I’m not a parent, but I am the big sister of a kid whose dad walked out on him when he was a baby so I got used to him accidentally calling me mom.
I was twelve and a half when he was born. It was a few weeks before Thanksgiving of 1999. He looked like an alien, all yellow and pallid and big-headed. I didn’t get why people called newborns cute and it was weird to know that he was an attempt-to-save-the-marriage baby so I think I probably looked at him differently.
As soon as he could start laughing though, he was mine. He was all belly laugh, all heart. All climb-in-your-lap-and-kiss-your-cheek-when-he-wanted-something smooth. He was rambunctious and brave, all adventure and love.
He couldn’t pronounce his name – Nathaniel – when he started speaking. It came out as “Nanyo,” so of course I call him that to this day.
“Pamelala, can you PLEASE stop calling me that?” fourteen-year-old version of him would say.
“Never in your life,” my considerate response.
“At least around my friends?”
Through so many errors, we all ended up back in the same house by the time he was in pre-school – our Mom, Nanyo, his dad and me. It was an attempt to keep the family together, to fight for the unit. It kept us in the company of an abuser.
In the summer of 2006, so much had gone wrong. So much more was about to go wrong. Long stories that I don’t have the energy to dive into yet had led us to Savannah, Georgia, where my mom had been shut away with Nanyo, all resources cut off, names removed from bank accounts, cars being repossessed, no money for food so we fished for dinner, as Nanyo’s dad figured out just how the divorce was going to go.
That’s what it was like occupying the same space with an abuser who everyone liked. His mask was fail-safe. He got to decide every step, every time. He always got what he wanted and he had the connections to do so. We were stuck, and people would get indignantly caustic if we said as much.
He hadn’t been around much for the first six years of my little brother’s life, despite all of my mom’s best efforts to make sure her last child got a chance at having his dad around in the way Floyd and I didn’t. So when Dave won custody of Nanyo anyway, my mom and I broke.
We knew that the only reason he wanted custody was for the pride of being able to say he had his son. He never introduced Nathaniel by his name. “My son,” he would say. His trophy. His badge of manhood.
Mom wasn’t going to be able to tell Nanyo without breaking down, without scaring him, so I volunteered. I wanted to help him have courage. I didn’t realize how much courage it would require of me.
He sat near the bottom edge of my bed facing me, all blond hair and blue eyes. Gangly. Slight. Months from his seventh birthday. Happy-go-lucky. Always with something positive to say.
I faced him, my left leg steadying me on the ground, my right curled up under me, the headboard bracing my back.
“So, Nanyo, I wanted to let you know that you’re going to go live with your dad for a bit. It’s gonna be great! You’ll be around your cousins and Mema. And Raleigh? Raleigh is just the best in summer. Remember? Mema lives right around the corner from the pool!”
Throughout his younger years, as much as his dad tormented me and our family, as much as Dave screamed at me and called me a bitch when I was ten, as much as he started rumors about my mom and I and then nonchalantly emailed them on whims to our family and friends, as much as he manipulated everything in our lives to section us off from any support we could have had, I refused to say bad things about him in the presence of Nanyo.
Nanyo was half Dave, and I didn’t want Nanyo thinking that half of him was inherently bad. I would try to explain that while he wasn’t doing nice things, Dave loved Nanyo. But Nanyo knew. Kids always know.
“No, I want to stay with you and Mom. You can just tell him I don’t want to go.”
“Well, it’s not him making the decision, it’s actually the court. You know him and Mom aren’t staying together, so then the judge had to decide who would best be able to take care of you. And you know life here is a little tough right now, so the judge thinks you’ll get taken care of better with Dave. But it’s going to be great! Just think of all the good food Mema cooks. And you have so many cousins there!”
“No, I really just want to stay here. It’s okay, I can tell the judge I want to stay with you.”
“Buddy, I’m sorry, but the judge can’t listen to where you say you want to go until you’re twelve. It’s the way the rules work. You’re so much more mature than a lot of kids, but the rule is you have to be twelve to get a say. It’s a dumb rule. But you’re going to be okay, it’s fine.”
“… that’s not fair, though. I know where I want to be.”
“I know, love. But it’s okay. It’s just for a little while and then once you’re twelve you can tell the judge where you want to go and if you want to come back with Mom, you can.”
“… but. I’m six. Twelve is…”
I could see the wheels in his head turning. He was being so positive, so strong. So intelligent and reasonable. At six, he was figuring this thing out. And then all of a sudden he was realizing he couldn’t.
And at that moment I saw the light switch. I saw the hope and the joy that he always carried turn into confusion. I watched it on his face – him realizing that he couldn’t figure out another solution. He went from happy little kid, full of idea, to realizing he had none, nothing that could change what his fate was about to be.
His face crumpled. His shoulders slumped forward – his tiny little shoulders that all of a sudden couldn’t carry the burden I had just placed on them. All the hope had just flown out of his body and tears started streaming down his face and I was left broken. Utterly devastated to have broken my little brother and have nothing for him. Nothing that I could give him to make him better. Nothing that I could offer to make this okay.
“Nanyo… it’s okay, love. It’s gonna be okay,” I lied. “Sweetie, come on, it’s okay. It’s not for forever. I know that change is really hard, but we’re gonna be here for you,” I lied again.
I wish I had a happy outcome for this. I don’t. I have years of utter heartbreak and calling Child Protective Services from work hallways and knowing that my little brother wasn’t eating and knowing that we couldn’t do anything to save him. Years of not being allowed to talk to him except on the occasion he had visits with my mom and my being kicked out of court rooms. Years of my mom fighting systems and pouring money into lawyer’s bank accounts to try to get him back. Years of knowing that we had lost this kid and there was nothing we could do to protect him.
Nanyo ended up back with our Mom in 2015. Nine years away. Nine years that I hope he always knows we fought for him throughout. Nine years that I don’t know if he will ever truly understand that what he went through wasn’t normal or okay. Nine years that I know he shoves down and doesn’t deal with and says was fine.
I see glimpses of that kid now, but I couldn’t save him. All shoulder blades and sharp elbows that I couldn’t do anything for. He’ll be eighteen in November and I don’t know if I’ll ever fully get him back.
I lost him when I told him he had to go, and it’s not something I think we’ll ever be able to forgive ourselves for.