically and loud enough to shake the paint off the walls of the house.
Your other Grandmother said, “I’ve never heard Francesca laugh like that. Ever.”
I proudly beamed and said, “What can I tell you? The kid adores me!” Like I said, I just knew.
Flash-forward to today, and you’re almost a teenager now. I can’t believe it. Listen, kid- I know it’s been a long time since I’ve seen you, but I want you to know I really miss you. I love you so much and it hurts me that I haven’t been there for you in the way I wish I could. I want you to remember- I will always, always love you. Know in your heart, I am always with you. No matter how far apart we are, no matter how much time passes, or how big you get, you will always be my Smiles.
Happy birthday, you little creep.
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