Here's an example of how powerful (and difficult!) personal letter writing can be. The following is the story of what happened to co-author JacLynn's husband, Bruce, as he struggled to write his son a meaningful message about graduation day:
Two weeks ago, I sat with my wife at our son's high school graduation. For lots of reasons, it was an emotional time for us. My mind reeled back to all that had led up to this moment. I remembered the day Peter was born, the afternoon he was diagnosed with learning disabilities, the time a team of psychologists told us we should lower our expectations of what our son could achieve in life. And all those years when we struggled to help him spell and add and memorize! Now, here I was holding the graduation program where Peter's name was entered next to the words "Cum Laude" graduate.
I leaned toward my wife and whispered, "I'm going to buy a special graduation card for Peter and write something in it that he can keep." JacLynn nodded at me and smiled.
A day later I bought a card for our son. Inside it I wrote this:
You've worked so hard to get to this moment.
Congratulations, I am very proud of you!
When I showed my wife what I'd written, she tried to smile. "OK, what's wrong?" I asked. She told me that what I'd written was "very nice" but that it seemed as though any man might have written it to his son. She said she thought I ought to explain what made me want to write this card in the first place. And that I ought to say more about how I feel about my son, mention some of the things that I really love about him and tell him how I had felt at his graduation. I decided that maybe she was right. Here is what I added:
"At your commencement, I found your name listed among those who'd achieved academic excellence. I was impressed not only by your accomplishments but also by your ability to keep this a surprise. You have always made me proud, and on this occasion, you did so again."
I showed my wife the words I'd added. I thought she'd be as pleased as I was. She wasn't. In fact, she said my message made me sound like a lawyer. "Well I am a lawyer," I snapped back. She sighed and said, "Yes, but not to Peter. To him you're a dad. Wouldn't it be better to write to him the way that you talk to him? I mean, do you really think you'd describe his awesome grades as 'academic excellence'? I don't think so!"
I shrugged and walked away but I knew she was right. So I gave it another try.
"When I sat in the audience at your high school graduation ceremony last week, I grinned the whole time. I can't believe that you kept us in the dark about being a 'Cum Laude' graduate.
What a wonderful moment it was for me to open the printed program and read your name right there in the special honors section. I loved the surprise! You have given me a special memory that I will always cherish.
Peter, I love you no matter what, but I also admire you because you are so willing to tackle life's challenges, even the ones that seem overwhelming, like succeeding despite your learning disabilities. No one appreciates how hard you've worked more than your mom and I do. I am so glad that I am your father."
I was just about to sign this card when my wife peeked over my shoulder and said, "Surely you want to write about some of the things that Peter went through to get to this special day."
She was starting to bug me. But I gave it a shot and added these words:
"Remember that day when you threw your books across the kitchen and shouted, 'I can't do this! It's too hard! I quit!' I didn't know what to say to you. I wasn't even sure we should let you stay in a school where you felt so much pressure. But then, very quietly you picked up all your books and sat back down to try again. You showed such courage that day, and you bring that quality to everything you do.
I still recall when you were about three, you had a bad case of the stomach flu and lay on the bathroom floor in your Superman pajamas. You looked up at me and said, 'Daddy, my superpowers are failing!' Well guess what son, your superpowers have never been stronger. You are the cum laude kid supreme!"
Feeling pretty good about myself, I showed what I'd written to JacLynn again. She smiled and said "That's lovely."
I looked up at her and said, "Buuuuuut ...?"
She said she wished I would add something to tell Peter what I hoped he'd get from my words. I grabbed my card back from her, glared and went off.
A few days later, I showed her my fifth (and final I mean it, JacLynn!) draft where I added this:
"Peter, my father used to write notes to me—especially on Father's Day. His notes said things like, 'I know you're supposed to honor me today, but I feel so fortunate to have you as a son that I wanted to thank you and tell you how much I love you.' I've kept all his notes, and now that he's gone, they mean an awful lot to me. But when I started to write this for you, I wanted to take what my father had given me and add something more to it for you.
I've never done this before. So, I am sitting here at my desk feeling pretty awkward. But I'm telling you this so that someday, when it comes time for you to write to your own children, you will try to add even more to what you pass along to them. Then, this could turn into a family tradition. I'd like that and I bet Poppy would, too. I love you and I am proud that you are my son.
Jaclynn Morris and Paul L. Fair, Ph.D. are the authors of From Me to You: The reluctant writer's guide to powerful, personal messages.
This article originally appeared in the February 2001 issue Personal Journaling.