Valentine’s Day is coming up and I’ve been thinking about the best love letter I ever read. It was written by Tommy, a private in the army who could barely spell his name.
The year was 1972. Tommy was jailed in the Fort Hood stockade awaiting discharge from the Army. I was on special assignment there as sort of a clinical social worker. Tommy was one of my clients. With an unblemished record and only six months left in the service, he went AWOL. A few weeks later the MPs found him in his hometown of San Antonio, working in a hospital as an orderly.
I liked Tommy. Everybody liked Tommy. He was a sweetheart. I asked Tommy why he went AWOL – a relevant fact not in the file – and his answer was simple. His grandmother needed him. She had been hospitalized and so he went to her. It did not occur to Tommy to check with his commanding officer for emergency leave or perhaps for an early out. His grandmother needed him 150 miles to the south and so away he went.
Tommy was arrested at the hospital where his grandmother had been treated. He was teaching himself to take blood pressures because he thought he could get paid more for that than just mopping floors. He was unfazed about being kicked out of the army because back in San Antonio he had a grandmother who still needed him, a job at the hospital, and the girl-fiancée he loved.
One afternoon I found Tommy at the empty mess hall, on his knees cleaning with a toothbrush the crack between the molding and the floor. I asked him why he was still there, given that KP had ended more than an hour earlier. He said that he wanted the mess hall to shine and he wasn’t going to leave until it did. To my eyes the place was already shining, but I had sense enough not to interfere. I left him there, toothbrush in hand, happy with his work and happy working.
A few days before his release, Tommy came to my cubicle with the letter to his fiancée. It was written in pencil on lined 5” X 8” paper. It’s been 46 years and I don’t remember the name of the girl, nor do I remember the letter word for word. But I can come pretty close. He had filled the entire page in pencil with a childish scrawl:
Miss you. Be home soon. I love you very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very much. Love, Tommy xxxxoooo
That last “xxxxoooo” slanted off into bottom right hand corner where it ran out of room.
“No, I can’t make this better,” I said. “It’s perfect. But I can make it sure it gets to her.” The envelope had his fiancée’s name as the addressor and his name as the addressee. I said something like, “the name of the person you’re writing to goes here and your name goes here.” Tommy was pleased to learn this new thing, and happy to hear that his letter was good and that it would soon be in the hands of the girl he loved.
Tommy’s love letter still moves move me. In my more jaded moments, I see romantic love as a rush of endorphins and neurotic projections destined to fade, more of an addiction than something rooted in the divine. Even when I am not as dyspeptic, I weary of the fact that love demands in us the inner strength to do the challenging work of surrender, self-discovery, and transformation. Love is not satisfied by cheesy cards of sentiment or by pie crust promises, the kind Mary Poppins warned against as easily made and easily broken.
But then I think of Tommy ‘s letter and I recall occasions, both recently and in the past, when my heart was pure and I said to another, “I love you very much” just the way Tommy did. There must be a timeless place where love sinks its roots, and, maybe, like the Dude, it abides. Maybe love just abides and the vicissitudes of my character cannot screw that up. Maybe this is true for everyone who has loved like Tommy. There is a whiff of redemption here and I am in need of it.
So I close my eyes, breathe; I remember how it felt to read Tommy’s letter, and how sweet it felt to say to someone “I love you very much.” This sweetness, however, is mixed with the sadness of loss, which has me think of my late daughter Claire. As always, the loss hurts but this time I chose not to turn from the pain. There is a memory from 1994. Claire has heard Love Is All Around, by the Troggs. She’s delighted that someone “did it before” the song showed up in Four Weddings and a Funeral. I tell her that the Troggs were great and that Love Is All Around was a favorite. And now in this moment, a quarter of a century later, I feel the connection we had and continue to have; I feel our hearts resonate; and I hear the tick tock percussion of the song, as the Troggs begin to sing in my head,
I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes
Love is all around me and so the feeling grows …
I let it grow. I feel it in my mind, heart, and belly. I feel myself surrendering, opening, resonating. And I feel a very deep peace as I unfold into an unplanned loving kindness meditation.
I feel love for myself, for Claire, for Ben, for my family, for everyone I have ever loved. I feel this love for everyone I’ve ever hated, disliked, resented, or held in contempt. I feel this love for everyone I have ever hurt and for everyone who has ever hurt me. I forgive and ask for forgiveness. I feel this love for all beings and wish that they all may be happy, joyous and free from suffering. I feel the mysteries pulling me into that place where I am able to find refuge in the spaciousness of the moment and its ineffable beauty. And here I abide for a while.
It becomes time for me to rejoin the day. I open my eyes and look around. I see that the world has been born anew, just in time for Valentine’s Day.