Repost: Letter to a Long-Dead Friend

I was thinking about your death the other day. About how you had been reluctant to let me know you had lung cancer, and then pretended you were getting better just before you died. I was disappointed that you didn’t trust me enough to tell me the truth, or was it that you just couldn’t tell yourself the truth? I guess I’ll never know. It seemed more than coincidental that you died on the day that your propane tank ran out. But then again, you always were a practical sort.

We arrived two days later in the dead of winter in northeastern Missouri and met your sons at your home. They had missed your death by a few hours because they had gotten stoned on the way to the Houston airport and missed their flight. Your daughter-in-law who stayed at home swore she saw you walking in her backyard at the exact time that you passed away. I wondered about that since you had made it clear to me that she wasn’t high on your list of favorite people, and as a new ghost couldn’t you have chosen instead that old Chevy van your boys were driving ever so slowly? They would have been happy to see you.

I think you would have been pleased with the turnout of the Amish who came to pay their respects. They clearly appreciated the time you had spent driving them to and fro to town or to weddings or funerals in your van. They came that cold night in dark blues and blacks, the women in their bonnets and shawls, the men in their waistcoats and dress pants, the children little miniatures of their parents. They stood in a circle round your dining room table where you lay in state in one of their homemade pine coffins. They remained there in silence for several minutes before the women turned and started serving the pies and cakes they had brought and filling big mugs with steaming coffee that we had brewed up for the occasion. The Amish were in no hurry to leave. They stood in small groups and chatted among themselves, leaving us “English” to do the same. After an hour or so, they headed out into the cold to their horses and buggies and quietly climbed inside. The sky was cold and clear with no city lights obscuring the view of the Milky Way or Orion. The air was clean as it had followed the same path you had when you’d tried to outrun your past, first in Canada and then in the US.

Back inside, I sat with your family and friends around the kitchen table and we told stories of you and your exploits. How you’d pulled drowned rats out of the cistern of that very house when you’d moved in and only boiled the water for a day or two before deciding that was good enough. How your dog had kept you warm when you’d fallen two nights prior, before a friend had discovered you prone on your kitchen floor, in the coma from which you would not emerge. How when my husband and your younger son were moving your body from the undertaker’s van into the house, your son broke down in tears and left my husband holding all 5’ 8” and 150 pounds of you in his arms, dead-weight. “She had the last laugh, for sure,” he said, knowing too well what a love/hate relationship you two had had.

I couldn’t believe you were dead so soon, only 64, when you had survived so much: World War II in Germany, the dual suicides of your parents when the Russians invaded, the “scales falling from your eyes” when the camps were liberated and a Jewish woman knocked on your door to ask if you had a comb, the years post-War as a German woman in England with a sadistic new husband who hated your German sons. How could something as small as the endless cigarettes you smoked finally succeed in bringing you down?

You knew I was angry that you had harshly disciplined my oldest daughter when she had “misbehaved.” You narrowed your eyes when I said, “If you ever touch her or any of my children again in anger, I will throw you out of my house without a word.” Perhaps that’s why you didn’t want to tell me about your illness. Maybe you thought my reaction was overly dramatic. After all, your second husband had thrust your oldest son in a water barrel and held him there by his heels. You said you picked up a brick to hit him, but he brought the child up out of the water just in time. Perhaps you thought that spanking with a board or a light slap to the face were nothing in comparison. You surely could tell that I didn’t give a good god damn what you thought when it came to the welfare of my children.

The day of your funeral was cold and gray and filled with the sound of horses and buggies as the Amish formed a procession to their cemetery. They had already dug your grave in that cold ground before we came and then used ropes to lower your casket into the earth while we watched. Each person walked by and tossed a handful of dirt on top of your casket and then all the men grabbed shovels and quickly filled in the hole. I knew you’d be pleased that you were on top of a hill looking out on pasture land; that the Amish made an exception and allowed you, an English driver, to be buried among them; that your closest family and friends were there to see you properly planted.

I do miss you. I miss your passion and vigor; your gypsy nature and sense of adventure. Your big laugh, gold-sprinkled front tooth, your deep-blue eyes.
You were the first woman I’d ever met who lived life like a man, never limiting your vision or considering a task too big. I loved that you traveled cross-country without a thought; kept a German shepherd as a guard dog so you could walk at night whenever and wherever you pleased. I admired how free you were of all the fears that women share. Of strangers, dark alleys, and breakdowns on a lonely road.

Not you.

Too bad your temper got the best of you when it came to my kids. That breach was not an easy one to mend no matter how deep our affection. After all, it required looking a situation straight in the face and naming what was going on.

Trusting in the truth.

I hope you wander across that pasture land and enjoy the open country and the bright shimmering stars. You deserve some freedom and peace after that life of yours. You deserve some peace indeed.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Jeanne Guy says:

    Wow, Len. What a powerful, powerful, truth-telling piece. I’ll be rereading this to feel all of it clearly.

  2. Thank you, Jeanne. This felt satisfying to write.

  3. Kelly Wise says:

    I agree with Jeanne, Len. Super strong piece that begs so much, further details about this relationship. Wow.

    1. Thank you so much, Kelly. Much appreciated. Glad to hear from you!

  4. David Bilbo says:

    Len, This letter is powerful for those of us who have both loved and hated the same person, then dealt with their death. I struggled many years with the aftermath of that situation. I often sat down to write such a letter. I never finished any of the letters, yet each time I wrote, felt relief from my angst just from writing and re-reading each attempt. The difference between anger and hate toward that person began to emerge and that differentiation began to have a positive impact in my life. I think, in large part, it helped me in the totality of my spiritual life here on Earth. I often struggle with “organized religion” and as one of my best friends, who happens to be a Presbyterian minister, told me, “you are one of the most spiritual persons I have ever known, but you are not very religious”. In the end, the person who engendered both my love and anger and I were able to reach a “good place” before he left his worldly presence. In the end days of his life, it was only he and I left to deal with any residual hate or anger. Of the former, there was none, and I realized the anger was only hurting me. This left only love, and, while I can’t speak for him, it was a feeling of comfort and peace for me as he was laid to rest. I think, at that point in my life I realized the importance of having strong faith, forgiveness of others first, then forgiveness of myself, and the unquestioned power of unconditional love.
    ~ that person was my Father ~

    Thank you for your post.

    1. Dear David, Thank you so much for taking the time to write to me about your reaction to this piece. It is indeed a tough thing to sort out feelings of love and hate toward another person, and it gets even more complicated when death also is part of the picture. I’m glad that your letter writing helped you to differentiate between anger and hate and I am happy to hear that differentiation had such a profound impact on your spiritual life “here on Earth.” If you have to pick between “spiritual” or “religious,” I think spiritual is definitely the way to go. I tend to be both, but my husband Ray is in your category. He is a truly spiritual man with not one iota of interest or inclination toward religion. (That’s ironic since he is now the “rector’s warden,” the highest layperson’s position in our church. But that’s because our rector is his best friend.) Anyway, I am happy that you and your father were able to move to a “good place” before his death. That is a true gift, which doesn’t happen all that often. I loved your line, “I think, at that point in my life I realized the importance of having strong faith, forgiveness of others first, then forgiveness of myself, and the unquestioned power of unconditional love.” That was beautifully said and a profound truth. Thank you for sharing with me. I am deeply touched by your openness and honesty. Hugs to you.

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