Last Letters

by Lynn Levin

When the final rounds of radiation and chemo exhausted my friend Pam but failed to halt the resurgence of her breast cancer, when her tumor markers rose and she lay bedridden, her family advised me that rather than calling and emailing, I should write her letters. I wrote to her on deckle-edged stationery silk screened with bright flowers, on museum cards depicting works of fine art, and on picture postcards. I wrote in my best penmanship. I told Pam again that I loved her, that I knew she never stopped climbing mountains, that I only wished she did not have so many mountains to climb. She once said that we were like sisters. Those words bounded me to her like a ribbon. We each wanted the best for the other. We laughed together and celebrated each other’s successes and joys. In darker times we sympathized, advised, and listened. We were friends for forty-seven years. I hope that I was as good a friend, as good a sister, to her as she was to me.

It is not easy to find things to say to a friend who is dying. I feared that my letters would not reach her in time. I ended each letter assuring her that I would write again soon, but my notes grew shorter. I shared little of my news, suspecting that dispatches from the land of the living might seem irrelevant or self-serving. I figured that she concentrated on the hope of treatments and then the grace of palliative care. She had more distant things to think on and nearer ones too: the love of her husband, sons, and the relatives who surrounded her. She was a church-going woman, and if she believed in heaven, then in heaven she would be when all this was over. She died in winter only days after her sixty-seventh birthday.


What were we going to do with our lives?

We were both solidly midwestern gals, both doctor’s daughters. Pam, who was American-born Chinese, hailed from the Chicago area by way of Washington, D.C., the Philippines, and Hong Kong. I am Jewish, from the Philadelphia area, by way of St. Louis. We met in our college dorm, then an all-women’s dorm, in the early 1970s. College was a fine period of stress in which neither of us knew what we were going to do with our lives. At first Pam began on a pre-med track, very pleasing to her parents who were physicians. Initially, I considered becoming a nurse practitioner, very pleasing to my father, an internist. Intro to chemistry quickly cured me of the idea that nursing school was for me. I switched to comparative literature, a field eclectic enough to suit me, but a let-down to my father. Pam, who was plowing away at much higher-level science courses, could no longer envision a career in medicine. She changed her major to Asian studies, which, as I recall, somewhat mollified her father’s disappointment about the no-doctor thing. The new majors, however, put our souls at ease.

We each had a few starter careers before we blazed our ways to our ultimate occupations. I worked in publishing and advertising before becoming a college teacher. Pam sold cool home goods at Crate & Barrel and worked in a bank before she decided on law school. Law was a perfect choice for Pam. It matched her love of precision, her drive to help the wronged and call bad actors to account. She had a long and brilliant career as a litigator, first in state and county government posts, and finally in the financial sector where she worked to protect investors. Once she even ran for a regional judgeship.

We were born days apart. We married in our late twenties, had small weddings, kept our maiden names. We each had two kids and long marriages. Mine, however, was rocky. It ended in divorce after thirty-five years. Pam and her devoted husband, Karl, shared a loving marriage of nearly forty years. As the years laid down their frost, we both enthusiastically colored our hair. We liked a good meal, but Pam could eat as much as she liked without putting on excess pounds. I envied her metabolism.

Friends become friends because they have traits and attitudes in common, and they often copy each other’s ways. Pam was very generous and very frugal. Many times she fiercely insisted that she pick up the tab for dinner when we visited each other. Once I had to admonish her, “Don’t you even think of paying me for those theater tickets!” Then I had to put the kibosh on her plan to mail me a check for the cost. Pam bought all my books and gave me gifts, particularly a beautiful glass salad bowl and a coffee mug with a frog on it. Every time I use those things, I think of her. I gave her gifts too. Once, I gave her a fancy church hat after an early round of cancer treatment had taken her hair. However, she was always more generous than me.

But Pam was also very frugal, especially about water. I recall her telling me of water shortages in Hong Kong and how the family would fill up the bathtub to create a supply during water rationing. On one of her visits to my home, she saw me using dirty dishwater to rinse out a recyclable yogurt container, and she praised me for not running the tap to clean the cup. I felt good about that. On a visit to her home, I saw that she liked to conserve leftover coffee by pouring it into mugs and then covering each one with a plastic lid. She would leave the mugs on the kitchen counter and serve that java the next day. Wanting to be a good guest, I withheld comment and drank the Kool-Aid. After returning home, I found myself imitating Pam’s thrifty practice, but I put the covered mugs in the fridge. No need to waste coffee, and what a time-saver the next morning.


“You make a point”

We did not agree on everything. Pam had a neutral phrase, maybe a lawyerly phrase, to express skepticism or disagreement. When, for example, I’d say something that she considered not quite thought out or maybe plain nuts, she would say, “You make a point.” She did not say that it was a bad point, merely that I had made a point. Now in cases of mild disagreement I love to say, “You make a point.” It is diplomatic and works every time.

Pam’s reasonableness, her advice, and counsel rescued me many times, especially during my separation and divorce when she sent me links to relevant legal and financial articles. When I started to date after my divorce she liked hearing about the men I was dating, just like college! When, on one occasion, I dated a troublesome man who would not stop calling me—potentially, I feared, a stage-five clinger—Pam dictated to me a perfectly worded little speech that peacefully ended the “Tony” problem. I still have the scrap of paper with Pam’s script in my desk.

Now it is the spring of 2020, just months after Pam’s death. At this moment, the Coronavirus Pandemic is killing thousands daily. Everyone strategizes about how to stay safe, healthy, and distanced. I know that if Pam were here our conversations would be filled with caring check-ins, discussions of breaking medical news, and coping tips. I have those conversations now with my other friends, but I’d sure like to talk about all those things with Pam.


On the subject of kidneys

There was one time, however, when Pam withheld from me her neutral, “You make a point.” Just before what was to be the last year of her life, although no one could know that at the time, I told Pam of a Christmas letter I received from Jan, a college acquaintance. Though not a close friend, Jan was a fun and upbeat person with whom I traded holiday letters.

Jan had kidney failure and was putting out a call for a live kidney donor, either through a hospital voucher program or directly from a volunteer. She did not want to go on dialysis and wait four or five years for a kidney from a deceased donor. Her Christmas letters had been mostly cheerful recaps of family news. Now this.

I did not want to part with one of my kidneys. Just thinking of signing up for the voucher program made me shudder. I expected Pam to sympathize with my decision to step back from the appeal. What a big ask this was, I said. What if something happened to one of my kidneys? Suppose one of my children needed one of my kidneys? Besides, I was only Christmas-letter friends with Jan.

A dark silence hovered in the air. Pam did not say, “You make a point.” The way she saw it, I was abandoning a sick friend. She was a sick friend too. Would I abandon her?

“You can live with only one kidney,” Pam said. “I can’t give her a kidney. Did you know that I was born with only one kidney? And that my brother was also born with only one kidney?” Of course I had not known that. Still, how thoughtless of me and how hurtful to Pam. I wanted her permission to turn from a sick friend, albeit one who was a once-a-year correspondent not a sister-friend. Our conversation lost its footing. We shifted weakly to another subject. Then we ended our call. It was the only time that I recollect a shadow passing between us. We would regain our sisterhood, but I suspected that Pam would always remember the kidney thing. I wrote Jan with my prayers and good wishes. To this day, my reluctance to be a live donor to Jan bothers my conscience.


Persistence and its rewards

Our lives are so terribly busy, so filled with striving and imperatives. You need a certain amount of effort to not just stay in touch, but devotedly connected to the people who matter to you. Work, marriage, parenthood, and the simple need for fallow time provide more than enough to fill your life. Pam had told me several times that I was the only person from college who made the effort to keep the friendship going. My persistence can be one of my more annoying traits, but it can also be one of my good traits. I like to hang on to people I have loved, and I try to do it without crowding them. There is a certain loneliness in me, and there was a certain loneliness in Pam that helped us forge our bond in the first place. That, along with our common traits and attitudes, and my tenacity—well Pam’s tenacity too—threaded the loom of our long relationship. Pam and I were both stick-to-it types; we took the long view of things.

I remember how good it felt to fly out and stay with Pam for a few days in the shaky time after my husband moved out of the house. We took a tourist cruise down the Chicago River, we ate great food, and made scallion pancakes. We went up the Willis Tower in Chicago and hung in the air. When she next visited me, I took her to a comedy show and a tour of the writer Pearl Buck’s house. We drove out to Princeton and strolled around the campus. Back in Philadelphia, she sat in on my summer poetry writing class and, after some urging, joined in the discussion. She liked seeing how my garden grew, and helped me harvest carrots and green beans. She relished the green bean, garlic, and ginger stir fry I prepared.

Now it is for me to gaze into the backwards mirror. Remembering. Mis-remembering. Trying to fight the tide of oblivion.


“To think philosophically is to learn how to die.”

Pam looked at her death with more clarity and philosophical control than anyone I have ever known. On what was to be her last trip to see me, we strolled around the neighborhood with my dog. It was a warm summer morning and Pam wore a compression sleeve on her arm to control swelling due to lymphedema, a consequence of her breast cancer surgery. Pam revealed that she had planned a bequest to our alma mater and that she had applied for early Social Security benefits. “Why file early for Social Security?” I asked. She would get more benefits if she waited. Besides, she was cancer free now.

“No, I still have cancer,” she said. “It’s under control with medication.” Then she talked about what she would do with her “remaining life,” a phrase that she would use often without revealing a shred of self-pity. Perhaps at home with Karl she allowed herself the luxury of tears and permission to rage against the unfairness of her fate, but I know nothing about that. To me she was stoic, always climbing the mountain, seizing the day, going on European cruises with her family, flying out to visit friends. Living and living before the impending.

Pam’s work in financial regulatory enforcement had weighed on her. She had retired from her demanding career, placing other needs and values first. She had always acted on her conscience, but more so now. “So I can sleep at night” was one of her mottos. Now she was home much more for Karl. She took Spanish lessons, participated in a cookbook group and, in between travels, worked a couple days a week pro bono at a legal clinic in downtown Chicago. She had advocated for investors who had been the victims of broker malpractice, but now she was working for indigent people who needed help with housing, healthcare coverage, and domestic matters.

Eventually she quit the legal aid clinic, the Spanish lessons, and the cookbook group. She had another mission to complete: campaigning for Hillary Clinton. In the summer of 2016, feeling strong and healthy, she traveled to Florida, living there by herself for two weeks and working eleven to thirteen hour days alongside much younger volunteers to register voters for the election. Then she returned to Florida in November to help get out the vote. Our sorrow and shock at the outcome of the 2016 election shattered me and almost everyone I knew, but Pam took it the hardest. She had given so much of her precious energy and time and tried so hard. She was angry, but also heartbroken.

Over the next few years, her cancer markers continued to improve until they stopped improving. Our last phone conversation came before Thanksgiving. Stoked with optimism, I remarked that she would be enjoying turkey and all the trimmings with the family. But no, she said there was a change. The cancer had spread to her brain. She was undergoing radiation treatments, but they robbed her of her strength. Then the new rounds of chemo. I still wrote my letters, but I could not know which one would be my last.

In December, as Pam was struggling, I received a Christmas letter from Jan. She had received a new kidney from an altruistic living donor, part of a six-person swap. At the bottom of her letter she told me how much my prayers meant to her. I was thrilled for Jan. I wrote Pam with the good news about Jan’s health, and I confess that self-absolution was part of my motive. Even though I had not donated a kidney, someone else had and Jan was saved. But by this time, Pam was in home hospice.

The French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote that we should contemplate death and be prepared for it. “We should always be booted and ready to go,” he said, meaning that you should do all you can when you can because you never know when the end will come. Few people I know stared at death, prepared for it, and lived their principles like Pam. Few people were as ready to die as Pam. But how I wished she did not have to be so ready so soon.

When the call came from Karl, I wept at home. I grieved. I could not reach out to Pam anymore. Again, I worried that I had not been as good a friend to her as she was to me. Then I stepped outside, inhaled the winter air, and looked at the leafless world. Snow began to fall and cover the lawn. The whiteness made me think of paper and far-away friends and unwritten letters.


Lynn Levin 
is a poet, writer, translator, and teacher. Her essays have appeared in 
Michigan Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, The Smart Set, and MoreIntelligentLife.com, and her most recent book is the Poetry collection The Minor Virtues (Ragged Sky, 2020). Her website is lynnlevinpoet.com.

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