There are times when a book lands in your lap and as you being reading it, a sentence or a theme reminds you of a memory. The Lost Letter by Jillian Canton brought me to only page five when her recollection of her father’s love for collecting stamps promptly reminded me of a long rectangular box about three feet long and about eighteen inches tall residing in my third floor closet. A box I had never opened since it was delivered to me in December of 1995. Not even two months since my brother had died from a year long battle with adeno carcinoma of the lung at the too young age of 25.
I remember being in my mother’s basement after he died and we were going through some of my brother’s things that had found their way as storage there.
“Do you want Michael’s comic book collection? She asked.
There seems to be two distinct ways a parent may handle the intense pain of losing a child. Hanging on for dear life to everything and anything is one way, or purge all physical items that are distinct reminders of pain. My mother had chosen the latter and I was the lucky recipient of whatever I desired of my deceased brother’s. There was a part of me that wanted to hang on to every item possible so that he would not be physically forgotten so I accepted the box and placed it in my basement of the house I shared with my former husband. Four months later I found myself pregnant and the box became a temporary forgotten shadow of my brother as we made our way as new and busy parents.
Fifteen years later, the unopened and mega taped box followed me in the wake of my divorce to condo number 1, condo number 2, then a storage unit and finally making its way to its permanent home where I presently live. Placed in the closet of my son’s space on the third floor it sat with the idea that he would be the proud owner of the contents when he was ready to take a look. Likely long after I am gone.
Lately there have been some discussions with friends about comic books, can’t recall how the subject has come up, but I remembered the box thinking, “I should take a look in there to see if there are any Wonder Woman comics.” A planted seed perhaps waiting for some water so the shoot could peek from the soil.
When I finished reading Lilac Girls, I was so hungry for more that I read every comment on the back of the book and jotted down the author names and the books they had written. The Lost Letter was one of these books. I have never done this before- read a book and then head towards the back cover for more books but for some reason, I went with the notion that Like attracts Like and made the assumption that the authors who kindly gave their reviews for quotes would be similar in taste.
This is how The Lost Letter came to be my next book on my reading list and this is the book that made me walk upstairs this morning and bring the box down to finally take a look inside. It never occurred to me that there would be anything inside this box besides comic books. I am not sure if I had ever opened the box but I always thought that it was filled with comic books from a collection my brother had started in the late eighties. Every comic book in its own plastic sleeve protector along with the paperwork of the place he had ordered them from. Back before the internet when you ordered things by mail through mail on an actual order form and waited for the delivery to arrive in “4-6 weeks.” The order forms were along with the comics to remind me of this time in our lives when waiting was part of the daily act of living.
I perused the collection and not knowing anything about comic books, lost interest rather quickly when I realized there would be no Wonder Woman of yesteryear waiting for me as a nice surprise. Instead of Wonder Woman, I came across a cardboard box filled with stuff, cards, letters, old advertisements and photos along with their negatives. (remember those?)
I walked it over to my couch and my waiting coffee cup and proceeded to go through the box where I found a chronological time travel of my brother’s world from before cancer to during. I found Happy Birthday, Hope it’s a great one! cards, Christmas? instead of Hanukkah cards, reminding me of the yoyo world we both lived in with my parent’s religious choices at any given time. Then there were the hope you get well soon cards, sorry I haven’t called but I don’t know what to say cards and finally the cards that tried all too hard not to mention the elephant in the room that an almost 25 year old strapping healthy young man would not be getting well soon after all. all handwritten, all encouraging and kind, filled with love. Names I never knew of friends at work, to family members who have since died, in their easily recognized handwriting. No emails, no text messages, only beautiful writing because that was the only option for regular communication back then.
I was in awe of the love pouring out, the well wishes and most poignantly, the hope. I got to read letters from my grandmother who always spoke and wrote detailed messages and my other grandmother who simply said, hope you get well soon. Letters from my Aunt Peggy who died a few years back and great aunts and uncles long since gone. There were cards from friends traveling and moving inviting my brother for a visit and letters from our cousins giving him their life updates in handwritten prose on personalized stationary.
Needless to say, not a dry eye from the moment I realized what I had come across and was struck by the power of grief creeping up on me again just because of a random book I began reading. There are times when something doesn’t feel quite right in my spirit, I feel a little off balance emotionally. When I do the infamous checklist- what did I eat, drink, have I been exercising, meditating? Is it a full moon, is mercury retrograde? When none of those fit the bill and I am still a bit off, usually it is some emotion that needs to be released. I unknowingly needed a good cry and this was the entry ticket I needed to give some bottled up tears a little extra nudge to get them flowing up and out.
There will never be a time almost twenty four years later when I don’t miss my brother, the further away he gets from me, the more I am realizing this very simple and stark fact. He is no longer- and the trip down memory lane this morning jet set me right into the island of loss that has been a part of my adult life with me in the passenger seat. The further the years take me from my grieving this loss, the more it seems like it plays hide and seek with me, hiding in the darkest furthest away corners that I didn’t know to look.
Waiting to be found, Grief seems to sit lying in wait for discovery until it just can’t hide out any longer. Grief may soften or go back to its hide out, but at the strangest times, it needs its own recognition or else it leaks in a slow drip hard to decipher until the faucet gets turned on full throttle. A good cry on a random Sunday morning is the ironic gift that keeps giving. Despite its sadness, there is a release. Opening a box of comic books looking for Wonder Woman because of a book called The Lost Letter seems like no random coincidence. Once again my brother’s loss has brought me to my knees and he never stops teaching me to pay attention all these years later.