I write a letter to my daughter, Kristen Carr, every year on the anniversary of her death. This is this year’s version.
I keep thinking today must be Sunday. Makes sense. This part of the story began on a Sunday in 1993, in a hospital room crowded with half a dozen people most of whom were family. Then the long walk home, four of us without you, who was our bond. Under what they now call a 9-11 sky, bright blue and cloudless, but cold. No drama from the weather gods, not really any from us.
Kristen, I always feel like I talk a lot about you in these letters but don’t really tell you much about us. Which is weird because you knew you as well as any young person could, I think. Death might have sneaked up on you, but I promise that it was plain to all, that life never could because you were way too busy turning to embrace it.
There are things about your loved ones, though, that you can’t know, because you’re not the survivor. So let me try to talk about them, and forgive me if it takes a while to get there.
When your daughter (sister, lover) dies young, well shy of her twenty-second birthday, not quickly but slowly, not in an accident but from a treacherous disease, the event is not a metaphor. How could an amputation be metaphoric? A very wise friend told me, during your last hospital stay,that I must decide which part of my body I was going to lose. I said instantly, “My heart.” Not so true, as it turned out. In a way, it was more like losing a leg, something you stand on, something that carries you to your various destinations, something you use all your waking hours.
If your leg is amputated, you learn to walk again, as best you can, with whatever aids you need. There’s no question about it. But when what is amputated is not that but a part of your daily thoughts, and your hope for the future, what you learn is much more bitter. Lesson one is that not everything broken can be fixed. There is no prosthetic person to replace the one who’s gone.
Then there is this: To limp away, determined not to ever walk straight again, betrays the very thing that you just watched your loved one—especially in that dreadful situation, with a young adult who has a future of luminous possibility before her—struggle with all her mind and body and spirit to keep. You may not feel that you could ever rise to the same standard. You certainly do not imagine you could do it better. As you cast about for options, you become aware, undeniably aware, that a substantial part of your inner equilibrium—your sanity—is what’s been cut away.
Does it make sense to give up on life? You have to ask that question, and while you’re answering it, you have to take into account that the person you just lost spent all the time and strength she had to live the life you feel like wasting. If you are lucky enough to have a had a smart, loving daughter-sister-lover, you’ll be told some things that give you an idea of your obligation to her: “If everybody sticks together, we’ll all be all right” was one of yours, “I’m not worried about me, I’m worried about you,” was another. If you said them to one of us, Kristen, you said them to each of us.
And so, though it initially seems traitorous, you learn to breathe deep of the day’s beauty. To laugh—talk about traitorous!—about the puppy (first yours, then mine and ours) running around the yard with a half-inflated volleyball obscuring its entire face. You figure a way to find words that grope to convey how it hit you. To let some outsiders in, because they can help, if you’ll let them. To let some outsiders in because they need help down the same path themselves. This doesn’t always mean starting a multi-million dollar cancer fund. It might mean a bake sell. It might mean going back into a school system where your child has been murdered, to see what the surviving kids need. It might mean confronting not a disease but a grotesque social malfunction—American gun culture is a good example.
One of the wonderful things that can now happen is that you are lead back to the battlefield, which is a place you need to be, at least some of the time. Because you left something there and while it can neither be touched or retrieved, standing in its shadow for a while, you may remember how it worked, you may find a way not to replace it with a prosthetic but to absorb the power of all that love that surrounded….well, here it really is down to cases, Kristen, because the last word of that sentence is you.
So the reason that I know, down in my bones, that “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make,” it is precisely because of your end. Not only what it cost all of us, especially you, but because of what it taught all of us, too.
You sang your song with enormous beauty Kristen, and you were heard. To the extent we can do it, we still try to reflect some of it in this dark world. We have stuck together, everything has worked out, we will carry on.
But, man, do we ever miss you. And not just on January 3. 365 times that often.
Thanks for all of it, even the last act, sweetheart.
Love from your pop,