I write a letter to my daughter, Kristen Carr, every year on the anniversary of her death. This is this year’s version.
The other day a friend of mine told me that he had just found out that his father would die within the next few hours. We talked about it for a few minutes. As we parted, I said, “You’ll be talking to him, you know.” He gave me a startled look. “No, really, you’ll be talking to him. I’m not saying he’ll answer back. But you’ll talk to him.” He still looked a little quizzical. “I’m not guessing,” I said.
I’m going to see him in a couple of weeks. I hope it came out like I said. He really loved his father. And it probably will. His father really loved him.
The last thing I remember hearing you say, in your own voice, was when you asked your doctor, “Am I dying?” You asked with a note of wonder. I have spent a lot of the past twenty years thinking about that question. For a long time, I pondered your ability to hold off death in favor of life. But lately, I’ve considered the way you accepted the answer: “We’re trying to let today be like every other day, and let the medicine work.”
Your head fell back on the pillow. In memory I see all your fine red-blonde hair spreading across the sheets. But your hair was already gone. So the beauty I remember must be just Kristen. You were going to be 22 that spring, and you were a woman, but you were also the child and the sister of the people with you in that room. All those versions of yourself were there, in that moment, in the wonder in your voice and in your eyes that took over for your hair as the emblem of your beauty.
I used to dream sometimes that it never happened. That you were a story I told myself, nothing more. It was a nightmare panic, one of those dreams where you’ve misplaced the most important thing—you don’t even know what important thing—and search for it endlessly until it occurs to you that if you don’t know what was lost, then maybe it’s a trick of your mind, nothing at all is missing, and this seems truly madness. After that, I don’t know. In my case, I wake up and then it’s real, all right. And madness too.
We have learned to cope. I have almost no idea how. For me, it started with a decision—you loved life and couldn’t have it, I had better learn to love the life I could not escape. Was that the beginning of a one-sided conversation? Not exactly. The conversation comes from all the time I’ve spent thinking about who you were, which means the person I saw you become. A little girl, generally effervescent and nevertheless occasionally terrified. A resilient, imaginative child, still sometimes frustrated to truly comic rage. As hip a preteen as I ever met, who spent idle Sunday afternoons watching Elvis movies—by herself. Then, an eighteen year old woman who found what seemed to everyone around her to be true love. At my fortieth birthday party, I remember somebody thinking or maybe even saying, “There goes Kristen with Michael, the oldest couple in the room.” Which meant old the way that a new mountain is already old. It felt like that.
And mostly, that’s what I recall, even when I put my mind to making the story concrete enough to talk about. The way it felt. It felt right. It felt like a good kid on her way to a good life, maybe a great one. It felt like a dream without a trace of nightmare to it. It felt safe. It wasn’t.
In that world of heartbreak beyond imagining, except as a nightmare of loss, I remember you crying, I think, three times. That isn’t to say you didn’t cry much—but you didn’t show the terror any more than you had to, at least around me. Were you protecting me? Of course you were protecting me.
I couldn’t protect you and I can’t preserve you, not the parts that won’t translate past feelings into words. That, more than anything, is what I have learned to cope with. But it still burns, it still scares me, and I still miss you. Part of that is because I love you. But the greater portion, I cannot deny, is that you loved me.
Twenty years ago, four people held your hands as you took your last breaths. Your mother, your father, your sister, your lover. As you pulled away, you bound us, too. We walked the half mile home as one… with a giant hole in the center.
Now, there are times when I walk out, especially in these deep midwinter days, and see a sky that soars with a blue so clear that it seems more wonderful than even the same clear sky at midsummer. That was the sky on the day you died. And seeing it, my thoughts turn to you, and what you taught me. I feel more alive because that was the essential thing I took from your life. To hell with death, death was a moment. This is what I want to remember, this what I cannot live without. This is life, and if the air is so cold it practically scorches my lungs, nevertheless I breathe deep. On those days, I know just what you were trying to tell me in between tears, when we would talk about pretty much everything but the shadow moving in from the corner.
I talk to you pretty much every day, Kristen. At some point, I check in, maybe just to hear your voice or see your face or feel the memory of your presence. I generally don’t try to sum things up, because that would spoil the moment. But once a year, when I write down our one-sided dialogue, I do try to sum up. And this is it: I feel so grateful that you were so real, the farthest thing from something anyone could have made up. Grateful too that you loved me, and that I loved you. That you loved all of us, and that for all these years, the gift of your presence, even in absence, knits us together. That you did your best to protect us, even though we couldn’t protect you. And, wonder of wonders, death not only can’t kill love, it can’t keep it from growing.
The greatest gift of my life was my daughters. It dwarfs the rest and always will.
Love from your pop,