A letter to my daughter, about being a firstborn.
[Okay, the numbering thing is complicated. You’re not the first baby, but you will be the first born. I guess. Sort of. I’m not saying I don’t feel conflicted to write to you about being a firstborn, but it’s important, and real life is what happens in the tension between life and death.]
Since both your parents are firstborns in every sense of the word, you are coming into a very earnest household. Sometimes we come home from a social event and share a knowing glance, one of us grimacing and saying, “We were way too intense for that situation…” We get really wound up about things. We joke that our two family mottos are, “go big or go home,” and “I saw that working out differently in my mind.” Who even has one, let alone two, family mottos? Firstborns, that’s who. Experts say that two oldest children usually make an awful combination for marriage, and in some ways they may be right, but neither one of us thinks we could truly respect and relate to a non-firstborn in the ways needed to build a marriage and family together. (We love our younger siblings ferociously and you have the best aunt-and-uncle lineup known to man, but we also believe they have danced through a life we had to pioneer. Every firstborn feels this way, even if it isn’t always true.) I have often wondered if you will have a double-dose of whatever it is that makes us firstborns so fierce.
Because you’ll be the first baby to join us here, we don’t have a life-pattern that includes children yet. Many things will change – gloriously. I wonder what it will be like. I have lots of moments where I think about bundling you up to go exploring and hunting with your dad. (It will be really important for him that you at least try to like it. He will probably give you lots of donuts to help make it special.) I think about reading all our favorite stories out loud at bedtime, braiding your hair, and teaching you all the songs from The Sound of Music. Maybe someday we will hunker down in a blizzard and I will pull out the bin of long needles I have from my great-grandma so I can teach you to knit, just like the snowstorm when my mom taught me? So it’s not that I don’t think about the everyday parts of having you here… It’s just that some days, like today, I think about you in my INTENSE FIRSTBORN BRAIN, which says “I CAN’T BELIEVE I EVER THINK ABOUT PAINTING TOENAIL POLISH WITH THIS CHILD WHEN THERE ARE SO MANY BIG THINGS LIKE DEATH AND CORPORATIONS AND MERCY IN THIS WORLD.”
I’m bringing you into a world that you both were and most certainly were not created for. A world that very often, if you listen closely, seems to have a constant whisper of the Mass Requiem text: In the midst of life, we are in death. There is life! I want you to know the unabashed goodness of fresh tomatoes and muddy dog paws, the Great Books and the Grand Canyon, Lake Michigan and live bluegrass bands, kissing and ice cream. And there is death, which means things die. It also means there is something a little bit wrong with everything in a way that can’t be completely solved by either of us. Sometimes frost, blight, insects, or pesky animals ruin gardens. Our dog Max, whom we love and whose paws do and will continue to get muddy, will die long before we think he should. In the best case scenario, you will get to watch his body ache and age at a time when you are very aware of pain and growing up, and we might even have to make a choice to end his life when it is the only way to ease his suffering. (He is sitting with one of those paws on my lap right now, and yes, I cried a little bit while writing that down.) Whether you’re studying at home with me or at a school with teachers, you will read famous old books that display a lot of this brokenness. Shakespeare’s Othello is one of my favorites, because he depicts human relationships with beauty and perspective. It also contains vulgar and derogatory references to interracial, um, “special hugging.” (More on that… later.) You will probably know what it is to have a broken heart as you grow up and kiss someone who later “falls out of love” with you. It seems like a trite thing until it happens, at which time you will feel like someone has hurled an axe into your chest, and you will spend at least a little while vowing to never, ever, in a million years, risk yourself in love for anyone again. (You will. And it will be worth it.)
Something inside me hurts when I think about these things hurting you, because you were not created for pain, and I want to solve it all for you. I can’t. Everything in this world has the potential for so much beauty and rightness, because we were made for perfection and God has not withheld his grace from us, and so much pain, because it is all at least a little askew with sin. I’m going to want to manipulate it out of balance, and a part of me will always want to bear all the sorrows so you could just know the joys. I am not your savior and it is not my job to keep you away from them. I have to tell myself this because I’ve watched so many mamas try to overprotect in impossible ways. It doesn’t work. It just damages even worse, usually, than what she was trying to shield her kids from. But I see why they try now.
The solution to this dilemma is not found with either of us. Even as your mama, I can’t fix it for you, and I know enough to confess that – no matter how many dreams I have for my daughter – you will be just as helpless as I am. (Even as firstborns, who really have a way of getting things done.)
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1, esv)
It would be terrible of me to hide you from sorrow because I don’t want to hide you from the full goodness of this news: Jesus is the true firstborn, both of life and death. I will teach you songs about remembering your favorite things when bees sting and you feel sad, but the real peace coming out of destruction is in the reconciliation of the cross. Don’t let any vain attempts I make to keep you from witnessing the effects of death (and there are many) obstruct the beautiful truth that everything which holds together is a witness to God’s grace. And so much does hold together so often. Part of his preeminence means that even when things are messed up, which they are, they still work out for good. Your very existence bears witness to God making good things coming up out of death, and I am astounded to think we will get to keep seeing this at work in the rest of your life. There is a lot here waiting for you, little girl, and the broken world needs all the God-given bravery and loveliness you have to offer.
[I asked your father what he hopes to instruct you along these lines. He replied as follows: “Don’t disgrace us, don’t embarrass yourself, and don’t commit any felonies.”]