A dying father’s last letters to his son

ALTHOUGH my husband never really gave up hope of a miracle, I knew he had accepted the possibility of death when he wrote three letters to our son.

By Madeleine Reiss

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Wed 20 Apr 2005, 11:21 AM

Last updated: Tue 18 Apr 2023, 12:19 PM

John had been diagnosed 14 months before with an inoperable brain tumour. He had undergone radiotherapy and chemotherapy, drunk wheat grass juice, tried meditation, taken daily walks despite the weakness in his body. He had believed right to the end that he had a chance of surviving. He talked of places still to see, jobs still to be done and all the years with Felix, our three-year-old son, still to come.

Even when John’s world shrank to a bed in a room overlooking the street, he held on barnacle-like to life. He propped a board against his legs and drew pictures of Felix. Felix on the back of a dolphin leaping over the waves. Felix gorging under blackberry-encrusted bushes. Felix dreaming of jungle tigers.

At last, even drawing became too difficult. Friends came, all young, all working out ways of saying goodbye. It was after one such visit that John asked for paper and envelopes. “I’m not going to be able to teach Felix to swim, am I?” he said. It was the closest he had come to accepting defeat. “I’m going to write him some birthday letters. Just the important ones.”

I think he wanted to be alone, but I couldn’t have stayed anyway. These last words were very private ones. He had to stretch this one afternoon into all the years he wouldn’t have. He only managed to write three letters: for Felix’s 13th birthday, his 18th and then, strangely, his 19th. I think Felix at 21 was just too far in the distance.

John died quietly when Felix was almost four. It was as if at the end he decided to go with it, as he had always gone with everything before. I consulted experts, agonised about whether Felix should see his father dead. I needn’t have worried. Felix has the go-with-it gene. He took off his shoes, lay down by his father, stroked him gently and said goodbye. Then he got down and asked what was for tea.

The three blue envelopes lay in my desk for the next 10 years. Every now and again I would take them out and look at them. Seeing John’s handwriting always caused a shock, a small tremor of recognition. I would sometimes wonder if I should open them and check what was inside. I worried that since he had been so ill, so nuked with medication, they might be incoherent and scary. I was concerned that since Felix had so few memories of his father he would not be able to put these words into any sort of context. But the letters were not mine to read.

On Felix’s 13th birthday, I waited until there were just the two of us. Felix was tentative, a little scared. I had the feeling that by opening the envelope he was releasing his father’s long-held breath. It was a lovely letter. It said all the things it needed to: that 13 was a significant birthday, that he hoped Felix was happy and that he knew he had been loved. “It’s as if he is talking to me,” said Felix, and then we both cried for a while.

Felix is now 17, and there will be delivery of the second letter soon. I don’t know what’s in it, but I am confident that John will have found the right words. It was the ultimate act of courage, braver than all the stoicism that had gone before, that he was able to imagine life continuing without him and to pass on his small time capsules of love.

More news from OPINION