June 15, 2021
Dear Daddy –
Jessica died nine days ago, just after 11 in the morning. Ethan was with her, holding her hand. Renee and I were there. Ethan’s best friends, Tim and Jill were there. Her death itself was peaceful to all appearances. I hope it was easy for her. The last words I spoke to her were, “Don’t be afraid, Jess. You’re going to a better place, and you don’t need to be afraid. You’re just going to get there ahead of us. And I hope you’ll be able to keep an eye on us from there.”
Is Jessica there with you? I don’t pretend to know anything about the afterlife, but I am convinced it exists. You taught me that energy is not destroyed, it merely changes its form. And our thoughts, our very identities, are energy. Just as it’s practically impossible to destroy electronic data, I believe it’s impossible to destroy our souls. Others may disagree, and, of course, if they’re right, none of us will ever know it. I hope Jessica’s where you are, watching over us, and waiting to be there to receive us when it’s our turn.
Any death makes you take stock of life. The death of a 25-year old makes that assessment particularly intense. Did we spend our time with her wisely? Were we lax in our consideration for her? Too stingy with our love? Where she is now, is she able to say, “It was a good life?” Have we mixed up our priorities and wasted time on things that don’t matter?
I’m sitting in your house now. I spent the night last night, because it was Ethan’s first night back after Jess’s death. I didn’t want him to be alone. He did very well. He’s doing very well, even though I know he’s in pain. My son is the bravest man I’ve ever known—and I knew you. High bar.
From this perspective, it’s easy to feel a lot of regret. Jessica lived here for three-and-a-half years, and I think she wanted it to be her forever home. I didn’t finish it for her. I didn’t build her her screen porch. I didn’t till a garden with her. I didn’t get the bathrooms painted, or even finish the floor in the pink bathroom. Her kitchen didn’t have a stove. The music room, where she spent most of her at-home time during a year spent fighting cancer, had a plywood floor and unfinished walls.
Finishing a house without unlimited funds is no small task. And our energy was sapped by the Covid-19 pandemic (even though no one in the house caught it), by work stress, and by Jess’s illness. I feel like we didn’t get nearly as much done as I would have liked to. And now, with one of us gone from this world, I ask myself, “Where did the time go?” And I look at a future that’s missing one of the people I was finishing your house for. Right now that future seems bleak.
Not that a lot hasn’t happened since you died. You left us a house with only two bedrooms, no kitchen, and only one (failing) bathroom. The two public rooms were barely habitable. Ten other rooms and three bathrooms were unfinished and so filled with stuff that you could barely enter them. Now only two rooms remain devoted to storage. Only three of the ten are finished, but the rest are usable. The kitchen is cleared out, painted, floored and has all its appliances except a range. The porches are clear of debris and the basement and outbuildings are manageable. We have four bathrooms, which would have been nice to have when a family of five was growing up here.
We’ve made some progress. But where are we now?
At the beginning, I suppose, of a different journey. The future is not what we thought it would be. I’ve learned the futility of trying to predict the future. It’s one of the stupider things on which human beings waste their time. So I think we’re going to live like explorers, seeing what’s around each corner, trying to be ready, but appreciating the ability to discover new things.
Will we finish the house? Maybe. A lot depends on what Ethan and Christian want to do. And I’ve realized that maybe I imposed my vision on their futures. That doesn’t work.
A lot of things that I’ve done in the past are up for review right now. Every position I hold, every item on my dreaded “things to do” list, even some relationships I’ve maintained, might just be dropped. Although, in the course of dealing with this tragedy, I’ve learned how many friends I have; so I don’t think too many people are going to be “un-friended.”
I’d like to end this letter on a note of hope, but I’m going to confess that I don’t have that ability today. Maybe I will tomorrow. Today we hope for hope itself, and maybe that’s enough.