“Parenthood is about raising and celebrating the child you have, not the child you thought you’d have. It’s about understanding your child is exactly the person they are supposed to be. And, it you’re lucky, they might be the teacher who turns you into the person you’re supposed to be”–The Water Giver.

Dear Ava,

Three years ago, I thought I understood all of this as a mother. With six years of parenting Olivia under my belt, I’ll admit, I thought I had this parenthood and ‘seeing our children for who they are versus who we expect them to be’ thing down. Although I knew that having another child would change things, I thought I had things pretty well figured out and under control. (That makes me laugh these days, when I now realize how very little I knew about life and parenting, even after spending 6 years raising a child. Just one of the gifts you’ve given me–humility).

And then, Ava, you were born. I’ll be honest, you were not who I was expecting. Let me rephrase that–what you have experienced is not what I was expecting. I wasn’t expecting that you would be born with complex health issues. All of our ultrasounds prior to your birth (and I had many due to being the ripe old age of 36 when you were born) never gave any hint to the difficulties you would face. Naively, I didn’t even know about the medical side of life that so many children and parents experience.

Your medical issues may not be what I was expecting, but you on the other hand, you are more than I ever could have expected and then some! Truly, I thank God for the fact that you are not who I was expecting, because you are EVEN MORE than I ever could have expected. Yes, your entrance into the world three years ago may have brought forth more difficulties and obstacles than I ever could have expected for a little baby, but YOU, the person that you are, your strength, courage, irrepressible joy, love and sense of humor are on a level I have never witnessed in another human being.

And although I wish I could have made these first few years of your life easier, free from suffering, I wouldn’t change who you are and who you’ve made me to be, for the world.

Today, my sweet daughter, you are turning three. And I’ll be honest, words fail me as I think about what I want to share with you, what I want you to know about your first three years of life.

When your older sister was born, I began the tradition of writing her a letter for each birthday, sharing her accomplishments and experiences from over the past year, and our great joy in living out life with her in it. That was my intention with you, too. But when you were whisked out of my arms shortly after being born and rushed off to the NICU, a chain of events occurred over the next year that left me wondering if I could ever bring myself to write you a letter for your birthday. What ever would I say in it?

On your first birthday, everything was still so raw, some things were still so hard for you, that I couldn’t bring myself to write it.

On your second birthday, we were just so busy trying to keep up with you that I didn’t write a letter then, either. If I had, it would have been miles long, as I rambled off the list of your accomplishments, the obstacles you had overcome, the wonderful news that overall, you are healthy and are developmentally on target and even advanced in some areas. It would have started giving you a glimpse into just how much joy you’ve radiated in our lives in such a short period of time.

Although your first year of life was full of more accomplishments than most children at that age, as you had so many more hurdles to overcome than most, it was also full of more tests, doctor’s appointments, surgeries, and therapies than I had ever known could exist for an infant. Someday, I will share more of those details with you, so that you know just how far you’ve come, but for now, I want to share something much more important, in my opinion.

I want you to know not only how much you are deeply loved by your family, and really anyone who has the chance to encounter your joyful, loving and playful spirit and near-constant mega-watt smile, but also just how much you’ve impacted our lives for the better.

So for your third birthday, I’m starting a new tradition with you. Each year on your birthday, I’m going to share with you a corresponding number of things you’ve taught me or someone else in our lives.

In a world that often wants to identify lives like yours where there are complex or ongoing health issues as burdensome to our family, to our communities and on our resources like healthcare, I’m going to be here to remind you that your impact is MUCH greater than anyone who wants to tell you otherwise would expect.

So, without further ado, here are the top three lessons that you’ve taught me over the past three years, Ava. They may be only three, but they are life-changing.

Take it one day at a time. And cherish it, no matter what the day holds.

As your mother, I will always worry about you. Especially considering what you’ve gone through and what you will continue to face in life. When we finish one round of specialty appointments, I’m usually thinking ahead to the next one that could be four months or two years down the line. Even though I think about it, I don’t stay focused on it, despite my historical tendency to do just that, because you’ve shown me to take it one day at a time.

There can be huge changes that take place even one day to the next in life, so worrying excessively about tomorrow or two years from now isn’t all that helpful. I still look ahead and have plans A, B and C, but life will still happen. And that’s okay. And even when things are difficult, you’ve taught me to enjoy every moment of it. There are difficult days, but those days always pass. And whether we are doing something enjoyable like spending time together as a family, or doing something not so enjoyable, like going through a round of doctor’s appointments or lab tests, you always still have a smile through your tears, a hug for me in the midst of me making you go through something painful. You cherish life, and you’ve reminded me to likewise cherish every minute that I have with both of you girls. Which leads me to lesson number two:

There will always be suffering in this life, but there is joy to found even in the midst of that suffering.

Just like I’ve always known to take it one day at a time, and really focus on living today, I’ve also known that there is suffering in this world. I’ve lived it. But you, my dear, have shown me so clearly that there is joy to be found even in the midst of the greatest suffering. Your life, during that first year in particular, was full of so much suffering. Yet, we found so much joy simply in having you in our lives, no matter how hard things were. Your birth brought us so much joy three years ago, but intermingled with it was fear and difficulty. I remember those early days in the NICU, and the numerous days in the hospital in the months thereafter. I can’t separate the moments of suffering from the moments of joy, because they are intertwined. Those moments, those memories, have you. And you are and always will be our joy. And you radiate that joy, even on your hardest days. There is always joy. And my third lesson in these three years:

There are no guarantees for any of us in this world.

Once you begin to be consciously aware of that, it not only changes the way you live, but how you perceive and treat others. Again, in my heart, I’ve always known this, but you’ve made this so clear to me.

I think every parent does the “count all their finger and toes” sigh of relief when a child is born, but in hindsight, I see how shortsighted this is. Whether you’re born with all of your fingers and toes doesn’t correlate with any type of guarantee that you will be healthy or free from experiencing suffering in your life, nor does it correlate to a lifetime of joy. (See point two above).

An ultrasound may not reflect any health issues for a child, like in your case, but it also isn’t a gold stamp guarantee that a child will be born healthy. And for any of us, child or adult, there is no guarantee for a tomorrow or a life filled with health. As scary as that can initially be, I will tell you that it has allowed me to truly live and live in the moment of each day with you, your sister and your dad. For once you recognize that there are no guarantees, it changes the way you see everything and everyone.

Not having a guarantee is universal. Suffering is universal. Joy is a choice. You are blessed with an innate spirit of joy, but for me as your mother, I could be angry or resentful about the struggles you’ve faced, but I choose joy and gratitude.

As I reflect upon the past three years of your life, Ava, I am so incredibly proud of you. I am so thankful God trusted me enough to be your mother. And I am forever indebted to you for all that you’ve taught me and that you’ve helped me become the person that I’m meant to be. I’m wiser, fiercer, braver, and more understanding of life than I ever imagined I could be.

I can’t wait to see what else you teach me and the rest of the world in the years ahead.

All my love,