The Death Letter

We’re in 10th grade, creative writing. There’s nothing creative about the room. The walls are oppressively white, the curtains black. The windows are girded by prison block bars. Two plants sit on the sill, like unwatered baobobs on their lonely planets. A warped bookshelf stands to one corner, stuffed with paperback thrillers, primary school spellers, old leather bound literature textbooks that no one has the heart to throw away. A wide bulletin board runs along the back wall, with paperboard cut-outs of letters, once forming the greeting “Welcome Grade 10”, surviving through the fall and winter and now a week into spring. The students turned the W and m upside down, and removed the two final e’s, so that it now reads: “Mel cow Grad 10”. In our central European context, that meant we were in Mel cow city 10, part of some futuristic dystopia where the messiah is Mel and the economy runs on diary products.

I take it back. There was some creativity in the room.

The class is small, just five students, and all girls. Well, that’s not true. Two boys are in the class, but they never show up. The girls are Aristianna, Lilla, Amber, Nnenna and Edda. I will say a little about them.

Aristianna is an old soul from Greece. Deep dark eyes, long shaggy curls, aquatic body, a girl of the sea. She is constantly growing. Her character is best expressed by tilted head, amused child-like questioning. She is never the first to speak up in class, but often the last.

Lilla is a straight shooter, an avid reader, a promising writer. She is a city girl of Toronto, listens to grunge music and plays the drums. Yet she is has a high society mind, one she cloaks in feigned ignorance to get on better with her peers. She reads Oscar Wilde. They read the Hogwarts.

Amber is a chubby girl, a little unsure of herself. Half Polish, half Indian, she is dreamy and never very up nor very down. I imagine her floating on a mist-shrouded Persian rug. She’s a good friend.

Nnenna is a tall stalk of wheat, a prudent girl who could be everyone’s mother. She has a strong moral compass and writes 10 pages for every five asked. She has a magnet inside of her, a solid force.

Edda is a big hearted girl from Venezuela, with huge sad eyes and ironed black hair that conceals half her face. She wears short cut-off jeans, fish-net leggings, and writes in black ink all over her arms.

The group is warm, congenial. They like to read. They like to write. It’s a rarity and I covet our time together. I have taught some of them since the 6th grade. They know the rules. You have a license to speak freely. You will not be judged for writing crap. Crap is the signature of work. It’s the ditch in the ground before irrigation lines are installed. Your crap will be applauded. If it stinks very bad, it will likely foster a bed of lilies. That’s not a metaphor. Nothing of beauty is produced without a fair share of crap.

We are sharing our work from last week’s assignment: the death letter. I chose this assignment for fond memories of having gone through its process myself as part of a crap-making course in my early twenties (Continuing Education).

The writing prompt is as follows: you are in a fatal situation. You have enough time to compose one letter, to one person. Who do you choose? What do you say?

Don’t get lost in rehearsed sentiments. Don’t try to say everything. Listen to what comes up. Take a moment to see. Write what you see, in this moment, what you remember. Stay with the details and let them guide you through the murky feelings.

To give my group inspiration, I read famous last letters found after rummaging through the internet: Sullivan Ballou, a volunteer for military service who died while fighting the plains Indians in America. A letter from a trapped American coal miner in the early 1900’s, who died with his son. Virginia Wolfe’s suicide note to her husband. Most of the letters were testimonies of enduring love and were not practical samples for 16 year old girls. But it was all I could find, outside of my own death letter, which I no longer possessed.

I let my students create the circumstances of their death. I told them they could choose anyone as recipient of the letter. It didn’t have to be a family member, friend or loved one. It could be a muse, a hero, someone they would have liked to have met. It could be God, or a god. I reminded them that this was an exercise, that they would not die by writing it.

“But you will be prepared in that unlikely event,” I quipped.

My crap-makers entered the room and without goading turned the tables round, so that from rigid rows we had a writers’ circle. I arrived after the bell, my stained coffee mug in hand, and found my seat amongst them. There is no head of a circle. No front, no back. Everyone is a link and each link makes the circle strong.

But Nnenna was absent. She had just moved back to Nigeria. We knew about this possibility for some time. It’s the nature of international schools. Students come and go, often with little warning. Nnenna’s absence was palpable. She was an authority figure. Her death letter was her final assignment. The irony was not lost on the students.

“Can we read her letter?” Lilla asked. “I mean, it’s like a real death letter. When will we ever see her again?”

“We’ll see her on facebook and skype,” Amber said.

“Yea, but that’s not Nnenna.”

“Who is it then?”

“You know what I mean.”

“We’ll read it,” I settled. “She would approve.”

The class began. But stumbling through the first line, I realized that something had to be done. For the voice to be disembodied, it needed to part ways from its reader’s face. So I took myself outside of the circle and sat with my back to the group. I asked someone to open the windows as well, as there was a cool breeze outside. It would carry Nnenna’s voice.

I read. The letter was poised, emotional but controlled, and in Nnenna’s style, thorough. She wrote to her mother. Her death was not bloody or violent. Rather, she was part of a close-knit refugee camp and their supplies were cut off due to the surrounding conflict. She was not starving to death, but others were, and she knew her time was coming. She wrote her mother and thanked her for her existence. She said that all she ever wanted in life was to be a woman in her image. 100% for her kids, 100% for others. Nnenna gave the last of her food away to the children in the camp, and she pondered the cruelty of the world. She did not weep. She tried to understand it.

It was clear to all of us that she was already a woman in her mother’s image. We said goodbye. We were glad to have known her.

“That was nice,” Aristianna said after a pause. “Can we keep the window open?”

“Sure.”

“Who’s next Mr. Krasner?”

“I don’t want to follow that,” Lilla said humbly. “Too good.”

“Yea,” Amber with her dreamy expression.

We let the pause hang in the air. The students often had to be goaded into opening up. No one wanted to read, but at the same time, they all wanted to read very badly. Writing is an itch that can only be scratched by readers.

“Aristianna spoke first, she’ll go next. Then Lilla, then Amber.”

“That’s not fair,” Aristianna chided. “I thought you encouraged us to speak up. Edda should go first.”

“Wha-at?” Edda looked up for the first time.

“I’ve never understood this first last thing,” I countered. “Everyone will read you know. What difference does the order make?”

“Well,” Aristianna thought. “If I’m last I’ll have more time.”

“To do what?”

“To, I don’t know. To not be reading!”

“You’ll have the same amount of time not reading if you go first. And it will be a much more pleasant time.”

“No it won’t,” Lilla said. “She wants to go last so she can have more time to anticipate her reading. Anticipation is very pleasant.”

“It is not! It’s just worrying. You should go last. You know yours is the best.”

“What? You’re the best writer here.”

“I am not. You are.”

“I thought Nnenna was,” Amber said.

“Girls. This is a lovely class. You argue about who is the best and never point to yourselves. It’s quite refreshing.”

“So who’s the best Mr. Krasner?” Amber asked.

“There’s no best in this kind of thing. Everyone is just herself. Nnenna’s writing is Nnenna. Lilla’s is Lilla. Do want to say that Nnenna is better than Lilla, or vice versa?”

They got the point, to some degree.

“Everyone is great in their own way,” I finished.

“Yea, but you’re just being nice. Some are better writers than others.”

“Fine. You’re right,” I said.

“So…who’s best?” Amber pressed.

“I’m not telling.”

“It’s Arisitianna,” Lilla said. “I knew it.”

“Lilla!”

“Can we read our letters please! You guys are delaying.”

I got up and turned my chair again, with the back facing the circle. I pointed to Aristianna. Begrudgingly, she took the seat. She read her letter. We gazed out the window and listened. Lilla followed her, then Amber. There was no best. All the letters were examples of brave writing. But for the purpose of this story, I will share the last one. Edda’s.

She was usually the last to read, if she read at all. Often times she did not have any work prepared. But she had her paper with her today, torn from a notebook, and slowly approached the chair. In her thin trebly monotone, she read:

Hey, it’s been so long and it’s going to be longer. The only thing I can smell is fear. I can hear people screaming and crying. I didn’t want to get on this flight—

“Edda,” I interrupted politely. “We can hardly hear you. Just a little louder, ok?”

Someone closed the window. It grew quiet. Edda proceeded with her last thoughts.

Why did I rush my plans? I could have waited til tomorrow. All to get home, and now…it’s too cruel. But maybe all that praying we did as kids by the bedside will have meaning now.

I’m going to find out if there is another life or another dimension. I don’t know why, but all I see now is the way you used to fight with mom and dad. I swear you were….how to put this in nicer words…….unique. You were unique and I’m still wishing you weren’t. But people don’t change. Why should I want them to?

I haven’t seen you since I left home. I said goodbye to everyone but you. I’ve said all I need to say to them. The only one that never listened to me was you. We are the same, we think and even act the same. Only we show it different. I watch you freak out and act stupid, while I stand back and study what not to do……it didn’t help. Mom always treated me like the bad girl that had secrets and knew more than she should. Meanwhile, she treated you like a prince even when you screamed and shouted like a little girl. Well they were right about me knowing more than I should. I knew all the secrets and I’ve always been “judged” by my age but the thing is, I’m a demon with a heart of gold.

Well, I didn’t write this letter to tell you how much I hate your guts for always getting away with your pranks and for making mom believe I was a liar, which I’m not because I always tell the truth and only lie when necessary. I’m not lying now. I used to joke that you were annoying and had serious mental problems. It was a small thing before mom’s accident, but after it became larger and larger and she pretended not to notice. It was not easy seeing mom in a wheelchair. Life is cruel. But you turned on me, made everything my fault, just to ignore how much you were hurting. That’s the truth. But one thing, I never told you that as much as you made me want to slap you and tell you that you’re an idiot and to get over yourself because life is unfair, I had my big sister love inside. Yes, you are older, but I was always felt like a big sister to you even if you didn’t want to accept it, especially when we were smaller.

I remember that every time you got scared at night, no matter what time it was, I would get up and go with you to mom and dad’s room. I remember when mom told you to do something and you complained, she’d ask me to tell you to do it and I always did and you always did it, but hated me for it. I remember making a mess in the house when we would play lego or build forts. I also remember that every time we played in the house, it ended in a disaster with one of us crying. I see these memories with happiness. I don’t understand why we spent so much time hating each other.

When we moved to Poland, it was hard. You decided to stay behind, to finish your school. I missed my brother but I also knew that our brother-sister love was there, and it would always be there. I knew it because of all the hard times. I knew it because every time dad would raise a finger at you, I would get in the middle so he couldn’t hurt you. I wasn’t afraid of anyone ever hitting me because I was always their little girl…until I somehow became a dark angel.

I should really get to the point because there’s not much time left and I can’t concentrate very well. Too many people fighting against the truth. This maniac next to me is talking to himself, trying to convince himself that we’re not going to die. Everything comes to an end, so yeah.

This is a hard way to go. Anyways the thing I needed to tell you is thank you, thank you for being my brother, the best idiot and mental brother that I could ask for.

P.S. I meant it in a good way.

Edda returned slowly to her seat in the circle, blushing underneath her hair. No one shed themselves that bare, and I let the silence sink in.

“Wow. Thank you for that. It was powerful.”

She remained hushed, head bowed.

“Guess so.”

“I think that was the best one Mr. Krasner,” Lilla said.

“We’re back to that?”

“No really. That was the best.”

“Why? What did you like about it?”

“Well, I liked that she chose her brother,” Lilla continued. “Everyone else chose a parent. And everyone else said such nice things.”

“Yea,” Aristianna joined in. “I really liked the brother choice. I can totally relate. I could never have said all that to my sister.”

“Well you have a different relationship,” I said.

“Yea, but it’s still hard. Sibling relationships are hard.”

“I liked the line about being a demon heart,” Amber said.

“That was amazing,” Lilla said.

“I liked that she wasn’t afraid to tell her brother the truth,” Aristianna finished her thought.

“Yea,” Lilla continued. “All the letters you showed us talked about love, like it was something sweet. But Edda expressed hate.”

“It was love,” she corrected dryly.

“I know. It was both. But most people don’t mention that hate part.”

“That’s right. You chose the right recipient Edda,” I said. “You’ve got the whole range of emotion with your brother. It’s all in this letter. It’s all tangled up. I wonder, have you ever expressed these feelings to him before?”

“No.”

“Yet how long have you had these feelings?”

“Like, forever.”

“That’s a lot to carry around.”

“I guess so.”

“I mean it’s like being pregnant in a way, having feelings inside but not expressing them. Feelings are alive. They need to come out somehow, otherwise they die. Inside of us.”

Aristianna crunched her brow in her familiar way.

“Like a baby that is born dead?” she asked. “What’s that?”

“A miscarriage,” Lilla answered.

“It’s a rather extreme analogy,” I said. “Granted, but yes, that’s what I’d call relationships where feelings remain trapped inside.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. I decided to make it worse.

“What would happen if you sent the letter?”

“What?”

“Sent it. To your brother.”

“Um, that would be uncomfortable.”

“So you’d rather stay comfortable but carry that baby around?”

“Gross Mr. Krasner.”

“It just seems odd that holding onto uncomfortable feelings is comfortable. I know it well. I’m not excluded. It’s comfortable to remain a stranger to our parents, to our siblings. We prefer this guarded privation to genuine communication. What are we afraid of?”

They thought it over.

“It’s just a little out of the everyday,” Lilla said. “I think we store up these feelings and release them at the proper moment.”

“Like death?” I asked.

“Well.”

“That’s a little late isn’t it?”

“Unless you’re in creative writing.”

“Right.”

Pause.

“Edda, what are you afraid of. You said in your letter, you’re not afraid of anything. That’s the impression I got.”

“I don’t know,” she said self-consciously. “If he read this, he’d just say it’s weird.”

“Which part.”

“The whole thing.”

“Because?”

“I don’t know.”

“All you’re doing is telling him how you feel.”

“That’s it.”

“So having feelings is weird?”

“No, expressing them is weird!” Lilla jumped in.

“How strange people are.”

“It’s not that Mr. Krasner,” Lilla continued. “It’s more like the feelings are dangerous.”

“How so?”

“Well, they open things up. Edda said that she hated her brother. That would hurt to hear.”

“Yea, but she also said that she loved him.”

“No she didn’t,” Aristianna corrected. “She said she had her big sister love for him. She didn’t say I love you.”

“Well, who says that,” Edda said. “Especially to my brother.”

“Why not? What’s wrong with I love you?” I asked.

“I don’t know. It’s kind of cheesy.”

“Cheesy? It’s the foundation of every romantic film since Hollywood began pumping them out!”

“Exactly,” Aristianna noted my irony.

“Okay, but really, we don’t need to say I love you anymore? We don’t need to say things out loud. Hello? I love you.”

The words by themselves, stripped of a natural context, made them cringe. I love you. Strange.

“Mr. Krasner,” Amber restarted. “Our generation doesn’t really say that. And if we do, we text it.”

“You mean you emoticon it.”

“Yea, well no! We type I love you, but we just spell it differently.”

“Do you even spell?”

“We abbreviate. It’s more efficient. Luv u…..u no?”

“Okay Edda, you think you could send this to your brother as a text? With abbreviations?”

“No way. Even weirder!”

“That would be like 150 messages!” Amber calculated.

“Ok, so we’re back to square one. Whether it’s I love you, luv u, or I have my big sister love for you….why is it so hard to express?”

“Mr. Krasner,” Aristianna probed, “the question should be why do we need to hear it? I mean, most of us know it. My parents love me, my sister loves me. Saying it just creeps people out.”

“But we read your letter Aristianna. You said I love you, to your mother.”

“Well, I was dying.”

“What’s the difference? If she knows, she knows. Why say it at the moment of death?”

“Um, so she knows.”

“Aha.”

There is a silence.

“I just thought of something.”

“Uh-oh.”

I got up and went to the whiteboard. It was an old teacher habit. I might not even write anything. In fact, I didn’t have a marker with me. But it signaled a change in mood. We were exploring now.

“Who is the I love you for?” I asked. “However you wish to express it. The words, the hug, the story. Who’s it for?”

“What do you mean?” Aristianna asked.

“You said your mother doesn’t need to hear it; she knows. But do you know?”

“Do I know what?”

“How you feel about your mother?”

“I think so.”

“What about your sister? You said that was a more complex relationship. How do you feel abut her?”

“I don’t know. I mean, of course I love her.”

“And hate her?”

“Well, sometimes!”

“Would you know better if you wrote her a letter? A death letter?”

“But how can I be sure I’m not lying?”

“Oh…that’s a good question. And how do you know when you keep everything inside?”

“Hm.”

Aristianna was stumped.

“This takes us back to the quality of Edda’s letter. I think we all liked it so much because it was honest. If she was lying, we would be able to tell. And it wouldn’t be good writing. The whole point of the letter is to get at the truth, which is also good writing. One is the other. But it’s hard to locate sometimes in the relationships closest to us.”

They mulled this over.

“You still don’t want to send it Edda?”

“I don’t know,” she said softly. “There are a lot of things in there we don’t really talk about.”

“Like your mom’s accident?”

“Yea…”

“This was traumatic for everyone, yes.”

“Uh-huh…”

“And you never talk about it?”

“Not really.”

“Do you feel better having written about it?”

“Yea…”

“Would you like to write more about it? I’m sure there is more you could say, describe, recollect. Feel.”

“Maybe. It’s hard.”

“I know. It’s really hard.”

We all comprehended Edda’s vulnerability. She hid behind that wall of hair. When she swung back her head, laughing or goofing, it was like the black curtains to the room opening and this pale light coming in.

“It’s funny, we get all these assignments at school and we do them, we put a lot of energy into them. We call it homework and we do it for our teachers. Sometimes we share it with our classmates. But we never share it with the outside world. There’s a boundary between school and reality and it’s hard to break through. Sometimes though, the homework is real. It’s a part of reality, not school. It should live there.”

“So you’re going to make us send them?” Aristianna said mournfully.

“If the letter is honest, generally it will be well received. Edda’s brother will know what she means. Give him some credit. He’s been through the same experiences and has his own locked up feelings that ache to come out. He’ll feel invited to share them. Then what happens?”

“Misunderstanding—”

“Communicating—”

Pause.

“Or silence. We take our most sacred feelings to the grave.”

This was a provocation. Amber responded.

“But we do share our feelings Mr. Krasner,” she said. “We share them with our friends! We tell them everything.”

“That’s true. How is that different from this?”

“Well, it’s easier.”

“How so?”

“Because the person is not there,” Lilla continued. “I mean, it wouldn’t take much for Edda to tell me about her brother. Well, no,” she reconsidered, “that’s not fair. I don’t know much about their relationship actually.”

“Because I don’t talk about it, with anyone.”

“So maybe we don’t share everything. It’s too personal.”

“Well, it is good to have some protections,” I said. “If you share everything as you feel it, there are consequences as well. Things need to digest, like bread. But go back to the idea of sharing feelings with friends. It’s easier—”

“It’s easier because the person you are talking about is not there.”

“So there is no confrontation. No conflict. That’s it!”

“I guess.”

“No conflict,” I reiterated, having an English teacher’s epiphany. “This connects with literature. Funny how story comes from life but is not so much like life.”

“What do you mean? I don’t understand,” Aristianna said.

“I just mean that story, or drama, revolves around conflict. At least traditionally. It builds towards climax and resolution. But in life, we mostly avoid conflict. So no climax, no resolution.”

“Mr. Krasner,” Aristianna said, “it sounds like we’re dead people. Like those miscarriages.”

“That’s a big statement.”

“Or at least, not art,” Lilla said. “It reminds me of a quote from Thoreau.”

My eyes lit up.

“Thoreau? You have a quote from Thoreau?”

“Well, yea.”

“Who’s Thoreau?” Amber asked.

“He’s a philosopher,” I said. “An American philosopher. He was once a hero of mine.”

“Really?”

“What do you know about him Lilla?”

“Well, he was a hermit.”

“That’s why he was your hero?”

“He was a part-time hermit. Let’s be fair.”

“Okay, but he lived in the woods for a long time, by himself.”

“For two years. And he had visitors.”

“I’d like to do that,” Edda said.

“So the quote?”

“Oh, I forgot now. Damn it!”

“The mass of men…”

“Ok, I got it. The mass of men lead quiet lives of desperation.”

“Something like that. I think it’s they lead lives of quiet desperation. A little different emphasis.”

Edda was nodding her head.

“Conflict finds us though,” I picked up. “It’s human. It’s wind and air. We’re just more private now, and we express our conflicts passively, watching movies, reading books.”

“We shouldn’t read books?”

“We should! And go to movies! But not as a substitute for life!”

I sat back down.

“Your next assignment is to send the letters,” I said sincerely. “What do you think?”

They looked at each other for clues.

“Ok, you’re not obliged to do it. I know I’m taking chances. But from what I’m hearing, I don’t think these letters will cause harm. Some discomfort. Some communication. Weirdness. Maybe even fragile touching. It’s up to you, always up to you. But if a little part of you wants to do it, listen to that part. Take a step back for a moment and think about how silly it to be afraid.”

“Will you do it?” Aristianna asked.

“Me? The death letter?”

“Yea…”

Suddenly their discomfort faded. I saw only eager faces and bodies inching closer to me in their chairs.

“Oh, it always comes back to this.”

“Well, it doesn’t seem fair, since you’re asking us.”

“That’s true. But you know, I did this once already.”

“When?”

“Oh…about 20 years ago.”

“That’s too long Mr. Krasner. Don’t you have more conflicts to deal with since then?”

“Well, I have expressed them. Some of them.”

“Uh, huh.”

“So wait a minute,” Amber said. “This was not your idea? You did this when you were a student?”

“I took a creative writing class when I finished college. It was a night course. The Death Letter was the first assignment.”

“So this is not an original idea?”

“None of my ideas are original.”

They looked disappointed.

“But I changed something! In my version, the fatal conditions were set. I was trapped inside a burning house. I let you guys determine your own means of dying.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“So who’d you write to?” Lilla asked.

“My father.”

“And what did you say? That you loved him?”

“In so many words.”

“You didn’t use the phrase I love you?”

“That would be cheesy!”

Laughter.

“It is not easy for teenagers to express feelings.”

“You were in your twenties!” Aristianna corrected.

“Right…it’s not easy for men to express feelings. Maybe this is the real theme of our lesson. Notice none of the boys showed up.”

“So how did you say it?”

“I love you?”

“Yea.”

“The way Lilla did. I told a story.”

“About what?”

“It was something he was part of, but never really recognized, because I never told him. Just like with Lilla’s trips to the lake outside Toronto. Her story expressed gratitude towards her mom for taking her on these random excursions, which is like saying I love you.”

“So your story?”

“My story, my story…I think the bell’s going to ring.”

“We have 10 minutes.”

They sat patiently. Aristianna tapped her fingers on her desk.

“The story is not so dramatic. Just a turning point. A memory I had at the moment the imaginary fire stoked up. It was a story about camp. From the ages of about 9-14, I went to a place called Camp Airy. It was in the woods in Thornton Maryland. It was a camp for Jewish kids.”

“Why only Jewish?”

“I guess it was like Sunday school. I mean, a regular camp with sport and activity, but we also had opening and closing ceremonies that had Jewish elements. I don’t remember those parts so well.”

“Mr. Krasner, that’s odd, going to a camp for Jews…”

We all noted the play on words.

“Maybe they shouldn’t have called it camp! No, in the States, camp means summer camp: softball, mosquitos and hotdogs. We’re not so weighted by Hitler’s shadow. But it’s true, looking back, we were in these cramped army barracks and doing lots of work. We had evil counselors. There were lineups in the morning.”

“Mr. Krasner, you’re stalling. You don’t want to share your feelings!”

“I am sharing my feelings! I don’t have trouble with this.”

“Uh-huh.”

“When I was a child, for birthdays—“

“Is this about the death letter?”

“Everything is about the death letter. Listen, when I was a kid, for birthdays like everyone else, I would search for a Hallmark greeting card and sign it. In the States, this was a ritual. Unexpressed feelings made Hallmark into a billion dollar conglomerate! So, you find a conventional card that says some corny or cheesy thing and add a few sentences, restating the corny and cheesy things. It’s interesting how an entire industry bloomed on the packaging of trite emotional expression.”

“We do this in Canada too,” Lilla said.

“And Greece?” I asked.

“No, we talk in Greece,” Aristianna said. “We talk too much.”

“When I was a kid, I did too,” I said. “At least in my greeting cards. I wouldn’t just add two or three lines. I’d fill up the entire blank page opposite the greeting, and move over to the back cover if I had to. I’d have to squeeze in the last few lines, in smaller and smaller script. My handwriting was awful and sometimes I’d have to read what I wrote out loud. I took a lot of pride in these letters.”

“No wonder you became an English teacher!”

“There were signs.”

“Can you get to the death letter?”

“About the camp?”

“Summer camp!”

“Yes, Camp Airy. A nice camp for Jews!”

I waited til the laughter settled down. We were losing time and I began to worry about the intrusion of the bell.

“It was my first year going to camp. You know how that is, right? Total dread. And we went there for an entire month!”

“A month?”

“Yes. Looking back on it, I think the goal was for my parents to have a month free of us. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Camp Airy. But that first year was very hard. I was a crier.”

“Really?”

“I cried easily. Like if I got hurt in a game, or if one of my siblings played a trick on me. I cried once when my father was play-boxing with a friend on the beach. I was stuck to his leg like a slug, fearful that he would get beat up.”

“Mr. Krasner?”

“Yea?”

“The letter!”

“So, this first summer, as my father was unpacking the car at the camp entrance, he pulled me aside and gave me some fatherly advice. This was very rare. In fact, if I file through my childhood, I can only remember a few “talks”, where my father faced me with intention and gave direction. Maybe that’s why I remember this moment so well.”

“What’d he say?”

“He said that this summer, I’d find out if I was a leader or a follower.”

“Wow, sounds like an Army guy!” Lilla said. Her father is a soldier.

“I’m sure he used a soft tone. In fact, when I replay it now, the words don’t exactly fit my father’s character. Perhaps he borrowed them.”

“Maybe his father said it to him.”

“Maybe.”

I was thinking.

“I might have been crying at the time, and he didn’t know what to say, so he remembered something and gave it a shot. You know, when he read the letter, he told me he never remembered saying the words.”

“Maybe you made the whole thing up!”

“Maybe! But no…the picture is fuzzy, but the words are real. He said I’d find out if I was a leader or a follower, and it was not a threatening tone.”

“And? What happened?”

“You mean, what did I say in my letter? As the fire was building, I thought about that moment at the entrance. I was wearing my LA Dodger cap, two sizes too big because it was my brother’s. I had on my purple and gold tube socks, which we wore up to the knees in those days. Purple and gold were the colors of the Los Angeles Rams, my favorite football team.”

“Were you from LA?”

“No, Maryland.”

“Why LA?”

“Because my father grew up in Brooklyn, where the Dodgers first played. The Brooklyn Dodgers were his favorite team and I must have picked it up, even though they moved to LA.”

“That was an important detail then.”

“True…good criticism. So I’m standing there looking like this typical mixed sport uniform American kid, I’ve got a trunk next to me with a month’s supply of clothing, soap, playthings, crackers, aerosol spray cheese…and I mean a real trunk, a sea chest. It was like I was emigrating.”

“At the depot.”

“Yes, I get that parallel. And I was crying, I’m sure of it. I might have been holding onto my parents and not letting them go. They had that month long vacation to look forward to and I wouldn’t let them go. And somehow my father came up with those words. They gave me confidence somehow. I let go of his leg.”

“What happened? Did you become a leader?”

“Of course he did,” Amber said. “He wouldn’t be sharing this memory with us if he didn’t!”

“Yea,” Lilla progressed, “it’d be a very different story if you ended up a follower, and your father was like, see. You’re just a follower. Just like I thought!”

“My father took a gamble. That’s why I think he might have borrowed the words. Based on what he knew about me, it wasn’t clear that I could lead others. At camp, you’re suddenly on your own. The counselors are there, but they give you space to manage for yourselves. So in sport activities, you have to be responsible for getting the equipment, organizing teams and tournaments, setting up the field. You have to select captains, choose teammates. But on a more subtle level, you have to be able to see who might be afraid or left out, and take care of them too. This is what I remember. I noticed those kids who were feeling left out. Who needed some attention to get warmed up, to feel a part of things.”

“Aw, Mr. Krasner. That’s sweet,” Amber said.

“I never thought of leadership that way,” Lilla said. “But that’s kind of what teachers do. Did you write anything else?”

“It’s fuzzy, because it’s feeling. But I wrote that if he hadn’t said anything about leadership, I might not have recognized it myself. I became more confident that summer. I grew. That’s what I remember. I stopped crying.”

“So your father was right. He knew you were a leader, and that everything would work out. He sounds wise.”

“I never thought I’d say that.”

“Did you send it to him?”

“I gave it to him. He read it in the living room, as a distraction from the TV. He was lying on the couch with his legs up, not engaged in the letter at all.”

“What made you give it to him?”

“I was tired of seeing him watching TV. I was changing inside and I wanted him to see it. And maybe I was showing off a bit. I wanted him to see that I could write.”

“And what happened after?”

“Not much. No one died. He was a little uncomfortable. It’s hard to go from the 8th inning of an Orioles game to your son telling a story about childhood and saying I love you. In so many words.”

“Did he say anything?”

“He said he didn’t remember anything. He didn’t remember saying those words. He barely remembered Camp Airy. He had an appreciative look on his face, but kind of ashamed as well. He didn’t know what to say. And I think he wanted to finish watching the baseball game.”

Silence.

“Yea, that’s how it is with families,” Lilla said. “Even when you say what needs to be said, there is more silence.”

More silence.

“To be honest, I think I was trying to tell my father that he did a good job. That he was a good father. That’s what I needed to say before I died.”

“So it’s like when you were at camp noticing the weaker kids,” Aristianna said. “I don’t mean it in a bad way. But it’s like your father was one of those kids who needed to hear something.”

“You needed to hear something at camp,” Lilla continued, “and now you were the one giving the words back to him.”

“And they were his words!” I said. “A perfect cycle. I just restated them in another context. I love it!”

“Mr. Krasner,” Aristianna asked. “Do you think he was a good father?”

Her question popped what had been an inflated balloon. There was some tension, a moment of climax in the classroom. Homework is real.

“I don’t think he felt like he was a good father,” I said finally.

“So you were just cheering him up? Were you lying?”

“No. He’s a good father. I’ve given him a lot of grief. Sent him a lot of death letters. He’s taken everything on the chin. And he’s one of my biggest supporters in life.”

“He gave you confidence,” Lilla said, maybe even thinking of her dad. She had a faraway expression.

“Somehow he did.”

“Maybe you should tell him these things.”

“Again?!”

“Yea, how long have you been holding onto these tangled feelings Mr. Krasner?”

“I wrote him many death letters I said! That’s enough.”

“You can die again and again. It’s creative writing!”

The bell rang. The tables were turned and it was time to put them back into their place.

“Will you do it Mr. Krasner?” Aristianna pleaded.

“Can I choose someone else? Seriously, I’ve unleashed thousands of words on my father. I think I’d like to address someone else now. I’m not sure who. I’d like that opening.”

“Okay, we’ll allow it.”

“And my deadline?”

“Next class!”

“Tough teachers,” I said, putting my bag to shoulder, my coffee back in hand. Still they waited.

“Ok, I’ll do it. But don’t forget your assignment too.”

“Send the letter? Really?”

“It’s already written. All you’ve got to do is stuff it in an envelope. Let someone else open it. See what happens. What could go wrong?”

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