To Eli On His Third Birthday

And now you are three. It seems like you have one of these birthdays every year or so. This year’s celebration was more low-key. Grandparents are visiting on several weekends, keeping your birthday alive for weeks. Mom took cupcakes and bags of small toys for your daycare’s class, and everyone got to mainline sugar and play tiny plastic whistles. And then one of your classmates vomited, so everyone had a great time!

You’ve gotten a lot of toys, but the ones that thrill you the most are small plastic animals. When we went to Phoenix a few weeks ago, Mom bought you a pile of plastic frogs and turtles. On the plane to Phoenix we doled them out one and two at a time. You were entranced. My favorite moment was when I palmed a frog, closed your tray, and opened it again, dropping the palmed frog on the tray. “A frog!” you trilled. Then you closed and opened your tray several times in the hopes that more frogs would fall out. The entire weekend you moved your frogs and turtles around, making them jump and fly and leap.

Based on that reaction, we got you a bunch of small plastic dinosaurs and fish. You carry them around in bunches, occasionally dividing them into good ones and not-funny ones. You assign us dinosaurs or fish depending on your whims, and you trade them out as you see fit. Often they have to watch us play games or eat.

Every year I’ve talked about your communication and how you were learning to talk to us. After this year I can stop, because you have well and truly mastered the skill. You talk almost non-stop from the time you get up until you go to bed. When we moved you from your crib to your toddler bed, we put a toddler handle on the inside of your door so you couldn’t come out until we were ready to let you out. Eventually we relented, so now the first thing I hear on most mornings is, “Mommy! Daddy! Good morning!” The second thing I hear is Mom telling you, “Did you look at the clock by your bed? Is it past 7 yet?”

Along with talking, you’ve developed opinions that you declaim forcefully enough to give Ann Coulter pause. You tell us what to do. You tell us how to do it. The funniest are when we’ll be talking at the table and you’ll tell us, “Stop it. Stop it. Stop it!” When we ask you what we need to stop, you tell us, “Stop having conversation.” At times I give into temptation. I’ll sing and you’ll say, “Stop singing!” So I’ll stop for a few seconds before starting up the song again. “No, daddy, no! Stop it! Stop singing!” And I will stop…for another few seconds. Think of it as advance payments for your teenage years.

Your brain is a huge sponge that soaks up information, runs it through a Markov process, and spits it back out in the form of words. Earlier this week you had a fish and I had a dinosaur. You walked out of your room and came back in. “You and stegosaurus have to go find Nemo fish. Nemo fish is in Seattle and he is in an aquarium. He’s stuck in the mud. Help!” I’m pretty sure that’s a Little Einsteins/One Duck Stuck mash-up with a bit of Finding Nemo thrown in for good measure.

You’ve also become a ball of energy. You run from place to place, impatient if we don’t keep up. “Run with me, daddy! Run with me!” you will say, and hold out your hand, waiting for me to take it. Your teachers see that, too. “He’s a wild one,” they’ve told us. I was like that when I was your age, too. In fact, when I played with the other kids in my neighborhood, their parents wouldn’t let me inside their houses for fear that I’d, I don’t know, set things on fire and dance on the ashes. I could only play with their children outside. Maybe you’ll learn to channel your energy sooner than I did.

Your teachers have also commented on how funny you are. “He imitates what we say, and we can’t hardly keep from laughing. And it’s hard to get angry with him because he’s so sweet-tempered.” It’s true. A lot of your cuteness comes from how pleasant and kind you are. I have no idea how you ended up that way — mom and I didn’t deliberately try to encourage that in you. You’ve just now started throwing tantrums when you don’t get what you want, but the tantrums don’t last long, and you don’t carry a grudge.

I’ve been fascinated watching you develop your own sense of self. You’ve started giving your animals personalities. When you talk for them, you affect this funny high-pitched voice. “Hi there, Eli’s daddy. I’m triceratops!” you squeak. At times you grab several small frogs or dinosaurs and have them carry on a conversation. “Hi, I’m frog!” “I’m frog, too.” “Do you want to come to my house, frog?” “Sure!” If you only have one frog, you’re sad that he has no friends and is all alone.

Each day I’m excited to get to know you better. I can now tell when you’re tired or hungry, no matter how hard you try to hide the fact. I know how easily your feelings bruise, far easier than your body. I know how you love to hold our hands and how you like to greet me when I get home from work with a cry of, “Daddy’s home!” You can barely wait for my truck to stop moving before you throw open the door and leap out into the garage.

In a few months you’re going to be a big brother. Good luck with that! Uncle Andrew and I fought, arguing over who got to sit in the front seat and who got which piece of cake and a million other trivial, stupid things that didn’t really matter then and certainly don’t matter now. I can only hope that you grow up to be as good a friend with your sibling as Andrew and I now are.

There’s so much I want to tell you about, but this letter is long enough as it is. Right after you were first born, my friend Jacqueline asked if I was going to keep writing these letters to you as you grew older. I told her I planned on it. I do it partly for selfish reasons. I just went back and re-read all of my previous letters to you, and I was reminded of things I’ve already forgotten. Time moves so quickly when you’re older, and never faster than when you’re with someone who changes on a daily basis. But these letters are, in the end, for you, and I want them to capture a few of the things I’ve always wanted to tell you.

As young as I am, I’ve still lived long enough that many things have a date attached to them like forlorn cartoon thought bubbles. We’ve lived in our house for nearly five years. My truck is twelve years old. I just listened to a song I first heard when I was a teenager some twenty years ago. That young actor from a much-loved movie series is now sixty-five. But when I’m with you, I get glimpses of what the world was like when it was new. Light reflected from you illuminates overlooked nooks and crannies of my life. My promise to you is that I’ll do my best to keep showing you as much of the world as I can get my arms around.

Eli and me at the lab