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:
Manhattan Beach, California
Enclosed is the item I mentioned (with which goes a torn up IOU). I could stop here but I won’t.
You’ve heard all the jokes that have been rousted around by all the ‘unhappy marrieds’ and cynics. Now, in case no one has suggested it, there is another viewpoint. You have entered into the most meaningful relationship there is in all human life. It can be whatever you decide to make it.
Some men feel their masculinity can only be proven if they play out in their own life all the locker-room stories, smugly confident that what a wife doesn’t know won’t hurt her. The truth is, somehow, way down inside, without her ever finding lipstick on the collar or catching a man in the flimsy excuse of where he was till three A.M., a wife does know, and with that knowing, some of the magic of this relationship disappears. There are more men griping about marriage who kicked the whole thing away themselves than there can ever be wives deserving of blame. There is an old law of physics that you can only get out of a thing as much as you put in it.
The man who puts into the marriage only half of what he owns will get that out. Sure, there will be moments when you will see someone or think back to an earlier time and you will be challenged to see if you can still make the grade, but let me tell you how really great is the challenge of proving your masculinity and charm with one woman for the rest of your life. Any man can find a twerp here and there who will go along with cheating, and it doesn’t take all that much manhood. It does take quite a man to remain attractive and to be loved by a woman who has heard him snore, seen him unshaven, tended him while he was sick and washed his dirty underwear. Do that and keep her still feeling a warm glow and you will know some very beautiful music. If you truly love a girl, you shouldn’t ever want her to feel, when she sees you greet a secretary or a girl you both know, that humiliation of wondering if she was someone who caused you to be late coming home, nor should you want any other woman to be able to meet your wife and know she was smiling behind her eyes as she looked at her, the woman you love, remembering this was the woman you rejected even momentarily for her favors.
Mike, you know better than many what an unhappy home is and what it can do to others. Now you have a chance to make it come out the way it should. There is no greater happiness for a man than approaching a door at the end of a day knowing someone on the other side of that door is waiting for the sound of his footsteps.
P.S. You’ll never get in trouble if you say ‘I love you’ at least once a day.