This is the letter that Adriane wrote to her husband Sam two weeks after he died. Adriane and Sam have two sons in elementary school. Adriane is a teacher, and Sam worked in tech.
Americans are not good about talking about death. We try not to be around death, and we rarely know how to react it. Death, like other events in the shocking and terrible category, is something we distance ourselves from as if getting in too close might mean it could happen to us. We also don’t know what to say.
Sam died of a sudden cardiac event, most likely ventricular fibrillation–basically an electrical issue of the heart that stops the heart from pumping blood correctly. It could not have been prevented.
I heard Adriane read this letter at Sam’s memorial. When I wrote to ask her if I could share the letter, she said, “I still believe that life is beautiful–even with all its sorrow–and that Sam would want me to keep living and doing all the things. And so we will–and even though we’ll be really mad and sad sometimes that he’s not here, we won’t let his death color the rest of our lives. We cannot. I know it would make Sam mad, in fact, if I just gave up and lived a pinched, closed off version of life. He’d hate that, actually.”
In reading Adriane’s letter, it’s helpful to know that Sam started a tech company in Portland with two friends, and that Adriane and Sam’s boys–born close together–were babies during the start-up phase. It’s also helpful to know that Adriane and Sam have been very involved in working for positive, progressive change in Portland, and that they live near the giant brick chimney at Chapman Elementary School, where the swifts gather every fall–creating an aviary cyclone as they all funnel down into the chimney for the night.
September 10, 2017
It’s been two weeks since we last talked. There are lots of things I’d like to tell you. The swifts have started their nightly dance, swooping down the chimney each evening; I watch them out our window. Solly has a locker at school and Abe just finished a great book that he couldn’t put down. Baby Hannah waves and says hello. The leaves on the cherry tree are turning; fall is right around the corner.
I miss you. I wait for you to ride past the kitchen window on your bike, returning home from a long day. I think maybe I’ll bump into you in the kitchen, smiling and eager to offer us your latest açaí bowl creation. When you’re not there, I’m certain I’ll find you working upstairs at your desk, or maybe standing in our closet putting away your laundry. It seems impossible to me that you are gone. That I won’t see your sweet face again. Or run my hands through your soft hair.
People have been saying so many nice things about you. There have been articles and posts and photos shared. These are wonderful stories and it makes me happy to think of all the things you did during your time here. You were genuinely curious and open to learning and helping. You told me many times over the years that our partnership was essential in helping you pursue these passions. Because you knew you could depend on me to keep our family humming and support you emotionally, you could go out in the world and do this work. I hope that is true, and I think it is. Marriage is full of compromises, and we made these for each other because we loved each other and believed in each other. Our choices were made with intention but they weren’t always easy; I made more space within myself than I sometimes wanted, in order to protect and care for your dreams. I knew that if I was going to marry you, there was no way to quell this passion or redirect it; you had big ideas. During those times when I felt like you were overcommitted and I was overburdened and lonely for your presence, I took deep breaths and believed the sacrifices were worthwhile because I knew you could lead us all in a better direction. You do these things for only certain people.
Your work took you to all corners of the earth. A friend recently wrote that I was your lighthouse when you were far from home and I think this is right but you were also mine. No matter where you were in the world, I felt safe and protected, because you were in it. It didn’t matter if you were an ocean away, the thought of you, the thought of Sam, was my safe harbor from whatever life threw at me. I cannot tell you how many times, when I faced a challenge or felt uncertain, I told myself Sam will help me, I’ll be okay because I have Sam. It’s scary now because that lighthouse has burned out. I’m out at sea without a landmark in site. It is stormy and dark. It was not supposed to be this way. You were taken too soon.
Though I am sad and angry and mourn the time we didn’t get to share, I keep getting pulled back to a place of gratitude. It would be greedy to overlook the fact, that though far too short, the time we did have together was simply amazing. It was not perfect, we had our differences and periods of disillusionment, we argued like every couple and sometimes felt distant, but at the end of the day we always came back to each other and fought for each other. In the wedding toast that you wrote [recently], you were going to give some advice on marriage. You wrote, “There are times where your relationship is in a perfect state of equilibrium, where you are wholly happy with your partner. But I guarantee you that you will also endure traumatic, painful periods, where the connection you feel seems distant. Sometimes just one of you will experience this disequilibrium; sometimes the other; the WORST is when you both have it at the same time. At those difficult moments try your best to remember that it’s just a temporary disequilibrium phase and your relationship will soon emerge stronger and happier on the other side.”
Sam, when I look back on our last year together, I am comforted by the fact that our relationship was squarely rooted in an epic phase of equilibrium. We packed so many things into that last year; a dual 40th birthday celebration on a perfect summer evening; a New Year’s party for the ages (really it was way too crowded but we were surrounded by so many friends, it was so much fun); I watched you find your groove as a basketball coach to Abe and Solly, an experience you fully enjoyed; we hiked miles of the Costa Rican cloud forest spotting quetzals, sloths, capuchin monkeys; we heard U2 play the entire Joshua Tree album from start to finish; this summer we went to New York and you finally got to see your beloved Hamilton; you took me to Boston and we went to Fenway. Our last trip together was to see the eclipse. You were adamant (as you were about pretty much everything), that it would be worth the extra work and hassle of finding a spot within the line of totality. That clear morning, our last Monday together, the four of us watched as the moon’s shadow completely darkened the sun. It was amazing and it was totally worth it. You made sure we did these things and saw these things; it was as though you knew you were running out of time. That me and Abie and Solly would need these memories to sustain us when we no longer had you physically here with us. We can summon these moments–and I have already done so many times–even if we can’t touch you or talk to you. Though grief leaves me jagged and raw at the edges, I am full of gratitude, even as I’m full of so much pain, for the life we built together. You gave me so many gifts and these do not die with you.
The last book I gave you on your birthday and that you recently finished was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. It seems strange to me now, even a little bit eerie since it’s a story about the grief Abraham Lincoln experiences after his son Willy dies. It’s a story about ghosts. You loved this book and paused several times to share your reflections with me as you read it. I’ve been pulled to it recently, wanting to cling to the thoughts and words that resonated with you during your last days. I found this quote and it made me think of you, and of life, and the way you chose to live it, and the way you would want us to move through our grief and eventually rise above it:
“His mind was freshly inclined to sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in the world one must try to remember that all were suffering (non content [discontented], all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because in this state, he could be of no help to anyone, and given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it…. All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be. It was the nature of things. Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true. At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end; the many losses we must experience on the way to the end. We must try to see one another in this way. As suffering limited beings–perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces. His sympathy extended to all in this instant, blundering in its strict logic, across all divides.”
During one of our last conversations, I had changed my mind about wanting to speak in front of hundreds of people at [the upcoming family] wedding (ironic given where I stand today). We had a funny idea about me jumping in the middle of your toast and giving my own advice… about marrying a Blackman. I was trying to back out at the last minute, “Never mind, Sam. I don’t think I can do it. You go ahead,” I said. You turned to me, with your big grin and told me, “You can do it, baby. You’ll be great!”
So now, as I lie awake in the middle of the night and the weight of your absence bears down on me and I think, “How can I do this? How do I go on without you?” I try and remember your words, “You can do it, baby. You’ll be great.” I wish like hell that I didn’t have to do it without you, Sam, but I will do my best. I promise to read every day, take our Sunday family walk, ride public transit, throw the frisbee at the park, and cook oatmeal. Your voice will always guide me as I parent Abe and Solly; I will honor all of the ways you wanted to raise them and prepare them for their own life journey. I won’t always make the choice you would want and I’m going to make so many mistakes, but I will live the best way I know how. I am certain that all of us who love you and believed in your dreams, will carry the torch that you’ve passed to us. Your whole existence was a call to action and your death adds an exclamation point.
I love you, Sam. I hope someday we’ll meet again.