The Letter

The Letter

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

The Letter

My fingers went numb when I received the call that my brother Bob had died. How could this happen to a forty-eight-year-old who never drank or smoked and went to church every Sunday? I spent that entire evening sitting in solitude and reflecting on all the things we did together growing up. The tears that soaked my pillow that night made me question my own mortality. The nervousness that greeted me in the morning left me with the unanswered question, “Why Bob?” The only thought that made sense was that everything happens for a reason, and God must have needed him badly. A fatal heart attack while vacationing with his wife in Hawaii? The entire day I wallowed in self-pity and disbelief. I went to work and shared the horrendous news. I wondered whether I was ever going to shake the fear that life isn’t fair and how I could get through this. I went with my brother Mark after work to Bob’s house to see what we could do. Bob’s three surviving children, Tammy (twenty-five), Jenny (twenty-four) and Andy (nineteen), were home alone wondering what happened to their dad and why. Besides, I needed something to do to keep busy.

When we arrived, we found Tammy shaking and trembling in the passenger seat of her friend’s car. Jenny was crying uncontrollably as she approached us with a big hug. We found Andy sitting in the backyard gazebo after we were warned he hadn’t spoken a word since getting the news. It was at that moment that I realized I didn’t just lose my brother, but my sweet nieces and nephew had just lost their dad.

Somehow I started to relax. This was no longer about me and my sorrow. This was about trying to make a difference and helping them. Clearly, I didn’t have a clue about what to say, but if I just kept talking, something might make them feel better. I began sharing my memories of how I felt when my dad died. I tried to be positive and reflect how lucky I was that he was supportive and just the kind of dad I always wanted. How after sharing these thoughts with my friends, they began expressing how lucky I was that I had such a wonderful childhood and that their experience was not as fortunate.

At the funeral I overheard a conversation my mom was having with Tammy. I turned around just in time to hear Tammy ask, “Nana, when I feel up to it, can I come over to your house sometime and maybe you can tell me about my dad growing up and what he was like?”

“Absolutely!” Mom warmly replied.

It was at that moment when I realized how I could help. A part of me felt like I was interrupting a private conversation, but I turned to Tammy and asked, “Can I write you a letter and tell you about your dad?”

“Uncle Jim, would you do that? That would be great.” Somehow I felt like I was contributing to filling in the pieces they figured they’d always have time to assemble. Word spread quickly to Jenny and Andy of my offer to all three of them. For the next three weeks during lunch, I found a quiet spot and began to write. I didn’t really intend on saying too much, but after the first day my memories of growing up with Bob seemed special. I spoke of the times we were kids, and he always wanted to walk to the store singing all the way there and back. He always loved to sing the harmony parts. And you know what? By the time we got home the song sounded pretty good. I had no idea my mental stroll would ignite such profound memories.

For some reason, my wanting to help my nieces and nephew became a warm recollection for myself. I began outlining the major events of our childhood—things I remembered him doing—the trouble he used to get into— the silly things he did to embarrass himself. I didn’t need the kids to think of their dad as perfect. I wanted them to know that we were kids one time, making mistakes, learning from them and then moving on. By the time I was done writing, there were eleven pages. I couldn’t believe all the things I had to say. I put each letter along with a childhood photo of their dad and me in a manila envelope and printed their name on the front. I was proud of the effort I hoped somehow could help. What I didn’t count on was what a difference it made for me. A simple gesture of sharing information to heal their hearts actually helped me to heal mine.

I drove to their house one Saturday afternoon, and unfortunately, they weren’t there. I dropped three envelopes inside the door and left. Weeks went by, and I never heard a word. It didn’t matter. At the end of the letter I actually thanked them for letting me share my memories of their dad growing up and how much this meant to me. How my heart was filled with smiling thoughts of a brother who died much too soon. I was proud I had developed my writing skills to accurately describe my thoughts to them. I was ready to move on and in some way to help them do the same. I reassured all three how I would always be there and that I was always only a phone call away.

A few months later I got a letter from Jenny, who had returned to college. She wrote that she had been too hurt to read my letter and was waiting for the right time when she felt stronger. One day she was missing her dad and family and began to read. She wrote how it was just what she needed at the perfect time. What meant the most to me was that she was planning on thanking me with an e-mail but she said nothing short of a personal letter back to me was acceptable—that if the day ever came when I wanted to remember my importance to her I could pull out the letter and read it.

I wiped a proud tear away and quietly put the letter in my scrapbook of souvenirs. For it’s in these moments that I realize what life is all about.

And death.

Jim Schneegold

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