Your Great Grandpa died on Halloween last year. He was 86. Our family lost an amazing man – one of the great loves of my life.
I had last seen him in August, shortly after my previous letter to you, and was able to introduce him to your sister for the first and last time. He lifted her up to stand on his lap, careful not to get her twisted in the oxygen tubes that hung from his nose. She smiled at him. He clapped his hands and made funny faces at her. She smiled again. For a moment, his failing body was not the focus of his attention. Instead, if only for a moment, he got to marvel at his youngest legacy. To say I am grateful for that day would be an understatement.
When we lost you, we came home from the hospital to a FedEx envelope at the front door. In it was a single piece of extra long yellow legal paper marked with his beautiful cursive handwriting, a little more scribbled than usual. The letter was short, only intended to offer his lifelong mantra – “family is everything, we are here for you, we love you.” It wasn’t unlike him to not call – he never wanted to be a bother or use up our phone “units” – but the overnighted envelope was telling of the urgency with which he needed his message delivered. It was such a Grandpa thing to do, I couldn’t help but smile.
While he rarely called, he often wrote. Writing letters was his thing. (I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.) When I was a freshman and sophomore in college, he wrote me every month. Each letter insisted that its contents were not advice.
“Old men do not give advice to young women,” he wrote. “I am paid handsomely for my advice so I try not to give it for free and never to the young unless they ask (which they almost never do). The above is intended to inspire conduct – to have you view your new world with confidence; to have you understand that no one ever knows the limits of their own ability and to urge you to be enthusiastic as you begin to learn just how far your “best” can take you.”
Since he passed away, I’ve been re-reading these letters. Not just because I miss him, but also because I’ve needed his non-advice.
Nora is now 10 months old. 10 MONTHS. All I can think about when I type that is a myriad of cliches about the passing of time. She’s laughing and crawling, walking with assistance and pulling herself to stand. She has 4 teeth, loves music, taking baths, and is clapping, waving, and pointing at everything in sight. She loves being outside; taking daily walks in the Bjorn, watching for cars, birds, dogs and kids on the street behind our back patio, and swinging on the swings at a nearby park. She is so curious – she examines (and eats) her toys with intensity, she likes to read books, and go to her sign language class. She has an old soul as she sits like a lady with her legs crossed, listening and dancing to the Beatles, and watching Mary Poppins. She is fun and beautiful and smart and strong and I’ve never loved anything more.
Last fall, I left my job to stay home with her full-time. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the obvious one for me. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. It’s harder than anything I’ve ever done. And it’s scary. I mean, REALLY scary.
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot worrying.
I worry that something awful will happen to Nora, something that I won’t be able to protect her from – the way I wasn’t able to protect you. I worry that people think I’m a neurotic, helicopter parent and don’t understand why I make certain decisions. I worry that I’ve forgotten my independence because of the anxiety I feel to leave Nora’s side. I worry in social situations with new people because they don’t know our history and I worry in social situations with old friends that I am perceived differently. I worry that I’m not being a good mom to you, that I’m not paying you enough attention and letting you be forgotten.
Most of all, I worry that I’m doing too much worrying.
When that sort of anxiety builds, I usually turn here. I have thought about writing you every – single – day since my last letter, no exaggeration. Truthfully, I don’t have a solid excuse for staying away so long. Lack of time? Maybe. But it surely hasn’t been for a lack of content.
I worry too about how Nora will feel when she reads this someday. I worry that she will feel like a replacement, though we all know better. You are our firstborn and she is the physical manifestation of our hope. Our living miracle. Still, my worry makes me overly cautious about my words. Mix that with time restraints and sleep deprivation and you’ve got the recipe for a 7-month letter hiatus.
Without my own ability to write, I sought solace in my Grandpa’s words. After perusing through dozens of “advice-free” pages, I eventually came to the last letter he ever wrote me in February 2015. In the very last sentence, on the very last page, before telling me he loved me, he wrote:
“Be positive, because worry is a waste of energy.”
His final words to me felt as if he was writing the final chapter of his life. Despite struggling with his own physical limitations, he remained level headed and chose to leave me with a message that inspired the same conduct, instilled the same confidence and issued the same challenge to be my best that he always had.
My worries, I realize, are deep rooted – stemming from the lingering guilt I carry with me everyday for failing to protect you. These worries are not to be swept under the rug and forgotten for another day. Ignoring anxiety doesn’t make it go away, but my Grandpa was right…letting it consume me is a waste of the very little energy I have.
I must accept that as she gets older, I will not be able to save Nora from every illness, bump and bruise. I will not be able to keep her heart from being broken or her feelings from being hurt. And if I step back and think about it, I wouldn’t want to. That would be keeping her from really living and learning.
I must come to terms with the fact that my job is to guide her: to clean her inevitable wounds, nurse her back to health, to embrace her and listen when she hurts, and to offer advice from my own experiences. I must continue to remind myself that there is only so much I can control and that in order to be the best mom I can be, I need to not be so hard on myself and just keep following my gut. Not everyone will agree with some of the decisions I make and that’s ok. I may be perceived as over-protective and that’s ok too. Not everyone has walked the journey we’ve walked (thank god) so I cannot expect them to understand the complexities of parenting after loss. All of this doesn’t mean I won’t try to protect her, of course, as I so badly wanted to protect you. But, I can’t let what happened to you (to us) manifest itself into day-to-day debilitating worry. I cannot let it negatively effect the mother I am to Nora.
In 2002, your Great Grandpa sent me a letter about overcoming adversity.
“Any experience in life, winning or losing, is only significant if we learn from it. Usually, we learn more from losing than from winning and the reason for that is that adversity introduces us to ourselves. It makes us dig deep into our inner resources to overcome disappointment and resolve to press ahead with determination. A person who is defeated is not a “loser” unless that defeat saps the resolve out of her.”
Moving forward, my resolve must overcome my grief and my worry.
As I write you now, it strikes me how the pain of Grandpa’s loss and yours, while wildly different, have a common denominator. At the very end of his life, mentally, he was himself – brilliant, sharp, tough, thoughtful, stubborn, proud – but his body was a shell of the invincible man I always saw him be. It failed him, which makes his loss feel premature. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. When I saw him last August, I was so sure I would be spending Christmas with him. Had I known it was the last time, I would have lingered a little longer in his arms before walking out the door.
What comforts me now is the thought of you two being together, taking care of each other, wherever you are. And while we must press ahead without you both here, I have Grandpa’s words to guide me and your spirit with me always.
I love you, Rubes.