By David Joseph
When I went off to college in the fall of 1991, I was an 18-year-old whose favorite letters were the ones sewn onto athletic jerseys. Four years later, I had immersed myself in the letters of Keats and Kerouac, but one author’s penned correspondences stood out above the rest. You see, my father wrote me one letter per week from the time I left home.
In an era preceding email, these tales that came in crooked penmanship were hardly wrapped in deep imagery. They didn’t glide across the page with the elegance of Keats or bounce with the caffeinated rhythm of Jack Kerouac. They weren’t terribly reflective or insightful. And they all measured exactly the same length—the front and back of a yellow legal pad. To anyone who might have stumbled across these scrawls, they would have found them unremarkable.
But they arrived. Each week. One after the other. Again and again. In snowstorms. On holidays. From foreign countries. In succession—as inevitable it seemed as midterms and finals. They were unimposing in their perspective, and they detailed what dad referred to as “the week that was”—a day-by-day account of my father’s life.
For a man who was rarely on time, these letters never failed to acknowledge the role of the clock. Everything he wrote about was accompanied by a time stamp. And he would often write in real time as well—sharing the details of where he was in the house when writing, the weather outside, etc. When he put the pen down to take a break, he would let me know that too and update me with the new date and time when he resumed penning the letter. It was astonishing and extraordinary in its specificity of the ordinary.
Two years after I left for college, his letters had a one-time shift in format, when my sister also went off to college. After writing each of us nearly identical letters, Dad decided one letter would probably make more sense. And the “Dear David” now read “Dear Children”—a constant reminder to us that not only did our parents have two children, but that we had each other. As a matter of fairness, dad made sure to rotate the original and Xerox copy each week, while continually apologizing over the phone to the child who received the copy.
In 1995, I walked across the stage and received my undergraduate diploma. I left college, like many twenty-two year olds, with plenty of uncertainty. Some of my questions were pretty typical—what was I going to do? Where was I going to live? When was I going to apply to graduate school? But one lingering question trumped all others. What would happen to the weekly letters? Would they continue?
It wasn’t long before I had the answer, during the summer after I had graduated and moved back home, when my father knocked on my bedroom door to deliver “the week that was” in person. Incredible. Now I featured a more prominent role in his texts, since I might have gone to the movies with my parents or met them for dinner. I was reading letters written to me…about dinner with me!
As life moved forward, the unexpected became a reality. In 1996, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and passed away tragically later that year. The next year it was my grandmother, followed by my uncle. It felt like life was throwing us curves left and right. All except for the one at-bat each week that always arrived with a predictable and perfect pitch right down the middle—when I ripped open that white envelope to read the latest edition of “the week that was.” Through darkness and death, the letters kept coming, more heartfelt and emotional than before but always on time. I mean, the guy never missed.
We received our last letter from dad in the spring of 2003, just one week before he passed away from metastatic cancer that had been devouring his bones. The letters were changing some, but not nearly as quickly as he was. They reflected little of his hair loss or his diminishing waistline. They detailed the pain, but never the wince. They arrived as inevitably and unfailingly as they had more than a decade earlier when I headed off to college. And then they were gone.
As much as I enjoyed my father’s weekly letters, I didn’t fully appreciate them all those years when they arrived like clockwork. I couldn’t always understand the decisions behind the included content. And I never fully understood why my dad would always ask if I’d received the letter when we spoke. Beyond the simplicity of the prose, there were still elements of mystery I had failed to unravel.
But now, as I pen my first official letters to my own sons Jackson and Cassius, it all seems clear. Although our boys have yet to leave for college, I have to accept that day will soon come. Just the idea of their departure from our home makes me ache and sip with the kind of lament only a parent can know.
And so I am writing about “the week that was” wrapped in the mundane details that make up the opus—the glass of orange juice, the car trouble, the work, the play, and of course the people. With a box of over 500 of dad’s letters nearby and his pen in hand, I write on a yellow legal pad, fighting back the tears that stem from the unimaginable void that remains. I make it to the end and sign it just as he did. All my love, Dad.
David Joseph lives in Andalucía, where the most valuable commodity is time. He spends as much of it as he can with his wife Karen and their two sons, Jackson and Cassius.
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