Dear Jane (my lovely wife)
Jackson and Carolina (my two beautiful children)
and Sidd (my ever-loyal dog),

I don’t fear death, and you shouldn’t fear death for me, either. It’s a waste of time for everyone involved. I’ve made peace with the fact that my existence in this world is coming to an end, sooner rather than later, and I’m not anxious about what — if anything — awaits me on the other side. It doesn’t appear as though I’m going to have a say in the matter anyway, so why ruin my final days on Earth fretting over what may or may not happen? 

I’m ready for whatever the universe has in store: The Abyss? Fine. Heaven? OK. Reincarnation? Even better. Hell? Not my first choice, I’ll admit, but I could get used to it. I’ve always prided myself on being an adaptable guy, someone who can get on with pretty much anyone. The devil and I might end up hitting it off pretty well — over a cigar and brandy, of course — after he gets to know me, and vice versa. But I’ll cross that fiery bridge when — excuse me, if — I come to it. 

I’m writing this letter because I need to put my thoughts down on paper. For posterity’s sake, and all that. It’s not possible for me to express everything verbally, in person, with everyone standing around in my hospital room. The sheer enormity of my predicament brings about a swirl of emotions that leaves me tongue-tied. Being hooked up to all of these godforsaken tubes doesn’t help matters, either. But I seem to be feeling particularly energetic today, so I’ve chosen to write down as much as I can, in a final letter, to be kept for all time — unless one of you would like to use these pages for toilet paper, or something practical like that. I wouldn’t be offended. But if you do choose to keep this letter, I hope these words will give everyone something to remember me by. A last send-off. An airing of remembrances and adorations. An imminent death letter.  Whatever you’d like to call it.

Sometimes I imagine what the moments immediately after death will be like. I picture myself floating above the hospital bed, with everyone huddled around, like my carcass is a fire offering protection from a cold night. I blow a final kiss which no one is able to see, and then I’m off — to some distant corner of the universe, to heaven, or to inhabit another body. I am weightless, as I was before birth

I’ll start by describing what it feels like to know that my days are numbered, that within a week or a month — who knows exactly how long, for sure — my body will die and my carcass will be burned and scattered onto the tracks of the New York subway (per my wishes). When I imagine my body as no longer being me, instead being just a thing that just lies there, my ego frantically tries to convince my mind that this vision is fiction: that what I’m imagining is something that will never actually happen. It’s funny, the way the ego desperately tries to cling to life. It’s deception borne out of self-preservation, I suppose. 

Sometimes I imagine what the moments immediately after death will be like. I picture myself floating above the hospital bed, with everyone huddled around, like my carcass is a fire offering protection from a cold night. I blow a final kiss which no one is able to see, and then I’m off — to some distant corner of the universe, to heaven, or to inhabit another body. I am weightless, as I was before birth

This is a dream. I know it’s all a dream. But it’s so gloriously real, too. 

I will miss so much: The way flowers and trees pop with life after a frigid winter. The way the dog — my little man, Sidd — looks at me with eyes that burst forth with the purest things in the universe. The rich smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning, and drinking that coffee when I sit down to read the morning paper (yes, I still read the paper. I love the feeling of newsprint between my fingers). Waking up before the sun rises for no other reason than to do it. The look of peace on the faces of my children as they sleep late on a Sunday, covers pulled tightly around their necks. A stink bug crawling across the porch on a hot summer day. The smell of gasoline. The whole process of starting a fire in the fireplace during a brutal New York winter night. Being so immersed in a book that everything else ceases to exist. The lilting high that follows a long run. A deep sleep at the end of a hard day.

The rich smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning, and drinking that coffee when I sit down to read the morning paper. Waking up before the sun rises for no other reason than to do it.

Pizza. Good movies about life’s deepest questions, watched while lying on the couch and eating too much pizza with your wife and kids. Watching silly movies that make you forget about life’s deepest questions for a few blissful hours. Trying, failing, and trying again. A smile from a stranger on the street. The perfect harmonies on Pet Sounds. The two or three seconds of pure bliss after entering a hot tub. The way birds peep and chip-chip-chip from trees, even when you can’t see the birds themselves.

Well-made bread, a glass of red wine at the perfect time, a shirt that fits just the way it should. The unfailing love of a wife who accepts you despite your faults, not the least of which is chewing with your mouth open.  The unfailing love you feel for your wife, despite how she presses you to be a better person — even when you don’t want to be, which is most of the time.. Sharp cheddar cheese; cheese in general. Being alone on a wide-open stretch of a sandy white beach as the sun sinks into the ocean, inch-by-inch-by-inch, until it’s fully submerged, no longer a thing in itself but merely an idea of something that once was.

Being alone on a wide-open stretch of a sandy white beach as the sun sinks into the ocean, inch-by-inch-by-inch, until it’s fully submerged, no longer a thing in itself but merely an idea of something that once was.

And Jane: all this talk of beaches reminds me of the trip we took to Florida’s panhandle the summer before everything changed. I remember that bright yellow morning the two of us walked on the beach, far beyond where we were supposed to go, onto what was apparently military property, but ended up being one of the most secluded and peaceful spots I’ve ever been to.  There were those two concrete columns rising out of the sea like ruins — perhaps the remains of an old pier, or something like that — with three seagulls perched on top, as though they were protectors of the Gulf. I remember how the temperature was perfect — in the upper 70s, just a few hours before the Florida mugginess took hold — and you looked at me and said: “You know, birds are obnoxious in captivity, but in nature, they’re so regal and dignified.” Later that day, you cursed a flock of seagulls when one of them pooped on Jackson’s head. 

“Life in a nutshell,” I said, if I remember correctly.

That was a great moment, wasn’t it Jane? I have to say, weird and long-forgotten memories have been coming back to me as I lie in my hospital bed, trying but failing — yet again — to fall into a deep sleep. I drift so liquidly between consciousness and unconsciousness that most of the time I don’t know which is which. Strange childhood visions creep into my psyche during these unsteady moments: Like the time I got so sick from eating an entire bag of baby carrots that I threw up a huge pile of moist orange shreds. Or when my parents went on a walk down our gravel road and I, probably 10 at the time, was left standing in the garden in the front yard, paralyzed by the fear that they would never return.

When I was a child, I had recurring dreams, and two of those dreams have inexplicably returned to me now. In the first one, I’m just a kid, lying in my parents’ king-sized waterbed (remember those, Jane?). A masked man enters the room, and slowly — oh, so slowly — walks around the foot of the bed until he’s right beside me. He stops for a few moments, looking at me with eyes that I cannot see because of the horrifying black mask, and then he LUNGES toward me at hyperspeed. That’s when I wake up, usually drenched in sweat, utterly terrified that The Man is somewhere in the room with me.

In the second dream, I’m with my family, standing in front of my grandparents’ pond in eastern Ohio. It’s gloomy out. My little brother, who looks to be around 6-years old, is standing inside of an enormous steel cylinder floating at the center of the pond. The door shuts, and the cylinder is lowered to the bottom of the water. Seconds later, the cylinder rises to the surface. The door opens and out steps my brother, only now he’s a withered old man on the verge of death. He raises a finger and is about to speak — but then I wake up. 

In the second dream, I’m with my family, standing in front of my grandparents’ pond in eastern Ohio. It’s gloomy out. My little brother, who looks to be around 6-years old, is standing inside of an enormous steel cylinder floating at the center of the pond. The door shuts, and the cylinder is lowered to the bottom of the water. Seconds later, the cylinder rises to the surface. The door opens and out steps my brother, only now he’s a withered old man on the verge of death.

Forgive me if I’m rambling, or if I’m talking about stuff that seems unimportant. It’s impossible to know if any of this matters, or if any of it is even worth remembering. But I’m going to write it all down nonetheless. Again, you can use all of these sheets of paper to wipe your asses, if you’d like. 

I can’t help but think that life is nothing more than a collection of moments that we fail to appreciate until we look back at them from a distance. We’re like wayward sailors who suddenly realize, while our ships are leaving port, that we’ve taken everything back home for granted. The ship drifts outward, into the great nothingness, and the sailor, lucky guy that he is, eventually returns home. But we do not — the sea is our final destination.

Ah, I love you all so much. I wish I didn’t have to leave you, but all of this writing is starting to tucker me out. I better get to the point before I exhaust this precious energy of mine. It’s not an easy thing to come by nowadays.

What is the purpose of it all? That’s the one grand question I’ve been struggling with throughout the course of my illness. When all is said and done, we don’t have to become a regretful sailor who realizes, in horror, that the most important things in life were right in front of him all along. We can enjoy pizza, our morning coffee, the innocence in a dog’s eyes — but we must truly dedicate ourselves to it. A prevailing sense of gratitude takes constant work, a continuous willingness to adopt a grander perspective even — or perhaps especially —  during those moments in which, say, a bird unexpectedly poops on your head. 

When I reflect on appreciation — authentic appreciation — two memories from my beautiful life come to mind. 

The first is a moment from before the two of you kids were born, when your mother and I were in Ohio visiting grandpa for his 95th birthday. It was a rare moment, with all of the family being there, and once the older folks went to bed, your mother and I stayed up late with the younger generation. Aunt Marilla was there with her boyfriend at the time, and so were Uncle Jack and Aunt Misty, and Uncle Moe and Aunt Lilly. The whole group ended up drinking too much of grandpa’s Maker’s Mark. It was the first time in a long time and, now that I think about it, the last time ever that all of us were together like that. 

Well, you know the way your mother gets around family — she’s a funny woman anyway, but when she’s with loved ones, boy, she really cuts loose. She decided it’d be funny if she moved the chair out from under Uncle Moe while he was standing up, delivering one of his impassioned monologues about how the mayor was an absolute jackass (which, to be fair, he was). Well damn if your mom didn’t do it — she slid that chair out right out from under him, and Uncle Moe — who can be a bit of a hot head, as you know — went tumbling to the floor. It was all arms and legs, followed by a thud. Everyone sat in stunned silence, afraid that mom had just crossed a line, that big Moe was going to lose his temper — like he used to do often, back before he met Lizzy. 

Boy, Moe put on one hell of an act: he dusted himself off and stood up slowly, latent anger simmering on his face. He took a deep breath, as though he was preparing to unleash a torrent of obscenities on mom for the childish thing she’d done. But then he burst into laughter, and the rest of us did the same. The last thing I remember is Moe giving mom a big, sweaty hug, and Aunt Marilla rolling around on the floor, laughing so hard that her face was red and she looked like she was about to pass out.  

When all is said and done, we don’t have to become a regretful sailor who realizes, in horror, that the most important things in life were right in front of him all along. We can enjoy pizza, our morning coffee, the innocence in a dog’s eye — but we must truly dedicate ourselves to it.

I also think of a day not all that long ago, when the four of us took a vacation to Virginia and spent a week in the Blue Ridge Mountains. You all know the trip I’m talking about: we hiked up to Mt. Rogers, the highest peak in the state, and stumbled upon a group of wild ponies hanging out in an open part of the forest, with no one else around. Do you remember, Carolina, the way you laughed so hard that you cried when one of the ponies pooted? And do you remember the way we laid in a grassy meadow right after we saw the ponies and the warm breeze tickled our skin, and mom looked toward the distant mountaintops and whispered, in the most pure voice imaginable, “Can you believe it, kids? Just look at how everything is. There’s not a single cloud in the sky today.” 

That’s probably where I should end this. Live your life like a clear, blue sky — easy and open. 

Love forever and always,
Dad

‘Unprompted Orgy of Confounding Violence’

A critical exploration of childhood home movies.

Fiction Pick: ‘Surface’

‘All Paul could think about as he tried to maneuver his way around a lethargic old lady in the cereal aisle of Food Lion was ‘Good God, you old hag, could you move any slower?”

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