Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: Packing a year of gunclehood into a box

At the risk of offending one of my best friends who took some soul-revealing photos of my nephew at the BeltLine skatepark last week, my favorite picture from this year of gunclehood is a grainy screenshot from an over-zoomed, head-on video of my nephew careening down a steep hill on his skateboard. His outstretched arms and anxious eyes contrast with an exploding smile, the terror and exhilaration in his expression offering the perfect visual for our range of emotions over the past nine months.

The screenshot’s low quality and urban grayness, along with my nephew’s mismatched socks and (fashionably) holey sneakers, give the image a dinginess that reminds me of pictures from my childhood in the ’80s. He’s without a helmet and riding in the middle of the street, but despite the recklessness and neglect hinted at in the picture, I remember him crashing into me a half-second after the image was captured, his tense body melting into arms he trusted would be there for him.

Upon becoming the legal guardian of my 7-year-old nephew last summer, I recognized myself attempting to give him the childhood I thought I deserved, beginning with clarity about our roles. I instilled in him that if he focused on kid things such as school and tying his shoes, I would take care of the adult things like buying toys and making food magically appear before us every day.

I binged on school supplies because I remembered the embarrassment of being chronically unprepared; I read him bedtime stories every night because I still feel the numbness of falling asleep in an empty home, or worse, an occupied one where no one seemed to notice if you were awake or not, there or not. I got him skateboards and the race car bed I always coveted, and took him to monster truck rallies and space observatories, and feel mostly successful in giving him a stability and indulgence that I’ve always imagined was supposed to be included in childhood.

I also have a new, uncomfortable appreciation for how difficult it is to surrender your life, your desires and your priorities for the benefit of a kid who is clueless about your existence outside of him. Selfishness isn’t really a “kid thing” or “adult thing,” but something that is passed back and forth between a child and parental figure, and enjoying selfishness without abusing it has been my homework throughout the 2016-17 school year.

Selfishness now brings us to the end of our journey together, and I haven’t been able to determine whether it is the healthy or damaging kind.

The plan is for my nephew’s father to resume custody of him once my nephew returns to Chicago this summer, something all three of us crave with reasonable justification; but, although each of us gets what we want in the arrangement, it’s hard to argue it’s in my nephew’s long-term best interests to interrupt the success and security he’s experienced in Atlanta.

Among his second grade classmates, my nephew earned the “Most Improved” student award, an almost automatic descriptor for any child who spends a year away from the South Side of Chicago. I’ve stowed the certificate in a box full of ticket stubs and keepsakes from the year we’ve spent together, which I plan to give him on his 36th birthday, when he is the same age I was when I unexpectedly assumed custody of him.

My two biggest fears at the end of our time together are that something goes terribly wrong in Chicago, or that everything goes right and he forgets the special times we’ve shared. There is so little I remember about being 7 years old, and I hope, whether in two months or 28 years from now, he always knows that I was at the bottom of the hill, bracing us for impact.