If The Big One Hits: A Letter To My Newborn Son

by Christopher Dale
letter to my son

To my newborn son, Nicholas, in the suddenly less unlikely event of my premature demise:

It’s been a busy couple of months.

On March 18 of this year, you made me a dad. The previous week, on March 7, I had a stroke at age 36.

It wasn’t a huge stroke. I wasn’t stricken paralyzed, nor rendered visually disabled. But it was, as a neurologist told me, a warning shot. So while you’ve fallen into an onerous yet endearing routine of eating, sleeping and dirtying diapers, your father has a medical team spanning neurology, ophthalmology, cardiology, and hematology conspiring to find the smoking gun. Thus far, amid bloodwork, MRIs, ultrasounds, and echocardiograms, they’ve come up clueless.

I’m not a morbid man, and this isn’t a final will and testament. However, it wouldn’t be the shock of all shocks if my warning shot was followed by a more debilitating, even fatal, round of fire. That said, I’d be remiss not to leave you with some fatherly advice—just in case the big one hits.

We Love You, They Love You Not

First, understand that your immediate family—your mother, grandparents, certain aunts and uncles—love you completely. They love you as you are, and you are special to them. And the sooner you fully embrace this, the sooner the sting will be removed from this corresponding realization: No one else shares this heightened opinion of you.

Contrary to the ribbons, badges, and certificates you’ll acquire in childhood, real life has no participation trophies. You’re going to summarily suck at some stuff, and that’s perfectly OK. Part of growing up is learning what special skills you possess, and you can’t do that if you’re being disingenuously applauded at every turn.

You’ll see friends receiving undeserving accolades for seemingly every endeavor they undertake. This sort of obsessive validation isn’t helpful, because it leads to arrogant young adults who think they’re good at everything, and as a result, often make jackasses out of themselves. Need proof? Google “Millennial Generation.”

Your mother is not going to dub you the next Babe Ruth if you hit .150 in Little League, nor the next Mark Twain if you’re a C student in English Composition. But there will invariably be a few things that you both have a knack for and enjoy doing. Do those things. Do other things too, but give your true talents the time and cultivation they deserve.

Death and the Internet Are Permanent

In your teen years, please, please, please don’t do anything that could end your story before it really begins. Fifteen years from now you’ll be a hormonal, impressionable adolescent. You’re going to get into your allotment of trouble—the trick is to keep the sins venial rather than mortal.

If you find yourself drunk at a party at age 17 (and you will), don’t even think about getting behind the wheel. Should you be tempted to try less legal means of inebriation (and you will), realize that all drugs—especially heroin, which is uniquely lethal—aren’t created equal. And if the opportunity to have sex comes along in your teenage years (and it may), wrap it up like a mummy.

You’re also going to grow up in an environment of omnipresent, oftentimes inescapable internet connectivity, whose many upsides are counterbalanced by the ability to irreparably damage your reputation at any time. The point: Your worst moments can potentially be far more damaging than mine were—and I can’t believe I’m using this phrase—when I was your age. Strictly advising you against any and all impulsively foolish behavior is, of course, unrealistic. My best advice is to think, even for an extra millisecond, before doing something controversial in public.

This Is Only Temporary…So Don’t Be Afraid

Lest the preceding cautionary advice be misconstrued: Thoughtful discretion is not a license to be passive, or to constantly consider the bigger picture. Realize that, for example, the four years you spend in high school will be all too quickly followed by four decades of wondering why you thought high school was such a big deal. It’s not. So live brave, and wear life as lightly as possible.

If you think that girl (or guy) you’re crushing on is out of your league, let them be the judge of that rather than your own insecurities. Better to strike out swinging than looking.

If someone picks a fight with you, punch him—hard. Cowards die a thousand deaths, and self-respect is worth a black eye. Hell, it’s probably worth a broken bone or two.

And if you’re hesitant to try something new because it might not be popular…well…don’t be. And this isn’t some corny “the world needs different” cliché. The world doesn’t need you the same way it doesn’t (or didn’t) need me.

The real reason to go against the grain sometimes is that doing so gives you the best chance to discover unforeseen interests and talents. It’s inevitable: An outsized portion of your adult life will be spent at work. Your surest bet to contentedness is to find a calling—hopefully a reasonably marketable one—that you truly enjoy, then work relentlessly toward the opportunity to ply your chosen craft for the rest of your life. Have a career, not a job.

Everything else is fairly straightforward: Study hard. Exercise regularly, and eat a vegetable once in a while. And whatever you do, don’t be a Red Sox fan.