Touching message in holiday letter

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 8, 2011

Ask me what I like about Christmas and I can give you a long list.

The smell of a “live” tree. Soft white lights. Weather that’s crisp but not too cold. Classic holiday music.

And Christmas cards, especially those that include photographs or letters. So I found myself smiling when I went home late one December evening and found that Honey, who was asleep, had left the Christmas mail for me to open. In the stack was a photograph I never expected to receive and a letter I’ll never forget.

The photograph was of a brother and sister, ages 20 and 14, grandchildren of close friends. It was taken on the national mall last spring when the family visited their son at the Naval Academy and took a day trip to the Capitol.

Days later, Elizabeth took her own life. It was the last photograph taken of the siblings together, and it was months after the funeral that the parents found the digital image.

Every year, parents – mostly moms – worry about which picture to send in the Christmas cards, Elizabeth’s mother wrote in the accompanying letter. She herself had done this every year her children have been on earth. But this year, she said, she had no choice.

She talked about how perfect that last week the whole family had together had been. In the midst of a perfect week, one never dreams how far from perfect one can travel in the space of a week.

She wrote of her daughter’s decision, how confusing it was for them, but how they’ve accepted it. What she didn’t say – but what everyone who received the letter knew – was that these parents heard the gunshot; that this mother found her child still breathing and attempted CPR; that these parents must be wounded in a way we can never comprehend.

She wrote that the purpose of her letter wasn’t to seek sympathy or cause others depression. Instead, it was to encourage recipients to make the most of every single day. To hug their children, cherish them, love them; because for all of us, tomorrow is uncertain.

I was sobbing by the time I finished reading. Later, I learned that the author woke up in the middle of the night with the knowledge that this was a letter she needed to write. Twenty minutes later, she had composed perhaps the most touching letter any of us had ever received.

I share this story to share her message. Love your family. Make the most of this day, for one day, our tomorrows will run out.