handwriting sample

The Letter

We sent our writer on a simple assignment: to thank someone who changed his life. But the task transformed in a way he never could have anticipated.

On the day she finally told me what she needed from me, she took a shower with her eyes closed, unable to bear the sight of her hair twirling down the drain. She dried off, dressed, and let the nurses attach a tube to a surgically installed port in her chest. Good blood rushed into her body to replace the cancer-filled blood. She settled into a chair and wiggled her toes to make sure they weren’t going numb, a minor everyday nuisance for someone with multiple sclerosis.

Kendra Williams was in room 351 of Iowa Methodist hospital in Des Moines, 19 days into a 30-day chemotherapy treatment to combat acute myeloid leukemia. Doctors had given her a 50-50 shot of making it to Day 30. Beyond that, patients with this leukemia usually live, at best, five years. She’s 43.

I was headed home soon, back to my life in North Carolina after spending four days with her and her friends and family. Kendra was my editor and a mentor when I was just starting out at a small newspaper in the mountains of Virginia. On nights after deadline, I’d sit in the chair by her desk and talk to her about life and family and career ambitions. She did that with all of the young writers at the paper. We were in our early 20s, and she wasn’t much older at 31, but it seemed like she knew everything we wanted to know. She had short, dark hair, a soft and calming voice, and hipster glasses before they were hip. When she answered difficult questions, she would stare at me for a second, disarming me while she prepared her response.

She assigned us stories that ripped us open. She helped one colleague through a story on a young girl’s funeral, another through a story about an abused child. She helped me through a story about a soldier who died in Afghanistan. Kendra cried at that ending. Her tears were worth more than any paycheck.

We eventually went in different directions. Kendra moved to Des Moines and became the travel editor at Midwest Living, and I made my way to North Carolina. We kept in touch every now and then, but I hadn’t seen her since she left Virginia 11 years ago. The last time we exchanged notes was 2012, when Kendra learned I was going through a divorce from one of the other young writers in our group. Always the mentor, she reached out and offered to help. “You are a good man with a good spirit, and happiness can’t help but chase down people like you, even when things are at their darkest,” she wrote. “So hang in.”

Kendra and her husband, Mark, adopted their son Colin in 2006. Colin loves basketball and Pokémon GO. He also has Asperger’s syndrome. He’s brilliant academically, but about four years behind his peers socially. On August 24, his first day of fifth grade, the 10-year-old boy with floppy hair left school and went to the hospital and listened to his mother tell him she might not live to October.

Coincidentally, just a few days before they’d received that news, an editor at this magazine gave me an assignment: to write a letter to someone who’d changed my life but I’d never had the chance to properly thank. Then I was to take that letter and show up on that person’s doorstep and read it aloud. Kendra was one of the first people I thought of, but I was hesitant to contact her after I heard how sick she was.

Finally, on September 1, I sent her a message to ask how she was doing and to ask for her address. I didn’t say why.

I’ve never been someone who believes everything happens for a reason. I’ve never believed in fate. But her response three hours later leveled me.

Well, this was meant to be. I have a journal next to my bed with a note in it to contact you today. Your message is timely and appreciated so, so much. …  

I recently read through an old email folder I have called Nice Things. I have so many emails in there from you and Andrew and others from my time at the [Winchester] Star. In one of them, you thanked me for helping you get your job in Fayetteville [North Carolina], and said if I ever needed anything, I should ask.

So I need something. So I’m asking. I’d like you to write a piece about me for my celebration of life service, whenever that is. Something that people could take home copies of and something that Mark and Colin can use as a touchstone in the years ahead. I can get you names and contacts.

I have already written my own obit. This is something beautiful and separate.

I flew to Des Moines a little more than a week later and stayed from September 10 to 13. Before I left to go home, I asked my former editor one last time what she wanted from this story she’d asked me to write about her. She paused and delivered that familiar stare before answering.

“I want Colin to know just how much I love him,” she said. “The sad thing is, he doesn’t remember what I was like before I got sick. I want him to know that I wasn’t just his mom. I want him to know I did other things too.”

I pulled the door to room 351 shut and went up the elevator and into a skywalk that led to a parking garage. I stopped and cried, knowing she might not make this walk out of the hospital herself, knowing that the more connections we make the more skywalks we’ll have, knowing the assignment she’d given me, and having no idea what to do with all that.

This is what I came up with.

You may not remember me, but we met in September when your mom was in the hospital. I came to your house in Iowa. You didn’t say hello, but that’s OK. I know you had a lot on your mind. It was the first Sunday of the NFL season, after all. I’m sorry Odell Beckham didn’t score any touchdowns that afternoon. One or two more and you’d have won your fantasy football game against your mom. But think of it this way: You gave her a little win when she really needed one. You’ve always had a way of doing that.

She was 10 miles away that day, in room 351 of the hospital downtown. I’d say she was “fighting cancer,” but she doesn’t like to phrase it that way. Cancer doesn’t fight fair.

I watched you agonize over that football game, saw how much it hurt you when things didn’t work out. Here’s a little secret a lot of people won’t tell you, Colin: It’s OK to feel pain. It is. You’ll meet people along the way who try to silence your aches, but it’s only out of fear of their own.

Your mom was a kid once, believe it or not. Your grandfather worked for an oil company and the job moved them all over the world, from New York to Saudi Arabia to Illinois to Virginia. You’ve always had one home, the blue one with the big field and hummingbird feeders, where your mom and dad built a life for you and your dog, Daisy.

Your dad’s a great man too, Colin. You remind me of him. He’s one of those guys who can’t sleep on nights the Cubs or the Packers lose a big game, and he knows every word to every Beatles song ever made. He showed your mom what love was after she married another man who turned out to be wrong for her.

While I was watching you and your dad in your living room that day, the wind blew in from across the field and I thought about the ribbon of life that led us all here. To you, she’s mom. To your dad, she’s his spouse and your mom. To me, she was a mentor. But she was many other things to many other people.

When she was a girl living in Saudi Arabia, your grandfather took the family to Kenya on a safari, and they came upon a local market. Your mom picked out a purse and asked her dad for money. He gave her 20 shillings and advice on bartering. “It’s what you’re supposed to do,” he told her. She asked the vendor if she could have the purse for 10 shillings. He’d priced it at 20, but he said yes. She ran back to the car crying.

“Dad,” she said, “I think I cheated that man, and I’m worried that he doesn’t have any money.”

Your mom never cheated anyone, Colin. In fact, the rest of us always got the better end of the deal.

Another time when she was a little girl in Buffalo, your grandfather lost her at the county fair. He reported her to lost and found. You know where they found her? She was in the bookmobile the library had set up on the fairgrounds. That’s right: When a kid goes to the fair and doesn’t smear cotton candy all over her face or shoot water guns at clowns’ mouths or spin on the Tilt-a-Whirl, we all assume she’s lost. But she’s not. Your mom was right where she wanted to be.

She was reading, like usual. She sat on your great-grandfather’s lap when she was 4 or 5 and read the Sunday comics to him, word for word. She read full books to her cat, Muffin. She was the first person to grab the afternoon paper from the mailbox, and she’d read the headlines, mostly about Jimmy Carter back then. The day she went to college at Mary Washington, she hugged her roommate and cried. Not tears of pain. Tears of joy. After all those moves, after navigating childhood as a bookworm in a cotton-candy world, your mom finally found a place where all she had to do was learn.

You ran toward your dad, and he bent down and hugged you, wrapped you up. That’s it, your mom told herself. Let’s stop the world now.

She studied under a man named Dr. James Farmer. Look him up. He was a civil rights leader who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He organized the Freedom Ride, which helped lead to the desegregation of the interstate transportation system. You can find all this in Dr. Farmer’s obituary from the local Virginia papers after he died in 1999. Your mother wrote it.

People told her she should be a teacher. “But I don’t know anything yet,” she’d tell them. So after college, she went to work at newspapers. They helped her figure out the world.

One day, a Tuesday, the paper she worked for near Chicago was set to go to the printer when something terrible happened in New York. You weren’t born until five years later, but that day—Sept. 11, 2001—changed America. It also changed your mom’s career. The news editor at your mom’s newspaper didn’t think it was a big enough deal to stop the presses and redo the whole paper. She left the office to get coffee. Your mom was appalled. She stood up in front of the entire newsroom and said, “This is what we’re going to do.” And she did it. By the time the news editor got back, your mom already had a new plan for a new edition that would go on to win awards. The next week, she got promoted.

I tell you this story because there’s a lesson in it: Don’t be bound by anybody’s description of you. If you know the right thing to do, do it. Don’t assume someone else will.

Not long after that day, she was making post-deadline calls to other papers when an editor named Mark picked up. She asked how he was doing. Your dad, Mark, has no idea why, but he said, “Not that great.” Your mom asked if she could help. They went out for dinner the next week, and they kept talking on the phone after that, hours at a time. Two years later she got a job in Winchester, Virginia, a little town in a big valley at the northern tip of the state. She drove to Virginia to start her new life on Valentine’s Day 2003, and your dad came with her.

That’s when I met her, in between those hills. I was 23 years old then. I know that seems old to you now, but trust me, I was just a kid. We had a whole group of kids my age in Winchester, recent college graduates who believed we were smart. Your mom came along and taught us how much we didn’t know. She gave us weekly reading assignments from great writers around the country, and sometimes we played the “Why?” game: A person would state a fact about something they’d done and face the room of reporters to answer “Why?” four or five times.

There are lots of things I hope you take from her, and all of them add up to a good and gracious life. But this one is especially important—work hard and be good to people, even when the world isn’t working or good for you.

I’m not sure why she chose me for this. Maybe she just enjoys giving me difficult assignments. Maybe she’s trying to teach me one more lesson.

Because something good will come along. Something like you. We call these things “reasons.” They’re the answers to “Why?” Your mom was always fond of reasons. You’ll find these people as you go through life: those who believe everything happens for a reason, and others who believe the world’s totally random. You can believe whatever you want, but here’s an indisputable fact—if your mom hadn’t gone to all those places in her life, she never would’ve met you. If your mom and dad hadn’t left Winchester when they did, they wouldn’t have made $30,000 on their house, and they wouldn’t have been able to put that money toward a private adoption. If they hadn’t moved to the Midwest, they wouldn’t have been at that meeting with your biological mother when she said, “Yes, you are the people who should raise my child.” All these things had to happen for you to become your mom’s son.

And you remember Jess, your mom’s former co-worker, who takes you to Chuck E. Cheese’s sometimes. He recorded a podcast with your mom after she got cancer, and she told him something he’ll never forget: “I wish this had never happened to me, but I’m glad that I’ve used it to find meaning.”

Your mother’s life was full of meaning before she got sick, though, Colin.

When you were little, your parents took you to the mall, just the three of you. Your mom went with you to a play area and your dad wandered off to browse. When he came back, you spotted him through the crowd of people and ran toward him, arms wide open. He bent down and hugged you, wrapped you up. That’s it, your mom told herself. Let’s stop the world now.

I’m not sure why the world didn’t listen to her. Things got tough. MS first, then cancer. Your mom loved reasons but there’s no good reason for this. There’s no good reason a kid like you should have to come home from his first day of fifth grade and go straight to the hospital to see her. There’s no good reason she should’ve had to tell you that her cancer was back and worse than ever, and that she had a 50-50 shot of surviving a 30-day chemo treatment.

It’s hard to find any justification for any of this. But your mom would want us to try. So here’s a little story that wouldn’t have happened if your mom hadn’t gotten sick.

I hadn’t seen her since she left Winchester. That’s 11 years. I hadn’t talked to her in four years. Life’s been busy, as the sad excuse goes. But in August, just before you started school, I was assigned a story about saying thanks to someone who has changed my life. I chose your mom. When I sent her a message, she responded by asking me to write this story for you. That’s the reason I was up there to visit you for four days in September. I’m not sure why she chose me for this. Maybe she just enjoys giving me difficult assignments. Maybe she’s trying to teach me one more lesson.

I do know this: When I was with her in room 351, she had a stack of letters for you. There’s one for your 18th birthday, one for your graduation, one for your wedding. She was writing notes in them and sealing them up for you to read later. She imagined herself in those moments, imagined what the weather will feel like or the room will sound like or what kind of suit you’ll be wearing.

“Even if you don’t believe it,” she told me she wrote in the cards, “I’m still with you today.”

One more thing about your mom, Colin. You already know this one. That month she had a 50-50 shot of surviving, she survived. She made it to the end of September. She made it back home to Daisy and your dad and the hummingbirds and you. Her friends started using #kendrastrong. She was with your dad to watch the Cubs make a run to the World Series.

In mid-October, she went to Iowa City to look for more signs of hope. She ruled out a bone marrow transplant because it’s too risky with her MS. But the doctor in Iowa City says she can try stem cell treatment. This means she’ll have to make trips from Des Moines to Iowa City for three months. It’s only about a two-hour ride, but it’ll be tough in an Iowa winter. She might miss a basketball game or two. But she has to do this. It’s her last chance at a cure.

What I’m trying to say, Colin, is that your mom, a cherished editor and friend, asked me to write a story about her life, a story in which she wanted me to let you know who she was and how much she loves you. She asked me to publish it after she died. But I’m writing this now because out of all the lessons your mom taught me, the one I hope I’ll always remember is this—never put things off.

Thanks for letting us share her with you.

Michael Graff lives in Charlotte. Email him at michaelngraff@gmail.com.

Originally Published December 2016