A Letter to David on His 13th Birthday

by Susan Heard
May 2, 2013

In 2008, David was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a type of cancer in children. Cancer took David’s life three years later, when he was 10 years old. David’s mom, Susan, writes this letter to her son.


Susan and David on his 8th birthday in 2008, before he was diagnosed with childhood cancer.

Dear David,

It is your 13th birthday today. I remember the day you were born like it was just yesterday. I started writing you a birthday letter at your first birthday because there was so much I wanted you to know about YOU and how you impacted our lives so deeply. My plan was to share the letters with you when you headed off to college. They were intended to remind you of where you came from, how much you are loved and to encourage you to keep growing and exploring.

For your 10th birthday letter, I decided to read it out loud to you because it would be your last birthday. I couldn’t get through it, and you took the letter from my hands and read it. It made me so proud — you were fearless in the face of the worst news.


David playing the cello

So now, three birthdays that we haven’t shared together, and I am still writing to you. I miss you more every day. I wonder all the time what you would be doing now that you are a real teenager. Would you still love to swim? Maybe you would be on the swim team? Would you still be playing the cello? Would you be in the band? Would you still enjoy soccer? Singing and dancing? Fashion? Drawing? Reading? What would you be doing with your time?

I think about school and wonder if you would still be an amazing standout of a student. Would your friends still be the same? How would you like your new school? These are the questions I used to have answers to and would address in your birthday letter. Now I have no answers, only questions. I wonder. I wonder every day who you would become. What you would look like.

When you were born, I rubbed your ears and noticed right then that your ears matched your dad’s. (OH NO — would you grow into them?!?) I want to see you so badly. I want to see what your face would look like. How tall would you be? Would your eyes still be so brown that I could look into them forever?


David and Daisy, First Day of School, 2008

I wonder if we would still be shopping at Old Navy? Do you know that when Daisy and I go there now, I wander through your section? We talk about what you would love (or hate). Are skinny jeans still your style? Are you still your own boy, wearing what you like and not caring what others think, or would you have succumbed to peer pressure by your 13th birthday? I have no idea. I never will.

Honestly, you will always look like the boy I knew at age 8. Before our world imploded. Your tan skin, height, cropped hair, you peddling a bike or jumping into a pool. That is the boy I see in my mind’s eye. Not the wasted body from chemotherapy. Not the long, shaggy hair that grew back afterwards.

I don’t know who you would have been had cancer not come into our lives. I loved the time we had post-diagnosis. The memories we made and the courage I saw inside of you. They joy you brought into each day. But was that really you?

This is not how it should have been. You were stolen from us. And I miss you — more and more with each passing year.

Not really.  That was you after facing the most harrowing years of your life.  And then you died.  So who were you? You are the 8 years that I had before cancer came. Then we had magical times, and then it was over.  You never had an 11th, 12th or 13th birthday, but each year I wonder who you might have become.

This is not how it should have been. You were stolen from us. And I miss you — more and more with each passing year. And each year, the wonder becomes deeper and harder to manage.

Now that you should be 13, would you still let me snuggle you at night? Would you still love filet mignon? Corn on the cob? Pancakes? Blueberries? The questions are relentless, and all I have is time to wonder.


Mother’s Day, 2008

I want you here. I miss you desperately. I wonder if we would be clashing over you wanting to be independent, your choice of music, friends, grades? I wish you were here to have those fights. I wish you were here to love in all the ways that moms love their sons. I wish our lives were normal and not always filled with what-ifs and longing and bittersweet moments.

I hope wherever you are now there is an endless ocean for you to swim in, a library of books that are waterproof, filet mignon on the grill, and virgin Miami Vices and hot chocolate for you to drink. I hope the sun is shining on your sweet head and your smile still lights up a room. I hope there is the music you love.  I hope there are plenty of sketch pads and pencils for you to keep drawing. These are hopes based on not knowing who you would be today. That is the hardest part of it all — not knowing who you are.

Three missing birthdays. I’ll always be your mom. I’ll always love you up to the sky and back into your heart, to the bottom of the sea and back into your heart, and all the way around the universe, and right back into your heart, and I will always wonder what would have been. I ache from missing you.

With so much love forever,


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