In October I attended the funeral of somebody for whom I have a great deal of respect and fondness. She was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident, and everyone expected the memorial service to be a particularly emotional and sombre affair. Indeed, when her daughters spoke, it was particularly moving. But not because her loss had broken them; instead, they laughed at memories, and genuinely celebrated her impact on their lives. Although the searing pain of loss was obvious, it never became the focus of the moment. Rather, they acknowledged how deeply they had been touched by a remarkable woman. Their maturity, their courage and their undeniable strength of character, were more powerful testimonies to her than any words they could speak. It was strikingly beautiful.
As I sat and listened to them so passionately deliver what must have been the most difficult address they have ever had to give, I found myself hoping, Nathan, that when my time comes you will have been afforded the opportunity to say the same kinds of things. Not for my sake – I do not require the adoration of men – but for yours. In that moment I understood something important: my living a good life will empower you to be able to do so too. Much of your approach to life will be determined by the choices that you make. And many of those choices will be rooted in the way you think about yourself. I want you to be able to make those choices not from a sense of inadequacy or bitterness or hurt, but from the certainty that you are unconditionally loved. And I know that much of that rests on me.
I have loved this year with you. As you become a boy and not a baby anymore, I have been amazed by the ways in which you have grown. Too fast, it seems. And so I savour the beautiful privilege of experiencing your childhood with you. And four years on, I still smile every time I think of you (which is often), and I become animated whenever anybody asks about you. You are my treasure. But it is not enough that I know that; you must know that too. And the only way you can come to know that, not just in your head, but in your heart, is when I live it rather than merely speaking it.
Already, I can see how easily the world erodes innocence. I see how fragile you are, how your delicate sense of self is moulded by how people interact with you. It broke my heart when you came back from school, distraught because you had not received a star for good behaviour. You have, on a few occasions, alluded to your perception that you are “not good”. It was always one of my greatest concerns with enrolling you in a Christian school, where I knew the emphasis would be on your inherent sinfulness. I never wanted that theology to make you question your self-worth, certainly not at a stage of your life when you are too young to critique it. I don’t want a schooling system that values compliance over deep learning to break you, to make you think that you are not worthy because you do not always fit in. And I try hard not to contribute to it, although I know that in some ways I do – you are very strong-willed and defiant (which I love about you), which I don’t always handle with the deliberate thoughtfulness and gentleness that I should.
Please forgive me for when I have failed you, Nathan, for when my responses have misled you into believing that ancient lie, that nagging voice that makes you doubt yourself. The truth is that you are a good boy. I have seen your heart – how much you want to please. I have noticed how willingly you do the things I ask you to (most of the time), how effortlessly you share your sweets (your currency), and how compassionate you are when others are sad. If they gave stars for a good heart instead of for compliance to archaic norms, your chart would be filled very quickly. Goodness is not about compliance, my darling boy, it is the state of the heart. You are exceedingly good.
I worry that you are lonely. I know that particular bitterness all too well, and I do not wish it for you. And so I find your excitement before Pippa comes to play so bittersweet. Thrilled as I am to see you enjoy yourself, your excitement seems to indicate a desperate need for somebody to relate to. And I wish we could give you a brother or sister, but for many reasons, it is just not an option. And I hate that I keep having to say that my back is sore when you ask me to pick you up, or that the necessity of eating keeps me in the kitchen for an hour each evening when I would rather be sitting with you. I know that it will only escalate. After all, you carry my genes. You will start to feel that nobody understands you. You will harbour in your heart a sort of shame. You will feel like a fraud sometimes, and sometimes you will judge your own behaviours with a harshness you would never force on others. There will be days that will seem long and nights that will seem longer. Sometimes the dawn will seem very far away and the stars, cold and indifferent. I fear that for you. I know that your hope of overcoming those assaults on your heart will rest on your capacity to understand that you are loved.
Maybe that is why I do not mind that you sleep in our bed every night now, taking up all the space and relegating me to the very edge of a bed that should easily accommodate three. And until such time as your age makes it inappropriate for you to still be sleeping in the same bed as your parents, you will always be welcome. It is why I buy you more sweets than I should, even when your mom expresses (quite rightly) concerns about how they will impact on your health. It is why I always want to hug you, although I risk doing it so frequently that the gesture becomes devoid of meaning for you.
When my day comes, and you stand in front of the congregation to give your eulogy, I pray that you will be able to do so, firm in the knowledge that you are loved. I will try hard to make sure that the memories you recount are of laughing together, of times spent with each other rather than simply living in the same house. I want you to be sure that you have the strength to cope even with the most devastating losses, that you have been taught how to form relationships that keep the loneliness at bay. I want you to have no doubt that you are loved, because only then can you start to love others properly, and I am sure that by the time you are old enough to read this you will know that I believe that love is the key to fullness of life.
But until that day, we have something else to celebrate – your life. You are only four, but already you have taught me many important lessons. You have radically transformed how I see the world – everything from my theology to my convictions about what education should be. You have brought the most indescribable joy to my existence. I hope I can return the favour.