“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. “
― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
I come from a family of note writers. When I was a teenager and staying out later than my parents’ bedtime, my mom would leave a note on the stairway by the front door, most often held in place by a Campbell’s soup can. It was usually a reminder to lock the door, a quick good-night, a smiley face and a few x’s and o’s. On visits home from Germany in the early years of our marriage, I would leave notes for my parents; hidden and waiting to be found often long after I’d landed back in Frankfurt. I would tuck a little message in Peter’s luggage during his years of frequent business travel and I’d leave messages on my kids’ pillows.
I’ve heard stories of people finding notes left behind; messages intended to be found after the writer had passed. The thought of being the recipient of one always felt to me so beautifully poignant. I admit that in the days, months, and now years, since Peter’s death in 2012, I’ve silently hoped to find even the briefest communique from him. At one point I realized that with every pocket I cleaned out, each paper I pulled from his brief case, I would be, ever so slightly, holding my breath. I’d scan the margins of his work papers and bookmarks in his books for a little “Hey there! I knew you would find this eventually…..”
However, knowing Peter, it comes as no surprise that I never found that special note. He lived very much in the moment. During the years of his illness, even until he lapsed into a coma two days before his passing, Peter was unwilling to give up his fight. He did not want to die, and lived as though he would forever. I had wanted to talk with him about his mortality, of what my life would be like after he was gone, but I had to let him steer that boat. Only briefly, on a handful of occasions, did he crack the window and let me in on the deep recesses of his mind; his sadness about leaving his family behind. We were his everything and the thought that he wouldn’t be there for us was, for him, unfathomable. It was such a painful time.
Even so, I could always hope.
In the very early years of our marriage, Peter gave me a homemade Valentine’s Day card. We lived in Germany. Hallmark had not yet infiltrated there and Valentine’s Day cards were a scarce commodity. Peter’s homemade cards soon began appearing on our anniversary, before long becoming a biannual tradition, complete with poems and drawings. The day before each such occasion, Peter would ask me for an envelope, my pad of plain white paper and the box of colored pencils. He would jokingly complain and ask if he really had to come up with yet another poem. Would he have to do this for the rest of his life?
Sure enough, every Valentine’s Day and each anniversary morning, there it would be. The handmade cards became more elaborate as time went on. They were wonderful. Every once in a while, Peter threw in a little bonus; a birthday poem or even this pictorial account of our house hunting trip to Michigan in 1993.
But life was busy. I would eventually tuck my cards away in random spots; a drawer, a box or closet, rarely reading them again.
After Peter died, I started to consolidate his many homemade cards. It’s turned out to be a hefty stack, having started in 1983 and continuing until the final one from Valentine’s Day in 2012. It was written a week before he was removed from active cancer treatment and began palliative care. The writing on that final card is visibly shaky;his poem even includes a reference to it. The tumors in his brain had affected his fine motor skills. Simple things like buttons, shaving and writing were nearly impossible for him. Yet he managed to write my card.
Last week, in search of an old photo, I opened a box in my closet. Between the layers, I found another of Peter’s Valentines, this one dated 1995. While adding it to the others, I made a mental note to take some time to put them in order, to find out if there are any holes.
A few nights later, as I was going to bed, I was suddenly struck with the organization bug. I took out the folder where I had stored Peter’s cards, propped myself in bed and spread out my collection. Realizing that putting them in chronological order would require reading them, I started doing so. The experience which unfolded before me was not the one I had expected. What I was reading was our life together, told by Peter. I laughed out loud at his goofy rhymes. I relived the years of our marriage chronicled through his prose; the birth of our children, each move, the many schools, a myriad of vacations and activities, all five dogs, and the love we shared. Incredibly, I felt as though he was sitting right beside me.
This is what Peter left for me. I’m fairly certain he hadn’t planned it this way, but he did leave me notes. Ones that I can read and reread. It’s all there. The best gift I could possibly have hoped for. The card I found earlier in the week was the catalyst, coming to me at the perfect time. I was ready to read and remember. I am so very lucky.