When I was 17 my father died, and it was sad and it was sudden. He was 52 and although he was in terrific shape — he worked as a personal trainer as well as in sales – he died of a drug overdose. He and my mother had divorced when I was two, yet he remained a big presence in my life. I lived with my father; my older brother went back and forth between my parents’ homes which were close by in Tucson. My father made me lunch every day and left sticky notes in my lunchbox telling me he loved me and was proud of me.
By the time of his death many of the people closest to my father had given up on him. He drank and took pills and it was often left to me to pick him up and put him to bed at the end of the night. He would cry and apologize and promise me he would get it right. On the day he died I found him in the living room. He had fallen face first over the back of the couch.
A few weeks after he died we started to clean out his garage – the police would not let us in the house because it was deemed a crime scene – and it was there that my mom discovered a shoebox with her name, Shara, written on the top. Inside, were dozens of cards and letters she had written to him and that he had saved.
My mother began to cry. She did not want to look at the letters, and neither, at the time, did I. In fact, six years would pass before I would open the box. By this time, they were sitting in her storage shed, because like my father she had been unable to throw them out. I asked if I could see them. I was living in New York and asked if she could send them to me. She agreed, but then she began reading them herself. She called me crying and said, I don’t know if I can send them to you.
I need them, I said. She agreed. Two days later they arrived in a FedEx Box. I opened them immediately and began to read.
I had no idea why my father saved these letters, so I started getting in touch with people who would be able to tell me. I started with his best friend Ben; they met in 1994 the same year my parents met. The three of them worked at Balleys, a gym in Tucson. Ben had just moved to Arizona from Jersey and he was going back to the east coast for a football game. He told my dad about it and invited him to the game. They were close ever since. Ben said they talked about my mom often and my parents would go on double dates with Ben and his wife. Ben was there when they started dating, when they got married, when they had my brother and me and when they got divorced. He witnessed their whole relationship play out– but when I asked him about the letters he had no idea why my dad would keep them. He was shocked when I told him and got choked up over the phone. I wish I would’ve known, he said to me.
I called my grandma–my dad’s mom– she was always really invested in my parents’ love story, and she always made it very clear to me how much she was rooting for them. I thought she might have some idea why my dad kept these letters. I started to tell her about them and how we found them in my dad’s garage and she stopped me, and said– “did he keep them in a shoe box?” This gave me so much hope, thinking she finally had the answer I was looking for. I quickly said yes, yes he did Grandma, do you know about them?
“No honey he never told me about them, but I knew your dad and he kept all his valuable papers in a shoe box.” She had no idea why my dad would keep the letters, and like Ben she got emotional over the phone. She kept pausing, choking back tears, breathing through her own heartbreak at the realization that her son had kept all these letters.
The last person I called was my dad’s cousin Katie, who was also his best friend. She was one of the few people I knew who could tell my dad how it was knowing he would listen. Katie also liked seeing my parents together. She and Ben walked down the aisle together at my parents’ wedding. She said that everyone would say my parents looked like a couple straight out of a modeling catalog, and that they were the “it” couple.
But then a curious thing happened, I mentioned the letters and Katie had the same response as Ben and my grandma. She was surprised to know that he had saved them and had no idea as to why he would have done it. She too was holding back tears. .
I put down the phone and began to read, hoping that what I was looking for was somewhere in the letters.
My parents’ love story began in 1994 at, of course, a gym. They both were obsessed with working out and their careers also took on that obsession; at the time they were trainers. My mom was also training for the Miss USA pageant. She had just won the Miss Arizona pageant. She was only 24, and this meant everything to her. Her father had died when she was 17, and she and her mother weren’t very close. Beauty was the only thing they agreed on, so my mom started to compete in pageants. She had already traveled around the world dancing for Up With People. She was not interested in being tied down to just one thing or to just one guy. She asked my dad if he would be the one to train her.
The training quickly turned into flirting, which turned into my dad asking my mom out. She was smitten with him and he was with her. My dad always told me that he cheated on every single one of his girlfriends, except my mom. He said she was the only woman he ever met that made him feel seen, heard and accepted. My dad wasn’t one for commitment either. And so their ill-fated romance began.
My mom always loved telling my brother and me the story of their first date. She pulled up to his house in her bright red Miata. He was outside sweeping the driveway. He looked at her and said “you know I’m going to sweep you off your feet.” They ended up going dancing that night at the Wild Wild West, which became their favorite country bar. After that they were inseparable. They dated for six months when he asked her to marry him.
My mom said no. Then she wrote her first letter to him.
“It’s almost 2 am and I couldn’t sleep- I hated how we left things tonight but I suppose there is no other way. I was just sitting here looking through my little Todd box. I saved every card you gave me right up to the very first.”
She had her own box. – I wondered whether this was when he started his? I continued reading.
“There’s so much I want to say to you- so much I want you to understand. The problem is I’m having a very difficult time understanding myself. In all these cards you told me how happy you were, how much I gave to your life, how you wanted to spend your life with me.”
A pattern was beginning to emerge. There were dozens of more letters that read just like this one, promising love, giving my dad hope that she really did want to be with him. She wrote to him “I’m out of answers and you’re out of patience.”
Later, I asked why she hadn’t married him. She told me that marrying my dad wasn’t her priority at that point in her life. She admitted that she never really fully knew if marrying him was the right thing to do. Shortly after my mom turned down his proposal my dad got his dream job as a sales rep in Phoenix, 200 miles away from her. They weren’t engaged but they did decide to stay together, despite any doubts my mom had and any insecurities my dad was feeling.
It was after he moved away that my mom wrote most often to him.
“No matter how far away you are, you always seem to wind up in my thoughts.”
She said this was the most difficult time in their relationship; they wouldn’t go more than a couple of weeks without seeing one another. Meanwhile, my dad was moving up in his company and my mom was dancing professionally. Busy as they both were, she made it a point to drive up to Phoenix and see him. Even though she couldn’t fully give herself to him, she said. She tried.
“Pride and love are unconditional and though we might have our imperfections or disappointments when you unconditionally feel for someone these emotions are constant” she wrote on June 15, 1966 – the anniversary of their first date.
\ That day, she told me, her life changed.
I decided to separate the cards into piles. One I labeled “breakup.” Another “makeup.” The last one I labeled “corny,” and there I placed the little notes my mom would write on birthdays or holidays; they always had corny sayings in them. A black and white card stood out to me in the makeup pile. On the front was a little girl kissing a little boy’s cheek, and the only color in the photo was a red rose. I opened the card to read- “This is what love means to me and if we can somehow find a way back to this innocence and simplicity of our own love we are on the right track to putting our relationship back together”
The makeup pile was smaller than the other two. The breakup pile was the largest and the most daunting to get through. Since none of the cards were dated it was hard for me to try to understand where things fit. The three piles were more than just ways to organize love letters; they were the three themes of their relationship. I would switch off reading a card from the breakup then the makeup to the corny – so I always ended on a happy note.
I made my way back to the breakup pile and found myself on a letter that made my stomach turn; it sounded all too familiar. My mother wrote.. “When my father died I told myself that I was going to make the most of every day because one never knows what tomorrow will bring. Is this a healthy attitude? I don’t know.”
She had left home at 18 to travel and dance. She always said this was healing for her after her father’s death the year before. I wanted to hear about who my mother was at 18 so I called her best friend Matt who had traveled with her. Matt was never a big fan of my father for my mother. But that, he told me, had less to do with him than with knowing ,but that’s because he knew her and he knew she was never going to commit to just one man. Matt said that at 18 my mom was spontaneous and impulsive.
I went back to the breakup pile and pulled out another letter and read.
“Todd, well babe you just left my house and I’m filled with so many emotions I wanted to take this opportunity to write them down.”
She went on to say.
“Todd, I want you to have what you deserve and I desperately wish I could be that. However, at this point in my life I’m not able to give you all that you need.”
It was as if she was pleading with herself and part of me thinks she wrote these letters as much for herself as for my dad. . My mom is the kind of person who writes apology messages after we fight.
I pull the last letter out of the breakup pile..
“You said to me tonight that you would marry me tomorrow- that’s how sure you are. I can’t tell you how much I admire and envy your feelings. I wish more than anything I felt the same way.”
They get married. They have kids. But she’s never fully in, she can never fully be in. She is ambivalent and he is not. Once they get married the letters stop.
The day my dad died my mom was the first person I called. I heard her panic through the phone. I can’t remember exactly what she said. I hung up too soon; I didn’t want to know about her pain then. I was standing outside of my dad’s house, less than an hour after I found him. Police swarmed his house. Ambulance drivers waiting for someone to call his time of death. I was standing next to my car, watching my childhood home turn into a crime scene. I heard my mom’s car pull up. She got out and didn’t bother to close her door when she started running toward my dad’s front door. She ran past me, not making eye contact. Three police officers blocked the door and were holding her back as she melted to the floor screaming “PLEASE LET ME IN. TODD? I NEED TO SEE TODD!”
I don’t remember a lot from that day, but this moment will forever be ingrained in my head. I watched the hope leave my mothers eyes and I’m not sure what she was grieving – never seeing him again or never having a second chance at their marriage.
I had read through each pile and was putting all the cards back in the box when I saw that I missed one. It read “there will never be another Todd, and I’m so lucky to call you mine.”
My search for him had become my search for them. The letters are different but all say the same thing: my mom wasn’t ready to commit and my dad was. These letters all promised him one thing – that one day she would be ready. That’s what he was holding on to, not the letters but the hope that one day my mom would be ready to be with him again.