A Letter to My Daughter on the Anniversary of Her Death

Every year, on January 3–the anniversary of her death at age 21, from a very rare cancer, retroperitoneal sarcoma– I write my daughter Kristen a letter. This is the 18th. The others are available if you would like to see them.

Thank you for the attention you might give this.

If you would like to know Kristen better or more about the fight to cure and find better treatments for sarcoma, please go to www.sarcoma.com, the website of the Kristen Ann Carr Fund. (There is also KACF info at Twitter, MySpace and Facebook.) Among other things, there is a brief but very fine video by Mark Cerulli that explains the whole situation beautifully and features many of Kristen’s cast of characters.

May you really live.


P.S. Christine Ohlman’s song is “The Gone of You,” two versions of which are on her beautiful 2009 album, The Deep End.

Dear Kristen,

Eighteen years and no, it doesn’t seem like yesterday since you departed from us. It seems like a long time–though not so long that once in a while, I don’t find myself reattached to the emotions and memories of the end of your life.
The better times are easier to remember, or maybe I mean that when those reminiscences come, there’s no resistance, they are not accompanied by fear. Mostly, there’s just the pure pleasure of re-experiencing your growing up, the laughs, the triumphs, and even the failures, the trials of courage and patience and understanding that we shared. These memories are of life, and they are true, therefore some of it is “bad.” Anybody’s life is made up of misfortune as well as blessings.
Death is another matter. I suppose as a release from suffering, you can call it beneficial. But suffering in that degree isn’t part of life so much as it is part of death.
I cannot say, as the blues song does, that if it wasn’t for bad luck I wouldn’t have no luck at all. Part of the shock of your death is that we had been so fortunate, that things had to that point worked out so well.
We were lucky to have made a real family, you, Sasha, Barbara and me, and luckier still that we were able to extend that family to include Michael, and your aunts and uncles and my mom and Jon and Barbara, so many of your friends, especially Ilyse, and a whole bunch of others. You kids are the best of it, and not just in my memory. No trouble in school, no misbehavior that mattered a damn. Your futures weren’t a hope, they seemed assured.
Then our luck turned. It turned on you, of all people, and it turned viciously.
You could make a case that we are still a fortunate family. Lucky that losing you, who sometimes served as our center of gravity, didn’t shatter us, but instead, left us bonded for the rest of our lives.
A lot of those people we think of as family will be here tonight and the rest will be thinking of us, which really means, of you.
Yet tonight, even tonight, the room will spin around Sasha. That’s as it should be, because in a few weeks—days, really—she’ll add to our family a baby boy: A son for her, a grandson for us. In these next years, all the rooms will spin around him, I promise.
Sasha, with her courage and wisdom, has brought us so many gifts—I’m sure you could imagine, since she was your other half. I am not sure you could imagine how beautiful she is, right now, though. It isn’t so much a surprise as a wonder. An unqualified joy, in the way that only children, and their expectation, can be.
I hadn’t thought of this for a while, but now I remember how much you loved kids. There are some photographs of you holding the newborn child of a friend during your last trip to California that radiate your presence in a way that no others do.
What’s in those photos is life. Not a shadow of death. Not a hint. The camera lies so well.
So, is it death I’m here to discuss with you, or life? You’d say, life, because about death there can be no discussion. The older I get the more I realize the rightness of your choice—not to talk about it but to speak and think, whenever possible, only of life. Life, over which we have at least some control. Life, which offers much more joy than sorrow, which can transform the dingy mud of winter into spring’s green exuberance.
I don’t know why life is so much harder to describe than death. Maybe because life is complicated and ever-changing; its joys seem to come and go so quickly we can overlook them, while death is simple, because it’s final. Not even the biggest fool could miss it, although God knows, they try, every last one of us.
Death is also part of life’s complications, though, and not a small part. Death bears a message, and those who succumb to its infatuation want to believe that the story is that Death conquers all. But that’s not really it. In fact, life is supreme. Life is where our focus must remain, and if we have to struggle for it, then we need to find the beauty in that struggle. Death is not an accomplishment, just an inevitability. Life is another matter. “Tell me,” asks a character in one of James Baldwin’s novels, “do you find it hard to live? I mean really to live? Not just to go to the job and come home and go to sleep and get up and eat and go back to the job—but—to live.”
Everybody will say yes. I doubt everybody, at least a little. I doubt me—sometimes a lot. But by the end of your life, I didn’t doubt you. There was pain and there was suffering but the focus remained on living, really living. Barbara and I were just now listening to Enya’s “Wild Child,” because that was the song playing when you died, and we always gather for a few minutes on this mournful anniversary to listen: “Ever feel alive / And you’ve nothing missing / You don’t need a reason / Let the day go on and on.” There you are.
So you set a standard, and, in dying, put us to the test. Not an easy test. All of us fight every day to get to, to stay in—hell, sometimes to believe in—the very real spirit of life as you lived it.
I thank you for setting the standard. And I do try. All of us do, no reason to doubt that. But you know, it’s like that song Christine Ohlman wrote after her mate, Doc Cavaliere, died: “I’m out here in the big wide world / It’s a beautiful place sometimes / I keep my eye on the sparrow and my mind open wide / But I just can’t keep from crying / I miss the gone of you, the gone of you, the gone of you / Right now.”
And I always will.
Love from your pop,

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11 Responses to “A Letter to My Daughter on the Anniversary of Her Death”

  1. I just finished Jonathan Carroll’s great “Bones of the Moon” and found it in dialogue with your letter, both speaking forcefully to me after a year of new life (including a wonderful adopted daughter) in my home and a year of incomprehensible losses.

    Carroll writes:

    “Death doesn’t make you sad–it makes you empty. That’s what’s so bad about it. All of your charms and beliefs and funny habits fall fast through a big black hole, and suddenly you know they’re gone because just as suddenly, there’s nothing at all left inside.”

    By acknowledging the gaping hole in the buckets we carry, you and Kristen, with these letters, and all of your family, help the rest of us find new ways to fight for that standard Kristen set. Thank you.

  2. Peter Rodman says:

    Wow. Tough stuff…but beautfully spoken.
    Thanks for all of the well wrought, life-affirming reminders of what music should be and do, over the years…


  3. Estelle Lazarus says:

    A very touching letter – there are tears in my eyes — what more can I say.

    I found your letter via Susan Whitall on her Facebook status.



  4. Rose Murphy says:

    This is such a beautiful letter. I came across it on a friend’s facebook.
    Though I am not very eloquent, I wanted to let you know that I found it deeply moving— for both the love for your daughter and within your family, and for how incredibly well you were able to articulate such a complex and tragic life event. Your daughter surely was quite a gal. This was just beautiful.

    Thank you,
    Rose Murphy

  5. Patrick Canny says:

    That is a lovely letter to a beautiful girl taken too early just as she was making her way in this tough world .I feel your pain thru the words and pray that you and your Family can find peace and joy with the upcomming birth of Kristens Nephew and when you hold him for the first time feel her presence because with her love for children she will be all around .As you say in your book maybe its a miracle or a beautiful reward for someone who has earned it by walking that lonesome valley way too soon .Patrick and Kathleen

  6. Shawn Kidd says:

    Mr. Marsh,

    I just want you to know that I was very moved by your letter to your angel. I lost my best friend (my Dad) in 1996 and I continue to think of him daily. Since that day, I have been blessed with a daugher (Gabrielle) and a son (Gavin). I had a friend once tell me that one of the amazing things about having your own children is that you really realize how much your parents love you.
    I love your show on E Street Radio on Fridays and I know you continue to make Kristen proud.

    Keep up the great work and enjoy your new up and coming postition ! (Grandfather)

    Shawn Kidd

  7. Great post, I just bookmarked your site and I’ll definitely return again. -Donovan Kaighn

  8. audra says:

    I’m a colleague of Greg Linn’s (and Michael Solomon’s) and sorry to have been unable to attend last night’s event. I just came across your website for the first time a few moments ago. We are about to uncelebrate what would have been our daughter Sylvie’s fifth birthday and I constantly try and imagine what my husband is going through and how I can help him. He often seeks out words written by other dads who have lost children to cancer so I plan to share your site with him later.

    We are also celebrating the joy of our soon-to-be seven month old twin boys this year but it doesn’t take away the pain of losing our spunky little daughter who beat a rare liver cancer only to suddenly become ill and pass away (on my husband’s 40th birthday). Anyway, I wanted to congratulate you on becoming a grandpa. I know for my own parents, our having twins last year has really helped them welcome some sunshine into their hearts.

    I plan on reading all of your letters from the previous 18 years shortly.


  9. Dave says:

    The other letters are at http://www.sarcoma.com

  10. Dave says:

    thanks Donovan sorry it took so long to acknowledge

  11. Dave says:

    you’re right. they aren’t there. I’ll send a file of them to your address. (I am not sure WordPress would let me do that here.)

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