Short answer: Yes, oh my God, yes! Here’s a little story of how I arrived at this conclusion.
My favorite (need I mention only surviving) Uncle, Stan Case, recently sent me a large packet of cards and letters that were sent to his father, my namesake, Vernon Case, during the last few weeks before his death in August of 1977. One might think ‘what an odd sort of thing to keep and then send to someone almost 40 years later.’ Not in my case, as my uncle knew only so well. I was very close to my grandfather, Gramps, as clearly reflected in the story I wrote about his life and posted in 2011 on Write Me Something Beautiful Vern Case. My uncle also knows I like receiving letters 40 years after they are written, such as the one my father, Grover C. Gauntt, Jr, wrote to me in 1968 when I was working on a coal mine project as an eighteen year old in Coalwood, West Virginia. The letter that didn’t reach my hands until 2008, three months after our 24 year old son, Jimmy Gauntt, was struck and killed by an automobile. That story is told in Steve Date’s film, The Letter.
Most of the messages to Vern, then 80, encouraged him to “get well” soon. There were some hand written letters, like the one from his brother-in-law, Sol Slinkard, that rambled on about the scorching hot weather in the Central Valley and the All-Indian Rodeo recently held in Porterville, California. One woman suggested Vern try mystical healing and offered to put him in touch with a specialist in West Los Angeles close to his home. All of them knew he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in May, yet no one mentioned his inevitable death. By the time the cards started rolling in, Vern was drifting in and out of delirium and hallucinations and he likely never saw them and, even if he did, I suspect he might have been bemused by the urgings to hurry back to his daily routines.
Nevertheless, I was grateful my uncle sent me the packet, because it reminded me to write this piece I’d been thinking about for some time.
In late November of 2010, I got call from John Davies. John, fifteen years my senior, was my law partner, mentor and close friend. He was also the defacto Godfather to Hilary’s and my children, Brittany and Jimmy. John was one of the first persons I called that morning in August of 2008 after we received the news our son, Jimmy, was dead. As told in the story Why I Believe in Angels and Miracles, John and his good buddy, San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, were instrumental in getting us into the Medical Examiner’s Office to see our son during those first few hours, notwithstanding their policy of not allowing viewings.
Casey and Jimmy Gauntt and John Davies (1991)
Now it was John’s turn to make the calls and let us know he, too, had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and the prognosis was not good at all. His family and considerable cadre of friends were devastated.
I mulled over my alternatives. I could follow the same M.O. I employed with my grandfather and a few others I’d known who suffered a terminal illness: Hope and pretend he will get better, start thinking about what to say in a eulogy, and under no circumstances talk about death and how I really felt about him.
As I admitted in How to Write a Beautiful Condolence Card to Someone Who Has Lost a Child, our son’s passing taught us much about death and grief. One myth in particular was completely blown out of the water. If someone loses a child or a loved one, it is better to not talk about their death; that will make the survivor think about it and make them more sad. Complete nonsense! That’s the only thing they can think about—it is the elephant they ride into every room they enter. And not acknowledging the loss and talking about it makes them feel even more isolated, the victim and depressed.
It is no different for someone with an end of life disease. They are completely consumed by their illness, and bombarded by all of the input from their health professionals, the frightened eyes and faces of their friends and family, not to mention the pain and suffering that has hi-jacked their body. They are probably reticent to talk about their impending death with you—they are concerned that it will upset you and make you sad. Right? You can indulge their “wishes” and keep the conversation light: the hot weather in the Central Valley or the recent rodeo in Porterville.
Or, you can seize upon one of the few remaining lucid moments you may have with your friend or loved one and take a plunge into what may be completely foreign and frightening territory— have a conversation about death and all of the feelings and emotions you have for this person that are damned up inside you.
I get how completely hard this is. It is unconventional. Most of us are trained and ingrained with the mantra that we should never acknowledge impending death. Death is evil, and bringing it up only gives it more power. If you talk with someone about death and, heaven forbid, splice in how you really feel about that person, that will no doubt speed up his demise and dash any hope for recovery.
But what to do? I talked to one of John’s oldest and closest friends and he was likewise struggling. He felt John would be very uncomfortable with a face-to-face, heart to heart chat. I concurred, but also knew that assumption had just as much to do with our own discomfort. We finally settled on a plan: we would each write John a heartfelt letter.
Here is the letter I composed and sent to John in early January of 2011. [Note: Kevin Monaghan was one our law partners and gave Jimmy a run for his money as a poet, Shakespeare authority and writer. And John Dale was one of Jimmy’s closest friends since grade school and a writing partner]
Accompanying this letter is a DVD of the finished version of Steve Date’s short film The Letter. Our family is humbled by the enormous amount of his time and soul Steve put into this project and we are proud to say he is now a good friend of ours.
I’ve been thinking a lot about you and what I want to write to you. I outlined a poem, but I’m not Kevin Monaghan. I made a list of all of the topics that I should cover, and was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it. I was reminded of John Dale’s line that brought the packed house down at Jimmy’s memorial service: “If this were anyone else, I would have asked Jimmy to write this for me, so I would seem a much better writer.” But, I did ask Jimmy, and the message I got was “What would John Davies do?” Get to the point, be efficient, and don’t waste time or words.
Because of everything you’ve done for Jimmy, Brittany, Hilary and me, because of all that you mean to me, because of the huge place in my heart that is for you, my only regret about this DVD is that your picture is not on the cover side-by-side with those other three boys. That would complete the picture and the story. The Letter is all about love, and that love lasts and lives for a long, long time. I love you, John, like a father and a brother. I’ve always loved you, and I always will. I look forward to running with you and those other boys on the cover for a long, long time. Know it.
Cover photo of the DVD The Letter, ages 23 to 25
I received this reply a few days later on my birthday.
I hope very much your 61st, the year if not the day, sees some let up in the troubled tide you have had to endure the last couple of years. God knows you deserve better, and in the long run it will be so.
Your letter means more to me than I can express. It goes in my memoirs, as a treasure for eternal safekeeping. I am honored to be like a father and a brother to you, as I have always felt the reciprocal are filled by you.
With love for you and yours.
John Davies was freed from the pain and the body that could serve him no more four months later. His memorial service was held in a convention hall in San Diego and barely large enough to accommodate the thousands who came to pay their respects. Over half of John’s life was devoted to public service and one of his “jobs” was judicial appointments secretary to two Governors of California. He played a key role in the appointment of over eight hundred superior, appellate and Supreme Court judges and justices, and I’ll be damned if they didn’t all show up for his service.
John’s good friend—the one I hatched the plan with—gave a wonderful, emotional, eulogy for his buddy. He spoke so fondly of their friendship of over 50 plus years, and how much John meant to him and had done for him. He spoke of their love for one another. It was deeply moving.
A couple of months later John’s friend and I had lunch to continue to mourn the loss of our pal. At some point I asked him, “Did you and John ever talk about the letter you wrote to him?” A mask of pain took control of his face.
“Casey, I never wrote John. I just couldn’t do it. I will regret that the rest of my life.”