There is a letter sitting on a shelf just above my desk. This is the very same desk where I sit safely every day to work, or write, or help my kids with their homework. It is the desk where I now enjoy the freedom to create which wasn’t possible before; and listen to my children’s laughter again. This letter sits there with his name clearly visible on the front of the envelope. And yet I never sent it.
I should have.
It is a simple letter thanking him for an unintentional gift he gave me that helped me a decade ago. That gift was an interview where he talked about his upbringing in our home town. For the first time I realized similarities between the two of us in family makeup, the tenacity of our mothers, and an unyielding seriousness at our core about the things we hold dear which had proven to be both an asset and a liability. What a strange realization that this person who could not be more different on the exterior was very much like me.
While I did not battle the same demons in my life, I was struggling to survive dark and difficult circumstances of my own that I thought would consume me. I didn’t understand why two people with a similar start could end up in such different places and was frustrated by it until my therapist rightly pointed out the obvious. I shared this revelation in my letter to him: “You were brave and I was not. You took a chance on life, whereas I avoided the risk.”
This wasn’t the only thing that drove me to shift my life. But it was one of a mere handful. And so, I followed suit by taking some dangerous, necessary, frightening, life-affirming risks of my own. I wanted him to know all of this and to thank him for the much needed nudge even though it was accidental. But, I was afraid that what I had to say was inconsequential. And so I never sent it.
I should have.
I don’t think any of us are under the illusion intellectually that we could have changed the outcome. But I have heard from the hearts of many over these last few days of our collective mourning the desire to have one more conversation, to reach out one more time, to tell him what he meant in our lives, or to express gratitude more fully. My heart certainly causes me painful “what ifs” about this letter which still sits on that shelf and which ended with: “Thank you for something you never knew you did on one important day in 2004. You showed me, by example; I was only suffering because I needed to find the courage to change something.” I wanted him to know what he had done for me.
On the day of his death I lit candles inside his name which had been lovingly and painstakingly carved into the Hill at our High School by lifelong friends who miss him dearly. And while I lit them I spoke to him. I told him everything that was in the letter and apologized for not sending it because my heart still believes that ~ just maybe ~ it would have changed the course of things. I’m pretty sure he heard me. And I’m also pretty sure he laughed at me with that big, ridiculous laugh for regarding myself that influential.
I’m not afraid of vulnerability or expressing my feelings. Last year alone I sent nearly 30 letters to people who made a difference in my life along the way. The lesson he gave me this time is to never hesitate; to just say what is on my heart fearlessly. And I imagine someday that may help me to save my own life again.
I am still in New York celebrating the complexity, humanity, courage, talent, struggle, joy, beauty and honesty of his life and mourning its loss while, at home, there are two other letters sitting behind his on that very same shelf.
I will send them.