The letter arrived in the mail a few weeks ago. It was addressed to me. Inside, I found two notes from an old friend of Shawn’s – someone he knew in university who we’d kept up with over the years.
“I wrote a note to Claire,” the first note said, “and I want you to look over it and see if it’s okay for her to read.”
I opened up the next piece of paper. Inside was a 2-page typed letter addressed to my daughter. “Dear Claire,” it began, “You might not remember me, but I have heard about you since you were born. Your father Shawn and I were close friends at university.”
The letter went on, describing their friendship and many years of connection. “I met your dad because he wrote for the campus paper and I was a student politician,” our friend wrote. “We had a lot of discussions about politics and issues in the world. I loved arguing with your dad because he made me think more clearly about everything. He was also very goofy. I remember once we had a two-hour conversation about aliens. We had another about whether Fanta or orange crush was better. We talked about everything and nothing at the same time.”
I had to stop reading at that point because I was choking back tears. He was capturing Shawn. Not maybe the exact Shawn that Claire had known as her dad, but the Shawn that I knew. The one who could talk about the intricacies of defense policy in one breath and the future of teleportation in another. He was a man who loved big ideas but never took himself too seriously.
Like the letter-writer, I also talked about everything and nothing with Shawn. That was the best part of him – no topic was off-limits.
After a short break, I read the rest of the letter. It described our friend’s relationship with Shawn and the many things he admired about him. At the end of the note, he wrote, “I really hope this letter does not made you sad, but if it does, I think that is okay. I get sad too, and then I think of something zany I did with your dad.”
I smiled reading his accounts of their adventures together. They were edited for a 9-year-old, but they still contained the essence of Shawn.
I gave the letter to Claire. “It’s from one of Daddy’s friends,” I said, “you don’t know him, but he was in our wedding.” I showed her a photo.
She quietly read the note. “What do you think?” I asked her when she finished.
“It’s nice,” she said. “And he says he’s going to write me again.”
“That would be cool, don’t you think?” I asked. She nodded.
“I liked the part about how they talked about aliens!” she said with a smile.
“Me too,” I said. “Daddy was funny like that. He liked to picture all of the things that could be possible, even if they weren’t real! He had a big imagination.”
Claire and I talked for a while about the funny things that her dad used to ponder – the future of space-time travel and what he would say if he could meet someone who lived in the past. I was smiling when we finished. So was she.
That night, I thought about what I had said during my eulogy at Shawn’s funeral. Here’s an excerpt:
To my children: You will know him. You will know him from the memories you have now and the stories that I will tell you. And you will know him from the stories that I ask everyone here to tell my children about their father. Not just today but in the years to come. Tell them stories that I don’t even know, and tell them those memories when they are 8, 18 and 28. That’s my ask of you. Tell them about the wild parties and the sober policy reviews, his favorite thing to drink and his favorite workout of the day. Tell them all the things that made Shawn say to me constantly, “Marjorie, we have the best life.”
Many of you have done this, and for that, I am truly thankful. When we read emails and letters about Shawn, it reminds us of who he was. But maybe even more important, it is an opening. More often than not, letters like these start conversations with my children. We talk about their father and sometimes I remember details of our lives that had started to slip from my mind.
When we talk about him, he is still with us. He lives on not just in the faces of my children, but in their memories as well.