letter to lydia

*for an edited audio version of this letter, go here

this is danny writing and this is my letter to lydia, written on the plane home.

Jan 11, 2007


Mommy has cancer. You don’t know what that is, but I do. And mommy does. And you will, at some point. Maybe you already do. I don’t know. I haven’t seen you yet. I think you know though. Before I left for DC, you kept hugging her and kissing her and saying that you were sad. And when we asked you why you said it was because mommy was sad. And so there’s that.

And I’m on a plane from Baltimore to Denver to come home and be with you and mommy.

I found out because she called me, while I was teaching, and I didn’t answer the phone. And she called again, and I still didn’t answer because I was teaching. But fifteen minutes later I checked my messages and there was this awful sound. And that was it.

At the airport I tried to get on a plane and while I was in line, a woman overheard what I had said to the ticket agent. She turned around and told me she was a cancer survivor, and then just reached out. And I reached out. I couldn’t help it, even if I wanted to. And she held me for a long time. A long time.

That was two hours ago.

Welcome to the club, she seemed to be saying.
And I love you. She seemed to be saying that too.
And everything’s going to be alright and maybe nothing will be alright. That too.

And I cried, right there in the airport in this woman’s arms. Next to me people were trying to upgrade to first class, the woman at the ticket counter was doing her hair, behind me the screens flashed with departures and arrivals.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know this – that I’m on the plane right now sitting between a woman and her elderly mother-in-law. The mother in law is wearing a man’s watch. She’s 84 or so. It’s her husband’s Timex. It’s all scratched up. Her husband died four months ago, she says, at the age of 94. They had just gotten married six years ago. The watch is scratched up, yes, and she says that he used to wear it everywhere, even to bed. She has scars on her face that she points to. The scars are what the watch left on her while she slept next to him, old and in love.

I asked her how they met, and they lived down the block from one another. Both recluses. Both artists – he a sculptor, she an artist too. And they found each other late late late in life. One night he finally came over and they talked all night long. When he finally left she couldn’t sleep. Instead she sat there crying.

“I was in love”, she said, “oh my god”.

I asked her who made the first move and she said that it just happened. And I believed her.

It was so beautiful, I told her, the willingness to be 84 and to fall in love with a man who is in his 90s or something. She said they spent two years renovating a house together…and then he died and now she’s here on the plane with his watch.

How many links did you have removed, I asked.
None, she said, and pointed to how it was not really on her wrist but on her forearm, and not wholly on her forearm but over her sweater – so that it fits.

And I think: We will adjust to this. Me and you and mommy and the baby that’s in mommy’s belly. We will push our watches up a bit and fasten them over something so that they’re tighter. And that something will be each other. That something will be what we have already. Our love, yes, but even more. The things we have that make us more than just ourselves. We will fasten our watches on top of those things and let the hands continue to move.

And we will hug people in the airport that we don’t know and let ourselves be hugged by people in the airport that we don’t know.

Then the woman and her daughter-in-law told me we’d drink some wine together and the man in the seat behind us gave us some drink coupons.

“I don’t drink,” he said.

I don’t know whether he had overheard or not. But it doesn’t matter. People started doing things…picking up slack where there was slack. Helping me, sure, tighten my watch around my wrist.

So we had three cups of wine and broke open the ridiculous little snack boxes they give you on the airplane and had cheeze and crackers with the red plastic stick for a knife, the same as when I was a kid, and laughed some at the wine and cheeze and crackers we were having on the plane.

And at the same time we were all crying.

Each woman put a hand on my wrist and I kept breaking into and out of shock. Able to have a conversation, unable to have a conversation. Thinking of you. Thinking of if you were kissing mommy. Thinking of mommy. Thinking of my students back in DC who I deserted. Thinking of mommy’s daddy and what it’s like to have a daughter who has lymphoma, and thinking of the event itself, the phone call that mommy must’ve answered and the news like a rock being thrown into water and the ripples spreading out in small, then giant, rings to me, to you, to savta to poppop, to carley, to greg mills, to the woman at the ticket counter, to meg, to jen then nick then a tree in their front yard, to sundae, to friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, to the night outside the plane window, to the stewardess, to the women beside me on the plane right now, to our seats, to my pants and my shirt and the old woman and then to her watch, to the scratches in the watch…and maybe that’s where it ends for now.

The old woman next to me sneezes, then again.

Mommy has been sneezing so much lately. Before I left we counted the sneezes together. 48, I think, before 10am. 48 sneezes. The day they did the biopsy, three days ago, she didn’t sneeze at all…stopping to let them to pull a lymph node from the side of her neck.

They came back within an hour and said it didn’t look bad.


I think something’s hitting the airplane, the old lady says.
Just air, I say.
No, pebbles, like pebbles, she says.
And I pat her arm and tell her that we’re ok.


They said it didn’t look bad, that it didn’t look like cancer. And so I leave on a plane for DC to teach two workshops and then come back home.

But then they call back two days later and they say – I don’t know what they say – but they say that they were wrong, maybe, yes, and that mommy needs to come in tomorrow, that she has cancer, that they need to start chemotherapy.

And so there’s that.

I’m just guessing. Maybe mommy told you already. She was too hysterical to say much of anything to me other than sob and hyperventilate and the only thing I could make out was “come home” in the universal language of tragedy that’s unmistakable, but I didn’t need to make anything out. I knew. As you probably know. As the women next to me know and the scratches in the watch definitely know. They’ve known for a long time.

The old woman’s jaw clenches.

She says it clenches when she talks about her husband sometimes. Sometimes she can just talk and sometimes it just gets her right in the throat. Catches on something. She says this because I had just grabbed my throat in the middle of talking about something, about Denver or mommy or you, and then I stopped, feeling myself about to completely break apart.

It’s a weird space to be in, this space when someone tells you something and your life as you know it stops and there are new rules for everything, what you’re allowed to say to people, or cut in line at the airport, or hug strangers in line. And the old woman next to me knows it. She understands the mix of roboticism, of needing to sit on the 4 hour flight home somehow and retain some semblance of decency, or composure….along with the inability, at times, to hold that composure. That the grief overcomes it, no matter what you do.

This is the first time I’ve traveled since my husband died, she says.

And then her hand reaches toward her throat. And she closes her eyes. And that’s when my hand moves. It moves and touches her on the wrist. That’s all.

Like the woman at the airport who holds me, I now hold this woman on the plane who is traveling without her husband, who is dead, with whom she fell in love with so late in life and cried all night after he kissed her because she never thought she’d find love again. Ever.

And we will find love again, me and you and mommy. We will find a place where we can hold each other and, if even for a moment, make things better. It will start in one hour, when I get home.

It may have started already.

30 responses to “letter to lydia

  1. deb

    you wrote one of the most tender, loving, open-hearted, sad, beautiful letters that has ever been written. read it often, whenever you feel scared, or lost, or overwhelmed, or just (but not “just”) sad. and i will read it often to remind myself of the magic that happens when daniel and pen and paper all happen to meet, and to remind myself how blessed is my precious grand-daughter to have you and lee for her parents.
    i love you

  2. Kevin

    danny, these are amazing words. I agree with your mother-magical things happen when you, pen, and paper happen to meet.

    i was in the operating room…fixing a small dog’s elbow when i found out. carley called and one of the nurses put her on speaker phone. I looked at the clock and everything stopped. it was 10:45 a.m. and my wife told me and everyone else in the O.R. that our dear friend had cancer. i don’t know what happened from 10:45 to 10:46…i just stood there looking at the phone on the wall. “Dr. McAbee, are you alright?” Of course I’m alright. Of course. I couldn’t cry. Not during surgery and not in front of the nurses.

    I finished the surgery. at 11:31 a.m. “Secret” McWilliams’ elbow was fixed. but i wasn’t. I spent the rest of the day in a place i had been before, and, a place i had never been before. memories of my aunt being diagnosed with non-hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 34 raced through my head. but this was my friend…my dear friend Leanne…the wife of my close friend Danny, the mother of Lydia, the girl who always makes me smile. No, I hadn’t been here before. and i was scared.

    on the drive home from work i cried. i cried for Lee, i cried for Lydia and Danny, and I cried for myself. But i dried my tears before i walked into the Weinshenker residence…determined to show everyone in that house that I could deal with this…to show Lee that everything was going to be o.k. I know now that i was kidding myself and everyone else in that house. We were all sad and hurt and scared and nobody was afraid to show it. i’ve never been around a group of friends like the Weinshenkers have. it is amazing. simply amazing.

    at 10:45 a.m. last Thursday, my life changed forever. our lives changed forever. and i realized a love like i’ve never seen before. we will all get through this.


  3. Carolyn Perla

    Dear Lee and Dan and Lydia, I join with so much love and support all those who surround you near and far. You are precious to me and have so much been on my mind since the snows of Colorado have enveloped you…now even more so as you fight the challenge of cancer. I am with a cancer survivor of 25 years and we are celebrating the sun and glory of the day on our bikes and laughing over dinner. It is possible. I want to celebrate every day with you. All my love, Carolyn

  4. Roberta


    what a letter! I couldn’t stop crying reading it. You really portray so well the emotional rollercoaster inside of you. You two are so lucky to have Lydia. She is a special girl and will keep you cheery.

  5. Marla

    I want to offer so much love, so much unconditional love, and let you all know that I, we, are here for you, for whatever and whenever and even if and just because and and and. I feel on the outside looking in, yearning to be close, and waiting for the time for that purpose under heaven.
    Yesterday we were in the woods and our friend Dan, upon mention of Lydia’s name, sang the whole song about Lydia the Tattooed Lady. I loved it. It made me smile. And at the end it goes You can learn a lot from Lydia.
    I just sat there and smiled, a moment of sun bursting through the clouds.
    Thank God for the great Light that is Lydia and for the great Love that brought her here to you, to us. Truly it is awesome and powerful and life altering and transcendant.
    Love Love Love,

  6. Laura

    Leanne, Daniel, Lydia,

    We love you.

    Laura, Steve, Kayleigh and Adam

  7. Vinca

    Love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love – it’s all I can say to a family so dear and so scared. I am sorry. – Vinca (a friend of Sarah Reines)

  8. Clarissa

    I am so incredibly moved by your words Leeane and Danny, just incredible writing, Leeane is right-this will be a book- Leeane’s story. I am praying, cheering with and for you-as you fight this battle. I feel particularly close to this-I have a three year old daughter, I just gave birth after four miscarriages. I will hang on every word as I get to witness you beating this-winning this fight.
    So much love to all of you!
    Clarissa (a friend of Vinca’s)

  9. Ann Kirschner

    Dear Liane, I am thinking about you and sending positive thoughts and hopes your way. We haven’t seen each other in a long time, but family is so important. So just know that your cousin in New York sends her love. Ann Kirschner

  10. Ann Kirschner

    Oops, I can’t believe I misspelled your name!!! Ann/Anne/Ane/Inane

  11. Martina McLaughlin

    Dan and Leanne –

    I was very saddened to hear about the hard times you are currently going through. It sure helps put everything in perspective. My thoughts are with you.


  12. Jeff

    Hi Leanne, Daniel and Lydia. My sister-in-law, Ilene, told us about what you are going through. You have our prayers. What a wonderful community of support online.

    — Jeff and family in San Jose

  13. This is my first visit into your life, and it has changed mine forever.

    I believe in the strength of love and I believe in prayer. Lee and your family are in mine.

  14. Ernesto Gutiérrez

    Dear Danny and Leanne:
    I just happened to arrive to this page, because the title caught my eye. I am a Lymphoma survivor myself. I am 25 years old and I live in Mexico City.
    Danny: Your letter has made me realize that having cancer is not only tough on the patient, but on the people around him/her. I had a hard time during chemo but I never fully realized how hard it must’ve been to my parents, brothers and close friends. Thanks for this eye-opener.
    Leanne: I can relate to how you feel. But having lived through such an awful experience myself I can tell you that there’s many good things to be learned from it. For instance, just by reading the comments on this post I have realized that there’s a whole lot of people who care a great deal about you and are just dying to see you actually give your Lymphoma a Beatdown. Which I am sure you will! Remember that you are not alone on this fight. Even if the people around you can’t fully relate to how you feel, they want to show you their support. And if that’s not enough for you, the internet makes it very easy for people like us to show our support to each other. Remember most of us are just an email away. There’s a saying here in Mexico which I was told while on chemo: “Las pruebas grandes son para los grandes.” Translated to english would be something like: “Great tests are given to achieve greatness.”
    Good luck with everything and remember that the love of the people around you is the best medicine.

    -Ernesto Gutiérrez

  15. Isn’t it dumb when someone says, “I’m speechless”?

    Yet I am.

    My father passed in October 2005 due to complications from lung cancer. The stories I read in your blog about your wife’s chemo experiences, the kindness of strangers, and the surreality of it all brought back the experiences my family and I went through.

    I will pray for you, and I will pray that others who know and don’t know you embrace you in the loving arms of understanding.

    (Sue Ellen Hegstrom)

  16. Mason

    We are listening. You are heard. Everyday we listen, we feel, we talk and are better because of it.

  17. jen

    I can’t even begin to pretend to imagine what you all are going through. What an amazingly open and heartfelt letter. I am sending positive vibes to you and your family…and am hoping that mariachi music is kicking that cancer’s ass!

  18. I found this via “Mommy Needs a Martini” and I’m typing through tears to tell you have much this post has touched me. I’m sending as many positive thoughts and vibes I can muster.

  19. Pingback: Blog of the Week: Following Lingling as She Gives Lymphoma a Beatdown : Clever Parents

  20. Helene


    I am crying so for you. You can beat this thing. You have too. I can feel the love in your family over the internet, through the cables and wires and onto the page of this blog. Your love will make you strong and pull you together, even while this horrible disease trys to rip you apart.

    Your words have moved me, and like “Sudiegirl” I am also speechless. I wish you strength and positive thoughts.
    All my love

  21. Kristi Olson

    Leanne has been my physical therapist over the last several years and I just learned of her cancer and this website a few days ago when I went to make an appointment. I am so touched by the beauty of the words and feelings expressed here, and I am so impressed with the strength of this wonderful family. Leanne is a highly skilled and truly caring therapist. I will keep her and Daniel and Lydia and the rest of the family in my thoughts and prayers and look forward to seeing Leanne again as my physical therapist. Daniel, your writing is inspirational! Leanne, you are beautiful!

  22. this made my cry.
    out of both joy
    and hope.
    you’re very brave.
    love and courage is a hard thing to beat.
    sending you love.
    i love all three of you.
    i can already say that
    and i only just discovered you.

  23. Pingback: Hell’s Half Acre » Happy Father’s Day

  24. Carolyn

    Hello dear ones, I am thinking so much about you all readying for tomorrow and whatever it brings and hoping with you for the best and readying to wish miss sweetie pie THE 3 year old birthday wishes. I love you and with a full heart am here! xoxoxoxoxoCarolyn

  25. E.O. "Red" Swearingen

    I am a 66yr old cancer surviver. My mother is a surviver, my sister is also as well as my aunt. Positive thought and a strong determination. Mind over matter. Had to write here because of the letter and replys. Seems as if it was very dusty here while ready as I had to wipe out my eyes many times. Love is the word and love I send to all.

  26. Dorothy

    I have come to believe that we all have “c” inside of us. Sometimes it manifest itself and other times, it remains hidden and a mystery for doctors.

    I have also come to the realization that as a Christian I have even greater “C” dwelling in me and that is CHRIST.

    You are BLESSED!

  27. Pingback: if we made a book about what REALLY happened, it would be a REALLY upsetting book.

  28. teamshep

    Danny – my fellow Rocky Mountain TNT Rock Star –

    Firstly – I’ve got tears in my eyes on this clear New Year’s Eve …

    I’m doing my third Walt Disney World Marathon for my cousin Bob who might have had lymphoma … but it never had him! To the last day, he kept putting amazing energy out into the world and helped others realize there is good energy – even in this world where people bicker about seats and employees don’t seem to care about the customers (I’ve seen that sceen one time too many when going away to races) – out there to be shared and to help the families of those dealing with hardships they never deserved.

    This year, I had more struggles than I care to think about but have gotten out to races racewalking in my white Captain shirt (I love that shirt). I walked Huntington Beach thinking of my friend Garreth who passed on and whose grandson said I’m a purple people walker so nobody else has to lose a grandpa.

    In 8 days, I leave for the Walt Disney World Marathon again to wear the purple. However, out of respect for those who challenge with cancer, I’m doing the Goofy – the 1/2 followed by the full. Goofy was my friend Garreth’s favourite Disney animal … mine’s Pluto … but they don’t have the Pluto!

    It’s nothing like having a loved one go through the private tunnels of cancer, or being that person. All I know is I have had too many friends have to go through this and I feel like a useless bystander … so I continue to racewalk in events … wearing my white TNT shirt … and smiling … sending good energy out.

    I’m rambling …

    Here’s a big hug for your family — and it’s forever regnerating … there for whenever you and your family need it … from the Goofy racewalker here in Denver!

    Hugs and Love – Dizzy Miss Lizzy


    or http://teamshep.wordpress.com

  29. Pingback: Hope and pain and survival « The Tao of Me

  30. Pingback: daniel « glass half full

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