A letter to my son


Dear A,

You can’t yet read this, but someday you will. I don’t want to lose this thought to time and sleep deprivation, so I’m writing you now, sweet four-year-old. I don’t want to forget to say thank you.

About half a minute after I knew I was pregnant, I bought a pile of baby books — as if the act of purchasing these hefty paperbacks would somehow transform me into a good mother, a confident mother who knew what she was doing — the kind of mother you deserved. I admit I never made it to the end of the books, or even very far, but I read far enough to learn that long before you’d ever see me, you’d be able to hear me. So I sang to you — in the shower, in the car, doing the dishes.

When you finally arrived at 2 a.m. New Year’s Day, I had been awake for about 40 hours. I was too blissed-out and exhausted to be aware of what was happening. I didn’t sense anything wrong when, rather than handing you to me, they whisked you to a table across the room instead. More and more people came kept coming, but I saw nothing amiss.

A nurse came to my bedside and slowly and calmly told me they wanted to take you to the NICU. You were not breathing well. Still too tired to be properly worried, I asked — if it wouldn’t be dangerous, of course — if I could see you and hold you before they took you away.

They brought you to me then, an impossibly small pink face tightly packaged in a hospital-issue cotton blanket. Expert hands quickly stretched a gauzey blue and pink striped cap over your head. When they placed you in my arms, I said, “Look at you. I know you.”

I could hear your breathing and I knew what the nurses meant. Each exhale was a choked half-grunt-half-cry. I would come to know that wheezy stridor by heart. I’d lay awake in my bed next to you, hanging on each raspy new breath. We eventually bought a SIDS alarm just so I could sleep.

But as I held you that first time, as I cooed your name, something happened. Your little body relaxed. Your breathing grew quieter. You knew me too — and rather than separate us, the nurses left you there in my arms.

For the moment, this gave me more confidence than any book could. I was a mother. Yours. And already my voice was home to you. You had known it for months.

Before you were born, I tried on quite a few songs as lullabies — nursery standards like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Rock-a-Bye-Baby, but Over the Rainbow quickly became yours.

Once we arrived home, that song became our salvation. Those early months, when you struggled to breathe, when you struggled to eat, when everything was twice as hard as it should have been . . . that song was the only way I knew to soothe you. It was a magic spell.

The first weeks were a blur, but I remember one morning in particular. We were alone in the apartment. Your dad was at work. Rain was falling outside, as it had been for weeks. Our living room was a mess of pump parts and diapers and wipes and pacifiers and further evidence of barely managing.

I was trying to feed you but nothing seemed to work — you were still hungry after every attempt and I was in so much pain I could hardly stand to bring you to my breast.

We’d learn later that your facial muscles were too weak to latch, and that you were constantly getting milk down the wrong pipe, but all I knew in that moment was that I was failing you at this one basic thing. It wasn’t very logical, but it felt real: If I couldn’t even feed you, what good was I?

We completed the cycle that ruled our days together: attempting to nurse, then feeding you formula — rhythmically tipping the bottle up for you to suck, and then down for you to swallow and breathe, up and down, up and down. Then we pumped, and then I changed both your diaper and your clothes for the third time that day.

Have I told you yet that every second diaper was a blowout when you were small? Have I told you that nothing made you cry harder than being naked?

Today was the day it was too much. We were a mess of crying, you and me. We rocked back and forth by the fire in our oversized recliner. I held you the way I’d learned to: upright on my chest, head nestled into the warm spot in my neck. You breathed more easily this way, and we’d spent entire nights in this very position.

As I sang, you eventually soothed and fell to sleep, but my tears kept coming and my voice wavered as I tried to sing the words.

Where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops . . .

Your body was warm and damp as you slept on my chest. But I kept singing because I knew the words might be able to save me too. And they did. More than once.

When you came along, I hadn’t sung in a very long time. I sang for over 20 years in church, but when my faith crumbled and church doors closed behind me, it was as if I’d shut myself off from a lifetime of music, too. The notes rang hollow and my voice fell silent.

All that changed with you.

You may not understand this until much later. But by your very becoming, you are helping me become someone new. Simply by being born, you are bringing things to life in me that didn’t exist before you.

You’ve never known a world without me, but I lived 30 years without you, and I want you to know the years since you came crashing into my world have been the most full, the most exhausting, the most happy and heartbreaking. Nothing is what I thought it would be — and I would do it again.

I love you, my sweet boy. Thank you for giving me new reasons to sing.

5 thoughts on “A letter to my son”

  1. I remember this day as if it was yesterday! And now my eyes are tearing up as I see him now . Such a sweet, smart, miraculous, funny 4 year old, that had his grandma wrapped around his finger from day one!

    1. Mom, you are such a spectacular grandmother to A and F (and Baby already). Thank you for loving them and showing up so often in their lives. They and we are so lucky to have you and dad.

    1. Jennie! I’m just now seeing this comment. Thanks so much. It makes me feel a little better since I wept as I was writing it. 🙂

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