To My Niece, Charlotte—with Love

November 23rd, 2016

Charlotte Kim Hilton,

I was finally able to meet you, and I sit here in the airport now waiting for my flight to return home. I’ve just said goodbye to your father who dropped me off here. I had an amazing time here in Provo with you and your parents, who very hospitably housed and fed me just so we could meet, and a flurry of emotions overwhelms me as I prepare to leave and say goodbye to you for now. It was especially difficult to say goodbye to your mother, but a beautiful thing happened as I was walking out of your apartment door: it began to snow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the snow fall before, Charlotte. Nighttime has fallen, and the falling snow and whatever remnants of lightning from the thunderstorm that has just passed create a peculiar luster in the obsidian of the night sky. Before I left your apartment, your parents told me that this was your first thunderstorm. I wish that I could hold you just one last time before I leave so we could enjoy this unique moment together. I don’t mean to be melodramatic or saccharine, my little star, nor do I mean to use you as a vehicle for my writing—you are my niece, first and foremost—but these words come quickly and fade even faster; I must capture this moment in some way, for my own sake, and writing is the only way I really know how to do so. Forgive me. It is vain, but it helps me feel better. I cannot allow these thoughts to escape me.

Your well-meaning Grandpa Paul told me that I should save my money instead of buying a plane ticket to go and see you because you and your parents would be coming to visit us in California in just a few short weeks, but I couldn’t wait that long, my love. You see, what made me buy this plane ticket so suddenly was the fact that after some recurring and sharp pains in my abdomen, I feared for my life, Charlotte; the very meager possibility that I could have dropped dead at any moment without seeing you existed (but do not worry, my darling, after buying the plane ticket, I went to see the doctor, and after a close examination, she thinks that these are just gas pains which can be easily rectified by some dietary and lifestyle changes. I hope that we will laugh together at my irrational anxieties when you are able to read this). I am fortunate that, at the age of 21, I can say that I have lived a good life; I was raised by a loving family, I’ve had the privilege of studying at an accomplished university, I’ve fallen in love, and I’ve been able to pursue my dreams with some semblance of meaning and drive instilled within me—but you see, my niece, with my seemingly impending doom looming over me, I couldn’t die in peace knowing that you existed in this world and that I would never be able to see you. Even if I didn’t drop dead unexpectedly, you wouldn’t be this small forever, Charlotte. I couldn’t wait any longer; my insides felt as if they were torn up. I had to come see you.

So, I asked your mother if it would be okay if I came and saw you, and when she said that it would be okay, I rushed to buy my ticket. A couple of days later (that Saturday), I drove up to San Francisco from San Luis Obispo. I would be flying to Provo from Oakland early the next morning. I began driving, and when I reached the highway, a very strange sensation took over me; rather than merely being carried along with my car in a state of inertia as I accelerated, I felt as if I was being actively propelled within the dividing lines of the lanes on the road at breakneck speed, being plunged into darkness and swallowed by the esophageal lane into the abysmal and bottomless belly of the beast that is life (or as opposed to “is,” let’s say “can be,” Charlotte; that is the difference). As I drove on the highway past the farms and fields along the Central Coast, the air smelt like fertilizer and wet earth. A hard rain was falling and there was not a single patch of blue in the sky; but, a ray of sunlight managed to impale the grayness of the clouds. Your Grandma Kumsoon used to sing me a certain song to lull me to sleep as a young child, and some of the lyrics from that song came to mind:

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please, don’t take my sunshine away.”

That’s when I thought of you, Charlotte, for you are my sunshine. I know that’s a total cliché, my niece, and your cynical uncle hates clichés—you deserve so much more than your uncle’s banality and sentimentality—but I find so much truth in this association of mine because, as far as my own life is concerned, you are the happy brightness of the sun pervading through the sad grayness of the clouds, giving new life to a world of stale air, stagnant water, and withering vegetation. Despite the somber and oppressive torrent of rain, you, that ray of sunlight transfixing the gloomy clouds, would work with the rainfall to bring new life to the slowly decaying earth—and, my dear, isn’t that much like life itself, taking sadness with happiness and creating something new and beautiful out of it? I began to wonder why I deserved someone as special as you in my life.

My little ray of sunshine, it is so sadly and painfully difficult to explain to some people why your life is so important to me and why it is I am so delighted that you are finally here with us in this world. “It’s not like she’s your daughter or anything,” some said of my excitement when you were born, or “Oh, well that’s cool, I guess.” Perhaps I understand them a little—only a little, Charlotte—because they speak from an impersonal perspective, though I do detest sentiments like these with all of my heart—I really do—but be as happy as I am to know that these people make up the vast minority of those who know of your existence and that everyone else was absolutely delighted to hear of your birth; you had managed to brighten up their lives just as you had brightened up mine, my sunshine. Your mother’s side of the family has always been small; it was always just your Grandma Kumsoon, your Grandpa Paul, your Uncle Bryan, and your Aunt Nicole when your mother and I were growing up together. Only we will ever understand the hardships your mother’s side of the family has faced, especially in the past couple of years (your mother and father will decide when it’s the right time to tell you more about our side of the family), but in a way, these hardships have brought us even closer together. The marriage of your mother to your father made our small family seem so much larger, and you were the cherry on the top of the wedding cake, so to speak. With you as a new addition to the family, my princess (Grandpa Paul has called your mother “princess” for as long as I can remember), our family became infinitely larger. When you were born, you brought sunlight into all of our lives, not just mine; the meaning you imbued within us upon your birth revitalized us all, especially your grandparents.

I remember when I first saw a photograph taken of you on the day you were born. I showed this photograph to one of my best friends who very endearingly and humorously called you a “little grape.” Yes, my little grape (by the way, I am so glad that you do not have your Uncle Joe’s big rock candy mountain of a head; did you know that for years, your Grandma Kumsoon had to hold my hand when I would walk because the weight of my head would make me lose my balance?), you were less than a day old when this photograph was taken, and I remember so vividly the fairness of your purplish-pink skin, your full head of chestnut-colored hair, and your serene eyes. I instantly saw so much of your mother in you which delighted me in a strange way, perhaps because I was reminded so much of the happier days of my childhood and the good times that I had had with your mother. I really miss those days; your mother is my best friend. When I fell out of a window when I was only three years old, your mother was the one who found me and told your Grandma Kumsoon that I was hurt. When we were even younger, your mother broke her first bone trying to give me a piggyback ride. I’ll never forget, of course, walking with her to and from school nearly every day, watching Saturday morning cartoons with her every weekend for the majority of our early childhood, frequently eating at the pizza joint near our childhood home with her and your Aunt Nicole, and going to countless Giants and Warriors games with her and your Uncle Bryan as we tried to collect as many bobbleheads as we possibly could. I’ll especially never forget her constant support, which, by the way, she still gives to me and to everyone else in her life. Forgive me for being this kind of uncle, but you are so lucky to have your mother and father in your life, even if as you grow up there may be—naturally—times where you do not believe that this is so.

Alors, mon petit champignon (will you ever take French classes like your mother and I did? This is one of many things about your bright future that makes me wonder), what I mean to say is that in seeing so much of your mother in you, it’s almost as if I’m reliving my childhood vicariously through you but from the perspective of an adult with much more advice to give. Believe me, buddy, if there’s anything I hate more than clichés, it’s the corny and overly moralistic adult trying to tell people how to live their lives. Your uncle is still learning how to take care of himself, but I feel as if this is the point in this exposition where it becomes necessary for me to impart some wisdom—sure, let’s call it wisdom—to you.

First of all, do not be afraid to feel. Your uncle is still learning how to feel in the right way. You should strive toward happiness, my love, but inevitably, some things in this world will make you very anxious, scared, sad, or angry; these feelings, at least, will help you learn more about how you perceive the world that we live in because they force you to consider the possibilities and circumstances of every situation. Feeling is how we learn compassion. Compassion is how we understand others better. In understanding others better, we become more fit to help those around us. Be as aware of your own feelings as you are aware of the feelings of others, and I know that you will make a positive difference in the lives of those around you; however, you must also use your head when you feel, Charlotte. Do not confuse compassion with passion; you cannot be overzealous in your feelings. Do your best not to hold grudges, especially without good reason. They eat away at the heart, tear at the flesh, and grind bone into dust until all that remains of the self is a gelatinous and insupportable mess. Take it from my own experience; grudges and hatred damage the soul. You must not forget that the head is inextricably bound to the heart.

Secondly, know that the world can be a very terrifying and confusing place. It will pose many questions to you, and I won’t pretend to know the answers to those questions. But, you are surrounded by people who are willing to talk to you and help you through these scary times; that is a privilege many children are not fortunate enough to have. There are plenty of people in this world who will act in accord with their own interests before they take yours into consideration, and that is a sad and ineluctable fact of life, my little flower; people will do terrible things that will hurt you greatly. It’s not the selfishness of the world that bothers me the most, but its painful indifference. Despite this, know that your parents would sacrifice their entire lives for you (they already have, in a way, by deciding to have you) and that you are surrounded by loving people who are here to help you. I assure you, my niece, we are on your side, and we always will be!

Lastly, do your best to define happiness and success on your own terms. So often in this life, we tend to compare our successes and failures to those of the people around us, which can be both aggrandizing and deprecating, but wrongfully so, in my opinion. We are conditioned by our competitive society to believe that certain things definitively equate to success and failure, but this is not the case. Inevitably, you will make mistakes, but you must know that you can set right your accounts. To me, to be successful is to be happy on your own terms. They say if you have the choice between a healthy body or a healthy mind, choose one and you have a good chance at the other. Find something you love that’s good for you, do a whole lot of it, and I think you’ll do just fine in this life, kiddo—but make sure you do it for the sake of your own approval, not for the approval of others! What you’ve taught me—without even speaking a single word, Charlotte, and this is what amazes me—is that the best way to live life is to live for as long as you can, as happily as you can, and as best as you can, for both yourself and for those people whom you care about, and you’re one of those people for whom I live; you add so much meaning to my life. I wish I could be more specific, my dear, but the key to your own happiness and success is something that you will have to discover and define for yourself as you grow up—again, on your own terms!

My heart is heavy now upon leaving you but that is because you have made it full. When I first held you, I felt the weight of your body, light as a feather, in my arms. You fell asleep while I was holding you, and as I was trying to count your eyelashes, I lost count because I was distracted by your tranquil expression; I couldn’t help but admire how calm you looked in a world of widespread turmoil and strife. You’re truly an inspiration, little buddy, I hope you know that! I’ve never felt as at peace as I did when I was holding your sleeping body against mine. I became lost in your face, and I began to wonder what you were dreaming about and who you’d become, but know that no matter who you are or who you become, you will forever have the undying love and unwavering support of your

Uncle Joe