Of all the letters and blogs I’ve done after your death this is the hardest to write. It’s even harder to share with our friends and family.
I skipped last year’s note because I wasn’t ready to do this. I didn’t know until minutes ago if I would ever publish this or if it would stay in drafts forever.
You died five years ago today.
What I want to write you and tell everyone is that I think of you every day and I keep your spirit alive, ever-present in my mind.
I do think of you, especially when the girls have some kind of milestone.
Becky (your younger sister) tells a story about you on your death bed. She asked you what you really wanted before you died. You blurted out some delirious nonsense about seeing whale sharks in the Atlanta aquarium.
She gently asked ‘Trish, what do you really want?’ and maybe since she wasn’t the kind of person to challenge you, your guard was down.
She got through your protective emotional shell with that simple question. Becky says ‘a look’ came over your eyes when you responded. I know that look. It was the rare look of deep, painful, emotional truth. You didn’t go there often.
“I want to see my daughters graduate high school.’ you said, and closed your eyes, probably back to the safety of whale sharks and morphine.
Emma graduates this year, and I will be an emotional wreck. You will be with me on that day, as I whimper and cry, wishing I could do something, anything for you to be there and see it.
Emma will proudly and confidently walk the stage and collect her diploma. And when it’s over, she and I will hug. We’ll linger a few moments longer to express what isn’t being said. That you are there in spirit, but not in person the way you should be.
And still, If I’m to be honest with you, those moments where you are there in spirit are infrequent. From time to time I chuckle, or wince, as something reminds me of you: Lost, Dragonfruit vitamin water, Miu Miu, Axl, half-pirate shirt, SYTYCD, Tinkerhell.
But it’s so hard to feel you in the present. Your death is static. Life renews and regenerates.
Things are different now.
I won’t say I’ve ‘moved on’. That’s a dismissive cliché and I am anything but dismissive of the nearly 20 years we spent together. You had more impact on me than any other person in my life. Your death changed me even more. I’m kinder and more patient now. (I’m sorry you didn’t get to see that, you would be proud of me.)
The last letter I wrote you (two years ago) got published by the Washington Post. I was contacted by a literary agent – a credible one says my publishing family – about writing a book.
Part of me wanted to write it. There is much more to say about the experience of a young man losing his wife to cancer. One could respond to interesting questions about modern fatherhood and caregiving in the age of social media.
Against the advice of many friends that wanted to read more, I declined to pursue it. I feared that writing the book would tie me to the past. How could I set the example for my new marriage and developing teen daughters if I dwelled in your death? Your death can’t be our identity.
You more than anyone will understand that we need to escape the event, to reach orbit, to be free to explore the future. Emma is experiencing this right now. She’s applying for colleges and has a hard time writing about your death in her essays even though it’s relevant. She doesn’t want to be seen as ‘the kid who’s mom died when she was 12.’
And maybe still I would have written the book if I didn’t love being here, in the present. I lead a fortunate life, despite the tragic loss. I travel, have a great job, love my daughters, enjoy my hobbies, stay healthy and have a wife that loves me for who I am, including my history with you and my many, many faults.
The kids are also doing great. Emma only wants to go to colleges far away from home – Boston would be the closest city she is willing to consider. Lily is confident enough to drop the grief therapy and is navigating Freshman year in High School with swagger.
They both LOVE your cut-up rock concert t-shirts. I just found a few more (Van Halen 1980 and ‘Stoned In L.A. Guns and Roses 1989) and it resulted in a tense Rock,Paper, Scissors to see who would win the GnR tshirt. (Lily won)
They like to make friends uncomfortable with ‘dead mom’ jokes. (“Do you call your mom ‘mom’ or ‘mommy’?” says one girl to another. Emma interjects “I call my mom ‘Dead’ cackling as the friends cringe.)
They are close to escape velocity.
We are different now.
Tears are welling in my eyes. I feel guilty about this, like I should grieve more and long for you more and keep vigil. That’s what makes writing this so hard. You probably wouldn’t want me to apologize. But I’m sorry anyway.
Is this the last letter to you? It could be. I can’t say. If it is, know that you are never forgotten and that I love you.
A blonde goes to work in tears. Her boss asks, “What’s wrong?”
She says, “My mom died.”
He told her to go home, but she said, “No, I’ll be fine.”
Later that day, her boss finds her crying again. He says, “What’s wrong?”
She replies, “I just talked to my sister, and her mom died, too!”