Four Lessons from Reading Letters from 1985
Memory, love and handwritten expression
“I’m here to reach out and make a friend,” said my 7-year-old younger brother, sticking out his small right hand covered with a huge plastic werewolf paw, as my uncle and he walked through O’Hare Airport. They had stopped there en route to Rochester, Minnesota to visit me at St. Mary’s Hospital. It was the fall of 1985 and I was 10 years old. I had undergone open-heart surgery, a modified version of the Fontan procedure, a few days earlier. My brother continued making friends in this way throughout the airport, on the plane, at the hotel, at the hospital, and in my hospital recovery room.
That vivid memory has stayed with me over the intervening 36 years. For such an important moment in my life, I have relatively few other stark memories from that time. I recall staying at the Kahler Hotel with Mom and Dad before the surgery; it had an indoor pool with a rotating carousel of underwater lights. The surgeon, Gordon Danielson, drew a picture of my heart on a yellow legal pad. When he finished, he exclaimed with a flourish: “Take this home. In 15 years, it’ll be worth 10 cents.” I recall the flight home with Mom. I remember making pizzas with low sodium V-8 as the tomato sauce (terrible) and walking through the mall -- one mile each way, every day, to regain my strength. Not much else.
All these years, my Mom had kept a box of all the cards, letters and even (long-since deflated) balloons sent to my family and me during that time. A few months ago, I spent a couple weeks Marie Kondo-ing my house. I went through every item I own, every book, every file, every box. And I knew this box a long time going through the box again. Some names I still knew, many I had forgotten, even Mom had forgotten. Many of the letter-writers and card-senders had long since passed away. Amazingly, the box contained an envelope with the return address of an “Alexander.” I realized that my current cardiologist is the son of the woman who mailed that card to my Mom. Wow! What a wonderfully serendipitous world!1
As I reflected on that experience of reading every item from the box, four thoughts flowed through me -- one for every chamber in the heart.
People Felt Enormous Concern for Mom and Dad
Mom and Dad had a tougher ordeal, as their son underwent the all-day surgery. Now that I have my own children, I understand the anguish they must have felt back then. And their friends wanted to comfort Mom and Dad. So, many of the cards and letters went to Mom and Dad. It wasn’t all about me, and in this moment of looking back, I took solace in the support they received.
The Years Intervene and Sometimes Betray Us
I went to school with a boy, from kindergarten through 12th grade -- let’s call him AB. In my recollection, we spent years as classmates, but we were never more than passing acquaintances. However, in going through the box, I found that AB sent card after card, letter after letter, in his little 4th-grade handwriting. He always signed them, “Your friend,” or “Your buddy.” Seeing all those cards jarred me. We had felt a close friendship, at least for a time. I’d forgotten it. My recollection -- formed from the years of drifting apart -- didn’t tell the whole story.
So, I called AB -- I had to get his number through a mutual friend. And we enjoyed a wonderful moment of catching up. I thanked him for his friendship then, and admitted that I had probably not appreciated it enough then. But feeling that warmth, these 36 years later, filled me with joy. Hopefully, I can appreciate the friendships I have today with greater awareness and gratitude.
A Wave of Love
This box -- it’s big! About 18 inches long by 14 inches wide and 12 inches tall. And the letters and cards fill it to the brim. The sheer volume flooded me with emotions. Dozens -- no, hundreds -- of people cared about me, prayed for me, thought about me and my family, and expressed that care and love. Every card hit me with a wave of emotion; every letter crashed upon me. In total, it appeared as a seemingly never-ending ocean of care and affection and love and fondness and solicitude and regard and kindness.
The Power of Handwritten Expression
If a child had similar surgery today, and looked back in 2057, print-outs of emails and texts would likely fill that box (if anyone had bothered to print them out). Would that patient, reading those print-outs, feel what I felt? Do typewritten messages convey the same emotion as handwriting? Or even as a card chosen by the sender? To me, that print-out, while welcome, might come across as sterile, or possibly perfunctory or rushed. Definitely not as personalized as the letters sent to me in 1985. Have we lost something -- perhaps indefinable except by our hearts -- with digital communication today?
The Impact of a Moment
While I cannot know for certain, it seems likely that the letter writers sent the letters to cheer and offer strength to us at that moment. They did not expect their words to carry across time. But more than three and a half decades later, those words -- selected in a few seconds or minutes at the most -- had an exquisite impact on me. It struck me that we cannot know the full reach of our words or actions. What a feat to reverberate for more than a generation. What power to bring joy so many years later. Reflecting the oceanic mass of letters, I feel monumental gratitude to these letter writers for taking a moment in their lives, of their cherished time, to write to me.
To conclude, you may wonder, if such a positive sentiment emerges from re-reading these notes, why don't I look at them more often? Most of the answer is: I don’t know. Life, kids, and other trite answers come to mind. Another answer emerges too. I feel pain when I read the letters, but not from recalling the trauma of that time. Perhaps the pain of wondering about worth -- my worth and the worth of my life since then. Have I lived a life to deserve these moments, this love, this comfort? Or perhaps I simply feel pain in the immense joy of this love of and from others; joy in my life, however imperfectly lived; joy in my life extended by this medical miracle so long ago.
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An editor of this post, Dani Trusca, pointed out this story contains several instances of serendipity, including: tidying my house which led to encountering the box; timing of reading the letters -- after I had my own children, or I may not have had the realization about my own parents’s experience during this time; timing of reading the letters -- after I became a patient of Dr. Alexander, which happened only a few years ago.