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Good Letters

My brother and his wife are about to have their first baby.

This is my first letter to her.


By this point you are no doubt aware, even if it’s scary for you to admit, that all these adults crowding around you all the time do some things wrong. Maybe a lot of things wrong.

But here’s a secret you will only know later. We are all a little afraid of you. Silly, right? All these grown-ups scared of a tiny baby? What a silly, silly thing. It’s no excuse, but you should know it’s true. Those of us who only see you every now and again mainly want you to like us and to want to come to visit us when you get the chance.

Those of us who see you all the time, whether we admit it or not, will be pretty afraid we’re damaging you in irreparable ways, and well, dearest E, that makes us step in smaller ways and hesitate and try to appear larger than we are and do all sorts of other unflattering things in the ever-insistent names of love and fear.

You will know this love and fear yourself one day, and so if it occurs to you, either early or late, cut these adults who adore you all the way down to your bones and back some slack. We want you whole and happy and if possible, we want you not to hate us, and that makes us all act sillier than we might like sometimes.

Tonight, I rocked a friend’s baby to sleep. Against my shoulder, I felt him release all his weight and suddenly he was heavier than before. I felt his breath grow soft and his eyelashes flutter against my neck.

For ten minutes before I put him in his crib, we were absolutely still together. I pray for you many similar moments of stillness with softly breathing babies. I pray the same for your parents, who are even now washing your tiny clothes and sorting them into drawers, just waiting for you to come and try them on.

Emerson, not all the babies who come into this world have two parents like these, fussing over them down to the smallest minutiae of their arrival. I have a sense that you will be the kind of person who cares about the babies who don’t have those kinds of parents, and that makes me even happier than before to know you are coming. We’ve done a lot of things wrong in this old world, and we need people like you to help us see things in different ways.

I don’t mind telling you, kid, that even at thirty four, I’ve got very few things figured out the way I’d like. I could pretend to, but I know (which many adults appear to have forgotten) that children can see right through that pretense in a heartbeat (and you wonder why we are so terrified of you) and they’re not buying what we try to sell.

So I won’t try to sell you the notion that this will all be easy if you only follow a few simple steps. It won’t be. But that’s the genius thing about life, and I suppose that’s my point.

Because there are a few things I do know.

The one I want to talk about now is this—I think one of the ways God helps us find life is to give us people and things we love for their own sakes. So pay attention as early as you can to those things. Ask yourself, “What is it that makes me come alive?” And then listen and listen hard.

And when you figure it out, keep doing that thing.

You will be given the message sometimes, either through well-intended people or through a series of awful days or months, that life is only bleak, that work is only hard, that choices are only difficult, that change is never possible, that mistakes are unforgivable, that love is only an exchange of different kinds of power. Reject these outright as often as you can. Sniff them out. Say no. Walk in the opposite direction.

I don’t know a lot. But I know that goodness and mercy and hope and resilience and grace and kindness and beauty trump all the other cards. They always have. They always will. And the thread that leads you back to the land where these dwell in you is sometimes hard to find and you may lose it often, but whatever form it takes, you can darn well bet it will be in the form of the people and things you love utterly beyond necessity and recompense.

Sometimes, it may be grilled cheese. Or it may be your best friend. Your mother. Your father. Your first poem or play or bike or race or song or dance or sculpture or film. It may be your first balanced checkbook. Who knows what will light you up? I can’t wait to see.

And I can’t wait, Emerson, to watch you light up and then to call to you from near or far, “Follow, kid. Follow.”

When your dad was a baby, I was five. I had learned already to like being a big sister, and so things weren’t terribly complicated between us. When I held him, I used to believe that only I could understand his baby talk and that if I could echo it correctly back to him, he would understand me.

I may have been wrong about that, but we still understand each other pretty well all these years later. Who’s to say? I liked him then, and we all like you now, even before we’ve seen you. So I guess the most important thing I can say to you now, darling girl, is we will be listening to you. We will be listening to you.

We will always be listening.

So come to us and tell us what you know.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Kelly Foster


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