Dear Julia Elizabeth:

Yesterday during church, the lector read the day’s scripture, and my heart skipped a beat, because the passage was from the fifth chapter of Romans. And it took me a minute to remember that this made sense, because three years ago, we were here in the same place in the calendar. Your mother and I were together in her hospital room, exhausted, and you were resting a couple hundred yards away, down a maze of linoleum-lined corridors and behind a bunch of doors marked “No Entry,” tucked away in your preemie isolette, our little four-pound miracle that couldn’t be stopped.

I was overwhelmed by the day. I had practiced over and over in my mind the theory that I would be a father, that one day you would arrive, and something would trigger within me, and that would be it: I would be declared a parent. Your timing woke us up early, rushed us to one hospital and then another before you dove, bent double, towards us, and then the doctors had to hurry to pluck you out before it was too late.

It wasn’t too late. It was too early–but you paid no attention to the fact that you were seven weeks sooner than we were planning for, and suddenly I was deemed a father, you were our daughter, and I was collapsed in a chair across from your mother’s bed, my phone in my hand, my head spinning as I looked for some truth for the day. And that day, the reading I pulled up was in the fifth chapter of Romans:

“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame.”

And here we are: today you turn three years old. 

You are a smart, agile, and often fearless kiddo whose sense of timing makes her truly funny for a toddler. You are charmingly polite. You can kick a soccer ball with gusto, and you can sing your ABCs and count to twenty. 

Want to know something, though? You are a gorgeous little girl. I never thought I would have a daughter as beautiful as you. I figured that between your mother and me, we could raise a kid who had some sense, a kid who might just be smart or gifted or artistic. Those are all things I imagined we could nurture to a certain extent. But you have a grandeur that surprised me, at least in the sense of genetics. I credit your mother’s strong chromosomes for keeping mine at bay.

Fathers aren’t supposed to only focus upon their daughters’ inherent beauty, though–and that’s why I make sure to mention your other graces. We are to enable you to feel as capable as anyone or anything; we are to ready you for a world that will demand from you all of your talents. 

And–already–my heart aches a bit at the prospect of letting go, little by little, of the tight grasp my heart keeps around yours. 

Already, at only three, I can see your emerging independence, your strong spirit, your eagerness to venture further and further into new, uncharted waters. You have shed so much of the vulnerability we assigned you three years ago in a neonatal intensive care unit. You have catapulted into being and taken up every square inch of space within your name. 

For a moment at your birth we thought we had lost you already. Through the course of that day, we felt suffering and began to know perseverance. Through the weeks that followed, we came to know your character, and we began to fill ourselves with great hope. We prayed and prayed along the way.

And so far, Jules, you’ve never put us to shame. Happy birthday, my love.