Saturday, November 30

Portrait of a Young Man

Dear Ben,

I wrote my first letter to you on September 12, 2001. 

You weren’t born yet, but the world trade towers had fallen the day before. In an instant everything had changed, and yet everything kept grinding forward just like always. For days after we watched the news, stunned. And every night, I would stand in the bedroom that was ready to be your nursery. I would look around at the small diapers that already lined your dresser drawers and wonder what sort of fucked up world we were bringing you into. My first letter to you was an apology. But then you were born and they turned into letters of awe. Everything about you amazed me.

Three months later you stopped breathing and my heart stopped with you. I called 911 and laid you on the bed in a patch sun while I pulled on a pair of jeans. I watched your skin turn grey and I repeated the first words that you ever heard from a nurse named Sylvia: breathe, baby, breathe. When the firemen barged through the door, I shoved you into their arms. Later, I wrote you letters while I stayed with you in the hospital. At night, I watched the numbers on your oxygen monitors and made deals with a god that I didn’t believe in.

Recently you’ve become interested in these letters so I’ve started picking through them. It’s hard to find any that are age appropriate. Most of them deal with the bigger stuff, the messy things in life that will eventually get your heart muddy and bruised. I’ve already said this before, but I hope your heart gets a little battered. I hope you fall in love with the wrong person, just once. I hope you lose a job, I hope you lose your way. All of these things, all of the little nicks and scrapes you accumulate over the years will make you appreciate the good things in life.

And there are a lot of good things, Ben.  There are so many good things.

For starters, make sure you savour the sound of a late night, summer rain. Learn to love driving in the fog. Learn how to downshift. Have a favourite smell, a favourite colour, a favourite number.  Have a team that you’ll always bet on, no matter what. Root for the home team or the underdog, but never, ever root for the Habs. Always stop to buy the watered-down lemonade that kids are selling on the side of the road. Say yes to Girl Guide Cookies. Be quick to laugh at yourself. Be quick to forgive. Be quick to move on.

But outside of that, outside of telling you to appreciate life, I’m not sure how much I have left to teach you.

You already have an honest, generous heart, and that’s all I ever wanted for you. I suppose I could give you advice on being twelve, but -  frankly speaking - you seem to have a good handle on that. You have a good handle on a lot of things and if anything, I’m continually learning from you.

One of the things I admire about you is how fearless you are. It hits me every time I drop you off at a school dance. On the drive there I’ll ask you, “Do you know who’s going? Are you meeting up with someone? Are you sure you don’t want me to stick around for a few minutes?

You always shrug because you’re confident that someone you know will be there.  That it will be fun. You’re so independent. Meanwhile, I have a hard time psyching myself up for some of Darlene’s pool parties. Jesus, how do you do that? How are you that relaxed in your own skin? Do you have any idea how rare that is? Frankly, kid, I’m jealous. I’ve never been like that. When I was your age I spent a lot of time in the library at school hiding from the kids who thought I stuffed my bra. High school didn’t feel much better. To be honest, I didn’t start finding my voice until a few years ago. Even now, there are still moments when I have a hard time ignoring the negative chatter in my head.  The voice that says I’m not funny enough, smart enough, or pretty enough to matter. And yet, you. You are so thankfully, not me. You are bold in a way that I’ve never been.

But there are so many other things that I love about you too.

I love seeing you run ahead to hold the door open for someone. I love how quick you are to offer me your piggy bank anytime you see me frowning over a bill that needs paying. I love your willingness to forgive people when they disappoint you. In a lot of ways, I feel like you’re already a much better person than me. And yet at the same time, we’re so much alike too. You love books, and music, and you gobble up trivia like its candy. I love that you think our kitchen dance parties are hilarious. I fucking love your manners. And I love that you think it’s funny when I swear.

So really, you seem to be doing just fine and I think twelve will be breeze for you.

Still, if there’s one piece of advice I can give you, it’s this:  The White Album.

If you’re ever forced to pick one album above everything else, this is the one to put your money on. It was written when the Beatles were on the verge of breaking up, and a bunch of the tracks were actually recorded solo. The music is arguably their best, but there’s a deeper lesson there for you, Ben, if you’re paying attention.

The lesson is this: good things can come out of bad times.

Shitty things are going to happen in your life - someone will break your heart, you may wake up one day and hate your job, someone you love will die. But the only thing that matters is whether or not you deal with it head on. Whether or not you have the good sense to keep milking the joy out of life. So be honest with people. Be generous with your time and forgiveness. Keep your heart open.

And when all else fails, put on the White Album and turn that shit up really loud.

Happy birthday, bug.

I Love you,