My phone’s GPS found the marina with no trouble. It was four minutes away. Two turns and then I was in the dark parking lot. There were two other cars, probably employees’, but as I walked down the dock, no one rushed out to shoo me away. I was alone, with the quiet sloshing of the water against the dock’s supports, the gentle thunk and shpp of boats rocking into the wood.
I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew that I was looking. I held the letters tightly in my hand as I moved down the length of the dock, up and down the off-shooting pathways.
And then there it was, pure white and lettered in blue, its sails rolled up. January.
I climbed unsteadily onto it. Sat on the bench and stared out at the water.
“Dad,” I whispered.
I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I believed about the afterlife, but I thought about time and imagined flattening it out so that every moment in this space became one. I could almost hear his voice. I could almost feel him touching my shoulder.
I felt so lost again. Every time I started to find my way, I seemed to slip further down. How could I trust what Gus and I had? How could I trust my own feelings? People were complicated. They weren’t math problems; they were collections of feelings and decisions and dumb luck. The world was complicated too, not a beautifully hazy French film, but a disastrous, horrible mess, speckled with brilliance and love and meaning.
A breeze ruffled the letters in my lap. I brushed the hair from my teary eyes and opened the first envelope.
Today you were born. I knew to expect that for months. It was not a surprise. Your mother and I wanted you very much, even before you began to exist.
What I didn’t know to expect is that today, I would feel like I’d been born too.
You have made me a new person: January’s father. And I know this is who I will be for the rest of my life. I’m looking at you now, January, as I’m writing this, and I can barely get the words onto the page.
I am in shock, January. I didn’t know I could be this person. I didn’t know I could feel all this. I can’t believe someday you will wear a backpack, know how to hold a pencil, have opinions on how you like to wear your hair. I’m looking at you and I can’t believe you are going to become more amazing than you already are.
Ten fingers. Ten toes. And even if you had none of them, you’d still be the grandest thing I’ve ever seen.
I can’t explain it. Do you feel it? Now that you’re old enough to read this, and to know who you are, do you have a word for the thing that evades me? The thing that makes you different from anything else?
I guess I should tell you something about myself, about who I am at this very moment as I watch you sleep on your mother’s chest.
Well, nice to meet you, January. I’m your father, the man you made from nothing but your tiny fingers and toes.
ONE FOR EVERY year, always written on the day.
January, today you are one. Who am I today, January? I’m the hand that guides you while you take your clumsy steps. Today, your mother and I made spaghetti, so I guess you could say I’m a chef too. Your personal one. I never used to like to cook much, but it has to be done.
Happy second birthday, January. Your hair has gotten so much darker. You wouldn’t remember being a blonde, would you? I like it more this way. It suits you very much. Your mother says you look like her grandmother, but I think you take after my mother. She would have loved you. I’ll try to tell you a bit about her too. She was from a place called North Bear Shores. That’s where I’m from too. I lived there when I was your age. I was a nasty two-year-old, she used to tell me. I guess I screamed until I passed out. But that was probably at least in part due to Randy, my oldest brother. A bit of a jackass, but a lovable one. He lives in Hong Kong now, because he is Fancy.
January, I can’t believe you’re four. You are person-shaped now. I suppose you always were, but you’re more so now than ever. When I was four, I wrecked my tricycle. I was riding down a pier toward the lighthouse at the end. My mother had gotten distracted by a friend and I thought it would be neat to ride right off the pier, see if I was going fast enough to stay atop the water. Like Road Runner. She saw me at the last minute and screamed my name. When I turned to look at her, I yanked the handlebars and smashed into the lighthouse itself. That’s how I got that big pink scar on my elbow. I suppose it isn’t so big now. Or else my elbow is quite a bit bigger. Last week you cracked your head on the fireplace. It wasn’t too bad—didn’t even need stitches, but your mother and I cried all night after you’d gone to sleep.
We felt so bad. Sometimes, January, being a parent feels like being a kid who someone has mistakenly handed another kid. “Good luck!” this unwise stranger cries before turning his back on you forever. We will always make mistakes, I’m afraid. I hope they will get smaller and smaller as we get bigger and bigger. Older, really; we’re rather done growing.
Eight! Eight years old and smart as a whip! You never stop reading, January. I hated reading when I was eight, but then again, I was terrible at it, and both Randy and Douglas used to tease me mercilessly, though these days Douglas is as gentle as a butterfly. I imagine if I’d been better at reading, I would have liked it more. Or maybe vice versa. My dad was a busy man but he was the one who taught me how to read, January. And since he’d started, I wouldn’t let my poor mother have anything to do with it. Well, when the time comes, I’m teaching you to drive, she used to tell me. Your favorite book right now is The Giving Tree, but God, January, that book breaks my heart. Your mother is a bit like that tree and I worry you will be too. Don’t get me wrong. That’s a good way to be. But still. I wish you could be a bit stonier, like your old pop. Only for your own good.
You know, when I was eight, I shoplifted for the first time. Not condoning it, of course, but the goal of this is honesty. I stole gum from the old-fashioned candy store on the main drag in North Bear Shores. I loved that shop. They had these great big fans to keep the chocolate from melting in the summer, and on days when my mother was occupied, my brothers and I would stroll down there to get out of the heat. I never found it much fun to go to the beach on my own. Perhaps now I’d feel different. I haven’t been in a while. Your mother and I have been talking about taking you soon.
January, you are thirteen and braver than any thirteen-year-old should have to be. Today, I don’t know who I am. I am your father still, of course. And the husband of your mother. But January, sometimes life is very hard. Sometimes it demands so much of you that you start losing pieces of yourself as you stretch out to give what the world wants to take. I am lost, January. Remember that lighthouse I told you about? I think I told you about it. Sometimes I think about you as that lighthouse. Keep your eyes on January, I tell myself. She won’t lead you astray. If you focus on January, you won’t go too far off course. But maybe I was so focused I ran smack dab into you.
Your mother too. I know this year has been frightening for you, but please know that some way or another, your mother and I are going to find our way back to ourselves, and back to each other. Please don’t be afraid, my sweet baby, my daring pirate queen of the open seas. Somehow everything will be okay.