I write a letter to my daughter, Kristen Carr, every year on the anniversary of her death. This is this year’s version.
All year long I think about writing this letter. I don’t jot down a single note, though. I don’t want to talk about what the last 24 vears have meant. I want to get to what’s going on right now, today, in the minutes between when I rise and whenever this letter gets finished.
Just this minute I’m scared, if not blank. Scared and horrified. So on the morning of January 3, 2017, I stand exactly where I stood on January 3, 1993. This cruel and narrow precipice looks into the nastiest chasm in the universe, so I’m prepared (if anyone can be even with a quarter century rehearsal) to experience nothing but bad news and misery. Two dozen years late, Sisyphus got nothing on me. And I’ve got nothing on him.
Well, maybe one thing. Sisyphus was, literally, doing time for offenses against the gods. Kristen Carr didn’t develop a lethal cancer as a punishment from any god nor was I sentenced to observe its consequences, let alone figure out what the meaning of them might be.
The very worst part of your cancer, for me anyhow, is that it was absolutely random. Nothing was calling you home, you hadn’t done anything wrong and neither had anyone else, and you didn’t live in a war zone. Just….zap, the world turned upside down, reason erased, emotional chaos. I am not proclaiming your complete innocence, Kristen, I am simply reporting it.
It’s just the way biology works sometimes: A process begins which the body has succeeded in defeating, tens (or hundreds or thousands) of times every day for almost 22 years. It just does. If cancer is evil, then its evil is the initial betrayal of the life process that is the body’s original sin against itself. Nothing intentional needs to happen.
There’s really not any ”if” about the evil. But what does that mean? That drawing breath is lethal? That life is one long cheat and we’d have been better off without it?
I saw you with your boyfriend. I saw you with your puppy. I saw you with your mother and your sister, and with me, and with the nurses who wept at your bedside. And I saw the 1200 people at your funeral, and I will see two or three dozen people tonight, who remember you as niece or neighbor, childhood friend or college roommate. All of whom, if they let themselves travel to the best of it, or even the worst, are shaken or shattered by the death of this child who had grown up so beautifully and so beautiful, and if I look at that picture of you holding somebody’s baby but not your own one more time, my heart may not fail but, it’ll sure seem like it ought to.
Somebody once asked me why I thought that no one had ever died of a broken heart and I told him, “Because my wife is still alive.” I could have said my daughter. I could have said her boyfriend.
Nevertheless the purpose of this letter, or of any of the others I’ve written you annually, is not to chafe against the reality of your death but to celebrate the spirit with which you lived. “Darkness cannot put out darkness, only light can do that,” said Dr. Martin Luther King. And then he said, “And I also say to ya, I’ve also decided to stick with love.”
You carried the light so gracefully, Kristen, you carried it like its champion, and on a really good day, you were indeed just that. And on a really bad one….well, you lost your hair not to the disease but to the medicine. You were beautiful then, and all those who saw you (and there were quite many) saw your love and the reflection of the love you received shine out. This is not a metaphor. I was there.
Is this banal? I don’t think so. Today—right now, this minute–people are scared, really scared, more scared than I have ever seen people in this country and scared not only of a maniac in the White House –we’ve had those before. People are scared of each other, in numbers and on a scale I have never seen before.
I write you each year out of my sense that you and Sasha were the greatest gifts that ever could have been given to me. People still act like my greatest feat was making the best seller list, or having my name in the paper or my voice on the radio. But I know, with no shadow of a doubt, that the best thing I ever did in my life was participate with your mother in seeing you and Sasha into adulthood.
The gift you gave was love.
So I am sticking with love, too. A clumsy tool, sometimes, but it’s about the best one any of us have. Thankfully, it is enduring, way past anyone’s lifetime if we let it be.
You are always there for me and I don’t have a clue about how to express the comfort that gives. Well, there’s one…