I have no idea how it happened, but my niece turned ten years old Monday. I mean, sure I understand that she was previously nine years old and then 365 days passed (366, actually, on account of this being a Leap Year). Anyone who has ever been close to a child knows that their growth can be deceptive. You can work backward in your mind to previous intervals, but it gets really fuzzy tracing their evolution from one point of their lives to the next.
Anyway, I spoke with her by phone on Monday to wish her a happy birthday (after having previously texted her mom on Saturday about it, only to be informed I had somehow jumped the gun by two days). The first thing she wanted to know was whether she could spend the night with me. As it was, I was already en route with my friends to Iroquois Park to see From Russia with Love. She'd have become bored easily by that film, which is why I didn't even bother trying to include her in those plans. Besides, I figured she'd be doing something on her actual birthday. I tried to juggle a few different things, eventually settling on last night (Thursday, 12 July) as the night she and I would celebrate.
Back in June, I got in on an Amazon Local deal to purchase two Fandango movie tickets at half price. I had it in mind that I would use one to see The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX and the other in August to go to Baxter Avenue Theatres to see Tombstone. Alas, neither the Rave Cinemas with an IMAX screen nor Baxter actually participate in Fandango ticketing. My niece wanted to see the new Ice Age movie, and I discovered that I could use my Fandango tickets to take her to tonight's midnight opening at Tinseltown. Terrific! A midnight movie seemed like a great thrill for a 10th birthday. She was excited. I ordered our tickets. The night was set.
We started with dinner with my mom, then headed out to the area around the theater. I needed some more cat litter, so our first stop was Petsmart, but we were out of there quickly because we got there 15 minutes before they closed. From there, we hit Target so she could shop with the birthday money my mom and grandmother unexpectedly gave her. I think she enjoyed the fact that I was attentive, following her through the girls clothing department, dutifully looking for denim shorts in her size and boot cut blue jeans in her size from the clearance section. At one point, I texted a friend wistfully that it was the closest to fatherhood I suppose I'll ever get. Maybe for actual parents that kind of thing becomes tedious, but for me it was a chance to make her feel grown-up and special, and all it required of me was my time and attention.
She had her money spent by 9:30, so off we went to Barnes & Noble in The Summit. I could've sworn they were open until 11:00, but apparently that's only on Friday and Saturday nights. By the time we got there - oblivious to their operational hours, mind you - I had to go to the restroom. Gah! I had run afoul the one problem of being out with my 10 year old niece by ourselves. What to do with her? Being B&N on a quiet Thursday night, we decided she would go into the ladies room, into a stall and wait for me to call to her that it was okay for her to come out. It worked just fine that way. Unfortunately, by the time we came out of the restrooms, the store was closing. What to do with two hours before the start of the movie?
At one point while trying to figure out our next move, my niece approached one of the posted directories of the shopping center. The weather was gorgeous, and my niece and I have traditionally enjoyed taking walks together. I decided to make a sort of scavenger hunt out of the place. There are five water fountains scattered throughout the area. The game became to find them and for me to take a picture of her at each one. She's always been a complete ham, and tonight was no difference - though I confess I felt some white hairs grow into my beard at some of her more grown-up poses. Nothing lewd or anything like that, but clearly she's been paying more attention to Miley Cyrus than to Hannah Montana lately.
It gave us a chance to chat and tease one another as we've always been wont to do. We paused to look at the window displays of various shops. I asked her which dress she liked. She asked me whether I was for UK (the University of Kentucky) or U of L (the University of Louisville). Idle chit-chat, sure, but the kind of conversation that can make a child feel he or she is treated like a grown-up. I've always made a point not to talk down to children, and it's one of the key reasons that children have traditionally taken well to me.
Eventually, though, the time came for us to head to Tinseltown for the movie. On our way back to the van, she found a series of sprinklers watering the grass in the parking lot. She kept trying to walk as closely to it as she could, trying to get wet without openly defying my insistence she stay dry. Ultimately, I gave in to a fit of fancy, threw her on my back and gave her a piggyback ride through the sprinklers. My jeans were damp (though not fully soaked) by the end, but she was laughing the whole way. It seemed worth it to me.
We reached the theater around 11:15. Her mom had given me some cash for her to use at the concession stand, and I handed that over to her without a single admonishment. "It's your money and your birthday. You get whatever you want that that covers," I told her. She bought a large Sprite and a box of Snow Caps. Not bad choices, really, though I've always been partial to Junior Mints and Sprite at the movies.
Unfortunately, there were nearly 25 minutes of commercials and trailers before a Simpsons short film, The Longest Daycare, began to play. It was amusing, and honestly I think I liked it a bit better than Pixar's La Luna (though I still admire La Luna's unconventional whimsy). Unfortunately, the first five minutes of the movie were plagued by streaming issues. The image froze and the sound stuttered, like when your computer cursor sticks. One of the guys went to tell the manager. They stopped the movie and began again, showing us The Longest Daycare a second time. That went fine, as before, but the feature continued to skip and stammer, just as before. The screening was canceled. We were invited to mosey on down to the 2D screening already in progress and about 15 minutes in, but my niece was already falling asleep. I took the raincheck tickets and brought her back home.
With Crohn's disease and the ravages of Prednisone, I can't say whether I could give her that piggyback ride on any other night. Maybe it'll be the last night I'll ever actually be able to do that. I don't know. What I do know is that I was able to share a magical, if simple, night with her and how much I appreciated it. What she'll remember of this night, I can't say. What I'll remember, perhaps more than anything else, was how she radiated pure joy in that stretch between The Summit and Tinseltown, basking in the whimsy of the impromptu piggyback ride through the sprinklers and with the excitement of a midnight movie still in the air. It was during that euphoric drive that she declared, "I'm glad I have an uncle like you."
That's winning, friends.