My mother-in-law is suddenly, shockingly ill. All last night I lay awake thinking about her, her stoic composure, her laugh, her sense of grace. The way she always, always puts others ahead of herself. The untold hundreds of pounds of peanuts she has tossed out into the wooded side of her yard for the squirrels. Her unbelievably delicious Spanish chicken and rice pudding and grilled salmon. That she worked until she was almost eighty taking care of patients—many younger than she—at a nursing home. That she is kinder than seems necessary, and more generous than seems practical.
Periodically, she sends me a handwritten card with some mad money taped inside and the firm instruction to take an afternoon off, get a massage, a pedicure, do something nice for yourself. She has never, in almost eighteen years, suggested that I do something differently, or better, or not at all. The only comments she’s made about my parenting have been uplifting. When someday I become a mother-in-law, it is she whom I hope to emulate.
This morning, it occurred to me that as I listed her virtues in my mind, she couldn’t hear me. I like to think that I’ve told her at least some of these things over the years, but what if I hadn’t? What if while she’s suffering, she didn’t know how much I loved her, how grateful I am for her? So I wrote her a letter. I wish I could’ve enclosed some money, medicine—anything—that would buy her an afternoon off, but I’m not that powerful and anyway, sickness doesn’t work like that. All I can offer is words.
I have a dear friend, Melissa, who’s undertaken a project: “365 days of gratitude via snail mail to extraordinarily beautiful souls.” In her exquisite handwriting, she expresses her detailed, personalized appreciation for each recipient. It sounds like a small thing, but given that most U.S. households only receive one personal letter in the mail every seven weeks, it’s very much a big thing. (I know because I was one of her fortunate legatees.)
Not long ago I wrote to an old friend. It was an emotional letter, and a long one. I’d hoped to fill the silence that had erupted between us with words: I’m sorry for what happened between us, I hope we could become friends again. I sent it to an old address, and I didn’t really expect a reply. Still I’d hoped. In case I never hear from you again, I thank you for the love you gave me when you could.
Words are a certain kind of medicine. Hopefully for the recipient, sometimes for the writer, ideally for both. We shouldn’t wait until the end of something to expose our hearts to others. We shouldn’t assume that they already know.
If you haven’t written a letter to someone in a while, here are a few ideas. Close your eyes, and think of someone who’s important to you, or who influenced you, or who you think might need a virtual hug. Then get a pen and paper and:
- Express your gratitude
- Convey your admiration
- Declare their worth
- Heap praise
- Exclaim their awesomeness
- Pledge your undying love
- Profess your undying like
- Ask for forgiveness
- Say goodbye with grace
Can’t think of anyone you know who needs a letter? Then consider writing one to a stranger. Because everyone deserves to know how much they matter–before it’s too late to tell them.