Letters to Kate

Publisher’s Description

Sorrow is “not a state but a process” that needs “not a map but a history. . . . There is something new to be chronicled every day,” writes C. S. Lewis in A Grief Observed. When Carl Klaus’s wife of thirty-five years died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage, right before Thanksgiving in 2002, he took the only road toward recovery that made sense to him: he started writing letters to her, producing a unique history of grief, solace, and love. His vivid and thoughtful letters will resonate with everyone whose loss confronts them with emotional, psychological, and philosophical questions for which there are no easy answers.

During his first year without Kate, Carl writes himself into the life that comes after the life he loved. From days of grief in the darkness of a midwestern winter, to springtime, with a return to life in the garden and a memorial service for Kate on a sunny afternoon, to fall, with a pilgrimage to their favorite vacation spot in Hawaii, Carl documents his year-long experience of remembering, meditating, and evolving a new life. Individually his letters provide the insights of a master diarist; collectively, they have the arc of a master essayist. 

Recording the full range of mourning from intense shock to moments of exceptional affirmation, Klaus’s stories and reflections on loss bear witness to universal truths about the first and most significant year of mourning.

Reactions & Reviews

“A unique and deeply thoughtful contribution to the canon on grief, loss and love.”
— Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“For people who have lost a spouse, Klaus’ letters can provide solace and affirmation.”
— Des Moines Register

“An affecting portrait of his grief . . . Klaus’ letters are heartrending as he remembers his wife’s talents, passions, and pragmatism.”
— Cedar Rapids Gazette

“Frequently heartbreaking, always insightful, ultimately transcendent—Carl Klaus’s chronicle of his first year of grief reminds us that even after the longest winter, spring does eventually arrive. This book is destined to become a classic in the bereavement field.”
—Hope Edelman, author, Motherless Daughters

Letters to Kate is truly a gift. The author, Carl Klaus, invites us to share in his intimate correspondence with his late wife, Kate, as he journeys in grief. The book offers a powerful portrait of the process of grief—the ups and downs, the contradictory and confused melange of thoughts and emotions. It offers validation and hope to all those who grieve and a sense of understanding to others who wish to befriend and support the journeyer.”
—Kenneth J. Doka, professor, the College of New Rochelle, and senior consultant, the Hospice Foundation of America

Letters to Kate is a moving, beautifully written, carefully crafted memoir of a widower dealing with his wife’s sudden death on a quiet November afternoon. It is a comforting experience for writer and reader alike, and an important contribution to the genre of loss narratives.”
—Bertram J. Cohler, University of Chicago


Saturday, November 30, 2002

Dear Kate, 

This morning—the first time I’ve been alone all week—I was sitting in your chair in the TV room, thumbing through one of your note pads and came upon the obituary you’d evidently been drafting for yourself. I remember you saying just a few weeks ago that we had to write our obituaries for the funeral home, but I didn’t know you’d been working on one, so I was shocked to find it—as if you had a premonition of things. And surprised to see it was as brief and matter of fact as the one I wrote last Sunday, the day after you died. At least we’re still on the same page, though my piece doesn’t have the edginess of yours. How could it? Here’s a copy of what I wrote, so you can see for yourself:

Obituary for Kate Franks Klaus

Kate Franks Klaus, 60, of 416 Reno Street, Iowa City, died November 23, 2002, of a stroke at Mercy Hospital.

Kate was born February 26, 1942, in Lisbon, Iowa, to Stuart and Elizabeth Franks. She graduated from Lisbon High School, attended Vassar College, received a B.A. in English from Stanford University, and an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. Poet, playwright, translator, designer, environmentalist—she co-founded Reno Street Neighborhood Park, as well as Heritage Trees of Iowa City, and the Nancy Seiberling Heritage Grove in Hickory Hill Park. Memorial donations may be made to Heritage Trees of Iowa City, c/o The Civic Center, Iowa City, Iowa. A memorial service will be held in spring at the Nancy Seiberling Heritage Grove.

She is survived by her husband, Carl Klaus, of Iowa City, by her sister Martha Harrington of Largo, Florida, by her brother, John Franks of Denver, Colorado, and by her step-children, Amy Klaus Wuellner of Oregon, Wisconsin, Hannah Klaus Hunter of Davis, California, and Marshall Klaus, of Peru, New York.

On another notepad, I found a poem you’d written called “Obit”—one thing leads to another, I guess. But I could hardly believe how bleak it is, even considering your late night glooms. What made you think that no one would know “Just who I was/Just what I did”? Did you imagine yourself living so long as to outlast anyone who might remember you? Or did you really think that no one would care? Whatever the case, I wonder what you’d say about the host of cards and letters I’ve received—in just a few days, just from people in town. And the comfort food, e-mail, and flowers. Yes, they’re consolatory, grieving for my loss. But it’s you, Kate, it’s you that they’re really about—the notes and letters filled with such vivid memories that almost every one of them leaves me in tears. Enough to make up for all my years of tearlessness. Now I know what your mother was going through after your father suddenly died, why she was tearful for so long. Some legacy—your father’s stroke to you, your mother’s tears to me.

But already I can hear your unmistakable commands, “Enough of the tears. Enough of the mush. Just tell me what happened, and what’s been happening since then. And stick to the facts, like the obituary.” Easier said than done, Kate. But here it is—just the facts, or nearly so. From start to finish it was less than four hours. You got back from the art fair at one in the afternoon and were dead at twenty to five. So sudden, so swift that it’s still impossible to believe. One minute showing me the bowls you’d just bought, your eyes glittering with delight—“Don’t you think they’ll go perfectly with our dinner plates?”—a few minutes later staring blankly at the oven, a few minutes later staring blankly at me as the milk you were drinking dribbled down the side of your mouth, and a few minutes later, just before the ambulance arrived, tumbling out of your kitchen chair, already paralyzed on one side, else you’d never have fallen like that. Yet still so much in possession of yourself as to worry about our dinner party that evening for Gene, as if your fate were less important than festivities for our weekend guest. How strange, but also how fitting, that your last words to me were about food—“You’ll take care of the rice won’t you? And the lamb too?” Our daily sacrament your final concern. Ten minutes later when I arrived at the hospital, you couldn’t speak, couldn’t move your eyes, and completely lost consciousness when you were having a CT-scan. So much for the paramedic’s assurance “Don’t worry, all her vital signs are good.” Such a massive hemorrhage, “a ten centimeter bleed, a herniated brainstem,” according to the neurologist, that nothing could be done. But just to be sure, I called Amy, given her emergency nursing experience, and she confirmed the doctor’s advice—“Don’t try to save her, dad. It’s hopeless. Just make sure she gets enough morphine to prevent any pain.” So, the last three hours of your life, you lay calmly on your back in an intensive care room, while Gene sat on one side of you and I hovered around the other, sometimes holding your hand, sometimes kissing your forehead, sometimes talking to you, but mostly in such a state of shock (chills coursing down my body nonstop) that I didn’t know what to do except not to leave your side, lest you slip away in my absence—as if you weren’t already long gone, a million miles away. And when the end did come, I couldn’t tell the difference, except that Sarah, the attending nurse, was in tears as she checked your eyes—your beautiful eyes obscured by God knows what fluid—and unhooked the monitor. Your lips still warm when I kissed you goodbye, your body still relaxed when I tried to climb on the gurney. I wanted to hold you, to lay by your side one last time, but it was too narrow for both of us. And the sidebars made me feel like an intruder. So I settled for a clumsy little hug. Such an absurd parting—thirty-seven years together and nothing at the end but a clumsy little hug.

There’s more to report, but this is all I can manage right now. I’ll try again tomorrow.

Sunday, December 1, 2002

Dear Kate,

Gene left the morning after you died, and ever since I’ve been thinking how strange that he came to spend that ill-fated weekend with us, after not having seen each other for five years, came because of John’s impending death, only to witness yours. When John hired Gene and me as instructors some forty years ago, I never imagined that our lives would intersect in so many ways—on fishing trips, at poker games, professional meetings, and now like this. On the way to the airport, he spoke of being “honored” to be with us when you were dying, whereas I felt blessed by the gift of his calm presence. And dazed by the thought of all he’d been through, given his visit to John and his death-watch with me. I can hardly imagine what it would have been like without him. At the airport, just before leaving, he gave me a piece of advice I hadn’t heard before, but that I’ve been getting ever since—as in “Don’t make any big decisions about anything for at least a year, not until you’re more stable than you are right now.”

The way I feel right now, stability is light years away, especially after last week. An emotional stress test, it began with the sight of your elegant table for the dinner party that never took place, the last work of your hands confronting me and Gene when we got back from the hospital and walked into the dining room—the green silk runner down the length of the table, the green glass center piece with the chrysanthemums still as fresh as when you arranged them, the green straw placemats, the green napkins atop the brown pottery plates, the wood-handled cutlery, the amber wine glasses, the amber water glasses. I remember you putting it together that morning, still in your nightgown, swanning around the dining room before you went to the fair—remember you showing me the moss-green mums and telling me with a twinkle in your eye “they’re called Kermits.” But the shock of your death was so huge, obliterating, that I completely forgot the dinner party, the table, and everything else until Gene and I walked into the house that afternoon. Such a glittering display, emblem of your impeccable eye, I was momentarily transfixed by it, then overcome with remorse for having taken such things for granted. Then and there, I vowed to leave the table untouched as long as possible, to keep the flowers alive as long as possible, to celebrate Thanksgiving—some thanksgiving!—on a table set by you. And that’s what happened five days later, with a guest list of your dreams. Not only Marybeth, Ken, and Elizabeth, in keeping with our neighborly rotation, but also Amy, Hannah, Marshall, and Martha—the first time that my children and your sister were all here together in at least ten years. The only one missing was you. But you were there—and not just in the setting and your classic menu, nor just in the simple toast “To Kate.” You were there in the “Thanksgiving Prayer” that I found among your papers on the kitchen counter.

Lord, we thank you for the harvest
Spread before us,
And the company of loved ones
All around us.

Such a haunting little grace that I barely got through it. But then again, everything the past week has been so haunting that I barely got through it. Like going to the funeral home last Sunday, almost a year to the day after you dragged me there to make arrangements for ourselves. “We’ve got to do this,” you said, “so it’s all taken care of when the time comes, and no one has to worry about what to do or what we want.” Too bad you didn’t tell them how to do your hair—not to rinse out the gray, not to comb out the bangs. But the strange-looking hairdo was nothing compared to the feel of your body under the lovely antique quilt—so stiff and cold when I bent over to hug you that the chills swept over me again, and words came rushing out of my mouth as if some other voice had commandeered my own. “That’s not her, that’s not her,” I screamed, running out of the room. And Carolyn, the funeral attendant, answered me calmly, frankly—“No, it’s not her, it’s not her at all. That’s just her body. She’s gone.” A truth that suddenly hit me so hard, I burst into tears for the first time since you died, the dam broken at last that had me wondering until then if I was so numb, so stunned, I’d never shed a single tear.

I’ve heard about people being in shock or suffering from post-traumatic stress, but I never imagined it could be so weird. Like the sirens ringing in my ears, the chills sweeping down my body again and again the first night in bed without you. And the night after that and the night after that, until Amy gave me a sedative that smoothed out the nights a bit but certainly not the days. Now, in fact, I suddenly find myself breaking down almost any time or place—in the supermarket aisle with Marshall the day before Thanksgiving, in the garden yesterday afternoon pulling the last of our fall radishes, in the kitchen this evening, looking out at the candles that someone’s evidently been lighting in memory of you at the neighborhood park, at the end of the new Harry Potter movie when the young heroine, seemingly dead, suddenly came to life again. A fantasy too close to home.

Were it not for our friends and neighbors, I might have been in tears all week, but their visits and gifts made me feel as if I should put up a staunch front, like you would have done, like your mother did after your father’s sudden death. What else to do, then, but tell them the story of that fateful afternoon, the story they evidently craved to know, as if knowing what happened could make sense of your shocking death. I told it so many times that my tale hardened into a set-piece—“It all began just a few minutes after she got home from the art fair . . .” How quickly a formula takes hold—life and death alike embalmed in language. And when I wasn’t telling the story, I was showing photographs of you that I propped up around the living room. The big black and whites that Rowley took in my bachelor apartment when we were still in our salad days and he needed to do a series of portraits for his photography class. You sitting at the ice cream table in your wide-brimmed hat, holding a large umbrella over your head, your fingers elegantly clutching the handle. You sitting at the table, your eyes cast downward, your hand on its marble surface, your shoulder length hair covering half your face. What a bizarre yoking—the afternoon of your death and an afternoon thirty-seven years ago when you came to my apartment and modelled for Rowley’s art shots. But then again, compared to your death, nothing seems bizarre. Not even these letters.

Monday, December 2, 2002

Dear Kate,

Your clothes were also part of the story last week, but I didn’t say anything yesterday, for I couldn’t say it all in just a few words. So here’s a rundown of what happened. A few days after you died, I looked in your closet and was swept away by the sight of all your things, suddenly beside the point without you to fill them. Such an absurd spectacle, I asked Amy, Hannah, and Martha to take what they wanted and box up the rest for the Goodwill Store and Salvation Army. How strange it felt to make that request, for I always assumed you’d be dealing with my personal effects. And why not? You’re ten years younger than me, so you should have outlived me by at least ten years. And grieved for me, rather than I for you. And wept over my clothes, as I have wept over yours. Such a mess of self-indulgent feelings that I could see myself turning into a wet dish rag, or a closet fetishist, if I didn’t get rid of your stuff. And who better to do the sorting than my daughters and your sister. Besides, I thought you’d want me to “spread things around,” the way you always did when you went through your clothes each year. But I couldn’t bring myself to part with everything just like that. Especially not your handmade outfits—so elegantly designed and tailored that I plan to keep them awhile in the oak wardrobe, before giving them to the Women’s Archives. Do you see how torn I was—how torn I am!—about letting go of things? Even your extravagant shoe collection—now all gone except for a pair of black clogs mistakenly left behind—even your shoes, or the mere thought of them, fill me with longing. I wish they were still here, rivalling Imelda’s. So perhaps you can see how hard it was just to stick my head in our bedroom when they were going through your drawers and closet. A four-day ordeal that ended with everything empty, except for the inside of the closet door, where your lavendar house jacket was hanging. When I mentioned it to Hannah, she said, “We thought you should keep it, Dad,” and I understood why the next morning when I got up and it took me by surprise and I hugged it like a rag doll. Now I expect to keep it there as long as I live, and not as a fetish, but a reminder of what you looked like when you came downstairs for your morning orange juice and coffee. “Complacencies of the peignoir.” I’ve also kept your silk scarves, so friends and neighbors can choose something special for themselves. Your wide-brimmed hats are still atop the pie safe, your Ben Franklins still by the bedside, and all your summer things still in the steamer trunk where you put them just a few weeks ago, ready for our trip to Hawaii.

Everything’s where it should be except for Jag, who limped downstairs this morning after a week of hiding out in the attic and the backyard, grieving I’m sure for you. I thought at first that his limp might be another sign of grief until I noticed a bruise over his eye, took him into the vets, and discovered that he was evidently hit by a car. Grieving indeed! Bill says he’ll be fine after several days at the clinic, but it looks like he nearly spent all of his nine lives at once. With Jag out of the house, I thought it would be a good time to bring Puck back home again. He’s been at the vets ever since we took him in the day before you died—so many people coming in and out of the house last week he’d have been even more hyper than usual. But today he’s been very calm, especially after I took him for a long walk in the cemetery. I wonder if he knows that you’re missing. How could he not, having spent so many nights in your lap.

Tuesday, December 3, 2002

Dear Kate,

Early this morning I saw you again—in a dream. Better a dream than nothing. It began with someone dropping me off in front of the house. A light was on in the kitchen but otherwise the place was completely dark, and the same outside, except for a snow flurry, the flakes blowing and swirling like they are right now. I trudged up the driveway, my feet crunching against the gravel, the wind so hard it slowed me down until I turned the corner of the house, walked up to the back porch, looked in the window of the back door and there you were, right behind the window, waving an arm above your head, a big smile, an impish smile on your face, your lips moving as if to say, “Surprise, Surprise! I’m here, I’m here!” But no sooner did I see you than I awoke, heart beating, chills sweeping down my body, and a siren-like noise ringing in my ears, the same noise I heard the first few nights after you died.

When Trudy called from New Jersey this evening, I told her about my dream, and she was elated—“How lucky you are, how lucky to see her so soon!” Such a dear friend that she’s worrying about me even though she’s in a vigil for her mother, stricken a few days ago by a heart attack. So I didn’t tell her how I went back to sleep, hoping to see you again and got nothing but another sudden awakening, with all the traumatic sensations. I’m beginning to feel like Pavlov’s dog.

I did see you again—and feel you again—late this afternoon when Carolyn delivered your ashes. I couldn’t just take the box and send her away, so I invited her in for a glass of cider, and then showed her some pictures of you that I’ve pulled out over the last several days—in the kitchen, in your perennial bed, in the backyard with Martha, on the Kalaulau trail in Hawaii, on the Yangtze river with me. I wanted her to see what you really looked like—in life rather than death—then showed her how you had restored the downstairs, stripped all the woodwork, decorated the rooms, designed the gazebo, landscaped the backyard, and so on. I wanted her to see you in all your guises before it came time for her to open the box. By then it was five-thirty, nearly dinnertime, and there was no putting it off any longer, so I got your grandmother’s black flower vase from the corner of the living room, brought it out to the kitchen counter, removed the dried statice from your perennial bed that you put in the vase several weeks ago, and suggested that we put your ashes in there, topped by the statice. It seemed like exactly the sort of place you’d like, until I scatter them on your perennial bed this spring.

The minute I set the vase on the counter, she opened the box, pulled out a clear plastic bag containing the ashes, and I suddenly felt an intense shudder ripple down my entire body. And then a great heaving and sobbing overtook me as I began to feel the bag and fondle it, telling her again and again how final and definitive it was. “Yes,” she said, “she’s gone, but she’s still all around you in all she’s done to make this such a beautiful place, and she’s still in your thoughts, and always will be.” Sweet and well-meaning words, and for the most part true, but words I’ve heard so many times the past several days that I’ve begun to feel like a connoisseur of griefspeak. Just then, I couldn’t resist putting my hands in the bag, feeling your ashes, sifting them through my fingers, and I was surprised by the silkiness. Oh yes, there were little bits and pieces that hadn’t been completely reduced to ash, but most of your remains were—and are—so fine, so silky, so powdery they left a pale gray film on my hands.

Wednesday, December 4, 2002

Dear Kate,

I was doing the bills this morning, when I came on a couple of checks payable to you, and didn’t know what to do. So I called Dan and after the usual condolences—always the usual condolences—he switched into his lawyerly mode and said I could deposit the checks but should keep a record for future reference. He also assured me that our joint ownership of the house means that your half of it automatically passes to me. But when I told him about the investments for your nieces and nephews, he said we’ll probably have to probate your estate and told me that he needed to see your will. “You’ve got it,” I said. “No,” he said, “I only have a copy—I need to see the original, and you’ve got it.” Original? Photocopy? I couldn’t help wondering what difference it makes. I also wondered where the original might be, for I assumed it was on file with Dan, and when I looked in your desk, the only thing there was a photocopy. Then I called Sue at the bank, and asked if I could make the change in your investments that you and I discussed a few weeks ago. So, as your trusty trust officer, she also wants to see the will, to make sure I’m the executor, in which case the bank will make the changes that I recommend. Will, will, will—I’m beginning to feel the force of your will as never before, and the will of the legal establishment too. I mean, what’s the point of making photocopies if the original is the only will that matters? And what if I can’t find the original? What then? Is your will in a state of indefinite suspension? A legal limbo without recourse? Or does the legal establishment have a legal escape mechanism for this as for all contingencies? Stay tuned for further developments.

Thursday, December 5, 2002

Dear Kate,

Every day this week, I’m having lunch or dinner with one of our friends—so many invitations that I feel like a social butterfly. But the flurry of invitations will probably dry up so quickly that I’ll wish I hadn’t been worrying about it. Still, I can’t help feeling there’s something wrong with my going out like this so soon after your death, especially when I think of your mother’s lonely vigil in the wake of your father’s death. Maybe it’s also my childhood memory of how we all wore black arm bands for several months after my Uncle Manny died, but something deep within makes me feel as if I’m breaking a taboo. Yet it’s hard to say no, and not just because I don’t want to turn away our friends, but also because I don’t want to spend my days and nights alone without any kind of companionship. You’d know exactly what to do in this situation, and you’d do it without all this fretting. Isn’t it ridiculous—I’m seventy years old and don’t know how to behave without you.

Speaking of etiquette, now that I’ve become a student of grieftalk, I can tell you that “How’re ya doin’?” (with an earnest look to match) is usually the first thing people ask when they see me. And why not? It’s a natural question. But I’ve answered it so often that I now find myself automatically reverting to a canned response—”Well, sometimes I can keep myself distracted enough with this and that (household chores, the monthly bills, e-mail, TV) that I don’t think about it, but sometimes, and there’s no predicting when, the full horror of it, the magnitude of it all, descends upon me, and then the tears come welling up, and then . . . ” And then they often reply with a now familiar response. “Of course, of course, and crying is an important part of grieving, of working your way through this terrible loss.” And when I tell them about writing you these letters, a strange look often flits across their face, and they tell me it’s a good thing to be doing, “a good way of keeping in touch.” Or words to that effect. Sometime, perhaps, I’ll get up the nerve to tell them about writing without any hope of response.

Friday, December 6, 2002

Dear Kate,

At the bank this morning, Sue looked at a photocopy of your will, saw that it named me beneficiary and executor, and agreed to my choosing your investments. That done, I authorized her to sell your current holdings and replace them with one of the real estate investment trusts that I told you about a few weeks ago—a stock that stands a good chance of doubling over the next several years, so each of your nieces and nephews will get the twenty-thousand that you hoped to give them. Such a good start to the day that I should have known it was a false lead. The bad news came just a few minutes later, when I went through everything in the safety deposit box and couldn’t find the original of your will, which makes me wonder what Dan will do when I see him next Tuesday.

And it wasn’t any better when I checked the answering service and heard a cheery little message from Holly—”Just calling to say hi and hope you’re doing well. I’m standing here looking out over Lake Michigan. Lain and I are heading back to Iowa City this afternoon and look forward to seeing you soon.” Such an attentive friend—she never misses a chance to buck me up, even when she’s out of town. But I wonder if she realized that you and I were scheduled to be in Chicago this next weekend, and we too were supposed to be looking out over the lake—from the Navy Pier and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The minute I heard her message I thought of your haunting refrain: “Don’t you realize how little time we have?”

I thought of that refrain again at Carol’s this evening, given how little time she and Pierre had together. Though our offices were side by side all these years, I never realized until now how painful it must have been for her when he died just as suddenly as you, and she was left with three young children to raise and classes to teach as well. Compared to her, I considered myself fortunate to be free of such burdens, until she told me they were a blessing. Which made me think that perhaps I need something to do beside writing these letters, something purposeful to keep me busy and keep my mind off things. But then again, I don’t want to lose touch, as I have the last few days, unable to conger you up, hear your voice, smell your skin, feel you next to me. Which moved Carol to tell me that she “didn’t change the sheets for several weeks after Pierre died, so I could still smell him beside me.” Too bad that Martha changed the sheets on our bed the day after she arrived—too bad your sister is a housecleaning freak. I told that to Carol, and we had a good laugh over the sheets and the escapades of colleagues in the backward abysm of time when we were all so young it seemed as if we would live forever. Which made me think of your refrain again. And again.