Last Letters

An emotional investigation about emails exchanged before death

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Emails have been part of our lives long enough to be considered written chapters of our lives. Parents and children exchange emails. Friends, virtual acquaintances, distant relatives, co-workers — they all use email, all over the world. What do our loved ones say to us before they die? What was the last or most significant email received that lives on in the inboxes of those who are still here? What virtual memories do we keep of them?

Flight attendant Rod Sánchez told me a story about Sandra Martins, his colleague at a Brazilian airline.

“We had done 13 flights together on the same crew from March 18–20, 2006, most of them between Rio and São Paulo, Brazil. We took some photos and later I decided to email them to Sandra.”

_______________________________
Sent: March 21, 2006
Subject: "our photos"
Hi Sandra!
Here are the photos we took during the flight! I loved flying with you! When you work with good people with positive vibes, you get off the flight feeling like new. Thank you!
Add me on Orkut!
Big kiss,
Rodrigo.

Sandra responded with a friend request on Orkut.

“When we became closer, she started calling me ‘kiddo.’ Months later, getting off a flight where I was traveling as a passenger, I bumped into Sandra at the end of the jetway. I remember her saying, ‘What’s up, kiddo, how are ya?’ smiling and warm. If I’m not mistaken, the plane was going to Porto Alegre, and she was about to get on to go visit her parents in the south.

On September 29, 2006, the day of the accident, I was in a hotel lobby and I saw my colleague sobbing. I went up and asked her what had happened. She said that one of our planes had crashed. Hours later, still in the lobby, in silence, a piece of paper was passed hand to hand, from one crew member to the next. It contained the names of our colleagues in the accident. Each person who read the names would pass them on to the next colleague, weeping. When I got the slip of paper and read Sandra’s name, it was like getting punched in the stomach.”


Tati Zapata lost her aunt who died a year ago from ovarian cancer. In her last email, she explained what was happening and asked that she not tell her own daughter, who was studying abroad. A month passed between the day she sent the email and her death, a “time during which I hoped to see her in the hospital and talk to her,” said Tati, who asked that I change the names of her relatives mentioned in the email.

_______________________________
Sent: December 23, 2014
Subject: “this time it's just bad news”
“My dears,
I hope everyone is doing good!
Not me. 
Last week I did some routine ultrasound tests and the result was very bad. I have a tumor in my ovaries that has signs of malignancy. There are other abnormalities in my abdomen, my lymph nodes are enlarged, my liver is weird and on it goes. It's so fucked up.
Last year I didn't have any of this.
I'm running around to do radiology tests (I will tomorrow) and yesterday I had a consultation with a surgical oncologist who told me that there's nothing to be done until there's more data, which we'll have in the next few days.
There's a small chance it's not malignant, but...it looks like my condition isn't good, because there are major abnormalities in the blood test, too.
I don't know. I have to wait. It's a horrible limbo; I wanted him to open up my stomach and take out the beast that's eating me, but he said that it can't be like that since it can put me at unnecessary risk.
It's really fucked up, and Marina and Rafaela definitely know what I'm talking about! I don't know what's going to happen and my head swings between thinking that next year I have so many cool things to do, and that maybe I won't make it.
My strength has prevailed that I won't die from this shit!
Suzana is in the US and doesn't know anything for now and I don't want her to know BY ANY MEANS because she won't be able to do anything for now. When he outlines the treatment and I get an operation with or without confirming the malignancy, I'll tell her so she has the option to come back if she wants. But not right now, so I ask that you all be very careful about not spreading anything or mentioning anything to her.
I also didn't want to tell you this before Christmas. I wanted to have better news, but I believe that the more loved ones send me good energy, the better I'll get!
I still haven't canceled my trip to Brasilia. If nothing happens next week I'll go! I prefer to be there with you kissing cute little kids than here thinking about nonsense. Maybe I'll have to go on the 30th or 31st to be able to go to the consultation on the 29th that was originally when I was going to leave, but I'll let you guys know.
Big kiss!!!
Maria”

Tati’s response:

"Auntie,
Don't worry, Suzana won't find out!
The good vibes of Christmas and New Year's this year will all be for you!!
Huge kiss"

She wasn’t able to go to Brasília. She was hospitalized, and never left her hospital bed. “We always think we have more time. It was all so quick,” Tati said.


You can publish it. I’m certain Sofia will enjoy it once she learns to read”, Alexsander Rosa told me.

“The last email I got from Fabi was three days before her fatal stroke. There was no text, just attachments: three photos of Sofia, who was a week old.”

____________________________
Sent: July 5, 2013
Subject: "Good morning daddy!!!"

“The next day, we had our last conversation, via GTalk. I wrote: ‘They announced the Impedcopa teams [a soccer championship], LAS MANDARINAS DE BRANDSEN. I’m on the Volkart team.’ She responded with a question: ‘Is that good?’”

Fabi had a stroke on the eighth that month. She spent 15 days in a coma, and she passed away on the 23rd.


Vini Stein was a talented artist. His drawings can be seen on Medium, like this one, a self-portrait of him making cookies.

Luiz Augusto de Barros was an old friend of his, and he looked for the last email they exchanged. “To my surprise, the subject line of the last email was Vini’s farewell,” he said. It was a run-of-the-mill invitation to a goodbye party before he moved — now with much more meaning.

“I remember we had big plans. He was going to do several paintings and later fake his own death to see if ‘the final works of a young painter’ would be sold at Sotheby’s for an exorbitant amount! If only. We didn’t make it to Sotheby’s (yet) but that doesn’t matter. There’s no earthly value that could buy the time he was with us. That work of art is unique and nontransferable.”


Leandro Pereira also saved the last email he exchanged with his father. It was an everyday message with a mistake that seemed like foreshadowing that would help his family just a few days later.

“He sent me an Excel spreadsheet of all the financial assets I still have in Brazil (I live in Australia). Except he didn’t realize that the other tabs of the same file also had all of his investments.” Leandro pointed out his father’s mistake, and he replied: “Oops. Shit!”

“I told him I didn’t even really look, and his final reply was: ‘Hehe. That’s not the point. I don’t keep secrets from all of you. Kisses.’ That happened less than a month before his accidental death. When it came time to settle his affairs, the mistake wound up helping with the bureaucracy.”


Fernando Cesarotti wrote to me in February. “Man, the person I miss most in the world is my dad, who died on Christmas in 2010. He was good at technology, even though he was over 60, but we communicated little by email, from what I can tell. They were more formal things, like depositing money and things like that. Of the last five emails I found, four have his bar code number from his card that I’d paid since he had made me a loan. The last one is very dry: he just asks that I send him receipts from the last few months that I owed him. The previous one is odd; he mentions a lunch that he apparently enjoyed. We spoke for the last time on December 23. He called me to find out what time to go to my mother-in-law’s dressed as Santa Claus, and he wanted to arrange his schedule to go to Mass. I don’t have a physical reminder, just the memory. That morning, he had a heart attack.”

_______________________________
Sent: November 29, 2010
Subject: “Fernando”
“Lunch yesterday was really good. We need to do that again another day.”

My father’s dream was to write a song,” Ana Becker told me. “He talked about it his whole life. The last email he sent me was the lyrics he wrote (and later he sent me a text message saying I shouldn’t read it because he was so embarrassed). The last email I sent — completely unrelated — was a link to a video about religion that coincidentally was the only tab open on his computer. He would kill me if he knew I published this, but I’m dying of pride of my old man.”

________________________________
Sent: February 14, 2015
Subject: "My song"
"Nothing like a night alone, listening to music and drinking. I wrote my song! It certainly can't be played, but it's what I'd like to say, if it ever was. I'm a regular Bob Dylan!!!! Kisses
* * *
GET REAL
You only like one color
And you admire a single flower?
Get real, my friend!
New things scare you
And you'd rather be alone on your own?
Get real, get real, get real.
You find beggars and the poor disagreeable
And you condemn any kind of protest?
Get real, get real, get real.
You look down on skin that's different
And you preach about the superiority of your people?
Get real, get real, get real.
The offensive things that you spout are deserved
And you don't forgive the people you target?
Get real, get real, get real.
Homosexual love, for you, is disgraceful
And culture differences are something damaging?
Get real, get real, get real.
Your religion is above good and evil
And your political party is the only legit one?
Get real, get real, get real.
You're always right
And social justice seems like charity to you?
Get real, get real, get real.
You defend your ideas above all
And you truly believe that I should stay quiet?
Get real, get real, get real.
Get real, my friend!
Our brains are bigger than you think
And they're capable of tolerating differences."

Electronic messages also have the power to unleash stories repressed in real life. Anna Silveira told me how she got to know a brother with whom she’d never had contact.

“My parents met in college. My dad was 12 years older than my mom, and he was married and had a daughter. They dated for eight years. The sixth year, I was born. He was still married that whole time and had another son, my brother Márcio.

I never lived with my father’s first family, let alone spoke to them. Even with him, I had little contact, especially after my mom and I moved to another city when I was 10.

When I was 23, my daughter Julia was born. And my father showed up again. He was in Porto Alegre because my brother Márcio had had a bone marrow transplant. Márcio was around 27. We hadn’t met yet.

A few months and two meetings later, my father died. That was in 2006.

Two years later, my mom found my siblings’ profiles on Orkut. My sister was the one who denied my existence most. I knew little about Márcio, but I took a risk and sent him a friend request.

He responded in a long email, explaining why he couldn’t accept the request at that time. But he also said that he’d been following my life on Orkut and he’d always wanted to meet me, but never had the courage.

We exchanged emails for awhile. We started talking on MSN. And finally we met. We became friends. I finally began to have a brother.

In August 2008, he didn’t respond to emails or MSN chats. I thought it was weird. Finally he replied, explaining he’d had some bad days due to lung complications (the result of radiation therapy). And he said we needed a plan for me to find out if anything happened to him. Our friendship was still a secret from the rest of his family.

Days later, a plan he’d made without telling me was put into practice. I got a call from his mom, my father’s first wife, saying he’d gone back to the hospital and that he had little chance of surviving.

For awhile I wondered why the world gave me Márcio for six months after we’d been distant for 26 years. I don’t know why exactly. I stopped trying to find a LESSON in all of this.

When I read your idea about last letters, I thought I’d have a last email full of meaning, but I don’t. I have six months of the first emails that were the last with someone with whom I should have spent part of my life.

It was important for me to tell this story after eight years.

Thank you.

Kiss,
Anna”


Iasked my colleagues at Medium from other parts of the world to look for stories, too. Italian editor Martino Galliolo sent this one from Francesco Nguyen.

“I’m not sure if this email is related: it’s an exchange of messages with my girlfriend at the time, and the gist is that it was the only time we talked about my mother by email. We found out a few days later that she had cancer. Now, I even find it funny,” says Francesco.

______________________________
Sent: October 14, 2008
Subject: "seppia"
"A mixture of Coca Cola and syrup is getting rid of all kinds of sickness in me, and also all the organs that still work. I'm waiting for a pizza, a reward for having spent a whole afternoon watching talk shows on TV with my mom."

From Spain, editor Fernando Valverde sent two stories.

“When we think that it’s getting late, someone surprises us and the sun comes up. When we think we’re living in the sunset and we marvel at the West, we end up discovering the East and find ourselves once more. It’s always this way: when we believe firmly in something, it turns out that everything is just about to begin.”

This was the last email that the father of one of Jesús Díaz Da Rin’s friends wrote. “He was never a great dad. I think he wrote that so I’d pass the message on to his son,” said Jesús. “At the wake, I recited these words to my friend, but I never told them they were from his own father.”


Ana Rosas, from Spain, also decided to send her story. “I was looking for emails in my inbox and I have some that made me cry. Because one day I found the love of my life and all of the sudden, he wasn’t there anymore. I lost everything. And it’s good to be able to tell people that it’s possible to get through it,” Ana wrote. She added: “My last letter? Despite what one would think in this super technological world, the last thing I kept was a pink sheet of paper with terrible handwriting because I was crying when I wrote it”.

_______________________________________
Letter sent on September 25, 2012
"Hi potbellied little angel:
Before starting with these sweet and loving words I should complain and scold you because the terms of our prenup state very clearly that you're expressly prohibited from making me cry so much. You worried me so much and I didn't know with whom to sit and cry for my husband because my best friend was locked up in the hospital. I didn't know where to get my strength from in order not to start crying, to put on a happy face in order to not freak out your aunts and your father.
I'm in bed and you don't know the emptiness I feel. I miss having you by my side so much. I want to glue myself to you and fill us with cuddles and kisses, but you're still in the hospital. And I really want to get you out of there and take you home. But I know the doctors are keeping you there to send you home safe and sound.
I thank God and all of our little angels because you're okay. Well, with your stomach all sewn up, but okay. Stupidly I get to thinking about what I would do without you by my side and that makes my world crumble. I can't imagine any other way than spending my life with you. You are my reason for being, my strength, the best thing I have. Thank you for trusting me so much. Thank you for deciding to live with me. You're my best husband, my best friend, the best person. Let them pamper you; it's your chance to have them bring you breakfast in bed. :)
With all my love, your wife Ana."

“Sometimes when I reread it, I feel that sense of relief again that only lasted a few days before they told me at the hospital that the love of my life was gone.”


E-mails are still sent even after goodbyes. I received messages from people who still communicate with loved ones through their outboxes.

Amanda Buonafortuna (name has been changed) lost her 47-year-old husband in September last year. “I don’t know the cause of death. I wasn’t invited to the wake, I never saw the body, and I was only informed by his sister in a text message after he’d been cremated. It’s a long and tragic story involving his family. It still terrifies me that he’s not alive anymore. It’s unbelievable,” she said.

She also still sends messages to him as a way to ease the pain and mourning.

_______________________________________
Sent: October 4, 2015
Subject:
Three days from now will mark a month since you died.
You left me, your sweetie, an immense love, in pain, so big that I don't know what to do about it. So I thought now, after making a backup, and one more night in this strange bed, where we'd been for three months, missing you. I miss your embrace before I go to sleep. Your milky smell.
Your sweet voice, saying my love, baby, I love you so much!
I miss your green eyes, full of love and affection and so many other big things.
I miss the heat of your body, your back and warm butt nestled against me.
Even your snores, nighttime babbling, incoherent requests, loud farts followed by oops, sorry.
I miss your pretty and delicate hands, which held mine when I felt afraid or worried about pain, or when I woke up from a nightmare, your little hand was there, and your voice saying, relax, relax baby, it's almost over.
I still wish I'd given you a goodbye kiss, even though I hate goodbyes, and you've always done silly things to say goodbye. I missed out on telling you or screaming how much I love you. I missed out on giving you my hand at the moment you were most alone, staring death in the face. I'll never forget your absence.
I should have fought more, and I should have focused less on my fear of losing you and having the courage to have you hospitalized, rob a bank, kill a doctor and your cruel mother and sister. I should have reported your psychiatrist for negligence, and I should have fled to Berlin, Rostock, anywhere far away from where I'd take you to die. I should have been more intrusive; maybe if I'd fought with you, you'd have been hurt forever, you would have hated me, but you'd be alive. That's all that matters, you alive. Without I'm alive, but without your existence it's like I lost half of my body. And it hurts. How it hurts.
I miss you my dear, how I miss you. So cheeky and inept, in your own way, rocking out on the guitar in front of the house. You'd say: I'm going to finish with Holdsworth, playing Baked Potatoes. Our Indian food, little potatoes. What was the name again? Your yummy concoctions, our cuisine. What would it have been like if I'd died? How would you feel? You'd have made backups, for sure.
I don't know what to feel, I'm tormented, but the sobs won't come out. The tears fall, but they'll never be enough nor necessary since they won't bring you back. I'd prefer that you'd traded me for a lover, that you'd cheated on me, or that you'd gone to Germany. That you'd left a note: baby, my love, I went to Heimat. Life is so sad. Your death was a tragedy, the worst thing that could happen in the worst possible way, with your mother disrespecting you until your last breath, trampling anything remotely related to humanity. The worst way. She took you away first for a mattress at her house, and later she forbid the doctors to speak to me so I'd know what was going on, and she tried to ban me from visiting, but I managed to anyway. And later, as if your and our suffering were nectar for her, she took you away, dead, hid you from me, and had you cremated, taking everything with her.
And as if that wasn't enough, she took your things, our things, as if they were hers, and threw them away, everything, our home, your things that nobody else would have valued, your thoughts, your reflections, your work. My dear, how can I not be furious? How did you let your mother kill you bit by bit? Did you know things would be like this? I don't think so.
If you could, stay with me awhile. I don't know where you are, I couldn't hold you and cry, but I'm here, thinking about you. The tears fall in abundance, in silence. Stay with me. Something must be left of you.
I remember that we spoke once about cremation. I told you I wanted to be donated to someone: organs, or whatever possible to help people or science. You told me that you always wanted that, but you don't have much that was healthy to use. And I told you how beautiful your eyes would be in a blind child, your lungs for someone who couldn't breathe. And we cried a little, holding hands. If something's left of you, please, don't let it happen for you not to hear and leave me in despair. Stay with me, even if it's just today, here. Longing is an insufficient word to describe this. I'm broken inside and I don't know how to fix it.
I love you so much, my love"

Camila Lobo told the story of her wedding dress in an email she sent to her mother after her death.

“Sometimes I use email to alleviate how much I miss my mom, who died four years ago. I still send her emails like the one I sent right after I bought my wedding dress while I was living in Barcelona.”

________________________________________
Sent: June 24, 2014
Subject: "Dress!"
Hi mama!!
I have a dress for the wedding!!
I bought it today. I had to take a quick spin around Madrid but it was worth it!! The dress is beautiful. Just my style - and I think yours too! Super modern and elegant!
I also like it because it was super practical. I tried it on, it fit well, and now I just need to get the hemline adjusted. There's no need to make the dress from scratch and go through a thousand tries, you know?
I think you would love it. If you were with me at the store you'd say: That's the one, Milinha! If you don't buy it, I'm getting it for me! Heheheheheh
I love you so much! 
I wish so much that you could have been here to give your opinion about everything...
A thousand kisses,
Mila :)”

Thank you to everyone who shared their stories.

Translated by Rachel Glickhouse. Thanks to Mateusz Zimecki and Ahmet Özkale.


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