To Eli on His Eighth Birthday

Your birthday celebration started on February 4th with a trip to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga and will end some time around Christmas. The Tuesday after your birthday trip our friend Renèe gave you an awesome World of Goo-themed cake, undeterred by your reaction to the robot cake she made for your sixth birthday. May and Pop sent you presents, and the weekend after that, Mumsy came to visit. Pop Don and Nana Linda sent you presents after that. This is the longest your birthday fun has lasted, and if this trend continues, by 2018 you’ll still be celebrating your 2016 birthday.

Eli and his World of Goo Cake

The goo balls on your cake were appropriate, as you’re obsessed with video games. Every night you ask what video games we’re going to play (the current answer: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP). A while back you volunteered your own money to buy Angry Birds Rio for mom’s iPad so you could play it. The greatest day of your life was when we gave you your mom’s old iPod touch. You filled it with games and play it whenever you can. When you realized that it would play music too you looked at it as if to say, “If you could also create chicken nuggets I wouldn’t need those two adults to take care of me any more.”

You actually like games of all sorts. A month ago you went through a two-week obsession with chess. I have a set that your uncle Andrew and aunt Joy gave me years ago that sits in our bedroom collecting dust because chess is not nearly as fun as shooting zombies in the head. You’d occasionally asked to “play chess” before, but this time you were deadly serious. We pulled the chess set down and I explained how to play and why I was making the moves I was making. I won, of course. Even though I’m a terrible chess player, I’m still better than an eight-year-old who’s never played before, and there’s no enjoyment quite like beating such a worthy foe so completely. But you kept wanting to play more, and with every game we played you got better. We checked chess books out of the library to help you improve and found online versions so you could practice when I wasn’t home. Then, as quickly as your storm of excitement arose, it dissipated, thankfully before you got good enough to beat me.

Eli shakes hands with a Tusken Raider

Then there are board games. We’ve spent many nights playing Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne (“Meeples! Let’s play Meeples!”), and especially Forbidden Island, which uncle Andrew and aunt Joy got you. Forbidden Island is especially great because it’s a cooperative game, and let me tell you, cooperative games are so much better than the ones around when I was a child. Forbidden Island is a lot like Pandemic except that, if you lose the game, you don’t feel as if you’ve doomed the entire planet to death or, worse, to playing bit parts in a Stephen Soderbergh movie.

It echoes when I played board game with my dad. I remember being ferociously upset with him when he kept beating me at Monopoly, a game that is designed to grind down all players but the winner. May was in the kitchen and, hearing my weeping, called out to Pop: “You need to let him win!” “No!” Pop replied. “That’s giving him a false victory. It won’t encourage him to do better.” Now I’m in his position, playing chess against you and teaching you how to play while walking the narrow path between giving you false victories and crushing your desire to play.

Eli dressed as a ninja for Halloween

In many ways you’re a typical eight-year-old boy. Your taste in food is terrible. You’re still on the “no carb left behind” diet, eating all of the bread and chips you can find, but you also eat chicken nuggets and peanut-butter-and-Nutella sandwitches and not much else. I have to remind myself that I survived my 9th-grade year lunch diet of peanut butter, baloney, cheese, and raisin sandwiches, and if I’m going to throw stones at your eating habits I’ll shatter the glass Jif jar I lived in.

You also like a lot of things that your friends like. You dressed up as a ninja for Halloween, just like your friend Josh and one of his friends. Even your cousin Sam dressed up as a ninja in Kansas City. We spent all Halloween night desperately trying to keep track of you in your black costume. At one point we discovered that we’d somehow added another ninja we didn’t know about to our herd of kids, as if there is some law of attraction involving ninjas that’s reminiscent of how political opinions on Facebook attract arguments.

Eli's ginormous chicken finger and cheese biscuit sandwich

In other ways you’re very much your own person. You, your mom and Liza recently wrote on our giant bathroom mirror with dry erase markers. Your mom wrote a Bible verse that’s related to her new ministry. Liza drew a dog and wrote “UNOST” underneath it, for reasons known only to her. But you? You wrote “BLOODY MARY” three times on the mirror right where I look when I shave in the mornings.

Your music tastes run to ’80s-style rock, bands in the genre that your mom dismissively calls “chicks with guitars”, and electronic dance music. You’ve discovered the Tron: Legacy soundtrack and can’t stop listening to it. One day you were supposed to go to school dressed as your favorite rock star. Your mom and I couldn’t figure out how to make you look like either Daft or Punk.

Eli mugs for the camera

You’re still a big ham, completely unlike me. Whenever we pull out a camera you begin mugging for it. You have your quiet, contemplative moments, but when you know you’re being observed you tend to put on a show. Part of this grows out of your interest in people and your desire to entertain them. Like me, you’re a people-pleaser at heart. You want everyone to like you and are puzzled when they don’t. I hope you don’t lose that love of people as you grow older and have to deal with more of them who don’t care for you for whatever reason.

Eli shows off his Christmas gift of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

School continues to load you down with homework. You have words you have to learn how to spell, practice sentences you have to write, books to read, Accelerated Reader tests you have to take on the books you’ve read, math homework, and short stories that you must read as quickly as possible before answering comprehension questions about it. Thankfully you still love reading. Books have been my constant companion. Just now I looked through the list of Newbery medal winners and had a rush of nostalgia about many of the books I read when I was your age. I hope you have a love of reading and books that survives your schooling. Fortunately you realize the real purpose of school: to pick up all kinds of random thrown-away or lost detritus, like hair clips and pennies, and proudly show them off when you get home. Every day I ask, “How was school today?” and you tell me about the things you found on the ground and the games you played in P.E.

Eli and Liza and the giant frogs

When you’re not at school or doing homework you’re playing with Liza. The two of you continue to feed off of one another, at once simultaneously unable to do without the other and unable to stand the sight of the other. You’re adept at pushing her buttons, making her angry when she doesn’t do what you want, but you also watch out for her and protect her. And you are often lost without her. Liza occasionally creeps into your mom’s and my bed early in the morning to snuggle, something you can’t do because sleeping with you is like sleeping with an angry messenger bike running at full tilt. One morning when she was sleeping with us you wandered into our room, plaintively calling, “Liza? Where are you?” When she’s not around you mope.

Your independence is growing in leaps and bounds. You had your first sleep-over the night before Liza had early-morning surgery. Shortly after your seventh birthday we were eating at a restaurant with friends. I realized with a start that you were getting back in your seat after having gotten up, gone to the bathroom, and returned. This sounds mundane and stupid, I know, but it was a glimpse into the future when you will no longer need my day-to-day care. I no longer drive you to school; instead, you ride the bus. Some mornings you run out to wait for it without remembering to tell any of us goodbye.

Eli's wonderful smile

The challenge for me now is to let you grow into your own person while providing guidance to shape the person you’ll become. I see a lot of myself in you, and I wish I could save you from the mistakes you’re going to make. You, like me, find a lot of things easy to do, so you don’t want to do things you’re not good at the first time. Talent is fine and necessary, but work and perseverance are far more important in the long run. You rush through your schoolwork to get to play time faster, making silly mistakes in the process. You’re going to have to learn the hard way that, while success involves a lot of luck, it also requires a lot of time spent honing your skills. You’ll also have to learn that a lot of what’s worth doing requires you to push past discouragement and pain.

You’re getting there, though. You love the ocean; when we go to the beach for Thanksgiving you’d spend the entire time in the Gulf if possible. I’ve had to nearly drag you from the water, your lips blue and limbs trembling from the cold. This Thanksgiving you tangled with a jellyfish. Its tendrils wrapped around your arm, leaving welts that stung terribly. As we ran from the beach to the house tears streamed down your face. “I’m never going to get in the ocean again,” you sobbed. But thirty minutes later you told me, “You know, I think I’ll be okay, even if another jellyfish stings me.” The next day you waded fearlessly back out into the water.

Eli's jellyfish stings on his left arm

For me now, parenting is like being part of a convoy as it drives through fog. I can’t see the road ahead and I have only hazy memories of the miles we’ve traveled, and sometimes I can’t see everyone who’s on this journey with us. It’s part of why I write these letters. I am a lepidopterist of memories, capturing them and preserving them carefully in words and sentences and paragraphs. We are the stories we tell ourselves and each other. I want your stories to be as true as they can be, and for you to know who you were when you were still learning yourself.

Eli and Stephen and the Easter peeps

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7 Comments

  1. chris bosen
    on March 14, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Stephen —
    You’ve done it again. Thanks for sharing these letters every year. Beautiful. I’m amazed how well you capture not only the specifics of your family and your children, but the universality of parenting. These are gifts not only to Eli and Liza, but to everyone who reads them. Since your kids are just a few miles farther down that foggy road than mine, I feel like I fully understand those “mundane” glimpses into the future that happen and catch me by surprise.

  2. on March 14, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks!

  3. Scott
    on March 14, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    I look forward to these every year… lately, though, they seem to be coming much more quickly!

  4. Joyous
    on March 14, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the sneak preview of what Z will be like in 4 years. :) I honestly thought I was reading about him for some of this.

    The last paragraph is perfectly beautiful. The phrase “lepidopterist of memories” is going on my permanent list of awesome.

  5. on March 14, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Thanks! They definitely feel like they’re happening more often. And Joyce, I was far too proud of that turn of phrase. :)

  6. Danielle
    on March 14, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    I love reading these so much! I hope Eli’s birthday continues for the rest of the year ;)

  7. Scott Ash
    on March 14, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Treasure these moments. Ten years from now, when you’re writing “Eli’s Birthday at Eighteen- and now he’s off to college/the Service/live his own life” I imagine the tears will be visible in your words. Whether they’re tears of sadness or relief remains to be seen. Good luck, Brother! It gets even more interesting from here…

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