My dearest little Jackson:
This letter has been on my heart for quite a while now and I just haven’t known how to write it, how to start. But it has been growing and growing for the past few days until finally I just had to write it, especially when I remember that there just might not always be another day in which to say the things we need to say.
I remember one day last spring, your dad, your sister and I were on our way home from somewhere and we traveled through a neighborhood where all the families were having yard sales. Just as I was driving by, one family put out a mini co-sleeper for sale and I bought it there on the spot. I was already thinking about you and wanting to have that little bed ready for you whenever you came to join us, since it took us almost two months to figure out that was probably the best arrangement for us with your big sister. And yet, even as I was buying it, I felt a twinge of guilt that I was already looking ahead to your arrival, as if somehow that was a slight to your sister. I imagine every parent who has more than one child goes through this—worrying over how to love each child “equally” (whatever that means) and yet how to love each child individually and as an individual, a separate whole little person. I imagine these worries are strongest as parents anticipate the birth of a second child, a child who they can barely imagine as separate from their first child, a child who they can’t imagine being able to love as much as they love their first child. And then I imagine by the time a third child comes around, the parents have learned that there is no such thing as a division of love between children, that love has an infinite capacity for expansion, and that loving each subsequent child wholly and individually comes just as naturally as loving the first one did.
The big difference between your dad and me and all the rest of the “normal” parents out there is that our first child, your big sister, died before you were born, before you were even conceived. We had already been dreaming of you, though. We had already been imagining how you would become a part of our family, how you and your sister would interact, how much we would all love each other. But two months from now, we bring you into the world that has no big sister in it for you, not physically at least. We will never have to figure out how to keep her from banging you in the head or how to stop the two of you from fighting in the backseat or how to get you both to sit still and smile at the same time for a family picture. And for that, I am so, so sorry, my sweet boy. You were supposed to have a big sister, someone to play with, to show you the ropes, to help you scheme against us, to help you learn how to be a good brother and man, to protect you. As sad as I am for your dad and me that we have had to suffer through the grief of losing your sister and learning to live without her, I am equally sad for you that you will never get to know her or what it would have been like to be her little brother. But she will always be a part of your life. She will always be your big sister. And, if my best hopes are realized, you and she already know each other, and throughout your life, she will always be with you, watching over you, making you feel her love and protection, even in her death.
You will never know Hudson here on earth, but there are a few things that I want to make sure that you do know from the very beginning. The first is that our lives will be different from those of most of the people you grow up with. Many things will be the same, of course, but many things, and maybe the most important things, will be different. You will learn from a very young age about grief. I suppose you are already learning about it now, as you live and grow inside this body of mine that still so acutely grieves the loss of your sister. I imagine you will see your mommy cry many, many, many more times than most kids ever have to see their mommies cry. And there will probably be times, both early on in your life and later, when I even have to leave the room to be alone for a little while. Whenever I can and whenever you are big enough to understand a little bit, I will do my best to always share my feelings with you and to always let you share your feelings with me. All I can do is hope that growing up alongside grief will help you better understand and appreciate all the joy that we will share together, and that when, inevitably, you experience losses of your own, you will be secure in the knowledge that you can survive them and still live a joy-filled life even as you grieve. I hope that your dad and I will be good models for that.
You will also learn from a very young age about death. It is strange for me to imagine a two-year-old who is conversant about the subject of death, but I imagine you will be. I don’t have a whole lot of answers about it but I promise to try to help you not be afraid of it and to always let you explore it however you need to in order to feel safe. But I also hope that growing up knowing more about death than most little ones do will help you understand the amazing and powerful gift that is life, and that you will know, in a very intimate way, how important it is to live every moment as fully as you possibly can, to cherish what is.
I may have a hard time letting go of you sometimes. And I don’t just mean letting you out of a hug, although I imagine that will often be hard, too. I mean actually letting go of the illusion of control, of the idea that somehow the actions I take, the things I let you do or don’t let you do, will somehow protect you from every possible danger that might befall you. I can tell you now, I won’t always make the right decision, because the very idea of losing another child, of losing YOU, will interfere with good decision-making. There will be times when my irrational heart overcomes my rational brain and says, “No, you can’t do that because (insert irrational fear of what awful thing might happen to you).” This will likely be really hard on both of us, because we will both likely know that it’s just my fear talking and that if I could just see the situation without my fear-goggles on, I might feel differently. And all I can do is promise you that I am working on it. Every single day, I am working on it. I have been working on it since before I found out you existed and I have worked on it every day since then and I will keep working on it every day for the rest of my life. And during those times when I just seem like a crazy person talking, I will try hard, again, to share with you how I’m feeling and to let you tell me how you’re feeling. And hopefully, that way, we’ll get through it and you will always know that my insanity, while incredibly frustrating, always comes from a place of deep and boundless love.
And that brings me to my last, but very most important point. If one day you read this long blathering letter and glean nothing else from it, I hope you understand that your daddy and I love you desperately and we love you for you. We have loved you since before you were conceived, since before your sister died, and even since before your sister was born or conceived. Your sister’s death has changed us forever—that much was inevitable—but nothing has ever changed, or could ever change, how much we love you. Even before I found out I was pregnant with you, though, I have worried and worried and worried about how Hudson’s death would affect you, our relationship with you, how you see yourself. I made it one of my most important jobs to make sure that even as we work hard to make sure that Hudson remains a part of our life as a family, you never feel overshadowed by her or by her death. I’ve worried that Hudson, who was so very loved during her life and has continued to be such a powerful force after her death, might somehow seem larger than life, a figure no other child could ever replace or live up to. But the most important thing I want you to know is that will never be your job, sweet boy. Your job is simply to be you. I want you always to be the best you that you can be, but that is your only job. And we will always love you for exactly who you are. Even now, as I feel you kicking and rolling around in my belly, even now, as hard as it is to explain, I already see you for you. Even though you are sitting in the exact same place your sister sat during these last three months I was pregnant with her (on the far right side right up under my ribs), I know you differently. You are my son. My Penguin. My little boy. My Jackson. I can’t quite yet imagine life with a little boy, so I’m a little bit scared, but I can promise that you will know nothing but love from the second you first take air into your lungs. I say your name out loud whenever I get the chance. I’m already imagining my nicknames for you, what rituals we’ll make together. I rub my belly and talk to you, both out loud and silently. I’ve been making little things for you that I hope you will love when you get here. I don’t remember a whole lot from back when I used to be Episcopalian, but one thing that sticks out to me is the definition of a sacrament. A sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” These actions, these little things I do every day, these are my sacraments, the outward and visible signs of the bottomless and unfathomable love I already feel for you, my son.
Your Aunt Jess sent us a book for Christmas. It’s called Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You by Nancy Tillman. When I first read it, all I could think about was your sister, Hudson, and how much I desperately hope my love can find her, wherever she is. But since then, I have sat and read it to you, too, as I will many, many times in the future. Perhaps it is one of the many ways that we can all be together with Hudson. For as much as I think of her whenever I read these words, I think of you, too, because I never want you to doubt for a single second that you are loved, my sweet boy.
And if someday you’re lonely,
or someday you’re sad,
or you strike out at baseball,
or think you’ve been bad…
just lift up your face, feel the wind in your hair.
That’s me, my sweet baby, my love is right there.
In the green of the grass…in the smell of the sea…
in the clouds floating by…at top of a tree…
in the sound crickets make at the end of the day…
“You are loved. You are loved. You are loved,” they all say.
You are loved, Jackson Edward Hitchcock Chaney. You are so very loved.