I write a letter to my daughter, Kristen Carr, every year on the anniversary of her death. This is this year’s version.
In a book I’ve been reading, it is said of a father whose daughter has died at about the same age you did, “Theo was the world’s greatest worrier, but the one thing he didn’t worry about anymore was whether or not his daughter was safe.”
Parents, or any parent worth the name, worry about their kids all the time. When you were in grade school, I worried every morning that you and Sasha wouldn’t make it to school safely—across one avenue, with a stop light and safety guards.
It’s what you worry about that changes. I don’t worry if you still have cancer. I don’t worry about how you fare in the afterlife. I don’t worry if you miss us as much as we miss you. I do not ever waste a second of my own precious time worrying whether you loved me. Those would be silly worries.
Worrying whether I love you would be just plain dumb. If I am wrong about the existence of an afterlife (speaking of ridiculous things to worry about), then you knew how I felt in the first second after you left us. You gave, me, your Mom, Sasha and Michael all kind of reasons to know what you knew. Not because you were preparing for the end of your life; because you were in the midst of it and that’s how we love one another.
But even though you loved me and I love you, there are still worries worth some time and energy. Those are there now as they were yesterday and they will be tomorrow. Does anyone else remember you? Are my own memories accurate? What have I forgotten? Was there anything we could have done, or done sooner, or done better? Why did I say no to you at times when I could have said yes? (I thankfully do not have to worry “Why did I say yes?”)
This, it seems to me, is the kind of thing a parent should worry about any daughter or son, living or dead. In respect to worry, the difference between Kristen living and Kristen after her death is not a big thing. All parents recriminate (or ought to). How else could they face their grandchildren? Or a mirror?
You gave an impromptu lecture on this subject, with me as your only audience, one night. Just the two of us, standing in the half-dark kitchen, as you explained to me Madame Bovary (which I have still never read, for fear I’d stop seeing it through your eyes) and how Emma Bovary’s story applied to your life and our family’s life, and particularly the tragedy of your grandmother’s life. Emma Bovary was never done so proud, and this by someone who not many years before frequently and adamantly claimed that the only two worthwhile books in the entire world were Jane Eyre and Blubber by Judy Bloom. (It was never “Blubber,” but always “Blubber by Judy Bloom.”)
I doubt this discourse upon Bovary (nary a word spared for Flaubert; Emma was all of it) was one of the great nights of your life. It was unquestionably one of mine. Of course, Flaubert believed that the one indispensable requisite for happiness is stupidity. Not that night.
For me, James Baldwin came closer to the truth than Flaubert. He said that “happiness…is not a real state and does not really exist.” I take it my own way, as one must, and think that he meant happiness as some sort of permanent condition. And he’s right except that sometimes happy arrives, mostly fleeting by but it can also last a pretty long time (by which I mean hours or days).
So was the life of Kristen Carr a happy one? No, because you really existed. But did you know how to create the happy moment? Absolutely. You also extended some of them, as long as anyone can. This is why we could think of you as very adult for your age (at almost any age) and at the same time, as having an absolutely brilliant ability to be child-like.
There are not very many who can do that and of course, it is one of the things I miss most since you left us. Fortunately my recollection of times like your Emma Bovary performance, which was delivered with joy despite its dour topic, remains vivid—it happened 25 or maybe 30 years ago, and also, it seems, approximately yesterday.
Though to tell you the truth, which is the hardest part of writing this letter, I grab at every fragment of you I can see or feel. Because to talk about someone who’s died, you can easily say all you want to about their presence (and yours was immense). Still, January 3 1993 was 23 years ago and some nights I still wake up with the knowledge that Kristen Carr is dead preoccupying me, and remember that it is truth, not a dream. I know it’s not for the first time but something that should have been absorbed long ago. And I know it never can be.
In some ways, maybe that’s the good part: Why would I want to be separated from you, Kristen? You certainly never wanted to part from us. So if we all live as long as Billy Joe Shaver says, which is forever, the grief of losing everything that your life promised, or being without the smile on your face or the look in your eyes, will remain.
Carrie Rodriguez says it all in a line: “Absence is the hardest truth.”
But surely, your absence isn’t as large as your presence, someone will say. I have no reply. But what in the world do they imagine we’re crying about?
I love you, Kristen. I always will. It’s actually my great pleasure. I only wish you weren’t so far out of sight.
Hugs and kisses from your pop,