The Magic of a Love Letter to the Dying

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.

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Janet Gallin

More Articles Written by Janet

I was raised in the clear air of the Hollywood Hills in the days when pregnancy tests involved the death of rabbits, before "smog" was a word, when street parking was plentiful and empty weed-filled lots dotted Wilshire Boulevard. I tell you this only to say I am no newcomer to Planet Earth. I don’t like to brag, but I do think experience is worth something. My time in San Francisco started 52 years ago with U.C. Berkeley, graduation, marriage and work as a juvenile probation officer for Alameda County. Life morphed from one stage to the next; two daughters (I wanted ten just like them but was advised not to be greedy), a stint as a fund-raiser for non-profits, single motherhood (hardly my goal, but I discovered that taking responsibility is uplifting and changes daily routine into endless adventure and infinite-loop joy) and then twenty-five years ago a lovely remarriage. I have always been hooked on the miracle of both spoken and written communication and a sucker for clarity. And, I lean toward the bright side of any story. So my course finally became clear. Writing that reflects a life in its truest light; the good, the bad, the funny, the sad and always the hopeful. I have for the past 24 years written personal and family histories most often in verse form (harder to write but easier to digest) to put the thoughts and feelings of others onto paper, written speeches, obituaries, eulogies, roasts, entertainment pieces, and guidance in writing emotionally difficult letters. But all work and no play makes Janet a dull cookie, so there is dancing (clogging - American percussive), playing the violin (badly but con brio), cooking, entertaining, reading, friends, family and my two heaven-sent daughters who have by example taught me most of what I know about life. I hope I have taught them half as much. For the past many years, I have hosted a radio talk show called Love Letters Live and have written a column for the Examiner.com by the same title. The joy of letting others shine is incomparable. I am very grateful that I have been able to translate this into a life's work.

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