Sunday, August 18, 2019

A Letter to the Girl Who Should Have Turned 21

by Beth Saadati

Dear Jenna,

When Dear Evan Hansen came to Greenville, I wasn't ready to see it. (I am, however, currently working through the novel.) In the Broadway musical, Evan undertakes a common challenge given by counselors to help survive the pain in this life. He writes letters. Which reminded me of something I've been meaning to do. Although you won't be reading this, it’s long past time I write one to you.

I wish I could have told you Happy 21st Birthday this week. Twenty-one is a BIG DEAL. I wish I could have seen your smile once again and taken you out to mark the occasion. Or, if you’d been away, at least emailed . . . or texted . . . or talked by phone and heard your voice—and, yes, I’m crying as I type this line.

I wish I knew whether I should think of you, now, as my vivacious 14-year-old girl or as a beautiful young woman. For all your years here, you loved that August 13th date. This is the seventh birthday you’ve missed. Supposedly seven is the number of perfection . . . but not in this case.

I wish you could have celebrated—with friends, cousins, grandparents, your dad, me, and other extended family. I still see and talk with some of your friends, Jenna—we text, catch up over a meal, or meet at their universities—and that’s been good, so good, except you should be there. At the core your close friends are the same, though they've grown and matured. With others, I’ve lost touch. That might have happened anyway—after all, relationships sometimes change—but I’d like to think, if you’d remained, those sweet connections wouldn’t have drifted away.

I wish you could be here for your sister and brother. You’ve missed several significant milestones, but even more, all the little moments of greater worth. You would have shared wisdom to guide them through the turbulent teen years. Told stories that let them laugh. And, no doubt, encouraged them on life's journey as their number-one fan.

I wish you could watch Christa, who plays your clarinet, and Josh march with the high-school band. I wish you could return with the other alumni to cheer them on. This year's competition show is powerful. The title? To the Broken… Which, also, is a letter—composed by someone who finds his voice through writing. The premise and theme certainly ring true.

I wish you were starting your senior year of college. You’re the one who should be taking classes—not me. I wish I could figure out how to rightly re-imagine and plot your bittersweet story, wish I were teaching full-time instead of wrestling to word it in graduate school. I was the teacher and editor: you were the writer. Crafting a novel is such a lonely journey, and nothing about this inherited assignment feels quite right.

I wish I knew your fictional characters well enough to finish your book and fulfill your final letter's request. Really, you’re probably the only one who can do that. Nevertheless, I long to. My inability to give you this last parting gift tears a piece of my heart apart.

I’m afraid this sounds selfish, but I wish you were here while I go through cancer treatments—wrapping your arms around me, resting your chin on the top of my head and whispering, “It’s gonna be okay, Mom”. . . the way you used to whenever a sky-high stack of students’ essays lay piled on my desk to grade.

I wish I knew what you’re seeing. And thinking. And experiencing. I wonder what you know, wonder if people who’ve left this life since your death have shared stories from home. I have a ton of unanswered questions. I’ve gone to sleep hundreds of times begging God to please give me a dream of you. There have been none. I struggle to believe what I cannot see, to hold onto such distant hope. It’s not the way I ever wanted this to be.

I wish this letter were happy and positive, light-hearted and fun. I think it would have been if you had truly turned 21.

There’s more I’d like to tell you—enough to fill a book—but this will have to do.

Before I go, though, I’ll explain the attached photo. My friend Sam, a teacher and writer who leads a ministry called Recklessly Alive, was visiting from Minnesota. If you’d heard him speak before making your decision, I’m pretty sure you’d be around. I went with Sam to a 1924 textile mill in order to photograph Mary, the photographer, while she snapped some pictures for him. That’s when we saw this—the month and day you were born stenciled onto the floor. The reminders are everywhere. I'll never forget.  

To conclude, I continue to journey—life doesn’t exactly stop—and mostly live in the moment, because there are plenty of memories to make and much reason to live.

But I really, really wish you were here. So many of us do.

I miss you. I love you. Someday I’ll see you again.

We’ll have a lifetime of catching up to take care of then.

All my love,
Beth (or maybe I’m still ‘Mom’ to you?)

[Photo Credit: Mary Denman]