Editor’s Note: I wrote this letter to my son when he turned 5. That was two years ago. I read it to him last night as I was putting him to bed. It still applies.
Justus at 5
Justus at 7
That’s how many nights I’ve known you, since you entered the world of your mother and I with a bang at 7:50 am. exactly five years ago today.
I was thinking about this. With some obvious exceptions, I’ve put you to bed pretty much every night for the past 1,826 nights. You see, your mom opted to stay home with you during the day while I worked. So most of the time, I was the one who got to put you to bed. Who knew that such a mundane task would change my heart in such profound ways.
There was a time, maybe night 231, or maybe it was 550 or so, when I got irritated. I was putting you to bed and it was taking FOREVER and in a fit of impatience, I thought to myself: “Man, I have things to DO. Why can’t this kid just fall asleep already!”
And then, I had this thought. And I believe it was the closest I’ve ever come to hearing the audible voice of God. This thought crashed into my head, like a lightning bolt, saying:
“You’re not going to get the chance to put him to bed forever. Someday, he’ll be all grown up. Don’t waste this. Don’t waste this!”
I’d like to say that was the last time I ever rushed bedtime. It wasn’t. But since then, I have tried very hard to cherish it. Drink in every moment. These are some of my memories.
The Bouncy Seat
When you were first born, you were supposed to sleep in this lovely new bassinet that you mom and I registered for. But there was one problem: you didn’t like it. So for the first three months of your life, we bundled you up in swaddling clothes and put you in this vibrating baby bouncer thing. Looking back on it, I can’t believe you were able to fall asleep in this device. Compared to your body size and weight, this thing generated an inordinate amount of motion. It would be like strapping you into a partially reclined La-Z-Boy and then strapping that onto a bullet train traveling over railway tracks made of Flubber. I don’t know how or why you didn’t vomit.
Actually, come to think of it, you did vomit.
But you loved the motion. The doctors said that after a few weeks you could go into a crib, but I wasn’t comfortable with that. You see, in the middle of the night, I would wake up and hear you breathing, and it would comfort me. As long as I could hear you breathing, I knew you were not dead. It sounds macabre, but those are the kinds of things that happen to you once you find something that you love infinitely more than yourself. Your breathing helped me go back to sleep. So I protested to your mom and said that I wanted you to sleep in our room until you got older. So you stayed in that bright green vibrating bouncy seat in our room for three months.
Phase 2: On My Shoulder
When you were a little baby, you barely fit in my arms. I’d rock you and you’d fall asleep on my shoulder. You drooled a lot. I used to sing you U2 songs. I’d try to see if there was a way to get an infant to fall asleep to the song “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
The weirdest song I ever sang to you was “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell. Or maybe “Little Red Corvette” by Prince. Definitely not a kids’ lullaby.
I guess I shoulda known
by the way you parked car sideways
that it wouldn’t last
Your Uncle Jon gave me that idea one day when he started singing a Nirvana song like a Vegas lounge act to you. He bounced you up and down and sang:
All this to say: you don’t stand a chance of being normal.
Phase 3: Your Crib + My Finger
When you were a little bit bigger, I’d stand and rock you by your crib. This was a tough period. With your sister, when it was time for her to go to bed, we’d just put her in her crib, kiss her forehead, and walk out of the room. She would fall right asleep. Not so with you. If we tried to leave before you were asleep, you’d cry bloody murder, as if someone were attacking you with needles or forcing you to listen to Taylor Swift. You didn’t like being alone. I couldn’t take your crying. It was like I was betraying you. I would sometimes lean up against your crib and you would hang onto my finger through the slats in your crib, and I couldn’t move until you were deep enough in sleep that you wouldn’t wake up when I removed my fingers.
This was a bit ridiculous, and I’m sure some smart psychologist would tell me I was doing something wrong. But you didn’t like being alone. I didn’t blame you. I don’t like being alone either. I am sure that I got some cramps in my shoulder, trying to hold my hand up to the crib where your little fist was clenched on my finger. But I don’t remember that. I just remember looking at you and thinking that I never got to hold my Daddy’s hand when I was your age, so maybe this was God’s way of making up for that.
Phase 4: Reading in the Chair
When you got older, you were exactly as tall as my arms were wide. Your head would rest on one arm, and your feet on the other. And I’d rock you in your room, with your window open, the summer air and the sound of our neighbor mowing his lawn drifting through the blinds. I would read you books before you fell asleep. You liked this one book called “Who is Coming To Our House.” It featured various barnyard animals getting the barn ready because the resident mouse said that someone special was coming. The special guest turned out to be none other than Baby Jesus. You would look at the cow and point to his eye and say, “Eye.” And I would just melt in wonder that you knew another word. Your mom and I kept a list on the kitchen counter of every word you knew. You were a marvel to us.
Phase 5: A New Big Boy Bed
One morning, you figured out how to get out of your crib and happily bounded into our room. This started a weird period where instead of simply getting you a bed, we attempted to force you to stay in your crib. I experimented with sheets, mosquito netting and various size C-clamps, trying to form a breathable “lid” to trap you in your crib. This was not a highlight of parenting for your mother and I. You hated it. And it didn’t even work, anyway. So we went out and bought you a “Big-Boy Bed.”
There were other times I remember. There was a phase you went through when you wanted to fall asleep on my back. You called it “Daddy Bed.”
“Please play Daddy bed,” you’d ask. And since it only required me to lie down on the floor, I always obliged.
There was the phase when you wanted me to hold you and sing “Rock a Bye Baby” After singing it a few hundred times, I realized it’s a twisted song about grossly irresponsible parenting. What kind of possible reason would you have to put a baby’s crib in a tree, let alone in the TOP of the tree, let alone at the top of a tree that’s structurally unsound, let alone at the top of a tree that’s structurally unsound in the in the middle of that kind of weather event? It’s criminal.
And then that phase moved into the phase we’re currently in, where I read you books, or tell you stories and lay next to you for a period of time while you fall asleep. I like this phase best.
I know that it won’t last. There will come a time when you won’t want me to do this anymore. For example, very few 15 year olds want to fall asleep on their Daddy’s back. And I’m pretty sure you won’t fit when you’re 15. You barely fit now.
I know this.
I know this. I know you will grow. There are times when I look at your feet and it’s like looking at a puppy’s comically oversized paws. I know you’re going to be big and tall. It’s written in your feet. I know there will come a time when you are wolfing down Corn Pops by the boxful, and rolling your eyes and listening to loud music that I don’t understand.
But for now, you fall asleep next to me. And you ask me to tell you stories. And sometimes, you sneak a peek at me through closed eyes when I am praying for you at night.
For now, you are my little boy.
And there are not words to tell you how much I love you.
Best 1,826 nights of my life.