A Letter to My Daughter on the Nineteenth Anniversary of Her Death

Dear Kristen,

Can I tell you a secret? It’s ridiculous but I didn’t even know it was a secret until I heard Lady GaGa’s “Hair” this morning and then I realized that I’d kept it even from myself. In my ears, it’s a record where I always find you. “I’ve had enough, this is my prayer / That I’ll die livin’ just as free as my hair.” Those are the first song lyrics I’ve heard since “My clothes don’t fit me no more” in “Streets of Philadelphia” that capture what you
dealt with in those long, brief months you fought your illness.

Now, Gaga’s not as cool as you. She worries too much about being cool. You never worried about that—not as far as I could tell, and I was watching pretty closely. Why would you? You walked into a room and cool had arrived.

Nobody who remembers you could forget your glorious hair—blonde or strawberry, somewhere down around your shoulders or a little past, shimmering in motion, a glorious sight on a sunny winter’s day like this one. It looked as free as you always seemed to be feeling. Not free of worry or obligation. Free to be.

I know for a fact that cancer didn’t take much from the life you lived. But once you started the all-but-useless
chemotherapy, it took your hair. All your hair—not the way they do it in the movies and on TV, where they let the eyebrows stay. Chemo and cancer aren’t that kind.

Even if I hadn’t been caught up in the teenage hair wars of the ‘60s, I’d know that hair is a key to identity. I’d
know even if I hadn’t lost almost all my hair to age. What I remember, better than my own stringy locks, is the first time I saw a chemotherapy patient after you died. They looked just like you and I had to turn away. I’ve never turned away since then, that I promise you. Because I would never, even symbolically, turn away from your memory twice.

You lived beautifully without hair. We have pictures to prove it. The spirit shone more brightly from your eyes, your whole face was consumed with your conviction that life, not death, was what mattered.

Every time I write you, it always comes back to this same thing: The contradiction between the failure of your fight for life, and the reality that your life cannot be described  in any terms I know of, except duration, as anything but a monumental success.  You loved, and you were loved, for that matter you are still loved. You wrote, you danced, you sang, you worked, you slept late, you stayed up all night, you traveled, you had a home and a family and a man who loved you. When there was a fight, you figured out the right side to take, and you fought. When there were questions, you sought answers. When you saw that other people hurt, you tried to make them feel better.
As in anybody’s life, there were fights that couldn’t be won, consolation that didn’t change anything, important questions that lacked sensible answers, flat-out disappointments in some of your ambitions. Eventually there was even betrayal by your own body. Yet you had the courage and the grace to let it go, to move on, to come back to a center point that was fundamentally cheerful, accepting, open. You were a child of Manhattan, without a doubt, tough enough to cope with the worst and smart enough to try to outwit fate without ever denying who held the cards. If you could be cynical (and, boy, could you), you were the most optimistic cynic I ever met.

One reason I’m talking about this now is that I am watching that spirit rise again. It never made itself entirely
absent from my life, of course. Like everybody, you were a product of the family you grew up in, and if there’s anything that defines Barbara, Sasha and me, it is absolutely an optimistic cynicism. We assume the worst and look for the best. I’d say that we have done it better over the past nineteen years because of the example you set, but then again, the example you set was only the most extreme version of that family trait.

To me, the entire wonder of human life, its majesty and its mystery, are bound up in this ability to share aspects of our personality and yet arrive at a remarkably original individual synthesis—billions of times over. You and Sasha, sleeping literally within a few feet of one another most of the nights of your lives, are the paradigm, a similarity for every difference, a contradiction for every convergence. One of the luckiest
aspects of my own existence was to watch the two of you emerge. One of the happiest moments  was when Sasha returned from abroad and the two of you harmonized so effortlessly those last few weeks. And one of the most painful was watching Sasha have to learn the painful process of living a complete life without her sister.

This year, she reached a new peak. She became a mother. Her son’s name is Weston Kristof Carr.  He looks almost exactly like her, and yet, they must be substantially different, because when she holds him and they look into each other’s eyes, they are complete. You can imagine what happens when Barbara and I hold him.

At Christmas dinner, Sasha watched Wes at the table. He was doing what kids do, just immersed in his essential joy of life. He must have been doing something particular, but the details really aren’t important. What matters is what Sasha said: “Sometimes, you remind me an awful lot of your aunt.”

After all this time, we all want and need that reminder, Kristen. You are so far away, though you are always
close to mind. And heart.

I’d no sooner typed those words than Sasha and Wes came into the house. (They live next door.) Wes gave me his huge smile—it’ll show all his teeth, just like yours did, once he has all his teeth. I walked over and picked him from his momma’s arms. “Are you writing?” Sasha asked me after I’d held him for a few minutes. “Do you want me to take him?” I didn’t say anything. “Yes and no, huh?” she said.

The heart is a muscle. It has an amazing ability to expand—you may feel like your heart will burst with joy and
love but it never does. And when it contracts, it finds a way to fill itself again. Each breath, in and out, a little different, a lot the same. If we’re smart, we treasure them all, deep and small. And while my breaths continue, that is the flat out truth, the one that really matters.

Not a lesson you ever seemed to need. But I surely did. Thank you for teaching me the things that kids teach
their parents (and grandparents). We are so lucky to have Sasha and Wes in our lives. We are—to this very second—so lucky to have you.

love from your Pop,

Dave

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

  1. Jeannette Amodeo says:

    Dear Dave:

    I remember reading last year’s letter. Crying, smiling, hurting, trying to understand but not really wanting to know your shoes. This year’s letter seems even more powerful. Perhaps it’s because how you’ve shared a little bit of Wes with us. Your, words of humanity, love, life and loss, all guided by your daughter’s spirit and spoken directly to her. This is one of the most touching things I have ever read. What a wonderful gift to Kristen.

    Love Jeannette

  2. Gerry Newman says:

    Dave,

    After hearing you talk about this letter last week I looked it up when I got back to work. I read it twice, smiling and crying each time. I have been thinking about it all weekend, and just now read it for a third time, still smiling and crying in the same places.

    I have three kids ages 20, 18, and 10. They are the joy of my life, and I can’t imagine my life with out them. Yet the time has gone by in the blink of an eye. I want you to know how much I appreciate you sharing these letters with us. It was very touching to be allowed to be a part of your conversation with Kristen. I wish you and your family nothing but joy in the New Year.

    Best,

    Gerry

  3. John McNicholas says:

    Dave:

    Very moving. The pictures you paint with your words. Perhaps at some point this is another book project – putting all the letters together. They are a must read for any parent.

    John

  4. Dave says:

    My confidence that the publishing industry in its present state would have no interest in such a book is total.

    But I thank you for saying that because I’ve been thinking about it for quite a number of years.

    Dave

  5. JoAnne says:

    Dear Dave,

    How absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing your most personal thoughts and words. I too, read them with tears clouding my eyes. Not thinking of the loss of a child but the loss of my best friend, my mom. To those beautiful words I know, as a daughter, she hears them and sends her love back ten-fold to her dad.

    I had the pleasure of meeting you May 2 at the Prudential Center and enjoy talking with you within the E Street venue.

    Best wishes to you and your family for continued love and happiness,
    JoAnne

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