Note: all names (including the author’s) have been changed to protect the privacy of the author’s extended family.
My three-year-old niece Julie asked me to look at the Christmas lights strung up in her family’s dining room the other day with her. We both laid down in the front hallway and gazed up and talked about what colors we could see. We were only there for a few minutes, we only said a few things, and then she said we should go play in her room and ran ahead of me down the hall. That moment wasn’t much, it didn’t look like much, but I filed away the memory of it carefully in my brain — touched at how lovely it was.
I live far away from Julie and her family — have ever since she was born — so these moments with her are always special. My sister does a great job of making sure she remembers me. Every time I see Julie, she shouts my name over and over again until she gets my attention, and then when I say, “Yes?” she’ll say, “I love you!” It’s pretty fantastic.
I have a feeling of protectiveness for Julie, and my other niece, Mandy, that’s really hard to completely express. I want to hug them tight and play with them and always be there for them. I probably would have always felt this way for them — it’s primal instinct, you know, for adults to always want to care for the children to whom they are related — but it’s especially important to me given my family history.
You see… I don’t know where one of my aunts is. None of us do.
She left her home about two-and-a-half years ago, and no one has seen or heard from her since. This is the second time this has happened, as she was gone for nearly a decade when I was younger. She came back when I was around 12, and it was one of the oddest sensations to re-meet this aunt that had been gone for so long.
She would never talk about why she left or why she came back, and got angry the one time anyone suggested she talk to a therapist. Everyone was just so happy that she was back that they didn’t push it. These are all things I learned only after she left the second time. I have depression, as do other members of my family, and have always wondered how many of my aunt’s problems are related to an undiagnosed, untreated illness.
It is strange how much I have been affected by the disappearance of someone I frankly, barely knew. She was often very quiet. I never knew what to get her for Christmas. I knew she liked Star Trek and Star Wars, so I ended up getting her a lot of figurines and books. I know shamefully little else about her. I can only remember having one or two one-on-one conversations with her at all. She had lost a lot of weight in the year before she left home and looked like almost an entirely different person.
For a while there, she seemed really happy — she was always sharing her weight watchers recipes and seemed very proud of what she had achieved. When I heard she was gone the second time, I was very upset, but had a feeling of helplessness in knowing that I didn’t even know what it was about her that I was supposed to miss.
When I was growing up, my mom and I used to butt heads on a regular basis over one thing or another — more than once, she begged me that if I ever ran away, I just tell her where I was. I know I reminded her of her younger sister. The comparison shook me and made me realize how much I never wanted to hurt my family the way my aunt had hurt ours.
As I have grown as an adult, it has helped shape the way I deal with my mental illness and approach life. I never want to let my depression make me as selfish as my aunt has been. When I’m around my family in the few times a year I come back to my hometown, I do everything I can to help them — it feels like something I can do.
I have a lot of anger toward my aunt at this point, and have had to consider whether I would want her to be in the life of the family I hope to have someday if she someday reappears. But then I remember that it’s possible that she’s not even alive any more or that something terrible might have happened to her and feel terrible for being mad. The not knowing is the worst — I don’t even know how to feel from day-to-day.
I may never know how to feel and may never know where she is or what happened to her.
The lack of my aunt’s presence in my life has molded more of me than I think I’ll ever fully realize. I never want my nieces to have the same doubt and confusion about me as I have about my aunt. I’ve made a commitment that I will be there for them as they get older — I want them to know that even when I am several states away, I am always on their side and always plan to be reachable.
I want to be an example for them of how to face their fears and their lives head-on and show them that running away from problems is never the answer. And I plan to be there to gaze at Christmas lights with them until I am old and wrinkled and their children can join us as well.