04/08/2013 10:44 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2013

Life Lessons

Last week my husband, Little Dude and I went on vacation. We tried to bring Sporty Stepson, but he wanted to stay home so he wouldn't miss school or lacrosse practice, and it's hard to argue with a kid who would choose calculus over room service in Boston. So he stayed behind while we splurged on a hotel room with a separate sitting area big enough for a roll-away bed for Little Dude. We planned on being decadent and watching late night TV while Little Dude slept. I know -- we are party animals. We also made a deal with our early rising son -- when he woke up, he could play with his toys, read books, color, draw, and eat a snack, but he could not, under any circumstances, wake us up. After five years, we're desperate to sleep past 8 a.m. We're also a little stupid, as evidenced by our belief that we could bargain with a preschooler.

The first morning I woke up to an unfamiliar sound. In the darkness, I heard:

"Emmmm, emmmm, emmmm, muhhhh, muhhhh, muhhh."

"Aaaah, aaaah, aaaah, ahhhh."

"Puhh, puhhh, puhhh, puhhh."

I was just awake enough to determine that it wasn't a fire alarm, no one was screaming, and I was not covered in blood. I went back to sleep.

The sun was just starting to peek around the edges of the curtain when I heard this:

"Effff, effff, efffff, fuhhh, fuhhhh, fuhhhh."

"Ewwww, ewwww, ewwww."

"Tuhhh, tuhhh, tuhhh."

WTF? A quick glance at the clock told me it was after 8. I was on borrowed time. I could tell him to stop, but then he'd know I was awake. Whatever the kid was doing, it couldn't last for long. I put the pillow over my head to drown out the animal noises coming from the other room.

I had forgotten, however, that while pillows keep out sound, they do nothing to protect you from the tug of a small hand on your pajamas. I opened my eyes.

Little Dude was standing next to me in mismatched pajamas, his hair askew. He handed me a piece of 8 ½ x 11 paper, folded neatly in half. It was covered with writing.

"Mommy, I wrote you a letter."


"A letter. I wrote it all by myself. See?"

I propped myself up and squinted at his offering. A creamy piece of hotel stationery was filled with hearts and x's for kisses and "I love you" and "Mommy" and words like "map" and "pan." Suddenly, I wished I had recorded all that annoying early morning noise, because far from being mindless chatter from a boy intent on waking me up, it was the sound of effort and concentration and the hard, hard work of putting pen to paper to tell someone else how you feel.

little dude letter notforreuuse

It was one of those moments when I loved my kid so much my heart felt like it would burst out of my chest.

I read what I could (he's trying, but he's not quite Hemmingway) and asked him to read the rest to me. I've learned from past experience that it's better not to guess when it comes to my kid's creations. I once told him I liked the beautiful shark he drew me. It was a police helicopter. He was not amused. Little Dude pointed at the bottom of the page and told me that the chaotic mix of letters said that he loved me and was excited to go to New Orleans together. He showed me the colorful "bottle full of hearts" he added at the end. He asked me to put his letter in an envelope, so I would "keep it forever" and went out to play with his toy cars. Just like that, he moved on.

I did not.

Little does he know that I will keep his letter forever, and not just because of the x's and hearts. I'll keep it because I want to remember hearing him slowly and arduously learn to spell. I'll treasure it because it may be my first sign that those hours of reading bedtime stories may be working. I'll take it out every so often to capture the hope that my son might love words as much as I do. I'll use it as inspiration when I'm staring at a blank computer screen wondering if I have anything interesting to say, and how in the hell I'll find the words to say it. If a 5-year-old can sound out "map," I don't think I can complain when I have writer's block. I'll preserve it as a reminder to tell each and every one of his teachers how much I appreciate everything they do, because, although I tell him stories, the men and women who are with him every week have taught him the magic of writing. I'll fold it up carefully and press it beneath his baby book, where I described his first days. I'll hang on to this mish-mash of words and gobbledygook because it symbolizes to me the moment he took his first step towards keeping secret thoughts in diaries and journals, slipping notes to his friends away from prying teachers' eyes, and writing a love letter.

I didn't realize until he handed me his letter how much this milestone would mean, but I know now that it was worth losing a little sleep over.