Last week a brown truck stopped in front of my house. The driver of the truck acknowledged our “please knock” sticker over our doorbell (16-month-old boys woken early from their nap because of a ringing doorbell does not make for a fun afternoon). He knocked softly and left. I opened the door and found a small cardboard box—the above book was inside.
For a brief moment I felt butterflies in my stomach, a feeling that becomes increasingly less common the older I get. For my name is listed in the Contents of this book—my essay is on page 95. This is a first for me.
I wrote the essay several years ago and submitted it to This I Believe. It was chosen to air on NPR, locally. In November 2006, I recorded it for 91.7 WVXU. It aired early on a weekend morning, probably before most people were awake. I thought that was the end of it.
The butterflies I felt upon seeing the book, however, quickly gave way to guilt. I hate that this essay exists. Because I hate what happened. And while I know a personal essayist’s calling is to write about tragedy as much as triumph, it is difficult to celebrate publication when an essay stems from something so tragic, from such loss.
Joe was a beautiful, kind, fiercely loving person. He left our world much too soon.
Here’s my essay:
A Lesson I Hold Dear
I believe I can be both honest and kind, even when the two seem to contradict.
Honesty often throws kindness for a loop. From telling someone there’s food in their teeth all the way to telling someone you don’t love them even though you know they love you—honest statements, although said with kind intentions, can often seem cruel.
I was sixteen years old, working at an amusement park, when I met Joe. He was older, had long, blond hair, and drove a motorcycle. The first time he called I smiled so hard my cheeks ached by the end of the conversation. He soon became my first boyfriend.
We dated the entire summer. By early fall he had said, “I love you.” I said nothing. In the battle between kindness and honesty, honesty won.
In the months following our breakup, Joe left love notes on my bedroom windowsill. In college, he called twice. The first time we talked. The second time, he left a distraught voice mail. I returned his call and left a short message. I never heard from him again.
Several years later his sister called with news: Joe had committed suicide, months ago. Shortly before his death, his sister said, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Joe had written a few lines about me in his suicide note, but only now had she gathered the strength to call.
I thought about the first time Joe called, how my cheeks ached. The ache had returned—but this time, it was something much deeper. Not wanting to cry at work, I ran to my car and sobbed, both the finality of what he had done—and the fact that he had thought of me, even briefly, before he did it—sinking in. Once home, I reread his love letters to me. It was then I wanted so desperately to take back my silence, to tell him I loved him—not in a romantic sense, but in a you-deserve-to-live-a-long-life sense.
A few days later I went to a party on what would have been Joe’s twenty-seventh birthday to celebrate his life. I met his family. I looked at old photos. I was intrigued to hear about the man he had become; we could have been great friends.
I hated myself for choosing honesty over kindness, for not writing more, for not calling more, for not doing more. I wasn’t so bold as to think I could have fixed him. Rather, I was sad that I had to be unkind and tell him I didn’t love him.
Several days later, worried I would never find peace, I reread what Joe wrote to me in his note: “How people should be … wonderful and I’m glad I had the time with her—still I have a wonderful feeling inside.”
It was then I realized that Joe thought my honesty was kind. His words to me were his way of telling me so, his way of being honest—and kind—to me.
A year later, on what would have been Joe’s twenty-eight birthday, my husband and I put flowers by his grave. I thanked him for a lesson I’ll always hold hear: I can be honest and still be kind.
Just as I believe in being both honest and kind, I believe in writing honestly, even when it’s hard. Still, I wish what happened hadn’t happened. I wish my topic had been something else.
But it did happen. And it’s now a part of me. It’s a part of my life. And I have a difficult time leaving life unwritten.
Late October you will be able to purchase this book at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Amazon or your favorite local bookstore. Writers were chosen by This I Believe; we were not paid. All proceeds go directly to the not-for-profit organization, This I Believe, Inc., an organization I feel strongly about. Check it out. Thinking—really thinking—about what you believe in is a good exercise, no matter if the belief stems from triumph or tragedy, gain or loss. For those elements weave in and out of all our lives. I just hope future publications reveal more triumph over tragedy, reveal less loss.
“Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind.” —Catherine Drinker Bowen