Forty Two Letters for my Daughter


Do you know what it feels like to be blindsided by your past self? When I planned out the letters to write before I died, I didn’t mean to make "future me" cry. Yet last weekend I was sitting at my desk, noodling away on the laptop, when I discovered an innocuous-looking document titled "For Her". I opened it. Oh, jeez.

Last year, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, I became fixated on recording parts of myself. I wanted to leave more than fading memories for my daughter after I was gone. To be clear: I had not received a terminal diagnosis. I was in treatment and my doctors were optimistic. But even pre-cancer, I faced my mortality with a severe lean towards the melodramatic.

The diagnosis turned me into some kind of emotional Tower of Pisa. So, with my "imminent death" in mind, I started on a list of subjects that I intended to write to. And that was called, "To Her".

Now it is 18 months on and I am clearly still here. Thankfully, I didn’t end up finding the need, or time, to write the 42 (I know!) letters that I had mapped out. Also - I haven’t seen PS I Love You, but I know the general premise, and I wanted to avoid becoming some sort of derivative Gerard Butler-esque ghost lady.

Regardless, the list reminds me of a time when I had to decide that death wasn’t going to stand in the way of me mothering my daughter. I figured I was probably going to mess her up by dying prematurely. The least I could do was use the foresight I had of this death, to pre-emptively ward off some of her future therapy.

‘Letters to be Opened When’

1. Your first period
2. Your last day of school
3. 16th, 18th, 21st, 30th and 40th birthdays
4. When things feel hopeless
5. When you have achieved something remarkable
6. A letter to your new stepmother
7. A letter to my grandchild

’Stories I Can Tell’
8. My First Kiss
9. The School on the Hill
10. Mum and Dad’s Divorce
11. The Three Amigos
12. My Childhood Bedroom
13. My First Car Was Called the ‘Heat Seeker’
14. I Was a Santa’s Helper (and other jobs)
15. What Heartbreak Felt Like
16. Running Away to London
17. My Twenties, My Thirties
18. Why I Hate Cats
19. The IVF Years
20. You Were Born to Paul Kelly
21. How We Chose Your Name
22. The Thrill of Work
23. Loving Your Father

My Bests
24. Songs
25. Meals
26. Films and TV
27. Books

My Nows
28. My favourite emojis
29. My most-dialled phone numbers
30. What’s in my makeup bag
31. What’s in my car
32. What do I have bookmarked

Questions I Can Answer
33. What would I have done differently?
34. How can you honour me?
35. How can I reassure you?
36. Do you need to apologise?
37. Do I need to apologise?
38. What am I most proud of?
39. What are my regrets?
40. Am I scared?
41. Am I sad?
42. How much do I love you?

I also wanted to combat any fake news that might end up flying around in the family recollections. Like having her think I preferred the Stones instead of the Beatles. Or only hearing my husband’s version of our first meeting (and therefore not know how piercingly blue his eyes looked on that sunny London morning).

I did my research when I was crafting this list, and read a lot of writing from people who had lost their parents when they were young. Many had wanted to ask questions like, "Are you scared?" - which made sense. But there were other, less expected questions like, "How can I honour you?" I wanted to answer them all, for her.

So I created four categories. There were the "Letters to be Opened When", which ran the gamut of first periods, bitter arguments, significant birthdays and second marriages (her dad’s, not hers … although that’s probably one to add to the list). There was also "Stories I Can Tell". This included some fun topics, like My First Kiss, Why I Hate Cats and How We Chose Your Name. There were some hard ones, like Mum and Dad’s Divorce, My First Heartbreak and The IVF Years. But most were happy, like Running Away to London, The Thrill of Work and Loving Your Father.

These letters were to be read after my death, remember. So I could be as self-obsessed as I wanted. Which is why I devoted an entire category of letters to My Bests (the obvious - songs, meals, films, books). But I also thought it would be interesting for her to see the minutiae of my life: my favourite emojis, my most-dialled phone numbers and what’s in my make-up bag. I tried to capture the tiny intimacies that I expect I’d miss about my own mum, if I hadn’t have had her for all these years. And finally, my final category of letters: "Questions I Can Answer".

These were the most important ones. These were going to be the hardest to write. But also probably the ones I could do my most good with. What would I have done differently? How can you honour me? How can I reassure you? Do you need to apologise? Do I need to apologise? What am I most proud of? What are my regrets? Am I scared? Am I sad? How much do I love you?

The full list ran, as I said, to 42 letters. Not one of them written. Recovery got in the way and I fixated on living rather than the opposite. Yet I choose to see the rediscovery of this list as a reminder that one doesn’t need to be terminally ill to capture a future conversation you mightn’t be here for. I’m going to start writing these letters and stories for her, regardless. I hope she will discover them in a dusty digital corner one day, many years in the future, and smile at memories we were lucky enough to make together.

~ This article was first published in The Age ~