I’m Afraid of What I’ll Find When I Open Them
It’s a treasure chest that unlocks my past and answers my haunting questions. Have I had a good life? Have I followed my desires? Have I been happy and in love?
Or it’s a random collection of mundane daily occurrences, frustrations, petty complaints and mean thoughts.
Either way, what I might find scares me. Or maybe it’s what I won’t find.
That makes opening the box probably a lose-lose proposition if you think about it. So, why do it?
I’ve been holding onto what’s inside for almost half a century because some part of me knew this day would come, and I have to trust myself.
I had forgotten about the letters until my father was suddenly hospitalized a few months ago. “The doctors are keeping him alive until we get there,” my sister said grimly when she called to tell me. Slightly shaky, I walked over and pulled a short stack of ragged envelopes from the box as though they had been waiting there to keep me standing upright as my closet enveloped me the way his arms once had.
This particular batch included letters I had written my Dad over my life and that he had returned to me in a bunch, angry after I confronted him about his drinking and blamed him for my struggles. “I told you I had a stack of letters from a happy and accomplished young woman who once loved me, and here they are,” he said to prove me wrong. I clung to them now as I boarded the plane headed for the task bearing down on me — appearing composed and coherent at his bedside.
Sure enough, my missives were full of humor, accomplishment and professions of gratitude for his help and support.
“To this day whenever I have what seems at the time to be an insurmountable problem,” I wrote in 1976 when my Dad was 20 years younger than I am now. “I have to keep myself from calling you to come bail me out. You’ve always been an endless supply of — knowledge, patience (albeit sometimes strained) and funds.”
They didn’t put the lie to my complaints but reminded me there are many sides to loving someone. They provided inspiration for the short speech I got to whisper in his ear when it was time to say goodbye. I thanked him for the good things he did for me — the time he talked me out of dropping out of college and his unwavering appreciation of my jokes, among them. For the first time, I also realized that, unlike me, he had lived his life without the safety net he had provided for me. His biological father was a mystery to him; we don’t even know where he got the last name we used. His mother was “Sug,” a small-town Texas waitress whose serial marriages did little to keep her afloat financially.
When I told him about my realization just a few hours before he died, he was able to say with a surprisingly strong voice under the oxygen mask and with his eyes closed: “I tried.”
Can any of us really say much more?
Thinking back on that profound moment, I have to believe that I knew I would need those letters, and so I’ve decided to read the rest of these messages-in-a-bottle to perhaps provide additional perspective — for the next phase of life. Maybe they will also help me with my endless battle — the human battle —to accept time and its passing.
I’ll think of it as Throwback Thursday on steroids — not nostalgia exactly, but a way of understanding the past to begin to bring the future into focus. I’ve written about time travel before and it’s not just me who finds it a powerful enhancement to life.
I don’t know what’s in the letters I’ve collected from friends and family over a lifetime. As a journalist, that’s the way I’ve always worked, gathering raw material — interviews, background, description — that may or may not make it into the final product. Most reporters have a sixth sense about when they have enough material to work with, but they usually don’t know exactly what’s there until they sit down to write.
I’ve been looking for a writing project as I stare down the barrel of retirement and perhaps irrelevance. I’ve been eager lately to hear what others say about lessons learned as they approach life’s end. As I mentioned, I’ve had to come to grips with some aspects of death lately — my father-in-law and my own father, with more to come, of course.
These last few years — seeing my children go to college and start their own lives, letting go of some hopes and dreams — have been the hardest. That might be partly because I’ve spent a lot of time in the past on stupid concerns, ways of thinking and bad behavior. I guess I’ll find out just how much, won’t I?
I used to think my life would make an interesting memoir, with me an unlikely product of the Women’s Movement who overcame an oppressive upbringing in the South to become a worldly journalist, college professor, editor and writer. But the internet has made me doubt that. The sheer number of fascinating and heroic human stories we’re now exposed to is astounding. It’s hard to explain to those who have grown up online how little one could know about the world or other people in it before the digital age.
I remember yearning to know what went on in other people’s lives. The only chance you had was if you spent time with another family in their home, but that was rare. People were only what you imagined them to be, and I usually imbued them with what I realize now were impossibly high standards of intelligence, generosity and kindness. Now, thanks to the internet, we know, for example, that being rich and famous is no vaccine against stupidity. Even Olympic athletes have identity problems.
As a kid I would wonder if this life with its inequities was the way it was supposed to be. Is allowing only children of a certain color to live in a certain part of town, a father who often belittled and laughed at his children, mothers who spent their days mopping floors and washing clothes — was this okay with everyone? Did we all agree that this was fine? I questioned.
What were other people’s thoughts? What did people think of each other — of me? We didn’t know like we do now, thanks to the age of too much information.
The nearest things we had to looking into others’ minds, even as near in time as 20 years ago, were letters, hand-crafted — artisanal! — communication devices. When I look at the stacks of them from the various eras of my life — middle school, high school, college, young adulthood and beyond — I’m amazed that people sat down to write, address and mail them, just to keep in touch. Many of them are from my oldest and dearest friend — the handwriting as familiar to me as my own.
I’m writing this now with paper and pen as a way of trying to relive the experience (and also because I inadvertently and perhaps auspiciously walked out without my laptop on my way to a writing getaway).
It’s not painful. It allows time for gathering thoughts and I’m forced to slow my pace. The writing isn’t coming easily; not that it often does. But the gathering part of my life is more over than not. I’ve got the story. Just heading back to the office to write it.