It was 5 a.m. and all the heaviness of sleep had already left my eyes an hour before my alarm was set to go off.
Sometimes when I wake up like this, there’s a song lyric in my head. A melody I end up humming all day. Or an image from a dream which sparks a memory, possibility, or a regret. And then there’s times when I wake up with an idea.
It’s happened enough that I’ve now got a running list of ideas on the Notes section of my phone, half typed up from the early hours of the morning. They’re like dreams; if I don’t make the effort to remember them immediately, they’re lost to the black pit.
I must’ve been thinking about him in my sleep. That’s my best guess. Though we weren’t friends, we went to church at Redeemer together for at least the past five years. We often saw each other at church events. I saw his wife at Aldi a month after Alba was born, and we talked about the impending lockdown, managing life with one spouse’s income, babies, and small groups. It was long enough ago that I remember the virus was here and we weren’t all wearing masks.
He was younger than me when he died suddenly. He left behind a wife and two young kids. And though I did not know them well, I grieved for them. Because I thought of what it might be like now to leave behind Haley, Alba, and my yet-to-be-born son.
It was an impossible thought; one that tore at something inside my chest, pressed the glands above my eyes so I cried in a very quick and ugly way. It is a terrible thing to think of death this young, this healthy and hopeful of decades I still expect God to write for me.
In an email sent by the church after his death, his wife requested that people write letters to her children about their dad and send them to an address she had created. Of course, I thought. They won’t remember him. Again something tore inside of me. If I died today, all Alba and her brother would have are pictures and stories of me from their mother and family and friends who share them every year, on the anniversary of my death, to Facebook.
Three years ago, my brother lent me a copy of Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air. The book was devastating, written as Kalanithi was dying of lung cancer at 37—just five years older than I am today. When he died, Kalanithi left behind a wife and daughter. His is not the only memoir written for others while dying: there must be something about knowing your life will soon expire that inspires you to document that life so that people will not forget it. I remember thinking then, like in the film The Bucket List, that if I knew I would die and had time I would write letters and stories to my children. They would always know their dad, how he loved them.
When I woke up, I decided that I had to start writing now. I may die an old man, with children and grandchildren at my bedside. I may day like Kalanithi, with the ticking of a countdown twenty-four, twelve, six, three, zero months away. Or I may die like him—unexpectedly, with no time to react. No time to leave behind pieces of myself for my family.
I titled the Google doc “Dispatches from Dad.”* It is in a folder Haley has access to with all my other writing. Every few days, I’ve written little notes about what is happening in our family. Like anything done before a very significant moment, they are mundane: talk of this virus, of potty training failures, Hurricane Ida, grandparents, our sluggishness to ready the baby room, the distinctively enormous heads of their father and all Canevers, which they’ve, as evidence so far indicates, inherited.
Even though they are unremarkable, I imagine the kids may one day cherish these dispatches, as I do my parents’ and grandparents’ photo albums, which I rummage through every time I’m home.
In the end, it may not matter whether I die before they can remember me, much later, or these become just things they read through as they get older and fall in love, marry, and have their own kids.
It should have never taken me this long to start. If you’re reading this, and have people you love who love you back, I suggest you start writing, too.
In my case, I suspect it’s because of my past expectations for what my writing should be. I was never good at journaling. My notebooks are all empty beyond the first 10 pages. Writing, in the years since I’ve been paid to do it, is a product. To be done for others in order to impress your brilliance onto the world. Great writers—whether poets, journalists, novelists—are looked up to, documented, invited to fancy dinners and speaking engagements, and given bag loads of money for everything they create.
But I don’t see it that way anymore.
What I write on this blog will be forgotten—possibly before you even click away. The links to my other stories on the internet will break and my newspaper and magazine clippings will be lost or damaged. Unless I achieve some great fame, you will all forget me.
Will my wife remember the poems I’ve written her since our first weeks together as a couple? Will my children remember the poems and letters I write for their births and birthdays? Will they remember these dispatches?
I hope so. And that, more than anything else, is what matters most to me—not so much as a writer, but as a husband and father, the two much more important roles I play every day of my life.
*Dispatches were a staple of journalism for years before social media changed the way we consume news. Before the internet and livestream technology, dispatches served as reports from specific places by a first-person narrator. They were intended to transport the reader to the place and moment the writer was in (a tenet, really, of any good writing). From 1937 to 1939, Ernest Hemingway wrote dispatches from the Spanish Civil War for newspapers in the United States. One of my favorite stories, The Lost City of Z, originally published as a New Yorker article by David Grann, tells the story of Percy Fawcett, who partly funded his adventures into the Brazilian jungle by writing dispatches for British newspapers.