Last Letters

It was Wednesday that I learned that a good family friend was dying.

“I just got some sad news.” Mom told me over the phone. “The chemo treatment didn’t work. They don’t think she has much longer.”

The time she had left was estimated in weeks. When I heard the news I already had plans to visit my hometown on Friday and I thought I would stop in to see her then. The news wouldn’t be too new by then, I hoped, and maybe she would have come to terms with the fact of her own mortality so that my visit wouldn’t seem too morbid.

It was Thursday when I called Mom again to find out how she was doing.

“She’s going downhill fast.” Mom told me. “her family is taking her to Michigan to see her granddaughter’s graduation.” She’s not coming back.

Mom didn’t say this last bit, but she didn’t need to. I knew that I wouldn’t get to see her before she left and I knew that meant that I probably wouldn’t see her again.

“I can’t… wrap my mind around the idea that I’ll be saying goodbye to her for good when I say goodbye to her today.”

I couldn’t wrap my mind around it either. I decided that I would write her a letter. I could send it to her family in Michigan and she could read it whenever she felt up to it. If I could get it in the mail that day she might even have it by Saturday.

“I was so sorry to hear that your chemo treatment didn’t work out,” I began. “and that your time left with us can be measured in finite terms.”

We all knew she was dying but I didn’t want to say it. I didn’t know if she was ready to hear it like that.

I tried to think of what to write. What does one say to someone who is standing days away from the Great Beyond? I was aware that anything that I might write to her would be read soon after by her children and grandchildren. I was aware that anything that I gave to her would become a relic of her within a span of days. I wondered whether it made much sense to send anything at all, but I dismissed the question almost as quickly as it occurred to me: in the end it didn’t matter to me if the letter was read but it mattered to me to get it written.

So I wrote. And while I wrote I remembered and I cried. The memories were good ones but I didn’t write about them. It didn’t seem important to list the times when we’d come in contact so much as it was important to go through the act of remembering them. The older I get the more trouble I have getting over the death of someone that I know. It’s not because I worry about where they go after they die or because I’m afraid to face my own inevitable mortality. It’s because I’m afraid that I will wear out my memories of them until I forget what it was that made them distinct and special and human in the first place.

I signed the card with love and sealed it in it’s envelope. I got the address from my mother and the stamp I peeled, painstakingly, off an envelope for a rebate that I’d neglected to send in. I made my husband drive me two towns over to the nearest post office so that I could put it in the mail before the end of the working day. Silently I praised the inertia of the federal government for failing to enact the no-mail-on-Saturdays policy too quickly. And then I went home and was not myself for the rest of the evening.

~ by Gwydhar Gebien on May 20, 2011.

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