One day in September 2000, I sat down and penned a letter to my then-7-year-old daughter. When I was finished filling two pages of lined paper, I sealed them in an envelope upon which I wrote, "For Hannah -- to be opened only in the event of my death." My daughter is now a second-year college student who will head to Brussels in the fall for an internship at the European Union Parliament. We have made it through the awkward preteen years, the sometimes prickly teen years and the early phases of untangling our complex interdependence. My worries about raising her as a single mother have largely dissipated and she is emerging from childhood as a fiercely opinionated, loving and smart young woman. Most shocking is the speed with which she has blossomed from a skinny little girl into a confident and stunningly beautiful woman.
Which brings me back to that letter. What were the thoughts and ideas I felt were the most important legacy of our life together so many years ago? I had forgotten about the letter until recently, and it took an hour of searching through files in the garage before I found it. (Which makes me wonder how I expected anyone else to locate it if I had in fact died!)
The letter begins, "My darling Hannah Lily, if you are reading this, it is because I've died. I am so sorry. My greatest sorrow in life was the knowledge that you would lose me one day." I can only imagine my mood as I was writing that, though I no longer recall any incident that was the catalyst for the letter. It was still a year before our world was jangled by 9/11.
The first page of the letter is mostly about me, so I guess I wasn't very adept at thinking about what my child would most want to read in the event of my death. "You are my greatest accomplishment, my greatest joy. Nothing else even comes close. You have brought me happiness beyond my greatest imagining and showed me what all-consuming love feels like." I continued, "When you were very young, I would tell you every night, 'I love you forever and for always.' That is true. Wherever I am now, I am still loving you fiercely. "
I don't recall ever understanding the transiency of life until I gave birth. Having total responsibility for a fragile baby gave me the sense that every bus, every insect, every virus was a potential killer. It took all my self-control to allow my daughter to play in the mud, to cross a street by herself (after looking both ways several times and with a crossing guard present) and eventually, to get her driver's license. And at some point I worried less about her mortality and more about mine. That may have been the point at which I sat down with a ballpoint pen and wrote her a letter that she has never seen.
"Rely on your faith and your religion," I exhorted. "Raising you as a Jew was not a default decision on my part. Judaism will provide you with answers, comfort and fellowship. There is a God. You pray to God every night. Do not doubt that your prayers are heard, if not always granted."
Shortly after Hannah became a bat mitzvah at 13, she announced she no longer believed in God or wanted to continue her religious studies. I was devastated. It was less about the actual religious aspects and more about simply having faith in something and being connected to all of her ancestors. As with many other aspects of parenting, patience was my friend. Her first year at college, she called to say she was planning to celebrate the High Holy Days at Hillel House, and visited Israel last summer. The seed of religion was planted and occasionally watered. I trust that she will someday introduce her own children to God and prayer.
"You will never be alone. You have the gifts and skills to lead a rich, happy life. Use them. You are smart in so many ways and have a huge reserve of compassion and warmth. Don't waste these. Don't waste time on regret or grief. Life is so fleeting. Plunge in with joy!"
Hannah's ability to gracefully and purposefully walk through life has expanded and contracted, similar to the paths of most children. There have been enormous highs and dreadful lows. As much as I would love to relive most of her childhood, I doubt I could be coaxed back to her middle school years -- nor could she. Some passages of childhood are best lived only once, and quickly. But she has shown time and again that she is full of compassion and love. She is a woman who will undoubtedly have enduring romance and friendships for all of her days.
"I told you when you were 4 to follow these rules: Never lie. Be kind. Never deliberately hurt another person. Let these rules guide you. But also sing! Play! Dance! Be grateful!" It is so gratifying to know that the most important life lessons of her preschool days continue to guide her. I laugh, though, to recall that when she was 4, she was forbidden to say the words "stupid" or "shut up." At the time, those seemed like the very worst bits of language that I could imagine. I had no idea what I was in for!
Because I have trouble remembering where I left the car keys, I have no memory of where I was when I wrote this letter or what I was thinking. But I would wager big money that by the time I reached the final paragraph, I was weeping. I know I am now. What words does a mother end such a letter with? How do you bid farewell, even as an intellectual exercise? At the time, I wouldn't have known all the joy and richness of the next 13 years or that the letter would be buried under paperwork in a file labeled "Banking" during the course of two moves. I am so glad it is handwritten, though. Computers are a godsend but they steal from us the visceral connection of putting words on paper.
My handwriting in the letter is careful. There are no crossed-out words or misspellings. Perhaps I had first written a rough draft? The letters are carefully slanted in that way only left-handed people can manage. Words are underlined, exclamation points are bright slashes on the paper. The second page was ripped from a notebook carelessly, so that the top left corner is missing. In these two pages I had hoped to convey my love, my hope, my continuing presence in the life of the daughter who I adored. It seems now to be such a small effort, not nearly up to the task for which it was designed. I wonder who I thought would give her the letter. Did I expect my words to provide immediate comfort or to sustain her over the decades to come? Was it designed as a talisman, a salve, a prayer?
Rereading it now, I am so glad I wrote it and of course so glad she has never read it. But the surprising thing is that, if I were to write a similar letter today, it would say almost all the same things. Although we live in a much more dangerous world today than we did in 2000, it is not advising caution that is important in such letters, but insisting that a child live fully and joyfully. I suppose I will put the letter back in the envelope and reseal it this afternoon. And this time I will put it someplace easier to locate. If I reread it in another 13 years, perhaps it will be while babysitting my grandchildren. And when they ask me why I'm crying, I'll tell them it's because a mother's love endures.
The letter to my precious Hannah ends with this paragraph: "I love you from another place as I loved you when I was by your side. When you feel the wind against your cheek, that is me sending you my kisses. I thank you for giving me life. I adore you. I embrace you. And I expect you to live a long, rich and happy life. Always -- your Mom."