NerdCon: Stories was an awesome weekend. Saturday night, Dessa Darling hosted an open mic session. Here is what I said, mostly:
My first book will be in bookstores next June. I write fiction, but this is a true story.
I was what even the weirdest kids called a weird kid. A super smart kid who loved math and tended to obsess over trivial things like grammar. I was a nerd; that isn’t the sort of thing you grow out of. (Sorry, I should have put a spoiler alert on that.)
Socially, I was an anxious, insecure introvert. I never had a best friend and felt infinitely awkward in large groups. I rarely shared my feelings. Outside of academic participation, I was an observer.
And that was just at school. At home, my family was broken and weird. We were an all-girl family: my mother, my aunt who hacked into my computer files, my emotionally-reserved elderly grandmother, and my sister who had a raging case of hypochondria.
Between my sister and my elderly grandmother, conversations revolved around physical woes, other people’s health problems, likely causes of death, and my sister’s obscure disease of the moment. This was before WebMD, so I we checked my symptoms in our secondhand reference books in our dank basement. My sister was always convinced she was ill, and I grew convinced that I would die young. Of something. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t.)
But I was scared. What if I died without ever telling anyone how I felt? Early in middle school I hatched a brilliant plan. I started writing letters to everyone I knew, saying everything I could not say aloud. I told my friends I loved them, and shared everything that mattered to me.
Dear Steve*: I really wanted to kiss you when we were going together but I didn’t know how.
Dear Kara: I am so sorry about that rumor I accidentally started about you.
Dear Robert Kalman: I think we’re soul mates; I’ve had a crush on you for all of seventh grade.
I shoved the letters into a big manila envelope, probably twice the size of this one. I scrawled on the outside, “to be opened in the event of my death.”
I was maybe a little dramatic.
I pinned the envelope to my bulletin board so, you know, they could open it in the event of my death. Every year, the first week of summer, I holed up in my room and updated them, these death letters. By senior year, my letter to Robert Kalman read: I have been in love with you for six years. I wish we would have talked about it.
I took that envelope with me to college, where it lived in my desk drawer. My sophomore year, my world exploded. I found a huge community of nerds who embraced me. It was a revelation that other people saw the world through my nerd lens. I had found my people.
And among them, I found Matt, and I fell in love so real that I forgot Robert Kalman. He wasn’t my first love, and it wasn’t that kind of love, but Matt was the first person who got me, and there’s no better feeling in the world than someone getting you. He understood my need to change the world. We talked for hours, days, about the big things: religion and politics and the state of the earth.
For a time, we were almost inseparable. My heart burst open, and it was bliss. A month after we’d met, I wrote a death letter for him, full of all the love I held in my heart, and the activism I hoped he would carry on after my death, and everything awesome about him.
In person, I could tell him anything, except the fact that that he’d made me feel okay for the first time in my life. Matt was brilliant and kind and funny. He also was in remission for leukemia.
When he came out of remission again, he knew it was over for him. In his last few weeks, he started shutting some people out. In my desperation, I did something I will forever regret. Without opening it, without editing or sugar coating or changing a single word, I mailed him my death letter.
I mailed him my heart. And I never heard from him again.
I crawled into a cave after that. I can’t tell you how long it lasted, only that before I could crawl out of it I first threw out all those death letters. I started calling people, telling them what I most admired in them, and how they had affected my life.
And I try every day to stay that open. Because I know this for sure: as difficult as it is to tell someone you love or admire them or are scared for them, it’s terrifying to have never said it.
Fast forward to 2005, when my grandmother died. We weren't terribly close, but I hadn’t left anything on the table for her, so to speak. She knew I loved her and what I most appreciated about her.
A few weeks after her funeral, a manila envelope arrived from my mom. I expected a recipe or photos or an article from my hometown newspaper (which was the 2005 version of your mom sending a cat video).
Instead, I found a sealed envelope:
Inside was a dated list of notes, all the things she never said to me in life:
1987 I liked your dance revue
6-29-1990 Always remember I loved you deeply
1991 You are a loving and thoughtful granddaughter
And before each of her major surgical procedures, she wrote notes saying she loved me, and good bye.
*I spoke their real names at NerdCon, but it’s hardly fair to post them here.
Photo Credit: @kidzlibrarian, my dear friend and slumber party companion
I blog rarely, because I'm writing books. When I do blog, I focus on writing, friendship, family, and books. Because my family's best nicknames are private, I use their birth years for shorthand: