Finding Natasha’s Last Letter to her Sister
Yesterday I found a card that Natasha wrote to her younger sister several months before she passed away: “I remember when you were born. I knew you were going to be a girl,” she wrote to her 8-year-old sister. “I was and am so proud to be your sister. Even though sometimes I get mad, I really love you. I don’t know what I’d do without such a caring sister.”
I believe that that was the last of many letters Natasha wrote to her sister. Reading it jolted me to a darker time, closer to Natasha’s death.
We are driving to the hospital for a blood transfusion –- one of many that Natasha will need in the last months of her life. Driving, I have discovered, is perhaps the best activity in which to have a candid conversation with a preteen. They get to avoid your face.
“Natasha?” I said trying to keep my voice neutral. “Do you sometimes wonder if you are ever going to get better?” I check her reflection in the rear-view mirror, my hands clammy on the steering wheel as I take the oh-so-familiar route to the hospital clinic.
“Sometimes, yes,” she says. I take a deep breath and blink back tears.
“And what do you think that means … not getting better?”
I sense Natasha shifting in her seat. There is an interminable pause.
“Well, some kids who are sick like to talk to a friendly adult about their fears for the future. I’m wondering if you’d want to do this,” I venture.
I recheck the rear-view mirror. She looks resolute.
“Because some kids find it hard to confide in their parents about the things that bother them. They don’t want to upset them. So perhaps it might be something you’d want to consider one day?”
“I can always confide in you and Daddy. I don’t want to talk to anyone else. Please.”
Her response satisfies me, at least on a superficial level. See, I tell myself, she might be wrong. “She” is a social worker (not one at our hospital) who has spoken out to the parents of children with poor prognoses, urging them to talk about their fears of dying with the assistance of an expert, because apparently these kids are eager for that conversation.
I can’t bear to think that Natasha is trying to protect us by keeping her fears to herself. But if I’m honest with myself, I can’t bear to tell my gorgeous girl that yes, Honey, your concerns about not getting better are entirely valid. Odds are that you are going to die in the next few months.
So I stayed mum and as Natasha’s disease progressed and she became disorientated and confused, that conversation became very much a moot point.
But after Natasha passed away, we took stock of the many, many cards and letters Natasha had made for her family and closest friends in the last two years of her life, when her once luminous future started to look very precarious. Like the letter written to her sister, they are all generous declarations of her love and gratitude.
Perhaps Natasha did know –- or at least part of her knew –- that her life would be limited. And she genuinely did not want to share those fears.
But the letters with her colorful pictures of hearts and butterflies and languid animals, and repeated assurances of her love for us, were her way of letting us know that while her body had failed her, those who loved her had not.