Last week, dearest Bess, you turned five. The first thing you wanted to do when you woke up on your birthday was stand tall against me, to see how much you’d grown now you were five.
I’m writing this to you for your fifteenth birthday, a birthday I find hard to picture, when I’ll no longer need to bend to hug you, and we’ll look each other in the eye, your face level with mine.
All letters are a kind of trust exercise. This one more than most. I’m writing with blind faith in the next ten years. Faith that the tomorrows will keep coming until we stand in that moment.
Because, marvellous girl, what I can’t tell you yet, in the fierce pride and love of your fifth birthday, is how I think of all the children born since 2011 that won’t see theirs.
In 2015, (the year you turned four, started school, learned how to write your name) 16,000 children under five have died every day across the world.
You could have been one of them, but for the sheer luck of where you were born, and when. There was the kidney infection just after you turned one, which needed a week in hospital with IV antibiotics to shift. The wheeze that sprang up with each cold when you were two, and the nights we spent in hospital, watching every breath heave your tiny chest. You had help, quickly and effectively, whenever you needed it. You have spent your earliest years in a country where no parent needs to worry whether they can afford to take their sick child to the doctor. We are so, so lucky. Please, never take this for granted.
I think of the lives lost because they began in the wrong time. Futures that were snuffed out by the living conditions of the past. People must have been used to it, we think, with death so omnipresent. But parents have always held hopes for their children, just as I hold hopes for you. It’s just that there were more ways to have them dashed from their hands. Ben Jonson lost his son aged seven in 1603, to the plague. His elegy throbs with the same fierce pride I feel for you, in words which long outlived his son:
Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
In too many places, over four hundred years later, nothing has changed. We should burn with shame that the vulnerable years of childhood are still so dangerous in so much of the world.
Many parents will say that all they want is for their children to be happy. I don’t wish that for you. Don’t be happy while there is so much needing to be fixed. Be happiest, wonderful girl, working hard to fix it. We have so much to do, and our time is so short. You will need all your spark, every flicker of your quick mind, and all your rage.
Right now you are as careless in your skin as a tiger cub. In the next ten years, I hope you’ll run, shout, play. Read, draw, write. And ask questions – always ask questions. May you never get sidetracked into feeling uneasy with yourself. Your face is the single most beautiful thing I will ever see, purely because it is yours.
No matter what happens after these first five years of yours, whatever the adventures or hurts, the humiliations or triumphs, one thing is true. Wherever you go in this world, however far we are apart, until your very last heartbeat, you are forever wrapped in my love.