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When my brother told me, in December, that he would become a father this summer, I obviously didn’t imagine a spring remotely resembling the one we’re currently living through. I worried, of course, like I tend to do. I worried about the health of my sister-in-law, about miscarriages and stillbirths and postpartum complications, about school shootings and climate change, afraid that we’d leave my brother’s child to inhabit a burning, flooding earth. I worried about the cost of frequent visits to their home on the west coast of Canada, from mine on the East Coast of the United States. But I did not worry that a global pandemic, cartoonishly mishandled by our federal government, would make fortresses of our homes and trap us inside them, overwhelmed by the volume and force of our collective fear, loss, boredom and loneliness.

I didn’t yet know to worry that I wouldn’t be able to feel the soft weight of the baby in my arms this summer, to apply the diaper cream or wipe the milk off her chin. I didn’t know I wouldn’t be able to kiss the top of her head or smell the no-tears shampoo rubbed into her duckling-fuzz hair and pooled in the folds of her chubby thighs. These were my happy, mundane certainties, living alongside the catastrophic what-ifs of my worries. But strangely enough, I stumbled upon a kind of substitution for physical connection, months before I even had a need to name the strange and specific grief of losing it.

I started writing letters to my niece.

Dear Baby, I wrote at the top of my first letter in January, on a fresh page in a brand-new spiral notebook. Here is everything I know about being alive. I couldn’t wait six months to meet her; I found that I had to start speaking to her right away, in the only way available to me: pen and paper. Even as I knew that she would change all of our lives when she was born, I felt that she had somehow already started to change mine. Each day after that one, letter by letter, I have sat down at my desk to unspool our family histories for my niece. I draw maps of our cities and homes for her future exploration. I describe the boundaries and the possibilities of being human, what I know of love, family, work and of making a life of one’s own.

The author, right, and her brother when they were children. (Courtesy of Hannah Matthews)
The author, right, and her brother when they were children. (Courtesy of Hannah Matthews)

I describe my own experiences of childhood, teenhood and adulthood, and the many, many mistakes I made along the way (flushing her dad’s beloved Nolan Ryan rookie card down the toilet when I was 6 and he was 10, for example). I speculate wildly about who the kid will be — what will make her laugh and what that laugh will sound like, what her biggest fears will be, how she’ll feel about cilantro and snow and black licorice and dogs and math and bluegrass music.

Dear Baby,

Pay attention to everything around you.

But also: pay attention to everything inside of you, all the thoughts and feelings that rise and fall and churn and roll over each other. You’ll be oceanic, like everyone else in our family, and everyone else on earth! You’ll have tides and currents. Don’t ignore them. And never feel like you can’t share them with the people who love you. (January 22)

The act of writing to the baby has become a kind of daily meditation, a grounding and affirming reminder of what really matters. After she’s born, I will compile them into a bound book and mail it to my brother, to be put away on a bookshelf until she grows big enough to read and understand them. And I plan to write and send another, every year on her birthday, as long as I live. While I mourn my losses — missing out on her birth, not getting to watch my beloved big brother grow into his new life as a parent — it brings me peace to share what I can as the aunt who will have to love her from a distance (for the foreseeable future, at least). And I write the things I wish had been laid out more clearly for me as I was growing up.

Dear Baby,

People may try to make you feel ashamed, in all kinds of big and small ways, for all kinds of big and small things. What you look like, what gets you interested and excited, what you wear, what music you like. The shame is a distraction from the business of living your life. Don’t give it a second of your time. (February 19)

The author and her brother, all grown up. (Courtesy of Hannah Matthews)
The author and her brother, all grown up. (Courtesy of Hannah Matthews)

Of course, as winter bloomed into spring, my letters began to read a little differently. Compare the letter of March 1, in which I wrote cheerfully about how I couldn’t wait to read her the poems of Ross Gay and Ada Limón, and the ways in which good poetry can warm you from the inside on cold days, and the letter of March 22, after my first week of self-isolation in my tiny Maine apartment (Dear Baby, loneliness is a ribbon that runs through every person’s life), or the letter of April 17, after my fourth week (Dear Baby, if today were a color, it would be grey).

In early May, 60 days into self-isolation, I sat down to write my letter, feeling lost and sick. I had developed some vague, worrisome symptoms (the most confounding and grievous of which being that food has lost its taste). My workplace, a public library, had begun to furlough staff, sending some of my colleagues into financial distress. My husband had been laid off and we were waiting, like so many other families, to receive word of his unemployment insurance. So I sat down at my desk, queasy, squinting through the fog of all these uncertainties. Some days, lately, the fog barely lifts.

Dear Baby,

Some days will feel endless. But I promise they will end. (May 10)

By writing to this little stranger, marveling that she has yet to take a single one of the infinite paths that will branch off in every direction at the moment of her birth (and every moment of her life after that), I grant myself the gift of imagining new futures. Every day that my niece will spend on earth will be a day in which something new and meaningful and beautiful is possible. As she takes shape in my mind, becoming more real to me with every sentence, so do the ways in which I will love her. I’ve found a way, somehow, to envision and articulate my dreams for a life lived (almost) entirely outside of what’s happening in this moment.

Dear Baby, I write, and the words crack my heart wide open every time, only to fill it with hope.

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