Many relationships in my life I conduct almost entirely by telephone, including those with the people dearest to me. With too much ocean or freeway stretching between our houses, it is easier to carry on conversations from the comfort of our own homes. Always, there is something to talk about even when there is nothing to talk about. Before Skype, I treasured long-distance phone calls with my mother, usually during weekends when we could be less circumspect with the time difference and the cost per minute. Before Facebook, there were sporadic phone calls from childhood friends, the rhythm of home so achingly familiar, we fell softly into conversation, picking up where we left off years ago.
By telephone, we have delivered and received the most important news of our lives, from that which cannot be shared quickly enough: “I got the job!” “We’re getting married!” “I’m going to have a baby!” “It’s a girl!” to the kind that startles the silence too early in the morning or too late at night to be anything good. From my dear friend, Audrey, so far away in Wales, calling to tell me her husband had been killed outright in a car accident: “My darling is gone! My darling Kev is gone! Gone!”
Then, November 11, 2011, my best friend Amanda, who, waiting for “benign,” answers before the end of the first ring, only to hear, “I have cancer.” And, Amanda, again, when just 90 days ago, I sent her a text from Ireland, asking her to please drive to my house in Phoenix and check if my husband was at home and alright. The sense of foreboding was almost palpable and worsened as I heard her tell me on the phone that, yes, both my car and his were parked in the driveway, that our little dog, Edgar, was inside sitting on the couch, silently staring back at her. My ear pressed to the phone, I heard my friend open the front door and tentatively call my husband’s name once, twice, and then a third time to no response; and, then she crumpled.
“He’s passed away! He’s passed away!” she cried from the other side of the world. “He’s so cold. I’m so sorry.”
I heard myself screaming and crying to my friend on the other end of the phone, on the other side of the Atlantic to please call 911. Just. Call. 9.1.1. Too quickly to be true or anything good, I heard the noise of our house fill up with strangers, kind and efficient, from the police and fire departments, the crisis management team, and finally the people from the one mortuary that agreed to take my husband’s body even though there was some as yet unresolved fuss over who would sign the death certificate.
If nobody would sign it, perhaps he wasn’t dead.
“Are you sure he’s dead?” I breathed into the phone.
“Yes. He’s dead. He’s dead. Yes. I’m so sorry. He’s gone.”
Thus, two best friends are connected in an ephemeral silence that left each with nothing to hold on to.
In a different time, I would have received a telegram, or perhaps a hand-written letter. So different than being on the phone, in surreal real-time. Sitting down to write a letter brings more time to shape our tidings with the very best words we have. And even these will be inadequate.
I am sad that the letter-writing of my youth has fallen out of favor, snuffed out by e-mails that, regardless of font and typeface, are not the same. How I miss opening a mailbox made of bricks, to find the red, white and blue trimmed letter that was its own envelope, light as onion-skin, marked By Air Mail, par avion. And how glad I am to have saved so many to read and reread, these objets d’art, immortal reminders of the people I treasure and who treasure me.
Yes. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, my first as a widow. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to to. I’m glad I saved every Valentine card my husband and I exchanged over twenty four years. When I read the Hallmark verses and the love notes we scribbled inside, I am transported back to all those Februaries when we were invincible. For a minute, it is as though Ken is alive again, sitting next to me on the couch, laughing at his choice of card. I am lucky to have this treasure chest of reminders of a shared life.
In part, it is this sentiment that is behind the exquisite Letters of Note, website, a veritable homage to the craft of letter-writing. Editor, Shaun Usher, has painstakingly collected and transcribed letters, memos, and telegrams that deserve a wider audience. I ordered the book that has grown from the website, and you should too. Because I am of a time when telegrams came from America and other places, to be read by the Best Man at wedding receptions, I opted for the collectible first edition which was accompanied by an old-fashioned telegram.
Considering telegrams and old letters, and the heart laid bare on stationery this Valentine’s Day, I am reading again the letter of marriage advice from then future President Ronald Reagan to his son, Michael. Published in Reagan – A Life in Letters, I think there is both heart and craft in it: