In August, we shared our experience of acknowledging the passing of ten years since the death of our son, Jimmy, and the ceremony we borrowed from Amor Tolles’ wildly successful book, A Gentleman in Moscow.
A couple of months later, my wife Hilary bravely, courageously, wisely, intuitively…I could go on…reached out to Amor Tolles and sent him this incredibly beautiful letter.
This could be a simple fan letter, as your books have brought me hours of thought-provoking pleasure. But I wanted to tell you about how “A Gentleman in Moscow” has helped our family deal with the dreadful milestone of the tenth anniversary of our son’s death this past August 9th. Every year on that date we spend time together, talking about him and comforting each other, sometimes at the beach or away from home; always with carefully chosen food and wine. After the ninth year of this tradition, I made the bold statement that I was tired of giving this day so much power; that I was just ready to celebrate Jimmy’s November birthday and not relive the worst day of our lives over and over. The others vaguely agreed, probably thinking “Good luck with that!”
But then the Rostov family entered my life and provided the solution. The final 10-year toast and then be done!!! I’m not sure if this was your fictional creation or something you learned in your Russian research, but it’s brilliant. My husband Casey and I even managed to be in Provence in June sampling Chateauneuf-du-Pape at every opportunity. When the day came, not having the extended family of the Rostov’s, we gathered with longtime friends at a borrowed beach house in Del Mar, Ca. We raised our glasses with your story providing the wonderful choice of wine and tradition and burned that day off the calendar!
And this was so appropriate as our son Jimmy, aged 24, was an English major and writer as well; poems and screenplays with a future so bright. Hit by a car walking home late at night after a party. My husband actually kept much of his writing as, he admits, he thought Jimmy might be famous one day. Jimmy would have absolutely loved your books, and I was so grateful to have stumbled on such a worthy solution; one that he would be proud of.
My daughter Brittany and I started a comfort food blog to honor him, with the idea that when words are inadequate, food is a way to express love and support. I posted our plan for August 9th on our blog Heronearth.com, and my favorite response came with another quote from your book, which I now keep handy. How odd to quote your book back at you, but I want you to know how special these words are.
“He has said that our lives are steered by uncertainties; many of which are disruptive and even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity – a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to live all along.“
With Sincere Appreciation and Gratitude, Hilary Gauntt
As the days, weeks and months went by, Hilary’s hopes for a reply, or that her letter even landed in the hands of Mr. Tolles began to wane. And then, two days after Christmas, this arrived in her inbox.
Subject: A Long Overdue Response
December 27, 2018
For me, writing a novel is a little like living in a cave for four years. So, to receive a friendly reception from a seasoned reader makes it all worthwhile. But to receive a letter like this is something different altogether. As a parent, I can only imagine the experience you, your husband and your family have been through. To think that the Count (and my writing) has played some small part in providing you solace moves me deeply; and I take it as the highest of honors.
I hope that you have all had a close and comforting holiday season, and I wish you blue skies in 2019.
With Gratitude and Respect,
I’m so very proud of Hilary for reaching out to Amor—love that name (sorry)—and connecting with him, and he with her, in such a deep and powerful way. Ah…so many lessons embedded in these Moscow Letters (my label).
First, the false assumptions:
- The famous, the celebrities like Mr. Tolles, must receive thousands of letters like this and mine will simply get lost in the pile. No, they don’t and won’t.
- I shouldn’t bring up the subject of death, because that is too dark, or too selfish of me to drag someone we don’t even know into our grief. Wrong again. Death is a fact of life. We don’t talk about it enough. Sharing our experiences—our pain, our lessons with loss and suffering in a tasteful and relevant way is how we more deeply connect with our fellow human beings.
Eight months after Jimmy was accidentally struck and killed by an automobile driven by a young man on his way to work before dawn at a nearby golf club, Hilary and I went to see the play, Rabbit Hole, which earned its writer, David Lindsay Abaire, the Pulitzer prize. The play’s strikingly similar story-line moved us to write to the driver. A few months later, I reached out to Mr. Abaire and shared with him the significant role Rabbit Hole played in our healing. This was his reply:
As a writer, I hope to reach people, and to have my work connect with them in a significant way. I have no doubt that Jimmy hoped to do this in his work as well. I’ve been extra lucky to also receive some nice reviews, and some significant prizes. But even with all that, for as long as I’ve been doing this, I have never received something so humbling, and so gratifying, as the kind letter you’ve sent me.
I can’t tell you how moved I am to hear that Rabbit Hole may have played a role in you and your wife finally deciding to reach out to the young man involved in your son’s accident. Thank you for including the correspondence you shared with Peter. I found it both heartbreaking and uplifting. It was clearly important and helpful for all of you to reach out to one another, and I could not be happier that you’ve all found a little more comfort in doing so…. It is my deep belief that through connection we heal…. Your story is a testament to that idea. It’s also a testament to Jimmy and the legacy he leaves behind. He was obviously a special person who touched many lives. And by your sharing your family’s story with me, I too now feel connected in some way to the light that was and continues to be Jimmy. I thank you for that. It’s something I will cherish always. David
[See THE RABBIT HOLE LETTERS for the full story]
Mr. Abaire, like Mr. Tolles, acknowledged that writing is often a lonely, solitary, profession and, in spite of “nice reviews and significant prizes,” one can’t really know how their work is affecting the reader.
Award winning writers are no different than you and me when it comes to praise, compliments and gratitude—particularly at such a deep level. We all crave the intellectual, emotional, personal “hugs” and “pats on the back” for the work we do, the efforts we make and for the things we put out there.
And it doesn’t take a lot of energy or effort to tell someone “thank-you,” “you made an impact on my day, my week, my life,” “I love you,” or simply You Are Awesome—and in so doing significantly impact their life.
It does, for most of us I suspect—especially us guys—require a slight mind shift, a step out of our comfort zone, and trying on that new suit called “vulnerability.” But, oh man, there is no greater gift you can give someone, and the return on investment—not that you should expect one—priceless.
Thank you, Hilary, for once again teaching us that moments of supreme lucidity are within reach.
We join Amor in wishing you blue skies in 2019