You love trains, puzzles, and peanut butter. Your laugh starts deep in your belly and is the most infectious giggle I’ve ever heard. You don’t go a day without singing, even if it’s Jingle Bells in April.

You have my fair hair and your daddy’s round hands. And you still ask for kisses when you fall over.

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I dread the day you realize I can’t protect you from the parts of life that are scary and dark. The day when kisses won’t be enough to heal.

At 3, you’ve lived half your life fatherless, and I admit I don’t know how to answer when you ask where Heaven is, or what God is.

I confess I’m selfish. I live for bedtimes, when I cuddle up and lean into your nighttime prayers of thank you’s. Thank you for vegetables and cookies. Thank you for jumping and Snoopy. For mama and kisses.

I pray you won’t have to learn the hard way the difference between hope and wishful thinking. And yet I know the hard and rocky paths in life are when we grow the most.

I wish I could always hold your hand, but I hope that when you do let go – as I know you will – that you’ll know you’re not alone when you stumble.

Three years ago, after 24 hours of labor, I told your daddy I couldn’t do this anymore. He looked me in the eye and said yes, yes, you can do this. And half an hour later, there you were in my arms, warm and wet and new.

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There are still days I’m worried I can’t do this, but I hear that voice in my head, telling me I can.

I promise I’ll try to teach you everything he would have taught you. Not just the fishing and the baseball and the fixing things. But also the generosity and the wisdom and the perseverance.

I hope your laugh will always be this infectious. That you’ll never lose your cause to sing. I hope I can be the mama you need me to be every single day of your life.

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With time, you’ll start to scatter pieces of yourself all over this world. You’ll sweat into the ground as you play; you’ll give memories to friends that you make; you’ll build something that leaves even the smallest of marks.

One day you’ll leave your childhood in the last rusty swing as it sways in the wind. But until then, my darling baby, you are the biggest piece of myself I know, and I don’t plan on leaving you any place.

Happy birthday, baby.

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