As I sit writing this you are upstairs sleeping and your mother and I are doing what the parents of most one-year-olds do after bedtime: recovering. Putting a one-year-old to bed is similar to what I imagine recovering from a catastrophic storm is like: you hug your spouse and shiver in each other’s arms, you pick up the pieces of your life that the storm mercilessly flung near and far, and you feel fatigue the likes of which you’ve never felt. The primary difference is that for all of us excepting a small group of masochists, a catastrophic storm is not also the greatest source of joy in our life like a child is.
Being a father is hard. And not just for being 31 in so-so physical shape trying to keep up with you. I bear the weight of thinking about the future for the first time in my life, of making decisions regarding your upbringing and education that will help form who you become as a person, of showing you through my behavior towards you and your mother how you should expect to be treated by men in your life. And I thank God for these responsibilities, and consider these joyous burdens as light as a feather. You make it all worth it. Your big, cheeky ear-to-ear grin; your hilarious grunting laughter (with little involuntary squeals thrown in) when I tickle you; the look of utter concentration you get when you’re learning and experiencing new things – they brighten my days and drive away anything that isn’t joy and love. I never knew how much God loves us until He sent a child into my life.
Since part of the purpose of this letter is to serve for posterity, I would like to share with you a few of my favorite memories of your first year of life, followed by a few hopes I have for your future. So enjoy, and prepare to be amused and perhaps slightly embarrassed!
1. Obviously, your birth. We rushed to the hospital in the darkest hours of the morning because we couldn’t feel you moving, and were relieved to find that you were ok but needed to come out soon. The following two days were a combination of fear, stress, happiness, and fatigue as we awaited your arrival. Your mother was a true picture of beauty and strength over those two days. Despite her fears and anxiety about your health, she set herself to the task of making sure your arrival went as smoothly as possible. Your tiny mother, with her belly almost as big as she is tall, shuffled around the room at the hospital making sure all your clothes and diapers were ready for when you came, listening to a music playlist I had made for her and dancing (which was supposed to help you come faster but was also a strange combination of beautiful and hilarious), and grilling the hospital staff for information about what was happening. When you finally came I wept like a child and then your mother and I prayed the Te Deum together, grateful that we had been blessed with a child. We spent your first days like most parents do – worrying about every little thing, taking turns sleeping, and looking into your beautiful eyes and loving you like we didn’t think possible.
2. Your baptism. Throughout the entirety of the Easter Vigil you had been peacefully sleeping, only about three and a half months old. When it finally came time for you to be baptized, we walked up into the sanctuary in front of the altar with you still sound asleep. Father Jean-Baptiste, being a native French speaker, had the hardest time pronouncing your name, which was hilarious. He said something like “Pelonepay,” which was close enough. You continued sleeping through the anointing with chrisms and oils. When he finally poured the water on the top of your head as I held you, you woke up and stared right into my eyes. Your face lit up into the biggest smile while looking at me, and I smiled right back at you. After a beautiful moment of us smiling at each other, you promptly vomited all over your baptismal dress. I have never been less grossed out by vomit than at that moment.
3. Your first picnic. This was around the same time as your baptism, I cannot recall if it was a few weeks before or after. Your mother, you, and I picked up some pizzas from 5 Points Pizza in East Nashville and then went to Centennial Park. After eating pizza and playing with you for a little while, you fell asleep. For some reason I got it in my mind that it would be funny for your mother to take a picture of me “showing” you a statue nearby by thrusting you forward with a look of aggression and anger on my face. I don’t know why, I think the dichotomy of the peacefully sleeping baby and the utterly out-of-place combination of violent defiance and learning activities just tickled my fancy. You know my sense of humor. For the next 45 minutes or so, we wandered the park as a family taking absurd pictures in this style. We would stop at a learning station – the Parthenon, the train, the women’s suffrage statues, the occasionally botany exhibits, the ducks – and your mother and I would stage pictures of me angrily teaching you about things while bemused onlookers wondered why the large bearded man was violently thrusting a sleeping infant towards statues of women suffragettes and ducks.
4. Anytime you sneeze and pass gas simultaneously. This kind of speaks for itself. I don’t think your mother and I ever laugh as hard as when the stars align and this happens. You’ll understand when you’re older.
Some hopes I have for you as you grow up:
1. For the parents who do not have faith this may not make much sense, but my greatest hope for you is that you love and serve God to the greatest of your ability and use the gifts He has given you for His glory. All material and emotional desires I have for you come second to this, because a nice job and happy demeanor (as worthy of pursuits as those are) are ephemeral and can be lost/taken away in a heartbeat, while Christ-centered wisdom and virtue plant in a field that storms or drought cannot touch, and bear fruit eternally. My prime hope for you is that the Lord bless you, protect you from all evil whether of body or soul, and lead you to everlasting life.
2. That being said, my second hope is that you find true happiness in this world, in whatever form that takes. Don’t feel like you have to be the most powerful CEO in America to be happy, happiness sometimes exists in spite of power and wealth. I think that a good place to be is where you have enough to be comfortable and secure but not so much to where you don’t feel grateful for what you have. I hope as you grow older you learn to discern in your mother and I and others what causes genuine happiness and what does not, and put into practice what you learn.
3. I hope that we can teach you humility. I hope that as you grow up you do not start to view yourself as superior to others. We are all made in God’s image, and I hope that this, if nothing else, informs your view of others as worthy and deserving of your respect and love. In this era full of distrust and hatred where people are disdained for their politics, race, and class, it is refreshing and greatly needed to meet people who can truly respect and love others, and act on that respect and love. I sometimes think that one of the surprises many of us will encounter in Heaven will be the seemingly odd hierarchy of importance. For instance, the fast food line cook who spends his weekend playing basketball with neighborhood kids and trying to be a good role model for them will be seen as a saint of particular importance and holiness, while the politician or business giant will be seen as “just another guy.” I have no idea if this is theologically accurate or not (infinite knowledge is a divine prerogative), but I find it to be a useful way of seeing the world. We fawn over people over inconsequential reasons (singing ability, looks, electability), but God marvels over the faith of the homeless alcoholic living in a tent under a bridge.
Penelope, I want you to know what an honor it has been to be your daddy for the past year, and how much I’m looking forward to watching you grow. It has truly been a pleasure getting to know you and watching you learn and develop. Know as you grow older that you always have three things unconditionally from me: my love, my prayers for you, and my willingness to team up with you for practical jokes on your mother. I look forward to savoring every moment with you now and in the years to come.