I got a wonderful lesson in the value of writing love letters to the dying on my last visit to M, my friend of forty years plus, who had, at that time, only a few days to live despite every evidence that she would live to be one hundred and twenty.
She was a politically active and effective professional, had limitless energy, traveled, loved her husband, children and grandson, entertained beautifully and enjoyed what the world had to offer. She had shiny black hair. Eyes, ditto. Her complexion was flawless and her smile bewitching. She was among those whose personal mission in life is to make the world a better place, and she set about to do just that with every step forward.
Although diagnosed with stomach cancer, she had been doing well and was enjoying post-chemo life with all her usual activities: theater, political work, dining out, time with family and friends. She seemed undaunted by what had become the exhausting task of simply staying alive. I remember her glee at embarking on a shopping spree to replace her suddenly-baggy wardrobe. She looked forward to being her new slim self.
Life went on, she was fine, and I stopped feeling the urgent need to stay in close touch. And, then a short time later, by sheer chance, an acquaintance mentioned that my friend had maybe a few more days to live.
Shocked was an understatement. How in the world did this happen while I was not looking? I felt awful for having been so negligent and immediately called the other four women who were part of our unbreakable friendship quintet to make a lunch date to go see her. We stopped to get sandwiches for us all and took off.
On the way up the driveway, N told me she had written M a letter about their friendship and wondered if she should read it aloud. She was afraid it would sound like a goodbye. I thought it would sound wonderful and would fill the sad silence of the air around us with a trouble-free voice. I told her by all means to read it.
We found M propped up on a sofa and looking frightfully lifeless. Her beautiful black eyes had lost their glow, and her flawless pink-tinted ivory complexion had a hint of grey to it. My beautifully rounded friend had bypassed slim to become sunken-cheeked and skeletal, and, even though there was the echo of the beauty we knew was hers, we were horrified to realize how close to departing she was. She gave us a small weak smile. We took turns giving her a gentle kiss hello. She motioned us to sit down as her hospice nurse was buzzing around the kitchen while keeping one eye on her patient.
As N read about their early days together, their lives as young single women and then wives and mothers, I saw nothing less than a miracle. The roses came back into M’s cheeks. Her eyes sparkled as each memory, each life passage, was recounted. Her physical self was altered. She laughed out loud several times. She no longer looked like a shadow of herself; she looked beautiful.
The letter led to our talking about all the complex richness in our lives, the joys, the fiascos, bravery and worries, the triumphs and the plans both realized and not. She grinned and nodded at every statement of love between friends. She smiled and closed her eyes in thanks for every one of her wonderful traits and accomplishments remembered. She added to the memories, and she saw herself as we remembered her.
That letter was not a goodbye. It was a hello. It took her right back to her strongest self. It was at that time I saw the potential of a love letter to the dying, not as a goodbye but simply as a statement of love, friendship and memories shared. As something strengthening in a time of fragility. As a hello when goodbye can be postponed.
As we prepared to leave, she asked us to come back next week. We told her we would. We did. To her memorial service. We said goodbye and knew she would live forever in the hearts of everyone who loved her.
And, having said all that, I do want to say that although this letter was not a goodbye, a thoughtfully love-filled letter of parting can also be a powerful gift. I don’t think there is any stage of life where a love letter would not be welcome and treasured. I will be grateful forever to N for having written this letter, having had the loving courage to read it and for the lesson it taught me.