To Nathan on His Third Birthday

I apologise that this will not be my most eloquent piece. I write it as I watch you sleep, with a drip attached because you have had your tonsils taken out and you refuse to drink. We had other plans to make your birthday special, but – not surprisingly – you had other ideas.  I suppose this typifies you – strong-willed and independent. It makes parenting…challenging. Still, fatherhood is such a privilege. I could never have conceived of how much joy you would bring me, and how much richer my life would be because you are in it.

Nathan’s impressions of Johannesburg traffic

First, I want you to know that I will always love you. It will never be conditional on what you achieve, or even on what kind of person you are. I will love you because you are my son. Because you are you. I hope that despite all that I may do wrong, that you will know that. You never need to worry that I will stop loving you.


I am acutely aware of how influential my example will be in shaping the man you become. I realise that you are always watching how I respond to a crisis; you see how I express my love, my anger, my joy and my frustration; you will emulate how I handle conflict; you will probably learn how to respond to your own triumphs and failures from me.  And I fail often.


I am sorry for the times when my frustrations have made me snap at you and your mother. I am sorry for the times when I have been at home but have felt too tired to give you the attention you deserve. I am sorry that too often I have not consciously considered how I ought to relate to you in order to develop in you the kinds of characteristics and habits that will help you in later life.


And despite my failings, you have developed into such a beautiful person. I am so proud of who you are.


One of your strongest attributes is your indomitable will. When you say no, then no threat or bribe will sway you from your decision. As frustrating as that can be, I pray that I may never attempt to squash that independence. I know that when you are older, you will forge your own path; you will be nobody’s puppet. I promise to try to help you to determine for yourself what it is that you stand for, so that you may find security in your chosen principles, in a world that will try to control you.


I see already how influential you are. At your prize-giving this year, when your class was on the stage, and the children were supposed to be waiting quietly for their names to be called so that they could collect their certificates, you were the one leading all the other boys in a sort of mini-rebellion. You evidently liked the reverberating sound of feet stamping on the wooden stage, and many of the other boys joined you, despite protestations from their parents. I was proud of you. I think you will always have influence. I will try to show you how to use that influence constructively.


Your teacher says that you show great compassion when others are distressed. That fills me with pride too. It is in recognising the humanity in others, and in being able to connect to their suffering, that you will be able to accept your own humanity and weather your own storms. The ability to empathise is so important.


I don’t know where you got it from, but you love things to be organised. When you play with your cars, you like them to be lined up, facing the same direction. When there is a small mess on your shirt, we have to change it. You’re in for a bit of a shock: the world is chaotic and messy. I know you will want to change that.


I wish I could protect you from the world. The truth is that others will try to take advantage of you so that they can live more comfortably; they will hurt you to satisfy their own desires; they will try to compel you – through force or manipulation – to conform to their ideologies.  Tragedy and pain will be unavoidable. You are an intelligent and loving boy – you will see the world for what it is and it will break your heart. You will find no lasting satisfaction in the things of this world. I wish I could promise you otherwise, but I cannot.


But I have hope for you. You are a fighter. Considering all of this – both who you are, and what you must face – my birthday blessing for you is this:


May you always know where to find your strength. Let your sense of your worth be rooted in the unshakeable knowledge that you are loved. The world will have no love for you – most will simply try to use you. Even the church’s teachings and practices will carry the implicit message that you are not good enough. By insisting on purity, they will suggest that God’s favour depends on your purity, and you will be forced to conclude that He cannot love you. But that simply is not true. May you always have the strength to see through the hypocrisy and judgmentalism to the heart of God, as evident in Jesus. You are loved. Unconditionally.


And once you are certain of that, I pray that you may have the wisdom to choose your principles wisely. May they be centred in love. May you have the maturity to consciously select the values that will help you develop into the type of person you want to be, because I know that if you have solid and deliberately chosen principles, you will be able to navigate your way through all of life’s trials. If you have an unshakeable sense of self, you will be able to use your influence to effect great change, because it will be tempered by your natural compassion.


As you lead – which invariably you will – may you always know the power and necessity of forgiveness. Let compassion and wisdom guide you, because you will need people, as they will need you.


I will guide you where I can, my darling boy. Where I fail, I pray there will be others to stand in the gap. For now, though, you are only three. Have fun. Eat lots of cake. Be happy and loved. Happy birthday, Nathan, my joy.



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