The drive to the hospital 11 years ago, December 15th, 2011, was not the first. You had me convinced several times that you were ready for your birthday; the second to last visit to Labor and Delivery, the nurse felt so bad, she gave me a little Christmas newborn sleeper to take home with me in lieu of the actual newborn I was so anxious to meet.
I should have known then that you loved a joke.
I was never more sick than I was during your pregnancy, eyes perpetually bloodshot from vomiting up even the smell of food, itchy PIC line in my arm while I waited for you — and I could not have imagined an easier, more pleasant son than you. What an utterly worthwhile trade. From the first, you captivated us, with your insanely long eyelashes and easygoing demeanor, even as an infant.
You knew the rhythm of the home before you could actively join it; I remember having the silly worries of a young mom, that the big girls would feel displaced by the advent of this new little person. I laid you down, asleep, the day after we brought you home and went to read to the girls before naps and they both, in unison, looked at me, horrified — “He belongs with us!” and insisted I bring you in with them, to lie right between them while they listened.
They were right. And we have never wanted a moment without you since.
You have always been a man for paying attention. You always played like a boy, but somehow without looking askance at the girlish play of your three sisters, who have always viewed you as St. George, ready to fight any dragon that needed fighting. But he rather had it easy, I think… he only had one Una to protect.
You never met a bruise you didn’t like, and once we confirmed that you were, in fact, not a hemophiliac, we learned just to keep superglue and steri strips on hand, to always have ice packs at the ready, and to learn from you how to handle ugly wounds — laugh it off, make sure it is a better story on the retelling. Like this summer, when you raced against a moving tire swing and lost and ended up with the largest hematoma I have ever seen on your spine, which turned the gnarliest purple I have ever seen outside a vat of crushed wine grapes, and your girls were terrified that you were going to die (possibly your mom was scared too), and from your heap of pillows and ice, you managed that Dick Van Dyke smile of yours and began:
“So there I was, and this T-Rex and I both wanted the last ice cream sandwich…”
So they laughed. And we knew that all was still right with the world.
I wonder if you know that about yourself, that when you are sad, or sick, or hurt, it feels like the sun has been knocked from our sky. How can that be? But it is fact. The simple presence of your smile, or better still, your laugh is enough to make everything feel like all is well, and when that smile is gone, our world feels like it has been dragged to hang upside down by its toes.
You become less and less a boy, more and more a man with each passing year, and yet you are maturing with a grace that precludes all sadness on my part. You still play, and I love hearing the stories you spin for and with your sisters. You are a font of information, and it tickles me that out of nowhere, I will hear, “Fun fact…” and then some tidbit that I truly have no idea why you know it. You greeted your birthday with shouts of laughter, just like how you were greeted for the first time 11 years ago. Your girls showered you with gifts and you received each one as if it was the first and best you had ever opened (I love you for that). We made you buttermilk waffles and piled yours high with Nutella and whipped cream, strawberries, sprinkles and 11 candles. We read Psalm 139, and the birthday liturgy. We sang songs at the piano that you love; I am enjoying hearing you develop your skills as a tenor. You sing well, like your dad.
The morning was spent in anticipation (but of what, you had no notion), scattered with gifts and treats, dipping into the many bowls of candy spread across your breakfast table (now you know what buttered popcorn jelly bellies taste like. What do you think?), until we piled you into the Earl of Towcester on a day much brighter and sunnier than your first birthday was. You had no idea where we were going, and no complaints.
You encountered people who love you, who gladly drive hours just to buy you a plate of pancakes and a gigantic milkshake, who tape 11 quarters in a card and who rejoice that you are you. Do you know, at age 11, that you have the finest grandparents God ever made? I think you do. You dress like your grandfather, in your dark jeans and button-up shirts, always tucked in with a belt, and you aspire to work boots like the men in our family tend to wear. You are handsome like he is, and are learning the ways of men from both father and grandfather — you could not learn from better.
And then we spent hours at the LeMay American Car Museum and your beautiful blue eyes about popped out of their sockets. My favorite part might have been when we were still on the freeway and the gigantic museum came into view and you exclaimed, “This is the closest I have ever been to the AMERICAN CAR MUSEUM!!!!” And you know what is great? You still would have been happy if that was as close as we took you. But instead, you took it all in, taught me about the cars you saw, raced in the Ferrari simulator and played slot car races with your grandpa and Youngest Quail.
We were exhausted. But not finished.
We took cheeseburgers home, to eat and play and relax with a movie, until it got dark dark dark… and then we told you all to get into your coziest pajamas, sweaters and mittens, to bring your stuffed animals and your widest Christmas eyes and Daddy drove us around until past bedtime, hunting for Christmas lights. We sang along with Ella and Louis (you do a killer Louis Armstrong impression), and set a goal for our family, that over the years, we would build up to having so many lights on our house every year that when anyone drives by it, they would have to marvel at the God we serve. We built a theology of Christmas lights, right there in the car, with you and the other Quail.
There is nothing like falling into bed, birthday exhausted. I think you were asleep before I even reached the door, and as I spent my last waking minutes contemplating the day, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the good gift of you. All children are gifts, all children require faith. But you were uniquely so… for long time, we did not trust God. We didn’t think we could survive if we had another mitochondrial kid. We were looking to our strength, and not His (that is a silly thing to do, Son. Our strength is never the strength that matters), and when finally, we stepped out in faith, He immediately gave us YOU. And our hearts have not stopped singing gratitude, ever since.
Happy Birthday, Boy Quail. I cherish you.