A gentle giant is humbled by the innocence of children.

MY life changed forever 14 years ago. That was when my first and only nephew, Lance, was born to my first and only sister. Life changed even more a few years later when my only niece, Izzy, was born.

Many years later and it’s still hard for me to admit to myself that before Lance came along, I wasn’t all that thrilled being around children. In fact, looking back on those “pre-uncle” days, it is clear to me now that I did all I could to avoid kids!

Whenever my close friends got married and started having children, a strange thing happened. My friends all noticed me spending less and less time with their families. The more children they had, the less they saw of me.

I was never selfish enough to end a friendship over the birth of one of God’s creations, but I was certainly known to keep my distance after a friend and their spouse experienced the miracle of birth.

Back in the day when I was living in America, I think I truly didn’t know how to interact with children, and they certainly didn’t know how to interact with me. Maybe it was because of my own fear of young ones, or maybe because of their fear of me and my 198cm frame! Whenever I met a child for the first time, it usually ended up with them crying and me feeling bad for making them cry.

Of all the great people who have been a part of my life, none of them changed my life more than the infant Lance. (Sorry, Izzy, it’s just that Lance was born first.)

Upon seeing Lance for the first time, holding him in the hospital and experiencing a new life literally within my grasp, my fear of children went away forever. More importantly, I found the true meaning of unconditional love.

I couldn’t get enough of my nephew and like any good uncle, I showered him with gifts galore, and more importantly, love. I even had the honour of baby-sitting Lance when he was still very young, albeit with the help of two very close friends … and we all survived, including Lance!

As a few years went by, Izzy was added to the litter and my joy ballooned even more.

These two birds helped change me from being a selfish person, one who was mostly interested in my own well-being, into a more selfless human being, and though I am far from perfect, they have encouraged me to strive to be a better person.

From baby-sitting and changing diapers, to endless birthday celebrations through the years; from Bob the Builder and American Girl dolls, and now ice hockey and modern dance, there is never a dull moment when Lance and Izzy are involved!

Six years ago my life changed once again when I moved from the United States to Malaysia. I thought I had done thorough research about all things Malaysian before moving here. But I arrived at KLIA without knowing that a large portion of the population, who didn’t even know me personally, would start referring to me as “Uncle”! I could not have been more surprised and thrilled!

Everywhere I go, not only am I called “Uncle”, but most of them who utter the word seem to do so with a true sense of care and respect. The innocence, loveliness and smiles of all the children that seem to surround me on a daily basis all over Malaysia makes me one happy, joyous and thankful man! To be “Uncle” to thousands of Malaysians is something that I never dreamt would happen!

Then a few years ago, a friend of mine invited me to his kampung to celebrate Hari Raya with his family and I got to be a very specific “Uncle” to a terrific young lassie by the name of Nyum Nyum. Wow! Now not only do I get the treat of being called “Uncle” by younger people all over Malaysia, I get to be THE “Uncle” to a specific and special little girl, my friend’s niece!

I have travelled the North-South highway back and forth between Kuala Lumpur and Alor Star many times since first meeting that lovable little girl. And our relationship has grown stronger, just like with Lance and Izzy as they grow older.

From Upin and Ipin, to now watching this young Malaysian girl sing and dance to the music from the Disney hit, Frozen and reprising the role of “Elsa”, my life just keeps getting more interesting.

While there are endless differences between my niece and nephew back in the States and Nyum Nyum here in Malaysia, the one similarity with all three of them is that they all have smiles that could light up the world – and all three do just that for me!

As Lance and Izzy celebrated their 14th and 11th birthday this past year, 10,000 miles away, I celebrated with them in spirit, and take comfort in knowing that just about anywhere I turn in Malaysia, there is a child just waiting to smile at me and laugh in my direction.

Regardless whether they call me “Uncle Tom”, or just plain “Uncle”, these are monikers which I am proud to be called and they help sustain me as a blessed soul in this amazing country called Malaysia.