The Unexpected Benefit of Writing Letters to My Kids Every Month
I was recording a memorial for a story we never expected to end
I started writing letters to my kids once a month when they were born.
My boys are now 16 and 14, so they have 192 and 168 letters respectively. I’m not done yet, either: I promised to continue writing to them until they turn 18.
I won’t lie and tell you I started these letters for altruistic reasons. I had selfish goals: Because I left a successful career to raise my boys full-time, I planned to provide a kick-ass chronological history of our time together so I could justify my stay-at-home-mom status.
I figured that if I documented everything I did with them and for them from birth to age 18, they would remember me as the greatest mother that ever lived in the history of the universe.
I wrote about how I pumped breast milk for a solid six months. Best mom ever! I wrote about how my son started talking in full sentences at age two because I read books and sang songs to him every night to help develop early language skills. Mother of the year!
But a devastating thing happened on the way to me documenting my star-mom status: Their dad died.
I couldn’t possibly know, when I began my letter-writing campaign, that my selfish goal would turn into a benevolent one. My monthly letters evolved into a memorial for a story we never expected to end so soon.
Now, whenever memories fade and the boys need a reminder of their father’s love and devotion, they read the letters.
It’s all right there in black and white.
As soon as our first son was born, my husband, Mark, welcomed all parental opportunities.
As a competent, hands-on dad, he changed dirty diapers, fed wailing babies, and removed spit-up stains from onesies like a pro. When our toddlers ruined clothes, he ironed patches and sewed buttons better than I did. I described his sewing skills in the letters so the boys would someday know that it’s okay for boys to sew buttons.
The sheer joy on your father’s face at your piano recital is something I will never forget.
My husband understood how spending the whole day with two rambunctious boys exhausted me, so he always pitched in when I reached my limit. When each boy started swimming lessons, Mark jumped into the frigid YMCA pool with a smile on his face. He volunteered for craft days at preschool, decorated bikes for neighborhood parades, and made cookies for the holiday cookie swap. He embellished cookies better than I did, too. I described his baking capabilities in the letters so the boys would someday know that it’s okay for boys to embellish cookies.
Because Mark believed in the power of music to improve brain development, he started each boy on piano lessons at age four. Stories of taking the boys to Saturday lessons (with trips to Costco for a hot dog lunch after), home practice struggles, and umpteen recitals are littered throughout the early letters. Their dad’s satisfied smile accompanies every picture displaying the boy’s certificates from various piano competitions.
From a February 2009 letter: “The sheer joy on your father’s face at your piano recital is something I will never forget. I don’t think I have ever seen a prouder dad than when you took your bow and waved as you exited the stage. It’s one of those moments that will remain etched in my memory forever.”
I documented every outing when their dad took them fishing, hunting, or golfing. Every Detroit Tiger’s baseball game is accounted for. If we all went sledding, to the cider mill, or tubing on the lake, I wrote about it.
One of the biggest highlights of Mark’s short life was coaching our sons’ baseball teams. Dozens of letters recall his patience with our kids and their fellow team members as they practiced pitching, batting, and catching pop flies. As the first base coach, he taught the boys how to steal second or when to jump back on first after a pitcher’s pickoff throw.
From a June 2010 letter: “Your Dad had more fun coaching than just about anything else I’ve ever seen him do.”
I still can’t believe how much detail is in the letters as I read them now, years later. I had a fire in me during those early years to document our life story.
And now I know why.
Mark’s love for his boys was endless. I thought the stories were endless, too, but Mark died when our boys were eight and 10.
I wrote about how we discovered Mark’s incurable brain tumor on Valentine’s Day in 2013. Many letters from that year recount their dad’s doctor visits, chemo, and radiation appointments. And the rotten tumor progression.
I tried to keep the letters lighthearted and positive, but there’s nothing positive about telling your kids their dad will die.
But they also outline how we took an epic road trip around the Great Lakes making more memories during our last summer together. These letters describe how we climbed the Sleeping Bear Dunes near Lake Michigan, spotted remnants of the Edmund Fitzgerald at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Lake Superior, and fished for walleye on Lake Huron.
I tried to keep the letters lighthearted and positive, but there’s nothing positive about telling your kids their dad will die. I’ll never forget that brutal conversation. And finding words for the accompanying letter was excruciating.
From a December 2013 letter: “I know you’re scared but I promise you we will get through this together. Fear of the unknown is terrifying but with each other’s support, we can get through anything. I will hold your hand and cry with you. I will let you take your anger out on me because I’m your haven and you know that I love you unconditionally. I will try to help you make sense of the senseless.”
I also wrote about how we brought Mark home from hospice after determining there was nothing more the doctors could do for him. In each boy’s letter that month, I related how they sat by their dad’s hospital bed in our basement for hours and how their dad squeezed their hands because he knew they were there.
My older son’s letters detail how often he whispered “I love you” as his dad lay dying. I wrote about their shared love of podcasts and how my son put one earbud in his dad’s ear and the other earbud in his own as they listened to old Gunsmoke radio shows together.
I wrote in my younger son’s letter how he spent hours with his dad in those final days reading books, and how he always verified that I administered his dad’s medications on schedule. I expressed my appreciation that he kept me on my toes. He was much too wise for his eight years.
The letter I recorded the month my husband died was the hardest thing I‘ve ever had to write. I thought it was important to provide details because our memories get murkier as we get older and sometimes the story changes the more times it’s told. It was important to clarify that he didn’t suffer. He simply stopped breathing.
I hope when they reread these letters as they get older, they remember that their dad died peacefully surrounded by the family he loved.
Continuing the letters after Mark died was agonizing. I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. I mean we were surviving and getting through our days — but it was torture.
Instead of trying to make sense of anything, I just documented events. I wrote about how I took them to the wild game dinner their dad used to take them to every year. We ate bison, alligator, and venison just like their dad would’ve done.
I took over shepherding them to piano practices and making sure they prepared for competitions but I kept the epic battles that ensued to myself. I wrote instead about how hard it was to enforce their practice with lots of “ha ha”s and “LOL”s as I daydreamed about chucking the piano out the window once and for all.
I never reiterated the internal fortitude it took to continue taking them to ski lessons and baseball practices and everything in between. But I was honest in my letters about how hard it was to sit through a baseball game and not see their dad coaching on the first baseline.
Other sports entered the picture and sourcing the right cleats and athletic supporters for football practice proved difficult. I thought we had everything my son needed, but we were late to his first practice because we couldn’t figure out how to insert the pads into his football pants. I remember the comedy of errors when we thought we nailed it only to realize his pants were on inside out. He worried his teammates would make fun of him.
Because stress got the better of me and my anxiety level was already at an all-time high, I didn’t tell him not to worry about what others think. I blurted this humdinger instead:
“If anyone gives you a hard time, just tell them your dad died. That will shut them up!”
I included this awkward parenting moment in that month’s letter to show I’m human and make mistakes, too.
The teenage years kicked my ass. My letters weren’t as fun and inspiring as they used to be. I knew the day would come when my surly teen would yell, “I hate you!” but I didn’t realize how much it would affect me. I promised myself not to take the insults personally, but I failed.
You can read the moment we enter the teenage-angst phase because my letters have less of an “I’m so lucky to be your mom!” tone and more of a “please, Jesus, just help me get through the day” tone.
I didn’t sugarcoat our struggles, but I didn’t display them in their entirety either.
During one rebellious and unmanageable year of my older son’s adolescence, I wrote nothing at all. I had nothing positive to say. It was all too much to handle as a solo parent. Plus, I didn’t want my rage bleeding all over the page. It would be too easy for me to criticize my son’s abysmal choices and for him to base his worth on bad decisions made in a blip on the radar screen of his youth.
It’s also hard to write about good times when eye rolls, grunts, and general unpleasantness littered our days. But, that’s part of being a parent. So I rekindled my writing by summarizing the next year instead of documenting every cruel, harsh, and bitter disagreement. I didn’t sugarcoat our struggles, but I didn’t display them in their entirety either.
I promised my husband that I would do my best to keep his memory alive. I’m so thankful the letters serve two purposes: One is to help my sons remember their dad. The second is to remember how we made it through.
But, as I got caught up in all of my husband’s remembering, I’m not sure I conveyed how much of my heart and soul I put into these boys, too.
Moving forward after my husband’s death was no small feat. Grief is a bitch and I experienced the boys’ anger in all its manifestations. Maybe they’ll continue blaming me for maternal wrongdoings without understanding how hard it was to pick up the pieces as a young widow and only parent. Maybe they won’t. Only time will tell.
I tried my best to write about the realities of living with death and grief and sorrow. I didn’t pretend we weren’t hurting but I didn’t dwell in victimization either. I hope I’ve communicated, after heartbreak and healing, how much I love being their mom.
Whenever memories fade and the boys need a reminder of my love and devotion, they can read their letters.
It’s all right there in black and white.