Loss and Found

“How old are you?”

9 year-old Selina asked me in a sweet soft voice one day while we were waiting for the subway in Chinatown.

“I’m your “Big”, so I’m older than you!”

She chuckled, and I was relieved. I thought she’d let me off the hook, but several months later, Selina asked again.

“How old are you?”

“I’m your “Big”, so I am older than you.”

This time I chuckled, but my “Little” Selina wouldn’t budge.  She knew that I had to be older than the usual 20 or 30 something “Big.”

“I mean…OK. Well…what year were you born?”

“Many years ago. OK… I was born so many years ago, and so much older than you that – I’m old enough to be your mom!”

Now, she burst out laughing, her eyes glistening with joy.

Somehow, I sensed her happiness, perhaps even comfort, knowing that I was old enough to be her mom.

You see – Selina lost her mother to breast cancer when she was just six years old. A tragic loss so sudden that she began showing acute symptoms of emotional distress at home and in school. Social workers and teachers noticed her passive aggressive rebellious behavior and suggested to her grandmother (mother of Selina’s mom) that a “Big” (as in “Big Sister”) might be good for the little girl.

Grandma agreed, and I appeared. That was six years ago.

Six years ago, Selina and I were matched through the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of New York City – the local chapter of America’s leading youth mentoring organization.

This past weekend, while attending the BBBS annual fundraising Night Market event in Chinatown, I was suddenly reminded of that first “How old are you?” question from Selina on our first “outing” as “Big” and “Little.”

How time flies! Now, Selina is my god-daughter.

I had offered to become her godmother three years ago because our relationship had organically morphed into a kind of mother-daughter like “Big” and “Little” ever since I admitted I was old enough to be her mom.

Over time, she had learned to trust and turn to me when she’s scared, confused, distressed or upset. One time, an earthquake registering 5.8 rattled Virginia where she was living with her father, she called me screaming “I don’t know what to do! We just had an earthquake!!!!”

“Where’s daddy?” I was afraid she’s home alone.

“He’s somewhere upstairs in the house.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m downstairs. Should I go out of the house? Should I stay indoors?” She was clearly shaken up.”

“Stay inside, your daddy is inside, right? Don’t worry. Now, TV camera crews will start showing up at your door soon. Just tell them what you saw, ok?”

Selina started laughing. Mission accomplished. She began to feel safe as she sensed my tone was not of panic but peppered with humor and drama. “OK, ok, I’ll tell them.” She giggled.

Our relationship had grown above and beyond our expectations as traditional “Big Sister” and “Little Sister.”

In my HuffPost blog “Overcoming my Baby Urge”, I had discussed the agonizing journey of discovering my inability to conceive, and my burning desire to become a mentor to help shape a child’s development. I figured if I couldn’t be a mother, I could become a mentor. But little did I know, my own desire to be a mother at the time was matched with Selina’s own yearning to reclaim her daughterhood with an older woman like me. I can understand and relate to her desire because I lost my own mother to a heart attack many years ago, and I know I had subconsciously acted like a little girl sometimes around older women.

Looking back on the unexpected twists and turns in our lives, (like the sudden loss of mothers for Selina and me,) I am deeply grateful that we have found each other to give what we can when we needed it most.

As Thanksgiving approaches, let’s be mindful of how we can make a difference in someone else’s life – no matter how old we are, or how young.

Mable, New York

Mable Chan

Mable Chan is the founder of China Personified. Her contact is mablechan@chinapersonified.com.