Oh, my sweet guy, my buddy, my little nugget, my J-man, my lovebug. How can you already be three?
I started this letter the night before your birthday and planned to finish it yesterday, but we were so busy doing fun things to celebrate that I couldn’t get back to it until today. I hope you’ll forgive the tardiness. And in at least one way, I’m glad I didn’t finish it until today, because this afternoon, you and I got into the biggest mutual giggle-fest that I wanted to make sure to write about it so that I can remember it and you can read about it one day. You were sitting in my lap facing me with your back on my knees and your head on the soft cushion of the ottoman behind you. You were lifting your head and dropping it on the ottoman over and over again, and each time, I said, “Bonk!” You got really tickled all of a sudden and started giggling like crazy, which made me start giggling like crazy, and then we were both laughing so hard that we were almost crying and couldn’t stop. It was the best part of my day, my week, my month.
And that sweet, contagious, uncontainable giggling at something as silly as a “Bonk!” just epitomizes the joyful way you greet everything in the world. Lately, you have taken to narrating your daily life with great gusto and getting frustrated when your enthusiasm is not returned in kind. We’ll be driving in the car, and you’ll say, “I saw an excavator, Mommy!” And you’ll say it again (and again and again and again) until I respond with zeal, “You saw an excavator? Cool!” I’ll never forget the other day when I walked you into preschool through the side yard, which is full of honeysuckle and tea olive, and you said, “It smells AMAZING in here!” You remain one of the friendliest kids I’ve ever seen, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. You greet everyone, stranger or friend, with an excited “Hi!” and a giant grin, including people we pass by at the grocery store or on the street. And with the exception of some smaller kids who don’t quite know how to respond, no one can resist returning your smile and your greeting. It’s such a pleasure just to be in your company, sweet boy, and such a privilege to be your mom. I hope you never lose that sweetness, Jackson—it’s truly one of your best and most special qualities, and I’ll do whatever I can to try to prevent the world from drilling it out of you.
You are growing up so much, Jackson, and getting so brave. Often when we are out in crowds, I let you wander off just to see how far you’ll go before you turn around to look for us. Much to my chagrin, you almost never do! There is part of me that worries over that, part of me that wants you to have at least a little bit of self-preservation instinct. But the bigger part of me is glad and proud that you feel so comfortable on your own. I’m not sure if our parenting has anything to do with it, but I sure hope it does. I worried so much before you were born that I’d never be able to stop myself from hovering over you incessantly as you grew, that I’d be so constantly worried that something would happen to you that my first instinct would always be to say “No.” But with your help, I think I have avoided the worst of that fate. Confidently and effortlessly, it seems, you have learned to trust your own instincts, which has helped me learn to trust them as well. Even though you rarely turn around in a crowd, something tells me it’s because you know I’ll always be there for you if you need me, even if I’m not right behind you. I’m still a work in progress, though—I still say “No” more often than I’d like—but I am working on it. I want you to explore things and try things and fail at them—fail spectacularly—because it’s only through doing those things that you will grow. It’s taken me nearly forty years to figure this out for myself—I’m hoping I can help you learn it as a child.
The other night at your second swimming lesson without me in the water with you, the teacher had you all crawl out of the pool and then jump in to her. Whenever you do this with Daddy and me, you always crouch down on the edge and beg for our hands because you are too afraid to jump in without our help, and you hate going under. We always tell you that we’ll catch you, and if you want us to, we always will. But your swimming teacher won’t make the same promise—she tells you to jump, and she lets you go all the way under before pulling you up so that you get comfortable doing it. You did it once and came up a little stunned but laughing, and when your teacher said, “You wanna do it again?” you said, “Yeah!”
But then you climbed out, and when it was your turn to jump in again, you didn’t want to do it. You walked back over to me and said, “I don’t want to go under again!” You were almost in tears. Oh, my dear boy. You, of course, had no way of knowing this, but this was a watershed mothering moment for me. I have based much of my parenting on a basic philosophy of respecting you as a whole person, which includes not forcing you to do anything you don’t want to do (with the exception of things involving safety). So when you came over and told me that you didn’t want to jump in and go under again, every fiber of my being wanted to pull your wet, quivering-lipped self straight into my lap and say, “Oh, honey, you don’t have to if you don’t want to!” But somehow, I knew that wasn’t the right response. Although I had about two seconds to figure out what to say, something in me during that two seconds knew that I needed to encourage you to try again.
I gave you a hug, steeled myself, and said, “You can do it, buddy! Just one more time!” And because I knew it was the truth, I added, “Once you do it just one more time, you get to play with the rings!” At the first class, the teacher threw weighted colored rings into the shallow water for each of you to collect off the floor of the pool. Although I was simply repeating what your teacher had just said, that you all could play the ring game after you jumped in, I still felt bad about offering you essentially what was a bribe. I didn’t care if the teacher wanted to bribe you, but I generally try to be more direct. But in this particular case, I just felt strongly that the ends would justify the means. You seemed to visibly collect yourself and then marched back over to the edge of the pool and jumped in. And when you came up again, the teacher grinned at you and asked if it was fun, and you grinned back and said, “Yeah!!”
I breathed a sigh of relief. And once I had a moment to reflect, I was so glad I’d fought my instinct to let you off the hook. Here’s the thing, sweet boy. There will be countless, countless, countless times in your life when you will face doing something you don’t want to do. Countless. And sometimes, it will be fine to blow that thing off. But sometimes it won’t. Sometimes we all just have to take a deep breath, steel ourselves, march back over to the pool, and jump back in. So I’m really proud of you for doing that, and I’ll keep encouraging you to do it whenever I can, because lots of times, it turns out that the thing you didn’t want to do is not as bad as you thought. Sometimes it can turn out to be really great, and you’ll be so glad that you didn’t miss it because you were busy dreading it so much.
As ever, I am so sad that your big sister isn’t here, bud. As I have watched you become a big brother to your baby sister, Ada, and as I have watched the two of you begin to form a bond that will hopefully last your entire lifetimes, I have realized again, how much you have missed out on and continue to miss out on because she is gone. It’s just so unfair, to you and to Ada and to all of us. Although we talk about Hudson all the time, you still haven’t quite figured out what has happened to her. You know her face and her name and that she is your big sister, but that is about as far as your understanding extends yet. This year on May 13, the anniversary of her death, I tried for the first time to explain to you why we blow bubbles on that day and why we plant flowers in Hudson’s garden. I told you that we were blowing bubbles for Hudson because she can’t be with us. You asked, “Where’s Hudson?” And I said, “Well, she died, buddy, which means that she can’t live with us anymore, but she always lives in my heart and your heart, and she’ll always be your big sister.” And thinking hard with your almost-three-year-old, totally literal brain, you responded and said, “I want to die and live in your heart.” Whew, is abstract thinking hard for a kid your age, especially when you don’t even understand yet what it means to die. I told you that you do live in my heart, but that you also get to live right here with me and that I hoped you would for a really long time. A few days later, as I was snuggling with you when putting you down for your nap, out of nowhere, you stopped me in my tracks when you said, “I want to die in your heart, Mommy.” Oh, buddy. I pulled you close and said, “You are in my heart, buddy, but you don’t have to die to be there. I love you so much.”
What a long journey we have ahead of us exploring this subject together. For now, I’m just glad that you know that Hudson is your big sister and always will be, even if the details are still a little fuzzy. And in some ways, I’m also a little glad that I still get to protect you from some of the worst of the world’s suffering. You will begin to know and understand it all too soon, I’m afraid, so a few more days or weeks or months of fuzzy details is not a bad thing.
Oh, Jackson. You are such a delight and a joy, even when you are testing your limits and driving me crazy. I love you so much, and I’ll always be proud of you, no matter what. So try everything. Fail spectacularly. And even when you don’t want to, jump in the pool again. I promise that more often than not, it will be worth it.
I love you, buddy. I can’t wait for all the adventures yet to come.