A birthday letter for one’s child should be a marker of all that a mother knows. For instance, on the day you turned three you had a scratch on your cheek and a bruise on your forehead. Your legs and arms were somehow both surprisingly long and impossibly tiny. You loved your balloon. You whined for more chocolate cake. You pronounced it so carefully: “choc-oh-lut.”
But you are almost entirely unknown. This doesn’t bother me or frighten me. At least once a day your father or I will laugh at you and say, “Who are you? Where did you come from?”
Your blonde hair sets you apart in our family. But it is more than appearance. Perhaps it is comparison. With two older siblings whose personalitites and interests have seemed long settled, you are less familiar. We are still getting acquainted. You are still getting acquainted with the world.
Or, perhaps it is a holdover. You were unknown for nine months before your birth. Boy or girl? We chose not to know. You were the little stranger born into the thoroughly familiar, the utterly known: our own bed, in our own apartment, in a city that felt like home.
There has been only one moment when I saw more. One moment when I seemed to glimpse the you that is still buried in your bones.
You were six months old. It was late at night. Your cough was so like a barking seal that we had no need to google symptoms. We could name it. By naming it we felt we had tamed it.
We had done no such thing. In the space between those known, nameable coughs your breath became jagged. Desperate. Each breath seemed just on the verge of not coming at all.
Your father spoke with the nurse on call, and I held you on the floor of the bathroom, your face hardly visible through the steam. I prayed for you.
So often prayer is just a desperate word or two. It hardly seems capable of traveling whatever distance lies between my mouth and God’s ear. But sometimes prayer takes over and I know that it does not come from me at all. It is more like a river, and I’ve just fallen in.
Sitting there, holding you, I was in that river and I saw something. It was as if that rushing river of prayer drew back the veil between known and unknown, seen and unseen. I saw You, the you that is never just a baby or a three-year-old, but the You that is every age, and I recognized how far away from me you would travel. I could see you bringing light into dark places where I would never go. It seemed to me, as I prayed, that there was a great struggle taking place in this ordinary, steamy bathroom.
Later, I recognized that this river of prayer was not my communication with God. It wasn’t my puny request for healing. A simple question to be answered “yes” or “no.” The prayer was God’s own roaring response to the darkness, the utter evil, that would end your life before you could do all that you were made to do. Or, more importantly, before you could become who you were made to be.
God wouldn’t allow it. Yes, the darkness was there with us, grasping at you as you grasped for breath, but God was shoving it aside. Saving you because we needed you. A “we” that includes so many more than just your father and I.
I don’t know exactly who you are or how far you will go. I do know your life will be beautiful, more beautiful even than these first three years. Your life will matter, more than it already has to your family. And I know you are one step closer today to the promise I glimpsed in that prayer.
You are three.