February 5, 2021

Yesterday my friend texted me a photo of a “letter” I’d written at a baby shower – and what a wower.

If you can’t read my handwriting:

“Hey you! Can you believe it’s 2020! As I write this I’m looking forward to your 11th birthday with 20/20 vision = that’s 2009 humor for you. As I write you haven’t been born yet! Here’s what I want you to do this week: read a new book. Find something that you’ve heard about, you’re curious about, and give it some of your alone time. If you can’t afford the book just ask Mom & Dad to get old Uncle Daniel to spring for it. Oh and one other thing: I know you’re at an age now where other kids at school tease you and try to act like they’re better than you. Don’t forget: they’re not. How many of them had/have parents as cool as yours, parents who asked their friends to do these future birthday cards? When kids tease, you maintain a little place inside you that they can never touch. If you believe it, you can make it real. Happy Birthday!”

Let’s clear one thing up right away: I’m not such a spectacular “old Uncle Daniel” that I habitually write such cards. When the baby shower’s organizer importuned the guests to write birthday cards for the coming kid, she assigned each of us a birthday. I just happened to get the 11th.

I hadn’t seen it or thought about this little card since I wrote it 12 years ago. I suppose that 95% of the people I know, re-introduced to this missive, would express little more than a wistful sense of “hey, remember when we could look forward to 2020?”

But see, I’m not in that 95%. And neither are the parents who saved this card. When I think of the hopefulness of their baby shower, of ours, of any…my heart breaks. I can feel it breaking, splintering into pieces.

The child to whom I wrote this card will (almost certainly) never read it. Because that child is as severely autistic as my child. Which is something neither his parents nor me and wifey could have known or imagined in the days around the Obama inauguration.

Their beautiful, adorable child, whom I love, whom I hug every time I see (ok, I stopped because of Covid)…this card will never mean anything to him. He won’t read that book. He won’t notice any teasing. He won’t maintain a place inside. And don’t tell me, “Oh, you never know…” We know more than you might imagine. Of course there’s some kind of slim chance. There’s a chance Yemen will become the UAE in the next 50 years. But it’s almost an insult to speak of it as some kind of hope or silver lining.

No, the thing to do here is just acknowledge the loss. And it is a loss. So many beautiful years lost. The 11th year lost, as sure as I’m currently watching my own 11-year-old lose that year. A friend Facebook-posted wow-ing about her 11-year-old, about the physical and intellectual changes from 10 to 12. I’m certainly seeing these big old pre-teen physical changes, but hardly paired with her kid’s beautiful nascent activism and creativity.

If we are to compare the losses brought by autism, let’s compare them to years missed because of a deadbeat dad, or a parent in prison, or someone deployed overseas, or a relocation because of divorce or war. You know what they say: you can’t get those years back. You know what they say to the deadbeat, to the prisoner, to the soldier: you’re missing seeing your child grow up. “They” are right. Those are genuine losses. They really are.

In a way, I reckon this cursed, collective Covid calamity is a little bit comparable. It’s a loss. Instead of sugarcoating it or looking for the bright side (time to complete jigsaw puzzles!), sometimes it makes more sense to just acknowledge the loss. (I’m not speaking here about the specific Covid-related losses and regressions of my friend’s autistic kid and mine. I’m speaking more to everyone’s Covid year.) Loooooossssssss.

I look at this letter I wrote in 2009 to 2020 and I can’t imagine myself anymore bubbling with that much enthusiasm and energy. With or without Covid, my own life and soul have had their own loss. And I acknowledge that as well.

But…fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray for such letters in the future. From someones to other someones. Letters like this, in and of themselves, are good things. There should be more such good things. Let’s fertilize a garden with the best soil and techniques that we know. If some seeds fail to grow into healthy plants, that doesn’t mean the entire effort was wasted. Maybe in some weird way, blogposts like this contain traces of fertilizer. Makes sense. People always said I was full of it. 🙂

Here in 2021, next month, their kid turns 12. I’ll be hugging him and kissing his head before he turns 13. At least we have each other. Together we will live with our losses. That’s all.