Today we celebrate a birthday. Not just any birthday, a twelfth. As I contemplated the events that mark this special day, a Writer’s Almanac radio clip from January 19 struck a personal chord, and I could not let it pass without comment.
On this day in 1897, Mark Twain wrote a lyrical, heavy-hearted letter from London to the Rev. Joseph Twichell in Hartford, Connecticut. He was his closest friend.
Twain's 24-year-old daughter, Susy, had died from meningitis the previous summer. He would forever consider it the most devastating loss of his life. He'd been traveling overseas and missed her last days. The following winter, on this day in 1897, he wrote about the ways in which his daughter's death affected him. His letter is a lament of great grief intertwined with an ode to his friend's great compassion. Twain wrote to his best friend of 40 years:
"I do not want most people to write [they] break my heart, but you will not. You have a something divine in you that is not in other men. You have the touch that heals, not lacerates. And you know the secret places of our hearts. You know our life — the outside of it — as the others do — and the inside of it — which they do not. You have seen our whole voyage. You have seen us go to sea, a cloud of sail — and the flag at the peak; and you see us now, chartless, adrift — derelicts; battered, water-logged, our sails a ruck of rags, our pride gone. For it is gone. And there is nothing in its place. The vanity of life was all we had, and there is no more vanity left in us. We are even ashamed of that we had; ashamed that we trusted the promises of life and builded high — to come to this!"I did know that Susy was part of us; I did not know that she could go away; I did not know that she could go away, and take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind. And I did not know what she was. To me she was but treasure in the bank; the amount known, the need to look at it daily, handle it, weigh it, count it, realize it, not necessary; and now that I would do it, it is too late; they tell me it is not there, has vanished away in a night, the bank is broken, my fortune is gone, I am a pauper. How am I to comprehend this? How am I to have it? Why am I robbed, and who is benefited?"
I wish you were still alive to read this; I anguish that your only conclusion to the death of your daughter is robbery. Though our experiences vary in the finer details, loss is loss, and you couldn’t be more wrong. So, to you Mr. Twain, I offer these words. Compared to your literary prowess, they are plain, but when they spilled from my pen, the night before my son’s funeral, they were pure.
Tiny hands, I held today, no life in them was found.
No touch returned, no squeeze replied
the ache within my soul.
Soft hands would never throw a pass, nor bait a hook to fish.
They’ll never make a pie of mud,
nor pass the emblems blessed.
Trained hands, lifted thoughtfully, then washed you and caressed,
they dressed you O’ so tenderly
so friends could cradle you abreast.
Gentle hands, wet with tears, blessed you with your name,
they asked the Lord to keep you,
and made the veil draw thin.
Pierced hands reached out to wipe away, the wayward tears that fell,
they pressed against your mother’s cheeks
and wiped away her fears.
God’s hands, my hands, each looked the same today,
as your hands reached across the veil,
and drew it back for me to see, into eternity.
I pray they speak deeply to you, to heal your troubled heart.
With great Respect,