For the first year of Kennedy’s life, she lived in Tampa. We, her grandparents, lived in Hawaii.
You see the problem.
Yes, living in Hawaii was paradise, blah-blah-blah, but my arms ached to hold my first grandbaby, to touch noses with her and change her poopy diapers. I wanted to inhale her baby smell, and whisper Tell me everything.
Full disclosure: I am not biologically or legally related to Kennedy or her parents. Kennedy’s mama Robyn was my stepdaughter, and when her dad died, all technical ties were severed.
But not the emotional ones. And so I did what any Jesus-loving woman who worries for a pastime would do: I freaked out. I harassed myself with an endless barrage of questions. Would Robyn still want to be my stepdaughter? She was an adult when her dad passed away, after all, a grad school student with her own friends and dreams and plans, not to mention plenty of actual relatives who loved her very much. Would she still confide in me? Would we still stay up too late watching Law and Order reruns and make midnight runs to Walgreen’s for movie candy? Would she want my advice about her roommates and research papers and mascara?
Would she still love me?
I adored my precious girl and had been loving her since she was a third-grader in hair bows and cleats. But still, I worried.
I confided all this to a near stranger on a bus in southeast Africa just a few months after losing my husband. Long bus rides have that effect on me. Hours into bumping along dusty roads, my new-ish friend asked me what was hardest about being a widow. I bawled out, “I’m afraid I’ll lose Robyn, too.”
My seatmate asked me what was happening in my prayers. How was I listening to God about this? I told her I was reading the book of Esther, and she smiled. “What? Why are you smiling?” I asked. She said very little in reply, other than this: “Families don’t all look the same.” I thought about Queen Esther, whose parents died when she was young. Her cousin Mordecai took her in and raised her as his own daughter. Throughout her life, and what a roller-coaster of a life it was, Mordecai never stopped caring for her, looking after her, advising her … in fact, parenting her.
“Families don’t all look the same,” I agreed. For the first time in months, I felt peace.
Fast forward many years. I found myself in a brand new marriage, living four thousand miles and six time zones away from home. My girl was a mom now, and I was marooned in Hawaii and missing every bit of it.
So I went to Target. I cruised the baby aisles and the dollar spot, filling up my U.S. Postal Service flat-rate shipping box. I sent onesies and bubbles and baby books, and sticky window clings for every season. It didn’t matter that Kennedy could barely sit up. I was IN.
But still, I wanted so much more. I was missing the real stuff, and I knew it. How could we be a part of this baby’s life when we lived so far away?
On Valentine’s Day, an idea finally occurred to me. My husband Matt walked in the door from work, and I blurted out, “Put on your red shirt! We’re making a video! We have to make props!” I’d written lyrics to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine” (as sunshine so nicely rhymes with Valentine, of course). Matt and I cut out colorful drawings of hearts and rainbows and smiley faces and taped them to straws. We rehearsed and rehearsed until we got it just right. And then we hit Record. And eventually, Send.
We made more videos that year, the props never more sophisticated than things we had on hand, and the lyrics suspiciously similar to Disney tunes.
Today is Kennedy’s sixth birthday. I am sitting at my kitchen table penciling out a song to the tune of “Under the Sea.” Later, Matt will get out chopsticks, tape, and a box of colored pencils. He’ll make rainbows and sunshine smiley faces and sparkly sixes, and we will wave our silly props as we sing.
Now we live in the same state as Robyn and her family, just a two-hour drive away. But the tradition of the videos continues, our little grandgirls as certain as the sun that they’ll get a video from Gramma and Grampa Matt on every birthday, and sometimes other days just because. The songs are goofy. We sing off-key.
Loving from a distance takes a little planning, sure, and a willingness to risk goofiness, to seize even the smallest idea and wrestle it into a connection. Love, for us, has shown up in unexpected places, in surprising ways. So we’ll keep recording knock-knock jokes and texting pictures of melting ice cream and kissy faces.
This is our family: held together by little more than tape and disposable chopsticks and the fearless hope that this is the real stuff.
Melissa Forbes lives in central Florida where she teaches English at a high-needs urban high school. She and her husband parent five adult children, not a single one biologically related to them. When she relaxes her inner control freak, she adores traveling and playing outside. Visit her on her blog, Instagram, and Facebook.