A Deep Dive Into Precious Cards

Condolence cards age like nothing can touch them. They may be paper, but they’re powerful. You don’t have to be great at writing heartfelt wishes. When you send a sympathy card, your effort is great, all by itself.

Condolence cards keep fresh the moment anguish has collided with concern, and concern has prevailed. If anguish is paralyzing, and concern is action, then the writer’s a hero. The victory path is mind to fingers, pen to paper, and envelope to mailbox. The card records and documents the battle–or is it an alliance? and then shuts up about it. It shuts up until we open the note again, if we dare to.

Not many cards proclaim that things are going to get better than this terrible day. Yet, isn’t that the truth–don’t things eventually get better for someone suffering through grief? Wouldn’t that advice be encouraging?

There are a few reasons why card-writers tend to keep this thought to themselves. 1. Don’t disrespect the moment. 2. Don’t miscalculate the griever’s plight. However bad you think she feels, try rating it as one-thousand times worse. 3. Don’t be fooled to think she is in any state to reason like you, no matter how she sounds, or appears.

You are sad. She is destroyed.

Chances are, you, the card-writer, are standing a distance from the epicenter. This is probably true, not matter how close your physical or emotional proximity may be. Don’t be surprised how quickly you might find yourself getting on with your regular life, maybe even as soon as the night you mailed the card. You are going to be digging into a bowl of ice cream and watching Frasier and your friend is out there wrecked, no appetite for food, not managing her bills, no motivation to pick up a dish, a comb, or a toothbrush.

Don’t be ashamed. Your world is preserved for a good reason. Here’s how she feels about you. I need your card–your prayers–your words, visits, and calls, as a sliver of ledge to stand on. I cherish your lifeline. I know you won’t fray that line. Won’t crumble my ledge.

Enjoy your ice cream. You’re going to be needed as your friend has known you.

One woman in particular knew the importance of condolence cards. She read them after her husband died, read them all, the hundreds, and replied to each. She marked each rubber-banded stack with the word “done” and then closed their storage box. She kept them, all of them, carefully packed away for thirty-seven years. A widow at age fifty-two, she was left with three children at home.

At eighteen, I was one of those kids. That woman was my mom.

In the darkness of a box, scores of words held their present moment in time.

In the darkness of a box, words huddled and waited for new eyes. One of those notes held a blockbuster secret. Would it be found out? Or more likely, thrown out?

Dad died at three markers in time. Mother’s Day, 1984. My brother’s college graduation. A month from closing the sale on our home. Those are hard markers, even just one of them. Nevertheless, mom answered the cards right away. In fact, with the home sale situation, she had about three weeks to acknowledge the notes, and pack them away.

One day last month I asked her if she’d like me to read those old cards to her. She agreed. At eighty-nine, it was time to cash in those savings. I wanted to know what they said, too.

This was what we discovered.

Many of the cards were written by people who have passed away. As mom and I came across their notes, she’d fall silent, then nod her head. She had a unique perspective on such things, and a gentle understanding that has come with age.

Perhaps she was remembering their eyes, their smile, engulfed in sunlight at the beach, or in dinner light.

Maybe she was recalling their voice, the sound that was unique to them. Maybe she was thinking of things that particular man or woman said, that only mom would remember now.

Elaine Martin’s note read: “Someday you will look back and realize it doesn’t hurt as much as it did.” I read those words to mom and watched her face. She thought a moment, said “Well,” and gave a faint nod. When I asked what her reaction might have been when she originally got Elaine’s card, she laughed and said, “Who knows. No, here’s what I thought: Easy for you to say!”

Steve Maio wrote, “Please, if there is anything for me to do, just ask.” Steve was a friend of the family, twenty-two years old. What could a young man do, in practical terms, for us? Well, it seems to me that most help goes undocumented. Not unnoticed, just not formally captured. He probably did a dozen things to help us through those days. Here’s a fact: This past November, Steve was pivotal in settling an important legal detail in mom’s estate. Not because he was fulfilling a promise; I’m sure he’d long forgotten that. He helped us because what he’d written was in his heart. And that had not changed.

There were many poignant notes and blessings.

Whether a single handwritten word (“Mike”), or a three-page letter (from cousin Sona), each card did a great thing. They formed that ledge for mom to stand. Not for her to get out of the pit, but to keep from falling further.

About thirty minutes into our reading, I took the next card out of the stack. This one was cream-colored, on a type of four-fold parchment paper. Its cover read, In Sympathy, in a big, royal font. I opened it. And sat, stunned.

“Well, who’s it from?” mom wanted to know. Patience, it seems, is lost to the very young and very old.

I blinked. And blinked again. There were dozens of names written inside the page.

They were mine. My North Adams State College freshman classmates.

Are you kidding me?

On the Monday night of finals week, May 14, 1984, I was in my pals’ room, Brian and Eric. There was a knock on the door– it was three men, my cousin, brother-in-law and older brother. I wasn’t expecting anyone for several days, and home was three hours away. What was this? Very cheerily they asked, “Hey, can we talk to you a minute?”

They walked me down the entire length of the 5th-floor hall, from my pals’ room to my own.

“Are you going to tell me bad news?”

“Yes,” my brother-in-law said.

They told me, briefly, what had happened to my father. I suddenly felt very much lighter than the moment before. Like I was untethered; the first of many awful feelings. “We have to leave, now,” they said. “Mom’s waiting for you. At home.” There was no time for me to gather my things, or say goodbye to anyone but my two pals. I hopped in the car and was gone.

The college packed up my room that week. My finals were deferred until early June.

I’d never received this card.

“Ara, who’s it from?” mom’s tone was softer now. I showed her the writing. “My friends,” I said.

My dorm mates from Hoosac Hall had mailed this to my house. How had I not known this, all these years? I quickly looked through the pile in front of us and found three more for me. Two were from 4th-floor girls and one was from the Campus Center Council.

How had I not received these? In the day?

Mom had no answer. That summer of ’84 was a mess and she and I talked about it. We surmised the cards arrived, were read by her, and packed away with the others. In the avalanche of mail, if she hadn’t noticed my name on the envelopes, it’s easy to imagine she understood the sentiments were for her.

I kissed my mom and brought the four cards home.

These are precious to me. I want to explain why.

I thoroughly enjoyed my freshman year at Hoosac Hall. We were an all-frosh dorm, with six floors of about thirty-six students per floor. The floors alternated, girls/guys.

I had two great freshman friends, Brian and Eric. Eric transferred to another school that summer, and I never saw him after that last night. Brian and I kept up for a few months of our sophomore year.

I’m sure those guys were responsible for the card. Eric probably bought it first thing Tuesday morning and I imagine Brian did the legwork to get it signed and sent, perhaps in Wednesday morning’s mail.

The facts of these details are forgotten, and beyond meaningless, but it’s important to me to piece together a story. Because it happened, on my account.

I never got to say thank you.

It would have been a disjointed week at Hoosac Hall, with kids studying, packing, testing and moving out, all on their own schedules. Thank you Brian and Eric. You’re two kids smiling at me, right now, in your room, in your doorway, I see you and you’re telling me it’s all right. Eric, you’re saying, “It’s no problem Ara. Really.” Brian you’re looking long at me, and your stare asks, “Are you okay?”

As only you could.

Brian, I’m okay.

I say I’m okay but I’m tearing up, I want to step into your room and pick up right where we were before I felt so light, that night.

For just one moment, please, I want that last year of my perfect boy’s life back. To be with you two. You shared secrets that got some beautiful things started in me.

I want it to go beyond taking in your voices and your looks. I want you to see me. And yet, this goes only one way, towards me.

My thoughts get past Brian and Eric (just for now guys) and are back in the present. As I study the card, it looks like maybe seven different pens were used. Assuming the signing order went from the top of the card to the bottom, my two buddies got it started, then it worked its way down to the 4th and 2nd floors. Then back to the 5th. And a stamp and off.

I missed out on the traditional goodbyes. Missed the address exchanges that eighteen-year-olds do. The good sobbing. The phone numbers on slips of paper. The promises to get together for the 4th of July. The group photos. I really, really, really missed my friends.

Thank you, everyone, for the thoughtful card. You stopped your world, thought of me, and signed your full names.

I had a problem leaving everyone behind like that. So many cut connections. I lost the social structure that would have helped me that summer and in September, when I returned to campus.

That summer, mom wanted me to see a grief counselor. I declined. I said I was okay. That was my mistake. I was not.

A counselor, or therapist, would have asked me about my friends, that good, big, decent group of boys and girls. Would have told me that the disruption was unhealthy, and didn’t have to continue. I’m sure I would have been encouraged to reach out to them, some of them, that summer. Certainly when the new semester started.

We were scattered all over campus but the suggestion, coming from a therapist, would have mattered to me. I think I would have enjoyed that. I should not have had to go through months of being a sophomore, with those freshman connections lost.

Condolence cards are meant to ease suffering, right now. I don’t think any thought is given to whether they’ll be preserved and re-examined decades later. Most cards simply do their job. I know the value of such a card. I just received a very touching one, indeed.

About Ara Hagopian's The LITERATE Show

For over thirty years, I have enjoyed drawing beautiful shapes and writing complementary stories. The imagery tends to focus on our place in the world—whomever or whatever we may be. I am influenced by Twentieth Century history—I read vintage magazines, books and letters. Inspiration comes from visualizing human achievement and personal interaction—derived from people, places and things which may be obscure, but never insignificant. My pen-and-ink THE MAGNIFICENT RECOVERY was selected by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for their 2008 summer art auction.
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8 Responses to A Deep Dive Into Precious Cards

  1. Sue Bazin says:

    Ara, I was trying to think of something profound to say and I can only say “wow”. I was touched by this story and how beautifully you captured the essence of what happened.

    • Thank you Sue. We were fortunate to live at Hoosac Hall that year, weren’t we? There’s something very special about freshman year, and our building was a great community to be a part of. We made some dear friends and I’m so happy have many in my life now. Like you! Take care. Ara

  2. Jen says:

    Beautiful and poignant work Ara. Your writing transports the reader back to that pivotal and tragic moment when your whole world was turned upside down. I’m glad you were able to see that card 37 years later.

  3. Liza says:

    Wow, your writing is magical in the sense the reader shares this experience with you. I feel as though I was there with you that day in Hoosac Hall. Finding and reading the card years later provoked some delayed healing from that time. There must be a reason it was read now and not then…

  4. Nancy Kellen says:

    This was so impactful Ara. I recently found a box containing all the photos we had given the funeral director for my father’s memorial video and cards from my friends. Just like you, I had never seen these cards before. I think my mom just packed them up with the photos and gave them to me and I was probably not ready to delve into them, thinking it was just the photos. Your work her perfectly captured how I felt reading my friends notes as well, even though our circumstances are so different. This just goes to show you how universal grief really is!

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