From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2

Love in the Mail

More people ask the Lord to lighten their burdens than ask him to strengthen their backs.

Author Unknown

One fall, my eight-year-old son Andy came down with bronchitis. We went to the pediatrician, who gave us medication and sent us home. But over the next few days, Andy became worse, not better. At one point, he was having so much trouble breathing that I rushed him to the emergency room. Suspecting asthma, they X-rayed his chest.

That’s when our lives changed. The nurses ushered Andy and me into a small room. Out of the bustling atmosphere of the ER, everything became very quiet. Too quiet. It seemed to me that the doctors and nurses were all whispering. A nurse asked me if I wanted to call my husband. I did. He came and the three of us sat together in front of the doctor, waiting.

Nothing in the English language changes your life like the six-letter word: cancer. The chest X ray, the doctor explained, indicated that Andy had lymphoma in his chest. In fact two-thirds of his chest cavity was filled with the cancer, putting a great deal of stress on his lungs and heart. Suddenly, my perfectly healthy eight-year-old son was anything but perfectly healthy.

Still in shock, we listened numbly as the doctor explained what would happen now. Andy spent the next five days in the hospital, while the doctors ran test after horrible test, trying to determine exactly what was going on and how best to treat him. I stayed with him, doing my best to keep him from dwelling on how uncomfortable he felt. Fortunately, I had help.

During those five days, Andy received eighty-five pieces of mail. From his class, his Boy Scout troop, his friends and family, distant and near—it was a deluge. I was touched and pleased at this wonderful outpouring of support and love for Andy. And I was surprised by the magnitude of his reaction to the letters and cards; he positively reveled in the attention. He read and reread each piece of mail several times or if it was written in script, asked me to read it to him again and again.

When the five days in the hospital were finally over, Andy was released and came home to begin the biggest battle of his life—for his life. But the mail didn’t follow. The deluge became a trickle, and those few letters arriving were only ones forwarded on from the hospital. I understood too well what was happening. It wasn’t that people had stopped caring, they just didn’t know what to write. How can you say “get well” to an eight-year-old who may not live to see his next birthday?

Andy felt so isolated. He was too sick to go to school and couldn’t play with any of his friends. Most of his days were taken up with our trips to the hospital for radiation and chemotherapy. The only thing he asked for was the mail. But there was no mail. One day he asked me, “Did everybody stop loving me?”

“Oh, Honey,” I said, fighting back tears, “it’s not that. It’s just that people have things to do. . . . ” But I decided then that if I couldn’t control the quantity of his life, I could control the quality of his life. This brave boy was not going to fight this fight alone. I decided to ensure there would be mail for Andy by writing to him as his “secret pal.”

I had fun with it. I sent funny cards in brightly colored envelopes with jokey return addresses or no return address at all. Sometimes I fashioned gift wrap or the Sunday comics into envelopes and enclosed little toys from inside cereal boxes. I was sure I was undetected; I even felt a little smug, thinking I’d pulled one over on him. Often I’d ask casually, “Oh, is that from your secret pal?” And Andy would answer, “Yeah! I wonder who it is?” I’d turn away quickly to hide my smirk.

Then one day, Andy handed me an envelope marked “To My Secret Pal.” He made me promise I would deliver it. “Only your secret pal will see it,” I promised solemnly and set it aside.

When he was finally asleep, I took the picture out of the envelope and examined it. It was a typical Andy picture, bright and colorful. What set it apart and caused my heart to skip a beat were the words printed where the artist’s signature usually goes. In crayon letters, Andy had written: P.S. Mom, I love you.

He knew! My secret was out. Yet even though we both knew what was going on, we never said anything. It was simply a new twist to our game together.

Our game continued for the next three and a half years. During those roller-coaster years—treatment, remission, relapse, more treatment—the only thing that Andy could count on in his life was the mail. When he’d hear the mailman come up the steps, it was often the only time all day that I’d see Andy smile.

Being Andy’s secret pal was a godsend for me. It gave me a mission, something to do in a situation where there was nothing I could do. I prayed and poured my creative talents into sending Andy letters, cards and packages. It gave Andy a special kind of hope, and it gave both of us a much-needed break from the needles and procedures.

I thought of our game as a little daily R and R, a light moment in a particularly bleak period of our lives. This time was made even bleaker by our desperate lack of money and my inability to drive. Every day during Andy’s treatment, Andy and I would wake up before dawn to catch the first of three buses to the hospital where Andy received his radiation treatment. After the radiation, which made Andy feel sick, we had to catch a bus to another hospital for Andy’s chemotherapy, which made him feel even sicker. Then another three buses back home. Often, we’d have to get off a bus before it reached our stop because Andy felt too ill and needed fresh air and solid earth beneath his feet. We’d wait in the bitter cold until he felt well enough to board another bus. Oftentimes, the three buses home became six or seven.

Andy was ill in body, but I was sick at heart. I could hardly stand to wake him in the morning to begin this miserable routine once more. One day as we stood at the bus stop, waiting for Andy to feel better so we could board the next bus, a car went racing past us, spraying us both with gray slush from the gutter. I knelt on the sidewalk by Andy, using a tissue from my pocket to wipe the dirty ice from his frozen little face. I was sobbing, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” over and over.

Andy said, a little sharply, “What are you sorry for?”

“Oh Andy, I’m sorry for so many things. I’m sorry I don’t know how to drive. I’m sorry I don’t have cab fare. I’m sorry it’s so cold. I’m sorry you feel sick. I pray all the time, but sometimes all I can say to God is, ‘Why me?’”

Without hesitating an instant, my eight-year-old looked at me and said evenly, “And he parts the clouds and looks down at you and he says, ‘Why not you?’”

Astonished, I gazed at Andy. He isn’t bitter, I thought. For him, this whole awful mess is just something that happened. If he could do it, I decided, then I could, too. I was going to be as brave as Andy and never waste another minute wondering why.

It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I kept myself busy being Andy’s secret pal right up until the time he died, but after he was gone, it was harder. The day I had to go through his things was an especially difficult one. As I pulled his clothes out of his closet, I found a shoebox crammed full of letters to Andy. All from his “secret pal.” I was on the verge of dissolving into another round of despairing tears when I noticed that he’d stuck an address book inside the box. I opened it. There were about twenty names—I recognized them as the kids Andy had gone to camp with that summer. All of them were kids with cancer. I considered it a charge from Andrew, his legacy. So, in his memory, I decided to write each and every one of the children in the book.

It felt so familiar, writing a goofy newsy letter like the hundreds I had written to Andy. I wrote a few letters every week and signed each one: Your friend, Linda.

I never expected anyone to answer these letters. But before I was halfway through the list, I received a piece of mail addressed to me. Opening it, I read: Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing to me. I didn’t know anyone knew I lived. Jeffrey

Holding the sheet of paper in my hand, I thought—as I had thought so many times before, as I watched Andy— how lonely it must feel to fight so hard and be so alone. These two sentences summed up the isolation and depression of so many children who battle cancer. With little time to have made their mark on the world, they often feel that no one knows they are alive . . . and no one ever will.

I hadn’t meant to continue writing letters on a regular basis, not even as a hobby—I certainly hadn’t expected for this simple gesture to change my life forever. I couldn’t get past losing my son, couldn’t think beyond how I was going to keep getting up in the morning, making toast . . . living. Now I realized I’d better get it together—and get some more stationery.

I began looking for funny cards again, buying the cereal boxes with the toys inside. That Christmas I bought twenty little jigsaw puzzles with pictures I thought Andy’s friends would enjoy and sent them. I had very little money, but any small amount I could scrounge up went to buy stamps. I was having so much fun with my letter writing project.

Then I put up a sign-up sheet at the hospital that Andy had gone to, offering to write to any child who wanted mail. The word spread, snowballed, and soon I was writing over three hundred kids on a regular basis. It had become more than a hobby, more than a project—it felt like what I was alive to do.

Eventually, I founded an organization called Love Letters. Today there are over sixty local volunteers who give of their time to brighten the lives of children who are medically fragile, children with catastrophic illnesses like AIDS, muscular dystrophy and cancer; burn victims, accident victims and survivors of abuse.

I always knew there were children like these, but before Andy, they existed in a world that didn’t touch mine. Now, through Love Letters, over one thousand of these children a week receive letters, cards and gift packages. We celebrate Christmas twice a year, in December of course, and again in July for all the kids who might not be alive when winter rolls around again.

Keeping Love Letters going is a struggle financially. And it’s hard when we lose a child we’ve come to love. But I know from experience how important this work is. One little boy sent us our own “love letter,” and I framed it for our office. He drew a picture of a brightly colored quilt and wrote underneath the picture, “Love Letters like a quilt keep me warm.” I love to look at it. It brings me back to the days when I was Andy’s secret pal, and love came through the mailbox in colored envelopes with goofy drawings and return addresses that no mailman would ever find. But of course, love needs no return address, for it is always returned to the sender—multiplied.

Linda Bremner

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