When I was ten years old, I got a pen pal. I’d had other pen pals before that, but they never worked out, somehow. Usually, they’d just stop writing. One got mad at me for something I said and sent me a scathing letter. By the time I received her reply, I, of course, couldn’t even remember what it was that I could have possibly written that could have offended her so much. I wrote back apologizing and never heard from her again.
But when I was ten, all that changed. I remember the day I went home to the little apartment I lived in with my Mum on Kencrest Avenue in the north end of Halifax. I opened the mailbox and there was a thin little envelope from the international pen pal agency, with information about my new pen friend, Samantha, who lived in the United States.
Samantha and I began to correspond and through our letters, we got to know one another and became friends. The year I turned 21, I went to meet Sam and her family in person. My birthday is around the time of American Thanksgiving, so that year, I got to celebrate with their family. A few years ago, she came to visit me and we chat occasionally about the next time we'll meet in person. We still correspond, having followed each other around our respective countries (two Canadian provinces for me, and four U.S. States for her), though we stay in touch mostly through e-mail now.
Although I had written letters since the time I could pick up a pen, corresponding with Sam taught me about the art and craft of creating a relationship with a person through letters. I later used the same skills to forge a friendship with Alex and Rosa, my friends from Spain, whom I met on the Internet. But that's a story for another day...
I’ve gone through phases in my life where I don’t send mail to anyone, except for my ritualistic Christmas cards, which take me numerous hours to prepare, from choosing the cards, to preparing the addresses, to writing and including a little annual letter in each one. In fact, I usually start in late October so I can chip away at them slowly until they’re ready to be mailed out in December, which probably means I’m not really all that efficient!
There are other times when I go mad with sending things in the mail… postcards, letters and even little packages. Of course, the cost of postage has risen dramatically and there have been numerous times I’ve handed over more money for postage than the contents of the package actually cost, and that annoys me. So consequently, I don’t post as many things as I used to.
But letters have always been one of my passions. I write short ones, long ones, spontaneous ones and ones that I think about for a week or more before ever putting pen to paper.
My sister likes to tell people that when I was a teenager, I would write her ten or twelve-page letters that sounded like they came from someone in their twenties. Naturally, I don’t remember, as I’ve written hundreds… no… in all honesty, probably thousands… of letters in my lifetime. I do have a tendency to wax philosophical, and so I suspect I was dabbling in that sort of thing even as a youth and that’s why she said that.
But by far, my most memorable experience writing letters was about six years ago, the autumn that my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I immediately flew from Calgary to Kitchener, where she lived, to be with her and other family members who lived there.
That was late October. We spent our days in the palliative care ward doing what thousands of other families do every day… making the most of the time that is left. My days at the hospital were long and I often slept there, curled up in the chair in her room, spending 18 hours a day or more there… leaving only to walk the five minutes to her otherwise vacant apartment, have a shower and regroup.
I was in Kitchener for two weeks, with plans to return at Christmas. There would be about a month in between my visits. I knew that month would be the longest month ever… for both of us.
At the end of my first week there, I had an idea. I decided to leave a piece of me with her…. something that would be fresh and new every day… something to look forward to until the next time we met.
I searched around her apartment for the supplies for my little project, knowing that she really wouldn’t mind if did so. And I set to work.
My plan was to write her one letter for every day I would be away, until the next time we met. That meant writing 32 letters in seven days, since that’s all the time I had left in Kitchener before I had to return to my life in Calgary.
This may sound crazy to you, gentle reader, and indeed it was, a little. But the craziest part for me was not the number of letters I had to write, but the fact that it meant spending a little less time in person with my Mum each day that I had left in Kitchener. Instead of being with her for 18 hours a day, I would spend a few hours less, sneaking away to go back to her apartment to work on her letters.
She slept a good deal of the time and so, I didn’t feel so bad about it. She noticed that I was there a little less and mentioned it once. I just said that I had something to do and she’d find out soon…
I went back to her apartment every night, and sat down to do my homework. Every letter was dated for consecutive days in the future, with the first one being dated the day after I left for Calgary and the last one being dated for the day I would return again for Christmas holidays. Each letter was written on nice stationery (which is not my custom, as I usually write unceremoniously on school notebook paper). But considering that she had a generous supply of proper stationery and no school paper, I used what was available, varying between different types and sizes of paper for each day, so she wouldn’t know what to expect.
In the first letter, I introduced my project to her, telling her that she could expect a letter every day until I got back. Then, I set to work on the daily letters… varying them between serious thoughts and feelings, messages of hope and memories of funny stories and embarrassing moments that I knew would make her laugh. I didn’t want to avoid the obvious topic, but I also didn’t want to be all doom and gloom. There had to be a good balance between the serious and the lighthearted. I wanted them to be little treasures for her to look forward to every day… something new and refreshing in a daily existence where minutes drag into hours and there is little to stimulate the soul.
I was exhausted, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically and in every other way that a human can be. But I didn’t want that to show in my letters. There were a couple of nights I fell asleep with a pad of paper on my lap, with the pen falling from my hand, but I didn’t care. My letter-writing project occupied just about every moment of my waking life when I wasn’t with her.
The plan included the nurses at Saint Mary’s Hospital. I told them what I had in mind and they said they’d never heard of anyone doing such a thing! They thought it would do wonders to brighten her spirits. They agreed to bring her one every day with her breakfast tray. The agreement was that if she got to the point where she could no longer read them herself, that they would read them to her. I put her name and the date on the outside of each envelope, tied up the whole packet with a ribbon I’d found in one of her boxes of craft supplies and then slipped the packet into a clear plastic bag so they wouldn’t get dirty. On my final day in Kitchener, I handed the bag of letters over to the head nurse, entrusting her with my little daily gifts for my Mum.
I know those letters made a difference to her. I know she loved getting them and they had the effect I’d hoped for… something to look forward to every day. I fact, I heard that one day, there was a change in the nurses' rotation and whoever was working that particular morning didn’t know about the arrangement and consequently, there was no letter with breakfast. Apparently Mum just about went ballistic, screaming that she didn’t care about breakfast, she wanted her letter! The poor nurse had no idea what was going on and thought Mum was delirious. The ranting continued until the little packet tied up with the ribbon was found and she was brought her letter of the day.
That marathon of letter writing was the most intensive I’ve ever done. Truth be told, I haven’t had the same energy to write letters since then, occasionally composing the odd five or seven-pager here or there, but for the most part, sticking to e-mails and phone calls.
Although I’ve become a much more dedicated e-mailer, I suspect that there are a still a few dozen letters still somewhere inside me, waiting for the appropriate moment and recipient before they’ll emerge, with the help of my usual blue pen and lined scribbler paper.
As I look back on this post it occurs to me that this year marks 25 years of corresponding with Sam. What wonderful things I learned from that experience… and what a wonderful and treasured friend I made in the process. (Note to self: send an e-mail -- or perhaps a letter! -- to mark the occasion…)