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A Letter to My Son Charlie on the Occasion of His Eleventh Birthday

I was meeting with Ruby and her teacher yesterday and so I gave you the house keys and you went home alone and let yourself in. Sometimes, during the lunch hour at school, you and your friends walk to Pizza Hut before racing back to beat the bell. This is all occurring so nonchalantly now, even though only a minute ago this kind of activity seemed unfathomable to me. You’re a boy now—no longer a little boy, you’re a boy boy—silly, and playful, and thoughtful, and kind. We banter now. But we still get our cuddles in. The other night I stroked your forehead and lay beside you in bed awhile. When you were sick with the flu last weekend, I wrapped you in a blanket and held you in my arms until we both fell asleep on the couch. You snored. I might have, too.

I am constantly marveling at you. I search and I search for the words to describe you, or for the words to describe what I see when I look at you, what I think when I think of you, what I feel in my heart about you, but all I come up with is “Wow!” and “Wow, wow, wow!” You and your sister are the most unbelievable…

…the most inexpressible…

…the most staggeringly…

…the most wow.

Listen, Charlie:

Life is short. And you have been born into a time when things are dying, when ominous clouds are gathering, when the signs (if you can read them) bode ill, and when the innocent many will be forced to reckon with the consequences of the choices made by generations of a few greedy, wealthy, and powerful men. I sometimes worry and feel great sorrow about the world that is coming and how you will experience that world. Because you are a part of the world that is coming and it is a part of you.

But, listen, Charlie:

This is not all. Because life is also enduring. Even now, there are colonies of radiotrophic fungi thriving in the breached nuclear reactor core at Chernobyl and we’ve only just learned that perhaps seventy percent of all the bacteria and archaea that live on earth live within the “dark biome,” two miles (or more) beneath the surface of the planet, living off of radiation that they can eat out of the rock. Isn’t that amazing? Each individual life is amazing, but each individual life only lasts for the briefest amount of time (based on rates of division, the average bacteria only lives for 12 hours… which is nothing to you and I, just as our life spans are nothing to those of mountains or forests or planets or stars). But even life forms and whole networks of life—these, too, are brief. Living things come and go, and forms of life are constantly morphing in and out of one another (one beings organism is another beings environment, and one beings environment is another beings organism, and sometimes organisms and environments disappear into one another and an entirely new organism emerges in an entirely new environment) and you, yourself, contain more bacteria in your body than the number of humans who have ever lived, and parts of you are composed of the remains of stars that lived for millions of years and may have been dead for billions more (although if you are living are those stars really dead?), and still other parts of you go back to one or two minutes after the universe itself—the origins of everything we know—burst into existence like laughter swelling in the throat of a goddess.

So, we come and go, each one of us so full of life that we stretch and grow and change from shape to shape, body to body, but each one of us barely there before we are gone again. Each one of us a marvel, each one of us full of hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and, Charlie, take your longing and follow it to the wonder. And, Charlie, mourn your dead but bury them. You and I may not go on (although it’s hard to really say anything about that for sure), just like the Polar Bears, and the Athabasca River Delta, and the Coral Reefs, and the tiny Hawaiian snail that went extinct in 2019 (“went extinct” is such a bleached-out way of referring to decimation and genocide), but life goes on and, as I have come to believe more and more deeply over the years, so does love. And the love that we have, the love that we are, the love in which we participate, it will continue—as it always has, as it always will. What we are is not forever, but we are part of the forever. I held you in my arms when your fingers were too small to wrap all the way around my thumb and that was forever. I bounced with you on a Pilates ball to stop your crying and that was forever. I picked you up when you fell and that was forever. You kissed me on the chin and called me your best friend and that was forever. I wrapped in in blankets and pushed you and your sister in a double-stroller through snowstorms and that was forever. We sat side-by-side watching cartoons and that was forever. You read a bedtime story to me for the first time and that was forever. You loved me always and I loved you, too, and that was forever. It’s love above and love below and love from beginning to end, only there is no beginning and no end, there is only love.

And, Charlie, it still makes my heart leap when you reach up to take my hand in a busy place, when you offer me hugs and, unprompted, tell me that you love me, when you help your sister hop the fence on your way home, and when you cuddle up with the doggie and doze. You mix wisdom with beauty and mischievousness and fragility in ways that make my heart ache in complicated ways (that I like very, very much). You are a wonderful boy. To me, you are the wonderfulest. Thank you for being who you are. I love you with all my heart. Happy birthday.

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