I got my first kiss when I was sixteen, January. Her name was Sonya and she was stringy and serene.
Your birthday isn’t for a few more months, but I have to write this now. Today, you are leaving for college, January, and I’m afraid it might kill me. Of course I can’t tell you that. You would feel so guilty and you shouldn’t. You are, by all accounts, doing the right thing. You have always been so smart. This is where you belong. And it’s not forever. But when you wake up this morning, and we start driving north, I won’t be looking at you in the rearview mirror. And when you read this (??? When will that be???), think back to that day. Will you even notice that I can’t look at you? Probably not. You’re so nervous yourself. But if you do remember, now you’ll know why. I worry I might turn around and drive the three of us back home if you show any ounce of hesitation. I want to keep you forever. Who am I without you?
You should be in graduate school, and we all know it. Fuck cancer, January. You’re an adult now so that means by the time you read this, you should be well acquainted with the word Fuck and we both know you’re already too closely acquainted with the word Cancer. Well, fuck it. I have to be honest, January. I feel like our lives are imploding and a part of me wants to shove you far, far away until the implosion stops.
I told you I’d be honest with you, so here it is. If I write it here, I know I will not be able to take it back. Someday you will read this. Someday you will know.
I am cheating on your mother. Sometimes I feel like I am comforting myself and other times it feels like a punishment. Still other days I wonder if it’s all a big F-U to the universe. “If you want to destroy my life, I can destroy it worse.”
Some days I think I am in love with Sonya. Sonya, that’s her name. I was in love with her once, when we were kids. I think I told you in your sixteenth-birthday letter. That was the year I kissed her. I’m sure you don’t want to hear that. But I think I need to say it. I’m in love with a version of myself that can’t exist in this hell. Do you think I’m terrible, January? It’s okay if you do. I have been terrible at many different moments in my life.
I want to go back to being the man your mother made me: her new husband. The man you made me: your adoring father. I’m searching for something of myself I lost, and it’s not fair to anyone.
If I could have the past back, those beautiful years before the cancer came back, I would pounce. I’m going to fix this. Don’t give up on me, January. It isn’t the end.
January, today you are twenty-eight.
When I was twenty-eight, my beautiful wife gave birth to our child. On this day. January thirteenth, widely regarded as the best day in the history of days. Sometimes I think about what your children would look like. Not your and Jacques’s specifically, though that would be fine too.
I picture a girl who looks like January. Maybe she has ten fingers and ten toes, but even if she doesn’t, she will be perfect. And I think about the kind of woman you will be for her. The kind of mother.
When I think about this, January, I usually cry. Because I know you will do better than I did, and I am so relieved by that thought. But even if you don’t, even if you make the kinds of mistakes I made, I know you, January.
I know you so much better than you know me, and I’m sorry, but if there had to be an imbalance, I can’t say I regret it going this way.
Remember your first breakup? I mentioned it in the letter for your seventeenth birthday. You were devastated. Your mother called in to your job at Taco Bell and pretended to be you, too sick to come in.
In that moment, I was so in love with her. She knew just what to do. The way she took care of you. There are no words.
She knows, by the way. She knows everything I’ve told you. She’s let me take my time telling you. I worry she’s ashamed, that she thinks everyone will pity her, and you know how she hates that. She’s not sure you need to know. Maybe you don’t. If that’s the case, I’m sorry. But I guess I wanted you to see the whole truth so you would know.
If you think the story has a sad ending, it’s because it’s not over yet.
Since I started these letters, I’ve been a million different things, some good and some ugly.
But today, on your twenty-eighth birthday, I feel like the same man I was all those years ago.
Staring at you. Counting your fingers. Wondering what it is that makes you so different from the rest of the world. I don’t know when it happened, but I’m happy again. I think, even if things don’t stay like this, I will always carry this moment in me. How could I ever be sad, having watched my baby grow into the woman she is?
January, you are twenty-eight, and today I am your father.
The Best Friend
I LAY BACK ON the floor and stared up at the stars. Fluffy, dark clouds were drifting across the sky, blotting them out bit by bit, and I was watching them like a countdown, though to what I didn’t know. The letters lay in a heap around me, all unfolded, all read. Two hours hadn’t given me closure, but it was time I’d never expected to have with him. Words he hadn’t said to me finally spoken. I felt like I had time traveled.
I was a wound, half-healed-over and scraped raw again. “Everybody Hurts” was running through my mind. I could see the consolation of it, the idea that your pain wasn’t unique.
Something about that made it seem both bigger and smaller. Smaller because all the world was aching. Bigger because I could finally admit that every other feeling I’d been focusing on had been a distraction from the deepest hurt.
My father was gone. And I would always miss him.
And that had to be okay.
I reached for my phone and opened the YouTube app. I typed “Everybody Hurts” and I played it there, from my phone speakers. When it ended, I started it over.
The pain settled into a deep rhythm. It felt almost like exercising, a mounting burn through my muscles and joints. Once, in a bad season of tension headaches, my doctor had told me that pain was our body demanding to be heard.
“Sometimes it’s a warning,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a billboard.”
I didn’t know what this pain’s intent was but I thought, If I listen to it, maybe it will be content to close back up for a while.
Maybe this night of pain would give me even a day of relief.
The song ended again. I started it over.
The night was cold. I wondered how much colder it would be in January. I wanted to see it. If I did, I thought, that would be one more part of him I could meet.
I gathered the letters and envelopes into a neat stack and stood to go home, but now when I pictured the house on the edge of the lake, a strange new variation of that searing ache—Gus, in D minor, I thought—passed through me.
I felt like I was coming apart, like the connective tissue between my left and right ribs had been hacked away and I was going to split.
It had been hours now since we’d parted. I’d gotten no call, not even a text. I thought about the look on his face when he’d seen Naomi, like a ghost was standing in front of his eyes. A tiny, beautiful ghost he had once loved so madly he’d married her. So madly he wanted to work through it when she tore his heart to pieces.