Last week I began sifting through the boxes in my basement. I was looking for my old film cameras, to determine if I wanted to sell them. On top of a box full of 15-year-old slides I found a blue accordion file folder.
When I opened it, I found a number of cards and letters I’d saved over the years. In the front pocket were 4 or 5 cards from my former father-in-law who died in February. He had a gruff and sometimes challenging personality, but it was checked by a surprisingly sweet and generous, but undeniably dry, sense of humor. That humor most often appeared either in his stocky engineer’s handwriting, or in a mumbled baritone as an aside to some grump-ism he’d just uttered — there had to be just a little bit of interpersonal distance for it to appear. I went through the cards one by one, laughing, and I sent screenshots to his son, my ex-husband. I carefully separated the cards out to give to him, showing them first to my son, who misses the grandparents he lost this year acutely.
In the process of collecting the cards, a crisp white envelope fell out. The address where I lived 26 years ago was typed neatly and evenly on the front, and in the upper left-hand corner was a return address label adorned with seashells and my grandmother’s full name. The postmark was 1 JUL 1993. A particular and nearly forgotten feeling of being cared for washed over me, a feeling that, historically, came only from seeing my grandmother’s impeccably addressed letters. She had something to tell me.
My grandmother rarely wrote a letter that didn’t contain an insight of some kind. There was always the usual small talk, but she was a thinker, a processor, and to some extent, a philosopher. Like me, my grandmother had to work the events of life into a narrative that made sense to her. And she was often willing to share her conclusions, which I suppose was one reason she saved my emotional life as a child. My grandmother was often the only one of the adults in my orbit who shared my mental process, and so life simply made more sense when I was with her.
The date on the letter, I noticed, was a couple of weeks after I lost my grandfather on the other side of my family, a lively, warm, funny man whom I had adored, and who adored me in turn.
The letter began:
I’m thinking of you today as you mourn the loss of your Grandfather. This is probably the first time that you have lost someone very close to you. You will find that it is the hardest thing in life to accept. People will say and do comforting things, but nothing helps except the passage of time. It is hard to accept because death is really an unknown condition. But surely the depth of love that we feel on this earth for other persons doesn’t end here. I think about dying, and I’m certainly old enough to, but I reject the thought of leaving my friends and family. This, however, is the pattern of life. We are all going to die at some time in our life, and if we didn’t, there wouldn’t be enough room on this earth for all of us. It is usually the old ones who die and that is good, because we have been privileged to experience all the good things as well as the bad for a very long time.”
I wondered, as I read it, if she wasn’t talking as much to herself as she was to me. A week later, I am still astounded to find, in a nondescript blue accordion file in a random box among piles of them in my basement, evidence that my grandmother wrestled with the same things I am wrestling with. I don’t remember with much clarity how I felt as I read this for the first time; I remember only a vague sense of comfort, the kind I always felt when I received her wisdom. But the letter wasn’t nearly as much for 1993-me as it was for 2019-me.
The researcher Brene Brown has said that one of the most powerful things a person can say to another is “me too.” And here she was again, whispering in my ear, only a short period of time after I wrote, in a fit of grief for another lost friend, that I will never get used to losing people. Me neither, she said. But this is the pattern of life; this is how it is and must be. There was no attempt to fix it, no explanations of how to deal with it — just a simple expression of feeling, of doubt, of mystery, and then, of her usual kindness and warmth.
I couldn’t believe it. Here she was still, holding space for me long after she’s supposed to be gone.
She went on:
[Your grandpa] had such a wonderful sense of humor, he must have enjoyed his life here….Fond memories brought out occasionally are what they have left us. We oldies that are still here can only hope that we have left some too.”
And of course, she did, and I was just lucky enough to find one when I needed it. And so here I am again, like the author Sherman Alexie, not believing in ghosts, but seeing them all the time.