It was August 30, 2006 and there it was. The article on fatal off-campus house fires was on the front page of that day’s edition of USA TODAY. I had been so pleased to receive a call, some three weeks earlier, from a reporter working on the story. They had done extensive research on all the fatal off-campus house fires across the country since 2000, and the article would run just in time for college students moving into off-campus housing for the upcoming school year.
It was everyone’s hope that this article would keep other college kids from making the mistakes of, not only my daughter Liz, but of the 61 other college kids who had lost their lives due to fire in their off-campus homes. Prevention was key and I was glad to play a small part in doing whatever I could to keep other families from experiencing the devastating loss of a vibrant young adult.
When I found out the article was going to print, I excitedly emailed all of my friends and family to tell them about it and that Liz’s picture would be included.
I stopped at the store on my way to work that morning and bought three copies of the paper. I was so excited! I couldn’t wait to get to my desk so I could read that article. But, once I did, it made me so sad. The senselessness of Liz’s death hit me again in such a powerful way, and it felt like September 20, 2003 all over again. I guess I should have expected that kind of reaction, but it had taken me by surprise and I was having a very difficult time dealing with all of the raw, painful emotions that once again bubbled up and grabbed me.
I was also very mad at myself. How naïve could you be, I thought to myself? How could you possibly think that this article would make you happy?
Suddenly, I wished it had never been published and I threw the papers on the back credenza of my office and tried hard to put it out of my mind. But I couldn’t, because all day long I had a steady stream of co-workers stopping at my desk to see the article, and it was all I could do to keep my composure.
I was having a sad, difficult day. I hadn’t had one of “those” days for quite some time and I just figured I was due. I’d get through it, I told myself, because tomorrow will always be better. It was something I had dealt with before in the three years since her passing, and it always worked. You had to feel the pain before it would leave I had learned.
I focused on my job and tried hard to put the article out of my mind. I work with International customers at my company. Because of the time difference, email is the accepted means of communication. I had taken this position just three weeks after Liz’s death and it had been the perfect job for me. The stress level was low; I could come in, answer the emails I received, and go home. I thanked God often for giving me such a wonderful job at just the right time.
I continued to work through my emails. Suddenly a familiar email address popped up. It was Liz’s high school French teacher. Jan had been Liz’s favorite teacher, and we had kept in touch after her death. I had shared my news about the USA TODAY article with her, and I assumed that was what her email to me was about.
Much to my surprise it wasn’t about the article at all. Kim, she said, you will just treasure this. I was in my classroom yesterday, cleaning out my files, getting ready for a new school year. A lone file folder fell on the floor. I reached down and picked it up and on the outside I read “Liz Wencl Essay.” I opened it up and discovered an assignment I had given out over four years ago.
The assignment was to write a letter to one of your parents, in French, telling them what they represent in your life. Kim, this is a letter Liz wrote to you!
Now, I don’t speak French, so Jan translated it for me. That letter was a parent’s dream. In it Liz told me how much she loved and missed me in so many different ways. And, amazingly, even though the letter was written when she was in high school, it made complete sense for life after September 20, 2003.
Here is the English translation of the letter:
Assignment: Write a letter to your Mother or Father telling them what they represent in your life.
I know that you love me. You show me each day that it is true. Don’t think you are a bad mother. It isn’t true! When I look at you I realize how much I am loved.
When you are feeling bad, don’t forget --- I truly love you. I would like to be a better daughter. We argue sometimes and that makes me sad. I feel bad and unhappy if you cry.
I remember when I was little and you would hug me and say, “I love you so much, Lizzie, sit here with me for just a little while. Those times were so special for me and you made me so happy. I felt like nothing could ever hurt me. I use to wish those moments would never end. To be cuddled up next to you like that today would be like a dream come true.
Mom, I feel sad when you feel sad. And, when you are happy, I am happy! You are my mother and I would never choose anyone else. Without you, I would never be who I am.
I love you with all my heart.
Suddenly what had been a very difficult day became a completely amazing day, and I was once again emailing all of my friends and family to share this wonderful letter with them.
Jan brought the folder and the letter to my house that night. As she put it in my hands, she said to me, “You have got to know this was no accident.” I said, “Oh Jan, believe me I do know that.” She went on to tell me that she remembered telling Liz what a beautiful letter it was, and how she had encouraged Liz to share it with me. She even remembered what Liz’s comment had been, “I will when the time is right.”
Receiving that letter was no coincidence. I believe with all my heart that my daughter is still with me and she knew I was having a difficult day. She reached out to let me know just how much she loves and misses me, just as I love and miss her.
The letter is now framed, with the French version on one side, a picture of Liz in the middle, and the English translation on the other, and it hangs in our living room. It is a constant reminder of the power of our love. That letter is visual proof for me that Liz reached out and touched me on a day when I needed it most.
Now, I am sure, I will have more sad days in the years to come. But when I do, all I have to do is read her letter and I once again feel the strong bond of love that we will always share. It is a bond that can never be broken, not even by death.
Just as God’s love for his children never changes, the love that my daughter and I share never changes. It will live for all eternity.
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