Maybe the tools of today do make it easier. In the flow of life, in the easy moments when our hearts are open, the letters come. Often brief. Incredibly present. Fresh from the hands of the one who clicks “send.”
What I remember most about my Dad is his voice. He loved to talk. And that’s good since he was gone so much when I was growing up. He travelled extensively, racking up over a million air miles before I graduated high school. But, somehow, none of us kids ever lacked for his counsel, his advice, or his love. He called home from Florida or LA, or from England or Bulgaria—often just to ask if we were obeying our mom. But mostly he wrote letters. I have stacks and stacks of letters he wrote me as a teenager, when I was in in college, or serving in the military.
I imagine my Dad sitting down at his typewriter in 1984, writing to me about the big case he was working on, sending me a picture of my new little brother, or counseling me on a problem I was having. I was in Guatemala at the time and he knew I wouldn’t get the letter for two weeks, but he wrote to me as if I was right beside him. Through those letters, I felt my family near. I heard his voice. And for a few moments, I was home.
I assumed that the unique power of that connection was because of the letters—the paper, the ink, the envelopes. I knew he had touched the stationary and fed it into the typewriter by hand. He had pulled it out, signed it with a pen, folded it into thirds, sealed the envelope, and put on a stamp. It seemed that I could somehow recognize his voice better because I had the physical instrument—the letter itself—firmly in my hands.
But only a few years or so later, it was my Dad who taught me otherwise. As soon as computers came along he started using a word-processor—and the letters were printed, not typed. And before long, those letters turned into emails. The man was hooked! He started sending emails to our family long before most of us knew what an email was. He set up my first AOL account, primarily, he said, because he had “a bunch” of emails waiting for me to read. Technology didn’t change his connection with us—it unleashed it. It gave him new ways to reach all of us, which he did, creating a “family news and birthday” email that kept my 13 brothers and sisters and over 40 nieces and nephews close together.
But now I have a confession. Loving my Dad’s voice and actually hearing what he was saying were not the same thing. For years, I hinted to people that my father wasn’t completely pleased with me. Sometimes I even told them that he’d never told me he was proud of me—at least not until later in life. But a few months ago, after his funeral, I was re-reading a few of his letters and was astonished to find these words: “I am so proud of you and the choices you’re making, son.” He wrote that when I was 12. I found similar wording in another letter, and then another. When I was 19 he wrote, “I’m proud beyond measure, and I hope to one day be worthy of being your father.”
Why didn’t I hear what he was saying? How did I miss the words that were right in front of me? The words I most wanted to hear—the very words of love and affirmation I was hoping for—I had glossed right over. I was dumbfounded. Suddenly I realized that carefully hand-typed, hand-sealed letters weren’t necessarily more powerful than emails and texts. It wasn’t the medium OR the message that was in question—it was me! He had always been proud of me, I just hadn’t let his words penetrate my heart. To hear my father’s voice, I had to be completely open to whatever he wrote, in whatever form he chose to write it.
One of my colleagues recently told me about her ‘conversations’ with her son. “The texts between us are profound; I could publish them,” she remarked. “Texting is how we have the intimate, deep conversations that he doesn’t want to have face-to-face.” I expressed my doubts about texting’s validity as anything more than a means of quickly passing information, but she softly corrected me. “Texting slows down the rhythm of the conversation, and allows for deep, insightful, rich, thoughts to emerge,” she said. “And, they give my son the space to open his heart and receive what I’ve written without having to react defensively.” In that moment, a new thought occurred for me: maybe digital letters—even texts—are preferable for this very reason. Once I’d read my Dad’s letters, I’d bundled them up and stored them in boxes in my office, where they sat for three decades. For my friend’s son, her texts are always at the ready—in his pocket—to be read and re-read, to help him discover what she actually said and how she really felt.
The last communication I got from my Dad was a text, “How are you, son?” At first, I saw this as a simple question that I could answer quickly with an, “I’m fine.” But as I scrolled through years of texts, I saw so many questions like that one—and I realized they were his way of saying, “Do you know I love you? Do you know I’m proud of you?” Maybe the tools of today do make it easier. In the flow of life, in the easy moments when our hearts are open, the letters come. Often brief. Incredibly present. Fresh from the hands of the one who clicks “send.” And for those of us on the receiving end, our opportunity is to take the message in our hands, hear the familiar voice—and feel, for a moment, that we are home again.
It wasn’t the medium OR the message that was in question—it was me! He had always been proud of me, I just hadn’t let his words penetrate my heart. To hear my father’s voice, I had to be completely open to whatever he wrote, in whatever form he chose to write it.