i was dragging two kids and some bags in the door. an envelope stuck out, lemon yellow, not the business kind. a belated Easter card, i thought, or an early birthday card for Oscar. i pulled it from the box, went to shuffle it under the electricity bill.

then i saw the writing. and the name.

she wrote me back.

in December, in a fit of what some might call romanticism, i sent my one and only Christmas card to an address in Ontario whose recipient i knew only by name. for five Christmases, we’d received a card for the former residents of our house. each of the five years saw the handwriting on the card get a little shakier. something in it reminded me of my grandmother.

i wished Mrs. F a Merry Christmas, and told her where the former owners of our house live now. on a whim, i went further. i included a picture of my kids, and told her how i’d mailed Christmas cards for my grandmother every year when i was younger, and how she’s reminded me of what i’d forgotten: that cards are meant to be a way of reaching out. i thanked her. and i smiled and went on my merry way, my little grinch heart a few sizes less tight.

today it sprang free from its confines entirely.

an Easter card, and a picture of an elderly woman standing beside a blond lady in her 50s, behind a man about the same age. an elderly man perches in front. a note, too, typed in a script font and signed in full.

she wrote:
Dear Bonnie and family -

It took me a long while but I am now getting around to telling you how much I enjoyed getting your lovely Christmas card with a picture of your children. Your note really moved me – it was not just letting me know of my mistake, but giving me the possibility of a new family.

It’s hard to put into words my feelings but if you are agreeable, I would like to try to be an Honorary Great Grandmother to your children. It is not very likely that I will get down to The Island again as I am 87 and in excellent health but with legs and feet that make it difficult to do much traveling. But there is always mail, phone, and email. If you would let me know birthdays it would be a pleasure for me to send cards then and at other special occasions. Does this sound like something you would like to be involved with? I’m not trying to replace your grandmother, but it might be fun for us both to keep in touch. And if you should get up to this part of the world I have room for overnight visitors.

Think about it – no harm in trying!

Yours sincerely,

E_____ F______

P.S. Please excuse the typed letter but I have “familial tremor” and sometimes my writing is legible and sometimes not.

P.P.S Julius (the picture identifies the younger man in the picture as her son, the blond as his wife, and the elderly man as Julius) and I have been separated since 1983 and he lives in M______.

i wept.

an 87 year old woman whose stray Christmas card i very nearly threw out invited me – a complete stranger – to stay at her house. with my rabble of a family. and told me a great deal about hers, in one photo.

we’ll likely never go. and i need a new penpal like a hole in the head. but also maybe like a hole in my heart, in the place where one never gets too old to need a grandmother.

because i understand that this is extension is not about what comes of it, whatever that may be. it is about the reaching out, the saying i am here, and i see you there, fellow traveler. and i nod.

i will write Mrs. F back and say, yes. you bet. your picture’s on the fridge. and again, thank you for reminding me.
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almost three years ago now, i reached out – with the thin words that come struggling in when things are dire and wrong – to somebody else, one of my first blog friends out here in this fellowship of travelers. she had written something a few months before that had stayed with me, her positivity a light i kept coming back to.

i hadn’t seen nothin’ yet.

when i wrote that post three years ago, i didn’t know that Whymommy‘s real name was Susan. i didn’t know much about her except that she was a scientist and a mom of two little boys, and that she was, in a way i was only beginning to understand as i forged tentative “real” relationships with so many of you i’d met out here in the ether, my friend. and i hoped that the reaching out would be some small thing to remind her that she was cared for, even by people who’d never met her.

since then, she’s become both a very real – if still never yet met in the flesh – friend, and my unintentional teacher.

and like Mrs. F did today with the generosity of her offering, she’s made me weep. when she had to give up BlogHer after her diagnosis that summer of 2007, she offered me her ticket. i couldn’t go – i’d just started a brand-new job, had no spare $1000 or holidays for a trip to Chicago – but i sat at my desk at work the day i got her email snorting back tears like a big wet hen. and the following summer, when after months of bedrest – months Susan could relate to, having being laid up flat on her back almost her entire pregnancy with Little Bear – i got far enough along with Posey to finally dare anticipate this longed-for daughter, she sent me a box of baby girl clothes and trinkets, bought for the girl child her firstborn turned out not to be. they were packed in tissue, as if each one had been gently patted, then let go. she’d had her ovaries removed – a preventative measure – the week before.

the little white and pink wooden basket she sent sits by Josephine’s crib. Oscar – a budding collector – kept ferreting pinecones and chestnuts away in it last fall, until i had to explain to him that his sister could choke on them, and empty it. but i thought nonetheless that the scientist in Susan might approve of the use we’d put it to. this past weekend, with the weather finally decent, my girl collected her own first pinecone. what she didn’t eat of it is in the basket.

Susan found out a week ago that her cancer has returned. it’s breast cancer, though she has no breasts anymore. it’s metastasized to the lymph nodes under her arms; six tumours. she will have them out tomorrow.

Susan has taught me, in a way i never understood before, why cancer research matters so much. there is no research yet that can tell her conclusively whether to have the tumours out tomorrow, or start chemo instead. if she did start chemo, there is no research to tell cancer patients when maintenance chemo can be stopped.

there are not enough answers. not yet.

i want there to be answers for Susan. but i don’t have any. none of us do.

all we have is the capacity to reach out. to get the word out about research. to tell Susan we love her, and we’re thinking of her. to tell her how she matters to us. to tell her to kick ass and walk tall.

Susan’s friend Jean of Stimeyland is hosting Team Whymommy’s Virtual Science Fair today.

friends of Susan’s, new and old, flesh and ether and all grades in between, are invited to join in. we’ve all done a little something special with our kids this past week, something with Susan the enthusiastic and inquiring scientist in mind.

for us, here, it was this.

seeds. the faith that life will spring. that the nod at the earth is worth the time, just as people, sometimes, are worth reaching out to. that come summer, there will be big beefy tomatoes. and possibly more cauliflower than we can ever eat in this life.

i still hold out a bit of hope that i may finally, belatedly, make it to BlogHer after all this August. and if i do, i better find Susan there. because i will have tomatoes for her.