And there we stood for what seemed like an hour. He was 13 and not much of a talker. I was 37, a recent single mom to his cousins and not at all prepared for what was about to happen.

I had known him all his life. He was my brother’s child, my nephew, and only four months older than my own son. In reality, though, I barely knew him. His dad and mom both had addiction issues and for my own sanity, I had kept my distance. I always did the good-Aunty duty and took him on holidays with my family each summer, but he kept busy with my kids and we both avoided prolonged interaction. His life was not ideal, but he loved his parents and he never complained.

Until that day.

He was waiting for an answer as he stood staring at me across the kitchen. He was already five inches taller than me but his lanky shoulders slumped in surrender. I was a full-time university student, financially drained from my divorce, and now this kid I barely knew was asking for a favour.

Could he stay?

Not for the rest of the weekend, but forever. He was asking for the life he had deserved from day one, a life like my kids had: stable, clean and loving.

I stood in awkward silence, unsure of what to say, yet I also knew I had little choice. How could I say no?

The next few months were chaotic, filled with mediation appointments, medical check-ups and visits with social services. I was ill prepared for the amount of emotional support that was now being asked of me. My nephew was malnourished, suffered from insomnia and barely had passing grades. My brother was fine with my son moving in with us but my nephew’s mother was not. Daily abusive text messages dinged on my phone, claiming ownership over my nephew and demanding his return. Threats of sending the police to retrieve him and a preference for foster care, rather than my home, became our new normal. With each passing week, my nephew spoke more of his life. He had never been in an organized sport, couldn’t stomach Kraft Dinner due to overconsumption, and shuddered when I suggested McDonald’s for a treat. He was unaccustomed to vegetables or a home-cooked meal and complained that my dinners had very little taste. I told him that he would get used to unsalted food.

For awhile, I was angry at my brother and his ex-girlfriend—and even more, at myself. How did I not see, for so many years, what now seemed so obvious? I was ashamed of my inner conflict between doing the right thing and wanting my life to go back to being drama-free and simple. I was now a full-time parent once again, even though my own children were only home 60 per cent of the time. I resented that my kid-free weekends were over and my dating life had come to a screaching halt. I had more laundry to do, another set of activities to manage and another mouth to feed with no financial support. My focus turned to establishing a routine for me and my new kid and deep down, I hoped his parents would get their priorities straight—sooner rather than later.

A full year passed before we noticed. My nephew had begun to sleep through the night, he had a good group of friends, and he had stopped getting sick when he exerted too much energy in his sports activities. I had gotten used to my new house-mate and weekends at home. The negative text messages from his old life had all but come to an end. My kids treated their cousin like another brother, and as a family we became more resilient and solid. My inner narcissist would like to think I saved him, but the reality is that the situation saved us all.

Shannon K. Auringer lives in Victoria with her family. She spends her spare time globetrotting and writing for her travel website. For more of Shannon’s work, visit dougandshannon.com or Instagram @dougandshannon