When I was fourteen my dad had transferred to Virginia where we would eventually move, my siblings were both at college, and my mother worked in town. So when I wasn’t with my friends, I was at the local tennis courts in Timber Point Country Club hitting a ball against a backstop. Sometimes I’d bring a bag of balls and practice serving. One day I was out there practicing, and a man was doing the same at the next court—a massive bag of balls at his side, serving unseeable serves like an ace. I sat and watched when he asked if I wanted to play a bit. By then my friend Eddie had cycled up and we sat together, and if it wasn’t for Ed’s encouragement, I would have said no.
I did just fine rallying the ball back and forth. He wasn’t trying to “play,” he was just letting me return the shots. We did so for about fifteen minutes. He told me I was doing really well and that he hadn’t expected me to play so fine. I was glad he said that with a witness around. He said I need to really focus, and I need to follow through—those are the two keys to success in this game—focus and follow-through. Then he said he had to get back to a friend’s house and back to the city. It was John Newcombe. Jimmy Connors won that US Open a few weeks later, but Newcombe, second seed for the tournament, made it to the semi-finals. My passion for tennis had been ignited, and I got good, carrying that talent to Virginia where I continued to play religiously.
Until I didn’t. I lost focus. Turns out I didn’t follow through.
That has happened to me a lot. I was going to bike to Coos Bay, Oregon. I was going to go from Tucson to LA. I was going to go from Massachusetts to Austria. Pursue music. Eat better. Exercise. Honestly, it’s a long list. Ironically, I developed a pretty good follow through on the court. Turns out I left it there.
I found yet something else I promised to do but didn’t follow through on: letter writing. About a year ago on this blog I wrote about sitting here at Aerie and writing letters to people. Here’s part of that entry:
Remember those days when we would anticipate mail? It seems like a long time ago now, but I recall the satisfaction of dropping a thick envelope into a mailbox or opening mine to see that marvelous white rectangle of someone thinking about me. My sister found letters our dad wrote to his mother when he was eighteen. When I was in college my Great Uncle Charlie, who was in his early nineties at the time, wrote me letters and often included poems he wrote. This was a man who fought in France during World War One, and when I was in my late teens, he was still writing letters and poems and dropping them in his local postal box. I don’t know what happened to those; I moved around so much. Also lost are letters from my childhood friends on the south shore of Long Island. During the first year or so after my exodus in the mid-seventies, we wrote religiously. The one I was closest to died last December and now I can’t express how much I wish I still had those epistles of what we were like then, our hopes, our plans, our fears, and our indescribable confidence which time has eroded along with our penmanship skills. I guess I just figured he’d always be around to talk to.
A few years after college, I wrote probably a few thousand letters to someone in the air force. It was our only means of communication except when she had the time to call me collect, IF I was even home. At that time I had to address the envelope with her full name, followed by her full social security number—right there on the front of the envelope. I still remember it, actually.
The mother of a friend of mine in DC died a few days ago. It wasn’t unexpected, but it was still a “gut punch” as he wrote me. Yes, we are never prepared. I remembered my father’s passing seven years ago next month. He had been sliding a very long time, the final two weeks of which he was nearly always asleep, so when he entered hospice care, my siblings and our mother and I took turns sitting with Dad; we wanted someone to be there. He died just after 8pm on Wednesday, October 21st, 2015. I was teaching a creative writing class and during a break my brother had texted for me to come back. He was gone.
On the drive over I suddenly had complete clarity of every single thing I wanted to tell my dad but never did. Volumes. Sure, “I love you, Dad.” But more. About my son, about places I was going, about where he had been, about his dog—a Chesapeake Bay Retriever—my dad had when he was young, about the Mets, about golf, about whatthefuckever. I can still feel my anger at myself for not following through on that, on all the times when I knew his mind was not as sharp and not getting better that I promised myself I’d stop by and talk about those things.
I thought John Newcombe was talking about tennis.
This brings me to today. I was sitting at an event when a woman who had read my latest book told me she enjoyed it, but she was most touched by the letter in it which I wrote to my son, toward the end of the book.
“Did you really write that letter and send it?” she asked.
“Yes, I really wrote it—it’s in my journals. But no, I never intended on sending it.”
“Didn’t you want him to read it?!”
“Well…. yeah, he did, I think. I’m assuming he read the book, I’m not actually sure. But he knows about the letter now,” I said, as seriously as I could.
“Oh good,” she said. “It would be a shame if you had never sent that.”
It was slightly bizarre, but also slightly prophetic. I wondered if I would have mailed the letter had I not included it in the book, or would I have just waited for him to find my journals–assuming he’d read them at all–when I’m dead. I don’t know, actually. And I wondered if my DC friend still had something he meant to tell his mom. I can recall all I wanted to say to Eddie when we would eventually have lunch as planned but he died. Even people I love now and am still very close to, there’s so much unsaid, so much hanging in the air for a variety of reasons, some of which make sense—perfect sense, until those people are gone. Then the grief that follows has nothing on the anger when we realize what we didn’t take the time to say.
Remember those days when we would anticipate mail “from a friend or a lover? Sometimes there’s none, but we have fun thinking of all who might have written,” as Dad Fogelberg aptly wrote. It seems like a long time ago now, but I recall the satisfaction of dropping a thick envelope into a mailbox or opening mine to see that marvelous white rectangle of someone thinking about me.
I know the problems in resurrecting such an ancient art form: besides the “slowness” of letter writing, there is the “I don’t really know what to write about” aspect. Then there’s the “I don’t have time” factor. Come on; sitting down to do anything for ten minutes is not an Olympic feat. My favorite avoidance mantra is “I think faster than I write and I can’t slow down to do it.” Geez if you don’t think faster than you write then you’re probably legally brain dead. But to go with that, remember, Neil Diamond wrote, “Slow it down. Take your time and you’ll find that your time has new meaning.”
Writing letters helps me remember what is important in life, and it reminds me that I should appreciate the small stuff through the day which I might include in a letter. It slows me down, helps with my blood pressure, my stress. Mostly though, it is instigating a physical presence in another’s life in a completely non-threatening way; it is my DNA sealed and sent to another state.
I wish I had written back and forth with my father or kept in written contact with some friends from other countries, from New England, from New York. I’d love to have heard from my grandparents, or to read a collection of letters from ancestors from another land. They are treasures; they are history, humanity, emotion and time, all in the strokes of a pen. I don’t want to leave anything unwritten; I don’t want to leave anything unsaid.
I’ll be writing you soon. It might be in an email. It might be in an envelope. Anything. I just hope I follow through on this before one of us is gone and the other is left holding a handful of things we wanted to say to each other.