“How we met? Oh, that’s another story,” Joe chuckled, looking over his shoulder to give me a sly smile.
We were standing with a group of friends at a barbecue when Joe launched into the events of our very first date as college sophomores in Albany, how an ex-boyfriend had shown up just as we were finishing chicken stir-fry, fresh from a fraternity party.
This is our script of sorts, a time-worn tale told and re-told over the course of our nineteen years together. The build-up, the reveal: how the guy stood outside Joe’s college house drunkenly calling my name while I tried to conceal my embarrassment, tried to act natural. It has all the makings of a great story: funny, seedy, full of snappy one-liners.
“And he was lurching from side to side in the street, calling out ‘Ca-rrie!’ until he finally staggered away.”
(Obviously, I kept this first-date detail out of the first chapter in the book. I thought it was distracting.)
But it was the beginning of our story together; our time as boyfriend-girlfriend, then as husband and wife and eventually as parents.
And over the years I’ve done my best to record our life and love and family, to make albums and organize pictures and create scrapbooks. But none of that comes very easily to me, and now I have a basement full of half-finished albums and an assortment of unlabeled baby teeth and random collections of birth announcements.
Instead, I write letters.
It’s probably not for the reasons you think. Sure, I’m chronicling their childhood and preserving family memories and all that crap. But the real reason I do it is purely selfish, shamefully narcissistic. Let me explain.
Back in Buffalo I belonged to a church group called Bishop’s Committee. We were all mothers with kids ranging from early teens to newborns, and every month we met at someone’s house to talk about an article from the Catholic Church, eat pie, and catch up. After the formal discussion the chatter usually turned to things like breastfeeding and baseball practice and how long the house down the street had been for sale.
I remember a time we met in the middle of December. I had just delivered our third son, Charlie, three weeks before, and I was enjoying a night away from the tedium of newborn care. We were all relaxing in my friend Mary Ann’s living room, sprawled on her couches and enjoying her homemade chocolate chip cookies.
One woman—a petite blonde named Tracy—was telling us about their latest vacation to Washington DC, how she insisted that her husband take a picture of her standing with their young daughters, “So if something ever happens to me, they would at least know I was there!”
And we giggled and laughed about our dummy husbands and their inadequacies, how it wouldn’t kill them to just once offer to take our picture in front of the monument or at the baptism or during Christmas dinner.
Later that night I walked home through the snowy streets of our quiet neighborhood, my body still swollen and soft from the latest occupant, and I thought again about Tracy’s comment; so they know I was there. And in the darkened street, it dawned on me that I may not always be there, that something could happen to me to take me from my young children.
Like most mothers, I alter the course of my own story in my mind from time to time, threading in tragedies like breast cancer and car accidents and general catastrophe. I know it’s morbid, I know it’s dark, but it’s what I do. Because I can’t help but worry: if something happens to me, what will happen to them?
I mean, we have all the paperwork and wills and policies in place, so I know they will be in good hands. But how will they know me, remember me, understand who I was as a mother and a person?
And so, on my way home from a church meeting in December, I decided I would write my kids a letter on their birthday every year.
And to be perfectly honest, they’re kind of a pain in the a$$ sometimes. As each birthday approaches, the journals mock me from the book shelf; another chore nestled amongst the party planning and the cake baking and the paper plate buying. Although in some circles I am considered a writer, I still find putting pen to paper tedious. Plus I have terrible handwriting.
But these letters are a way for me to have a voice if something does happen to me, if I’m whisked from them sooner than I’d planned. A voice to tell Rose how she barely had any hair at a year old and Henry that he was the most stubborn toddler I’d ever met and how when he was three Joey had a pretend dragon named Piffy who lived in his hand and drove his own car. To tell Charlie that nothing, nothing melts my heart like his big chocolate-brown eyes.
A voice that tells them I was there and I saw it all.
But it’s not just the good stuff, the fun look how great our family is stuff. I want them all to know how hard this all was for me, how some days I wanted to lay my head down and wake up when they were in college. How there were times when I staggered emotionally under the demands of five small children.
And for Jack. Maybe my kindred spirits who are also raising a special needs child will understand this next sentiment: I worry more about leaving Jack than the others. Not because he’s my favorite or I love him the most—it’s more complicated than that.
His mind may hold onto the details of when we visited Niagara Falls and what kind of ice cream he had at Dairy Queen, but will his spectrum brain allow him to remember the way I held him so tightly during a tantrum or ran my fingers through his soft brown hair?
He might remember the time he was three years old and got lost in the mall because he was trying to find the “moving stairs”, but he will not know the soul-crushing panic I felt as I tearfully pleaded with everyone around me please help me find him he has autism he doesn’t really speak he won’t say his name.
He will probably remember our battles over homework, but he won’t know what I was really battling for: progress and development, for him to push back on the limits of autism spectrum disorder and reach for the last fraction, the last hexagon. Reach to measure the paper termite.
I need him to hear this from me, if not from my lips and my voice, then from my sloppy looping handwriting on the page. These letters tell my side of the story.
Because like Tracy, I want to stay in the picture.
Rose’s birthday is in July, and last month I pulled her leather-bound journal from the shelf to begin her letter. Tapping my favorite black pen against the desk the night before she turned six, I thought about what her fifth year was like, how she was too shy to sing in the school’s Christmas recital and always wears shorts under her skirts.
Leaning back in my chair, I pictured a grown-up Rose—lovely and tall and perfect—finding this journal one day when I’m gone and flipping through it, chuckling about her five-year old wish to marry her Daddy and the way she cried for the first week of kindergarten. I pictured her hearing my voice through the entries about strawberries and monkey pajamas and her favorite pink blankie.
And I leaned over and began to write, to continue our story one birthday at a time. The story that started with a boy and a girl and chicken and vegetables, and continued to include lazy eyes and talent shows and fireworks. Although the ending is unknown–there may be disaster or disease or death–I can rest a little easier knowing I’ll stay alive through letters.
Oh, and that ex-boyfriend I mentioned earlier? Totally hot. And crazy about me. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.