They say blood is thicker than water, and it's true. I've always been there for my nephew James, and our relationship is one of the things I'm most proud of in life. We've battled together through some tough times, and I'm so glad he's grown into such a confident young man.
If you met him today, you'd be surprised by what he has been through. James's father disappeared the moment he was born and his mother Sharon, my younger sister was left to care for him on her own. Only 19 when she fell pregnant, our family abandoned her, except for me.
We fell in love with James the minute he opened his eyes. Although Sharon was scared, she swore she'd do everything in her power to raise him "the right way". Unfortunately, those were just words. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when things began to crumble but I started to suspect Sharon was struggling.
She'd never have enough nappies and would let dirty dishes pile up for days. I reminded myself that this was probably typical for a first-time mum. I visited her and James twice a week and helped out with what I could. When James turned one, Sharon decided she would not return to work or study. I was shocked. Sharon had plans for university and now had no interest in getting that "serious job" she'd dreamed of. Then she met Peter, who was in his late 40s.
From the outset, Peter made it very clear he had no interest in being a father to James; he'd already raised his kids. Sharon accepted this, and he moved in within a month of them meeting. Peter was also a heavy drinker, and that's when everything started to slide downhill. Peter parked himself on the couch for most of the day, chain-smoking and knocking back beers. Sometimes he was so spaced out he couldn't hear James crying just feet away.
"You've got to say something," I warned Sharon "I wouldn't leave James alone with him." Sharon looked ashamed and agreed that she'd talk to Peter about it. Six months later, Sharon was drinking nearly as much as him! They'd stay up all night and row; the police would arrive on their doorstep frequently. Now, I was visiting every day to make sure James was fed and changed.
I felt the situation was deteriorating by the day. Peter's friends visited at all hours of the night to drink and party. A cloud of thick cigarette smoke hung permanently over poor James's head. "This has to stop. You're not a teenager anymore, you’re a mother!" I yelled at my sister while collecting the pieces of a broken bottle off the floor. It broke my heart again and again.
Sharon called me one day and begged me to take James to see a doctor. Fortunately, the doctor said James was a little dehydrated but other than that, he was quite healthy. I was incredibly relived, but things had to change. "I want James to come live with me," I said to Sharon when I returned from the clinic, but it only made her angry. "You can't do any better! Look at you! You don't have any kids!" she hissed and kicked me out of her apartment.
I sat in the car and cried for over an hour. I'd never felt so helpless. For the next two weeks, I called Sharon every day and pleaded my case. She flat-out refused to let me even see James, and Peter threatened to "sort me out" if I ever showed up at their door. I was out of options and there was only one thing to do. I called the Department of Child Services. It was the most painful decision I'd ever had to make.
The reports from the police and the doctor helped my case, and James was placed in temporary foster care and, eventually, with me. Last I heard, Sharon and Peter were still together and they'd had a baby girl.
Sharon and I spoke briefly after James was placed in my care. She accused me of ruining her life. I feel sad for losing my sister, but I don't regret my decision. Now James is a stunning 17-year-old boy with dreams of university, just like his mother. And I'll continue to guide him, as I've done since day one, because that's what family is about.
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