The Thank You Cards

An excerpt from “Surviving Death: What Loss Taught Me About Love, Joy, and Meaning.”

Matteson, IL
August 2005.

I’d been standing in the greeting card aisle at Target for twenty minutes, searching for something that basically said “now that I’m dying, I want to thank you for a lifetime of friendship.” My dad had asked me the day before to help him write thank-you notes. Actually, he’d asked me to help him write “sympathy cards,” but he realized his mistake and got flustered trying to correct himself and couldn’t think of the words for “thank-you notes.” Regardless, I had immediately understood my assignment, and the significance of it. But now it seemed that all the thank-you cards were almost cruelly consistent in their lightness and fluffiness. My weight was shifting from side to side, and I realized that my eyes were glazing over. I reluctantly concluded that Hallmark didn’t make the exact card I wanted. Or if they did, it wasn’t filed neatly under a handy category like the “Birthday — Him” cards were. Or even the “Sympathy” cards. I smirked, wondering what the category would be called. “Thanks — From Dying Friend”?

Karsten, my husband, often commented on my dark sense of humor, and how he could tell things were bad for me when I was really funny. He was at that moment standing in the opposite aisle, facing me across the display rack, trying to help me search but having as little success as I was. I could see enough of his face through the opening in the shelves between us to see his furrowed brow as he picked up card after card, reading and putting each one back in its place.

Eventually I found a few cards with life-affirming quotations from dead poets inscribed on the front and nothing printed inside. I bought all of them.

All day, I looked for an opening to sit with my dad and take his dictation. He was terribly weak, though, and unable or unwilling to speak. He’d been diagnosed with malignant metastatic melanoma two years prior, and since then the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, his liver, his lungs, and most recently, to his brain. The first time he was given a week to live had been at least six months before, and again at least eight times since then. For a while, it had become a darkly comic shared experience for my mom, my sister, my husband, and me each time the doctors solemnly told us that he probably only had a week to live. But now he hadn’t been out of his bed in weeks and was barely eating. Late in the afternoon, when I thought he seemed more energetic, I asked him if he wanted to write the notes, but he shook his head.

Karsten and I had planned to leave early the next morning to drive back to Nashville, so I was feeling a sense of urgency.

It was now August, and we’d been driving back and forth between Chicago and Nashville for the better part of a year, initially spending a few days in Chicago to be present for my dad’s treatments, followed by a few weeks at home, trying to catch up on work, renovating the historic home we’d bought in March, spending quality time with our six cats, and basically trying to maintain as normal a life as possible in the face of my father’s imminent death. (“Normal life” was made even more remote by the surprising loss of Karsten’s mother in the spring.) But as my dad’s illness progressed through the spring and summer, that schedule reversed and we would spend a week or more in Chicago, driving back to Nashville for just long enough to check in on our cats, do laundry, and turn around to head back to help with caring for my dad and do whatever my mom needed to help her cope with losing him.

As it turned out, it wasn’t until the morning after I bought the cards, at almost precisely the moment when Karsten and I had planned to leave, that my dad seemed ready. I tried asking him fifty different ways what he wanted to say, and he was silent each time. But his face said volumes, so I gently suggested that I write the notes from my perspective, sitting at his bedside, and let the recipients know what I thought he might be trying to tell them. He liked that idea, so I came up with a basic formula and ran it by him, and got a teary-eyed nod of approval.

I tweaked and customized it for different recipients, but the basic formula went like this:

Dear (recipient)
Yesterday morning, my father asked me to help him write a thank you note to you.
This morning, I sat down with him to transcribe his message, and that proved a harder task than imagined. I am writing to you from his bedside, and what I see in his face as he struggles to find the words is gratitude. What he seems to want to say is thank you for everything — your support, your kindness, your prayers, and most of all, your love.
I hope you know the importance you’ve had in my father’s life, and how much he appreciates you. And for that, our whole family appreciates you, too.
(signed by me and by my dad)

I wrote them all out, and hoped it would do the job. And then Karsten and I set out together for home.

Thank you for reading.

You can find the memoir “Surviving Death: What Loss Taught Me About Love, Joy, and Meaning” on Amazon. Please consider giving a copy to anyone you know facing significant loss and grief.

Please hit the green “Recommend” button below if you found this piece meaningful. And feel free to share widely.

You might also appreciate a few of my other Medium stories related to finding meaning in loss and recovery:

A Fuller Picture of Life After Loss
Suicide vs. Love
My Beautiful, Unreliable Memory
Grace or Casseroles? A Non-Believer’s Musings on Prayer

Kate O’Neill, founder and CEO of KO Insights, is a speaker, author, and consultant focused on meaningfulness in data, marketing, business and life.