The nephew asked the uncle if he would come to his high school graduation. The uncle said sure.
It was far away. Another country. But the nephew and the uncle always had been close. In fact, the nephew looked so much like the uncle, it astonished people. They used to mug in front of the mirror, the two of them, making the same face, the same squint, the same grin. It was like looking at old and young versions of the same face.
"He's really not my son," the uncle laughingly would tell people of his sister's child. "Believe me, that's not possible."
But as someone once observed, G-d's way of making sure you love your family is making you all look alike. So they were close, the nephew and the uncle. And the uncle would be there at graduation.
Oh, the nephew added, and could the uncle do the commencement speech?
Uh ... sure, the uncle said.
A commencement speech? Really? What did the uncle have to say to a group of high schoolers?
He thought. And he thought. And, as usual, he waited until the last minute, and wrote the speech on the plane overseas. His head was filled with grandiose themes, the world, its challenges, global responsibility.
But then he thought back to the day his nephew was born. He remembered the pudgy little ball of humanity. He remembered how the kid, in the early months, looked like Popeye, and how later he was covered in shaggy golden locks. He remembered this certain expression, as if the child were always on the brink of thrilling excitement, his mouth pursed, his eyes wide.
He remembered holding the child in his arms, and lifting him onto his shoulders, and bouncing a basketball with him, and playing pinball with him, and reading to him, always reading. He remembered the little one-man shows the nephew would put on in front of the family. He felt a tiny knot in his stomach for how quickly the years had flown by, and how the newborn was now 18 years old.
And pretty soon the uncle forgot about global themes. He wrote a commencement speech as if he were talking to one special kid in the long row of caps and gowns.
And, in truth, he was.
When the ceremony came, the uncle wore a suit, and he sat on stage and stole a glimpse at his nephew, in the back row of the graduates on the stage. The nephew gave him a small nod.
And then the uncle stepped to the microphone, in front of parents and siblings and friends and teachers. He spoke to them all, but in his mind, he was speaking to the Popeye kid in the back row, who now towered over him by several inches.
He told him not to hurry through life. He told him not to feel like a failure if he hadn't sold a tech start-up by the time he was 25. He told to find a home, and to cherish that home, and not to think that neighbors were corny or staying put was boring.
He told him to take chances, that mistakes were OK. He told him to find love. That was the most important thing. And he told him to cherish his family.
He got a little choked up on that part.
And then he finished. And the audience clapped. And to his surprise, they asked him to hand out the diplomas as the kids walked across stage.
They say you can never feel for someone else's child the way you would your own, and maybe that's true and maybe it isn't. But when the nephew approached the uncle, with his face in a small and familiar smirk, the uncle did what those who know him would have expected.
He held the diploma high overhead, so the nephew had to jump for it.
And then I hugged that kid as hard as I've hugged anyone.
And I have never been prouder.