March 7, 2021
You aren’t interested in long, emotional, conversations. If you have it your way, which you will, I will sing Happy birthday about 25 times, and each version will be an impression of a different animal.
You won’t read this letter for a long time, but this is your second birthday in isolation. When you turned 3, last year, we had been in lockdown for only four days. Everything was a mystery still — we didn’t know if we’d be home for a week or a hundred weeks or if we were all about to start living on canned food. We didn’t know if the power would stay on and gas stations would still operate.
We forgot to get you a cake and instead unwrapped a gluten-free oatcake and covered it in dairy-free yogurt and sang happy birthday. I looked back at our photos and we look happy. I am pleasantly surprised to see that I hung up a birthday banner for you and that we colored the driveway with sidewalk chalk.
We still lived in North Carolina then. We didn’t know that we would pack up the car and drive to Canada five months later. We didn’t know that you would turn 4 in a new country, in a new house, still totally isolated.
We didn’t yet know that two weeks before your birthday, Ahmaud Marquez Arbery had gone jogging for the last time and that, three months later, a police officer would kneel on George Floyd’s neck. We didn’t know that these murders would prompt a global reckoning with the way that our society kills and oppresses Black people. We didn’t know that in our neighborhood the sound of gunshots would become more frequent, as more jobs were lost to COVID and desperation grew and safety nets failed. We didn’t know that we would find a bullet on our porch and spend nights trying to figure out if the siding of our house would protect you from a drive-by’s stray shot.
My sweet Khalil. I am so sorry that the world isn’t worthy of you. You deserve joy and justice and possibility.
I am so proud of who you are. I’m honored to get a front-row seat to the happiness that you access so easily and your quick wit and silliness. You are kind and brilliant and brave. You are absolutely beautiful. This year, when we got our first snow, you exclaimed, “WE DID IT FOR SNOW!” and when we saw a sunset in our new house, “WE DID IT FOR CANADA!”
Your joy is a superpower.
Sometimes, if I allow myself to think about the fact that Alameda County could have easily called another family to become your parents, I am crushed by the theoretical grief of not being your mom. I know adoption isn’t a fairy tale but, for me, having you as my son is a total grace. It’s ok if it doesn’t only feel like grace to you, though.
I wish a year of beauty and possibility for you. May COVID abate and you play with the neighborhood kids in our backyard. May you start school in the fall and your teacher and classmates immediately see how dazzling you are. May Canada feel like a home where you can be safe and free and you.
Your dad and I love you all the way. Our love is bigger than you can imagine and we will keep doing our best to make our love a container that protects but doesn’t smother you. (Your mama definitely has a tendency to smother).
Happy 4th birthday my love. I had my wits about me this year and I hope you enjoy the balloons and the cake and the presents and the decorated yard. WE DID IT FOR BIRTHDAYS!
I love you,
You begin this way:
this is your hand,
this is your eye,
that is a fish, blue and flat
on the paper, almost
the shape of an eye.
This is your mouth, this is an O
or a moon, whichever
you like. This is yellow.
Outside the window
is the rain, green
because it is summer, and beyond that
the trees and then the world,
which is round and has only
the colors of these nine crayons.
This is the world, which is fuller
and more difficult to learn than I have said.
You are right to smudge it that way
with the red and then
the orange: the world burns.
Once you have learned these words
you will learn that there are more
words than you can ever learn.
The word hand floats above your hand
like a small cloud over a lake.
The word hand anchors
your hand to this table,
your hand is a warm stone
I hold between two words.
This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world,
which is round but not flat and has more colors
than we can see.
It begins, it has an end,
this is what you will
come back to, this is your hand.