Letters from Home: Commentary by Tech. Sgt. Curtis

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Nyssa D. Curtis
  • 913th Airlift Group

To send a letter is a way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart.   -Phyllis Theroux

My life is often spent in moments of quiet contemplation, pausing on purpose to reflect in remembrance of moments I keep like mementos in my memory. Life hasn’t been easy. Life hasn’t gone as planned. However, in the midst of this unease and uncertainty, I cling to hope found in a red binder, holding treasures of my past more precious than gold and worth more to me than anything money could buy. Its story began with my journey into the Air Force.

The United States Postal service delivers 180 million pieces of mail each day. Through snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night, nothing prevents the mail from being delivered. It is a grand feat, and one that I didn’t really appreciate until October 2009, when a few of those pieces of mail came my way to San Antonio, Texas. In that moment, I discovered how a letter could change a life.

Much like the route of mail, life takes us down many roads before we reach our final destination. However, in life we aren’t given a map or directions. Instead, we are left to choose our own path, with each step hoping that the chosen path will lead us to the place we were meant to be. Some decide to stop, look back, and wonder; I chose to move forward.

Glancing upon my red binder, I am reminded of this fact because on October 13, 2009, my journey began with a step that led me to this binder. It was a road that led me to day one of Air Force Basic Military Training.

I didn’t realize it then, but my life and the world as I knew it were about to change forever. Little did I know what else would change…

Before these changes took place, there was one comforting consistency in my life, my mom. More than a mom, she was my mentor, my inspiration, and my motivation. Most importantly though, she was my very best friend. She radiated happiness and positivity wherever she went with an infectious smile that could brighten anyone’s day. I was not the only one who thought this. I have vivid childhood memories of mom’s friends telling me that she was the nicest and most positive person they had ever met, which was no exaggeration. She had a heart like no other, and her kindness knew no bounds. She took homeless people out for ice cream, she gave rides to hitchhikers, she volunteered with non-profit organizations in her limited free time, she donated the little money she had, donated platelets for cancer patients, she worked tirelessly in two jobs, and even through this busy schedule, she made time to read to me every night, instilling a love of literature and learning that has helped me immensely in my life. She did all these things with a constant smile on her face without complaint.

We talked for hours on the phone, often about nothing at all. We would shop all day, often without buying anything. We went out for ice cream, even on cold December days. I never imagined a world without her. She served as a guiding compass for every major decision in my life.

Mom also taught me values of kindness, honestly, and integrity, which I try to emulate. One thing I could never quite get right was her same level of joy. I once asked her, “Mom, how do you stay so happy all the time?”, and in her sagely motherly wisdom she told me, “I choose to see everyone as my friend. No one is a stranger.” I never forgot that message and turned out to be the key to getting me through what was to come in the future. More on that later.

When it came time to make the next step after graduating college, it was her guidance and support that provided me with the momentum, courage, and peace of mind to start my next chapter. That decision was joining the United States Air Force. 

When I was 24 years old, I thought I had my life figured out. I was a college graduate and had a long list of academic accolades that was impressive enough to grant me an acceptance letter into graduate school. I was a track and softball athlete with shiny medals to prove my importance. I volunteered, went to church, owned a cool motorcycle, worked a decent job, and had the support of my mom to back me up. Life was great. However, even with all these things, I felt something was missing. It sounds a little corny, but I felt a calling, a moment destiny tells you to do something bigger than yourself. All my life, my mom had emphasized how short life is and insisted that I not waste a single moment. Not wanting to waste another moment, curiosity and wild ambition brought me into a military recruiter’s office. I believed I was surely destined to become the next Captain America and save the world.

I was about to be humbled.

I met my first Air Force recruiter after speaking with recruiters from the Army and Marine Corps. Each made valiant efforts to convince me that their branch of the military was the best. Honestly, they all sounded great, but the Air Force stood out in the fact that their recruiter made the least amount of effort to persuade me to enlist, even sounding as if he didn’t want me to join. He explained the challenges involved in enlisting into the Air Force and admitted to me that I may not even make it. Well, challenge accepted Mr. Recruiter. Six months later, I took the very first flight of my life as I made my way to basic training.

My mom didn’t want me to enlist. She was worried, as I’m sure all mothers are when their child swears an oath to risk life and limb for their country. However, she knew my heart was in the right place and realized that I had to do this. Eventually, as she always did, she supported me through this pivotal moment and expressed how proud she was of me. She and I both fought back tears as I left for basic training.

People told me that basic training would be a rewarding, unforgettable experience. They also warned me it would be brutally challenging, calling the experience a psychological mind game and a physical challenge that one must find inner strength and courage to outwit, persevere, and overcome.

This sounded easy. I was, after all, a psychology major well-versed in the art of mind games and an accomplished athlete capable of handling these physical demands. How difficult could this be?

I would soon find out that I should have listened to the advice a little more.

At around midnight, I arrived at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, home to the beginning of every enlisted Airman's Journey into the Air Force. This was the first time I visited a military base. In the pitch darkness of the night, I was in awe of the eerily lit massive static plane displays as we drove through the gate. The bus was ominously quiet, everyone bracing for the unknown challenges before us. It was the last goodbye to our civilian lives and the first step to our new adventure. When the bus stopped, an intimidating man in uniform wearing a large billed cap entered the bus. He was not there to welcome us nor did he look happy to see us. He opened his mouth, and everything got loud.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but nothing prepared me for the chaos that ensued on that first night. There was yelling, screaming, people telling me to “MOVE!”, and I was called names I never knew existed. We were escorted through the litany of military processing and introduced to our training instructors, the people in charge of molding us into Airmen. I was then allowed to make a short call home, with instructions to only relay the message that I made it safe and to provide my postal address to receive mail. My mom answered the phone when I called. I gave the information as instructed and bravely snuck in a quick “I love you” at the end of the call, which I was immediately reprimanded for (It was worth it). I was then issued a green duffle bag full of essential items, which included the red binder I’m writing about today.

The next two days were pure hell. I’ve never been imprisoned before, but basic training was the closest feeling I have ever had to being a prisoner. In fact, at that time I probably would have preferred being a prisoner just to get out of basic training. Basic training was certainly not easy, and in the first few days of being constantly yelled at, failing at my uncoordinated marching ability, subsisting on scarfing down as much food as I could in three minutes or less, and donning my new lovely shade of green military issued wardrobe, I became miserably homesick and questioned my ability to do this.

I needed a lifeline.

I was about to get one.

Unbeknownst to me while at torture camp, back at home my wonderful mother had made it her personal mission to ensure that I received a letter every single day. It all began like this:

October 14, 2009:

This Is letter number 1, and I really hope you get it. You read your address off really fast. First off, how are you? I was glad to hear you made friends while flying. It's relieving to me to know that you didn’t spend the long layover alone and scared (well, I was scared for you, how’s that?) Take care of yourself. You know who you are; don’t let anyone make you feel any less. I thank God every day for you and am happy you have life experiences to keep you grounded. Love you lots, sweetie (enjoy correcting my poor grammar-I know you will-LOL).” ~Excerpt from letter #1

Without fail, the letters trickled in day after day. Mail call felt like Christmas. The letters were always simple, with topics such as the weather, running errands, the daily news, or even what she ate that day. The substance didn’t matter. The letters provided me with the security of knowing that I was not alone nor forgotten. Every word on the page came from my mom’s heart, to her brain, to her fingers as he typed out each sentence, and I would study every single element of every letter before going to sleep at night. These letters reminded me that someone loved me, and somehow that made everything ok. I placed every letter into my red binder for safe keeping. These letters became my lifelines, providing a heartbeat of hope and a promise of better days to come. Even through the most brutal days of training, reading messages like this would lift my spirits:

October 20, 2009

“I want to know, and I’m afraid to hear how basic training is going for you. I know you well enough to know that once you start something and set a goal for yourself, woe to the person who tries to change your mind. So, I’m staying cautiously optimistic. Take care, sweetie. Everyone in Arkansas and Missouri loves you. I really hope for everyone’s sake in Texas that you are getting your morning, noon, and evening coffees.” ~Excerpt from Letter #3

Just to clarify, I was getting zero coffee and learned the power of caffeine withdrawals. They are, in fact, very real and extremely painful.

Eventually, things did get better. I got better. I adapted to the challenges presented to me one step at a time, one day at a time, and one letter from home at a time.

The distance between my hometown and Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas is 733 miles. My mom had a way of bridging this gap and home felt not so far away as I read letters like this:

December 01, 2009:

“Okay, your sister sent me a u-toob video about “old people” not acting their ages. It was really cute in that they elderly persons were jumping in water puddles (like kids do), riding bikes, and doing cute kidsy things. I liked it, but does your sister really see me as that old?! Perhaps the better question is, does everyone see me as an old person who doesn’t act their age?! Maybe I don’t want the truthful answer. Well, this letter has flown by. Either I had a lot to say and it flowed out quickly or I have ignored my job. It could be a combination of both.” ~Excerpt from Letter #20

And, no that is not a typo. She did actually spell “YouTube” as “u-toob”. I laughed hysterically at this when I first read it. I still do.

Every night after lights out, I hid underneath the covers of my bunk and used my flashlight to reread all my letters. Doing this was a big risk, as staying up past lights out was strictly forbidden and anyone caught would be severely punished and publicly humiliated. It was worth the risk. Through the letters, I felt like I was home.

Mom signed off every letter the same way: “Stay safe, stay strong, stay happy, and most of all stay yourself! Love you more, Mom.” I envisioned home in my mind and could almost hear her say these words to me. I knew she was proud of me, and this fact lit a fire within me, filling me with a profound and unrelenting motivation to conquer any obstacle placed before me.

No amount of torment, pain, or fear inflicted upon me could stop me now. That is the power of a letter from home.

November 17, 2009:

Have to tell you, every time you write Grandma, she posts the fact on her Facebook—so sweet. I sometimes take your letters to her house so she and Grandpa can read them. It makes them so happy. I keep your letters in my purse; it makes me feel close to you. I hope you know that you are always in my thoughts and prayers. Talking about Facebook, I laughed so hard the other day when your sister posted on her wall, “My sister can beat up your sister.” HA! Gotta get back to work, so stay safe, stay strong, stay happy, and most of all stay yourself! Love you bunches, from your mom” ~ Excerpt from letter #14

In this highly evolved technical age of instant communication, the value of a simple letter seems lost. However, there’s some unexplainable and unquantifiable measurement of happiness that derives from receiving a letter from a loved one while serving in a distant location. In my military career, I went on many adventures and through every step of the way, mom and I continued to write. I took many things for granted before basic training, but this experience made me realize the value in the small gesture of a letter from home. I suppose in losing a piece of my civilian life, I gained a greater appreciation for what matters most.

But I was about to lose something else.

One day my mom received a different kind of letter. This one was from her doctor, confirming a diagnosis we didn’t want to believe. Cancer… for such a small word on a page, it holds such weight. No amount of training prepares you for that letter. For the first time in my life, I felt entirely powerless. After receiving this news, Mom came to live with me because first and foremost I insisted on taking care of her. Secondly, it was practical; I lived closer to cancer treatment centers. Lastly, I was terrified to let her out of my sight. Our new normal involved doctor’s offices, chemotherapy, overnights in hospitals, multiple surgeries, and introductions to specialist after specialist. Through all of this, mom continued to have an unbelievably positive attitude. Chemotherapy made her sick, weak, and constantly in pain. There is no worse feeling than the helplessness of seeing the one you love in pain and being unable to do anything about it. I would have traded places with her if I could. I wished for a miracle. It did not come.

Six months later, she was gone.

Her letters saved my life during my military career.

I wish I could have saved hers.

Nothing prepares you for holding the hand of the person you love the most in life while they are hooked to a ventilator. I listened to the rhythm of a heart rate monitor ticking every precious beat, knowing that these will be the last. Nothing prepares you for the moment a doctor asks you if you are ready to remove life support. It was and will forever be the worst day of my life. I remember walking out of the ICU that day, June 18th, 2014. I left the hospital with one less person than I had arrived with and felt as if I were floating and observing the world from above. Nothing felt real. I watched people go about their lives as if nothing had happened, when it felt like mine had ended. The world felt like a different planet.

  Next came the funeral, another first in my life since I had never lost anyone before. What a cruel way to experience it for the first time. As I stood observing the funeral surroundings, it soon became apparent how much my mom was loved. Masses of people showed up to our tiny hometown church in Elizabeth, Arkansas. In fact, some had to stand outside because there was no room left in the church. Every person in attendance, many of whom I had never met, approached me and told me in great detail of how my mom positively impacted their lives. Their beautiful stories offered proof that my mom had truly lived a life well lived and would live on in the lives that she touched. It became apparent that the world is a better place because she lived.

After the funeral, I began the delicate, teary process of going through her possessions, every piece a memory and a reminder of the person I had loved more than anything in the world. I packed clothes with the memorable smell of her favorite perfume still distinctly present, I picked up mementos of our shopping adventures, and I boxed all the pictures of happier days long gone. I also found something else, something unexpected. I discovered a shoe box sitting on the shelf of her nightstand. Inside it, I found every letter I wrote to her, each letter numbered in the order it was received. Much like my red binder, she had used this box as her own treasure chest of letters. In that moment, I looked to the sky and knew she was smiling down on me, telling me everything was going to be ok.

Mom’s life may have been cut short, but what she lacked in years of life, she made up for in life added to her years, which is perhaps the real secret of life. She knew this all along and was trying to teach me through her letters. Her years were indeed packed with life and lived to the fullest. She embraced precious moments, spread cheer to others, and made the most of an asset we tend to take for granted, time. I can’t think of a better way to live, and this is how I strive to live my life—one life for the two of us. She was and will forever be my role model and inspiration in this way. 

When I left Active Duty, I reapplied to graduate school. I promised her I would. I keep my promises. In my application, I used the eulogy I wrote for her as one of my required writing selections. It was a risky move. I didn’t care. She had been a part of every step of my life, and in this way, she still would be. To my surprise, the selection committee liked this piece the most. One committee member even opened up to me about recently losing her mom. It was an unexpected connection, leading to me to find more people with similar experiences, and a great job where I feel like I make a difference in people’s lives. Suddenly I wasn’t alone, and like Mom taught me years before, no one is a stranger.

I take out my red binder when I miss her, rereading every letter in fine detail. Knowing that it’s there makes me feel less alone and provides temporary relief from the lonely place left in my heart. Somehow this gets me through another day. She may be gone, but her letters and her memory remain in this binder and forever in my heart. In this way, she is never really gone.

One letter in particular, my favorite, is one that I reread often. It was the last letter she wrote, written on my birthday while she was staying with me during her cancer treatment. I found this handwritten letter in my backpack when I got to work:

February 11, 2014:

“Happy Birthday!!! 29!! This year will be wonderful for you. It may be the end of your 20’s, but trust me, the 30’s are as wonderful. Do not waste one minute of your life. Have fun, make friends, stay in touch with loved ones, and stay connected to God. Always know I love you and am proud of you dear daughter. Love you more, Mom”

When I returned home, I gave her a big hug and she apologized for not being able to buy me a “real” birthday card. Even through all the pain and suffering she was experiencing at that time, her main concern was that she couldn’t drive to buy me a birthday card. I can’t fathom that level of selflessness. 

After rereading this letter several times, I often wonder if she somehow knew her time was short and was writing this as a final birthday message to me. Many believe that a person can sense when they are about to die. While this may or may not be true, it’s easy for me to feel guilty and remorseful of all the things I could have done, should have done differently. However, through much reflection, I understand that I have little control over many things in this world, which is an extremely difficult fact for this control freak to admit. As much as I like to think that I can control and conquer the challenges I face in my life, some circumstances are simply out of my hands and not meant for me to master nor understand. Rather than live with guilt and sadness forever, I know my mom would want me to find joy and contentment. I often think about what she would say in her wise motherly way and wish she were here to give it. Through her letters, she still is with me.

Life is short. Much like a letter, in life we are given a finite amount of blank space in the pages of history to fill with the content of our lives. How we choose to fill that space truly defines the quality of the life we have lived and represents how we have treated others in the process. In the end of our journey, we come to find that life is not about expensive possessions or fancy trophies sitting on a shelf; it’s the small, meaningful moments that people remember, moments that I have forever in the form of simple letters contained in a red binder.

To this day, I continue writing letters to mom through a journal, pouring my heart out through the strokes of a pen as I try to do something with all the words I still need to say. I haven’t found an address to heaven just yet, but I like to think somehow these letters are still being sent. Maybe one day I will see my mom again, but for now, her letters in this red binder will have to suffice. My life has been crazy and chaotic, but these letters serve as a peaceful reminder that there is still goodness in the world and provide me with a continued promise of a hope that, in the face of darkness, light will surely come to guide me home.