To Eli on His Second Birthday

Happy birthday! I keep saying that to you, and you repeat it back to me, but you don’t yet really know what that means. Here’s a hint for you: PRESENTS. You do know what presents are, though. Christmas taught you that. Now anything wrapped is a present, and you demand to open it. It’s not like you really care that much about what’s inside–it’s the opening that’s fun.

You got a lot of presents for your birthday, including the Aquadoodle. It’s a pad that you draw on using water, and when the water evaporates, so do the drawings. You, of course, were much more interested in the padlock we got you. “Lock a key!” you said triumphantly, marching around and showing your lock to everyone.

The lock and key are for more than showing, though. They are for opening! You use the key on the padlock. You try the key on the back door’s lock. You put the key into the side of the table. Combine that with how you carry your stool around to reach things you otherwise shouldn’t, and all I can say is, if text adventures come back in style, you’re set.

In the last year you’ve become addicted to communicating. It started out simply enough, with pointing and grunting. Then we taught you a few bits of sign language. You quickly caught on, and soon you were adding to the signs. For instance, we taught you the sign for please, which is rubbing your flat right hand over your chest. You extrapolated from there: if one hand means, “please,” then rubbing both hands means “NO REALLY PLEASE I MEAN IT.”

Sign language was the gateway drug. You slid quickly into the harder stuff, talking more and more. The words sometimes don’t come fast enough, leading to conversations filled with, “DIH DIH DIH DIH!” I guess “dih” is, like, y’know, your generation’s new discourse particle. It doesn’t matter. We love to hear you talk.

…most of the time. Other times, our inability to lay hands on duct tape has saved us from answering a doctor’s embarassing questions about how you lost your lips. When you’re sick, you have this habit of calling for us over and over. “Mooooooom,” you call, “moooooom,” your eyes Bambi-large and filmed with tears, the world trembling in sympathy. It’s enough to melt the heart of anyone who hasn’t had to listen to you say the same thing for ten minutes straight. “What?” we reply, and you fall silent for thirty seconds, before once again crying, “Moooooooooom.” You’ve had ear infection after ear infection, cursed by tiny toddler eustachian tubes, so we’ve had plenty of chances to experience your bleats.

In the past we’ve divided up your body and given each family a portion: hands like mine, nose like your mom’s. At this point I’ve lost the war. You look like her. I can take comfort in how, when you sit down and hunch your shoulders, staring at a toy that intrigues you, you’re acting like me. I suppose this means you’ll have an aptitude for science or engineering. If so, offset that by being a drummer in your spare time. They get all the chicks. Keyboardists like me only got keytars.

Like all children, you are a bundle of contradictions held together by a onesie. You apply reason and logic to the world, your brain working overtime to figure out how to do something. The next morning, you’re shoving a piece of waffle into your nose and sniffing hard. (Clearly you’re related to your Uncle Andy.) You can say the alphabet forwards and backwards, but sometimes you run into the table when you’re tired.

Being a father is still the most rewarding and most challenging thing I’ve done, more challenging even than your mom and I figuring out we were meant for each other, and don’t think I don’t see that face you’re making, young man. It was just Valentine’s day, so I’m allowed to be mushy. You amaze and confound me. It frightens me how deeply I’m in love with you, and what I would do for you. I worry that I’m not spending enough time with you, or that I’m crushing your spirit when I punish you by sending you to your room to sit on your couch and cry.

This time with you slides past me like the wind, buffeting me as it passes. Already I’m forgetting things about you. I’m writing these letters as much for me as for you. I want to remember what it’s like to drive home in the evening, get out of my truck, and hear you shrieking, “DADDY DADDY DADDY DADDY DADDY!” so loud that it’s audible through the closed door. I want to feel your hand grabbing my index finger, pulling me with you. I want to lie down with my head on your couch and have you flop down beside me, crossing your hands on your chest in imitation.

I had a dream the night before your birthday. I was back in high school, my college years and beyond stretching before me. I was deciding what I was going to do differently, and then a terrible sad thought struck me: I would never know you this time through.

I’ve never been happier to wake up.