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Canon: Letter to My Daughter

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Baby girl

An old book written by an old man says, “Shame on birth, since to every one who is born, old age must come.”

You were born on Groundhog Day. My third daughter, my tiny lioness, I counted the days, the hours, the minutes until your due date. And, then, I had to count a little more, but there was no shame, no sadness, no bitterness when you finally came. It’s quite unlike the old book says. Still, I know there's some truth in the statement. And, now, in these sacred, sanitary hospital hours, as I listen to you snort and snuffle through your first few hundred breaths, I wonder what can be said in a few hundred words about the short time we’ll have together.

You have just a little while to be playful. You'll learn to laugh when dad makes goofy faces and pretends to eat your toes, and that will be what you know for the longest, quickest period of your life. All that playfulness is likely to turn serious, and you will carry that seriousness into things that have no business being taken so seriously. In just a few months, after you discover pain and balance and table corners and ear infections, you will wrinkle your little forehead with the as-yet-liquid seriousness that leaks into your playfulness. You'll wonder: Why?

So little makes sense, damn what anyone tells you about anything. There is so much that can go wrong before you even get started: birth injuries, cancer, car accidents, drug addiction, schizophrenia, suicide. I could die, your mother could die, we could all die, and we will, probably before you’re ready for any of it. Your pets will grow too old and weak to move before you know what it means for something to have a beginning and an end. Just as you are starting to figure out your mind, your own body will fall apart. You will want more time, and you will believe the time you got was wasted. At times, you may be angry that there are no answers.

The natural state of the universe is chaos, but you will look for reason. The natural state of living things is death, but you will seek immortality. The natural state of everything is imperfection, but you will seek the perfect. You will want what you can't have—objects, people, feelings. You will take what you have for granted. You will purge your guilt over taking so much for granted in cleansing kilns of shame, sadness, bitterness, or worse. It is confusing, and we are all confused; often so confused that we make ourselves believe we are not confused at all. But we stumble, through fog and smoke and blinding light and terrible darkness, because what is the alternative?

There's more to it, though—an unspeakable, unnamable, unknowable beauty that cannot, perhaps, will not—be seen, no matter how closely you look at it. You will think you can see it sometimes, but you probably can't, and yet you'll know it's there. Don't try too hard to put that beauty into words—it is the good stuff of life precisely because there are no words for it.

Tragic, inevitable ends will seem unfair, and they are! But, only when weighed against that invisible, nameless, syrupy substance that holds the universe together, the stuff you get stuck in when you disappear into a crayon scribble, woosh through the air at the county fair, wake up in the crook of a loving arm, or lose the boundaries of yourself to song.

This unnamable quantity is the only thing that you will know better when you are young than when you are old, because you will have the opportunity to savor it early on. When you get to my age, you will surprise yourself by treating the moments that make you want to believe in heaven, or something like it —something eternal so that this can never end—as items on a to-do list, to be checked off quickly so that more items may be added and checked off. The occasional jolt—from the birth of a child, for example—can help you remember the times you have forgotten that thing, and all the moments that it pervades.

The separation of ourselves from this thing, a thing that we cannot even describe with words, is the real shame. But, maybe it is silly to rail against the prospective absence of this nameless thing; in death, we don't really know if it is missed at all. And after all, when you look back on the chaos of moment-to-moment existence, it will seem to have been stitched together with order, elegance, maybe even reason. Try not to take things so seriously.

One last thing, my little huntress: you will never love me as much as I love you, and if you have children, they will never love you as much as you love them, and that has to be OK. That’s just how it works. The reasons why are uncertain, but nothing has ever been certain. It is one more shame, one more damnable injustice, and one more unknowable beauty to contemplate for this short time.

 

Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor who writes on civil and criminal justice issues. He also produces a short documentary series called Midwesticism. You can support his work at www.patreon.com/dancanon.

(1) comment

Adele Benson

Holy crap! This is a letter to your daughter? This all just sounds so morbid, bitter and dramatic. I’m thankful this is not how my parents described life to me, or viewed life for that matter.