Dearest Julia:

What a time to be alive.

Here we are, celebrating your ninth trip around the sun, in an age when we cannot have a birthday party because of a global pandemic. If you had said this to me the day you were born–that in your lifetime we would find ourselves locked in, shut down, physically distanced from one another

Well, I couldn’t have imagined it then, and I can barely imagine it now. You woke up today, and we celebrated over breakfast and opened presents. Then you attended to your school work at the dining room table, because schools have been closed for two weeks and will remain shut until at least May 15.

You have been a wonderful participant in all of this, though. I’m sure every kid has been thrilled at the prospect of not having to return to school, but you’re also the kid who asks for math problems to work before bedtime. (We recently learned about squares and square roots, which is perfect since you’re now 32.) You’re the kid who hugged her copy of Auggie & Me when you opened it this morning. You are helpful and enthusiastic. You are every Mom-now-working-from-home-and-homeschooling-her-kids’s best dream.

These days it is remarkable to watch you grow. Every year, every month and week and day, the slightest changes begin to emerge–little refinements in how you think and speak, the way light catches your face. The way you carry yourself is different now. If I blur my eyes, I can begin to imagine what you’ll look like in another three years, a vision both thrilling and a bit sad, too.

It was easy to be your father when you were the tiny, four-pound wonder. Little babies and toddlers love their parents for obvious reasons. As you get older, though, you will begin to choose why you love us. And that makes me begin to consider the ways in which we care for you. Will we earn your love and trust in the years ahead?

Let the future come as it may, though. For right now, I relish in the funny and out-loud age you inhabit. It is joyful to see you explore the outer boundaries, to stand in the middle as you pick and choose and observe. For instance: you are a devilishly assertive soccer player, one who is physical and fearless. Your art is increasingly complex and skillful. You are getting better and better at the art of negotiating. You have picked up an impressive belch.

And you are finding your way around your personality. On the occasions in which you cross the line with your siblings, you find your own way to make it up to them. The other day, we discovered a note you’d written to Thomas, apologizing for whacking him in anger. We never knew anything about it, but we figured if it deserved a note as well written as the one you composed, you probably walloped him pretty hard. Still–you made it right.

That’s what makes me happiest right now, especially when we are pummeled with the daily anxieties of life in pandemic times. Your heart is good. You love God, and you love your family, and your soul’s compass points in the right direction. You seek to make things right.

I am weepy at the thought of how much better our lives are because you are who you are, Jules. When you sit beside me on the couch and rest your head on my chest, the world is well and good, no matter what storms howl outside. Every year in which you do just that will be the best year of our lives.

Happy birthday to the best big girl in the whole world.