The Birthday Letter
Written by
Ann Lineberger
November 2018
Written by
Ann Lineberger
November 2018

I received a letter last week several days after my birthday. I don't receive many letters anymore. I don't think most people do. This letter was folded and inside of a card that pictures a cat opening a present. It's the kind of card sold in Dollar Stores. The illustration is cutesy; the coloration is vivid. Above the drawing, it reads: "A Birthday Wish for You". The typed letter inside the card is two-and-a-half pages long. It's taped together rather than stapled. The third page is cut in two, just under the signature. Writing is on the back of the half of the third page. It's crossed out, and it's clear that the rest of the sentence is why the paper was cut in two. The sender decided to exclude it. The words on the page are the end of a sentence. They have lines scratched through them but I can read them. Well, I can kind of read them. The words are either: "take it!" or "fake it!"

I'm standing in my kitchen going through a stack of mail. Half of it goes immediately into the recycle bin while the other half into piles based on requirements. It's eleven o'clock at night. I'm moving quickly through the mail. The letter inside the card stops me. Its sender is a friend. She's not a close friend but someone I saw on a regular basis for a period when I lived in Manhattan. She worked for a doctor I frequented when pregnant with my oldest daughter. She's Eastern European. She's kind. She's industrious. She's had a hard life. She's separated from her husband, and she has one daughter who is mentally ill. Her daughter stopped taking the medication that stabilizes her to have children. The break from it was supposed to be temporary during each pregnancy. My friend spends her days worrying about her daughter. 

The letter is the longest correspondence I've received from her. All the others have been short thank you notes that arrive in January after she has received the two books I send to her for her grandchildren at Christmas. My friend is smart but nor formally educated beyond high school in her native country. She speaks English well, but her writing of it is a struggle. It's clear she spent days composing this typed letter. The effort put into it for my sake makes me sad. I can't speak her language so why should she know how to write in mine?

The format of the letter reads like a combination of a research paper and an informal letter. "Untitled" is centered at the top of each page." "Dear Ann," follows under it on the first page, also centered. A few phrases in the body of the letter stand out: "daughter moved", "don't know her address", "son-in-law", and "tricking me".

The last thank you note I received from my friend told me her daughter is no longer speaking with her. I received it in January. I also received a thank you note from her daughter in January. It was the second thank you note my friend's daughter has sent to me since I started to send books to her kids. 

My friend who has worked hard her entire adult life, retired early to care for her grandchildren. When her daughter and their family moved, she was asked to follow and did. Before she retired and they moved, my friend spent her weekends and evenings watching her then only granddaughter to give her daughter and son-in-law time for their work and rest. She showed me pictures of the little girl whose thick curly hair is white blond and eyes are a deep brown playing in her apartment. The little girl's features are broad yet perfectly proportioned on her sweet, rounded face. She's beautiful. She looks like my friend. 

I scan the letter. Something inside of me is resistant to read it straight through. I know it's going to be upsetting, and I know there's little or nothing that I can do to make her situation better. More phrases stand out to me: "horrible drama", "almost tragedy", and "blessed tragedy".

I ignore the rest of the mail and move to the sofa in our den. I settle in and start to read the letter from the beginning. 



Dear Ann,

thank you so much…"

The format and her difficulty with writing in English make it hard to understand the letter. And unlike the thank you notes she has sent to me for the last eleven years, in this longer letter she rambles in a way that makes me question her stability. There is talk of her son-in-law being related to mobsters and his being charged with neglect of his children. There is talk of the brainwashing of her daughter. There is mention of a psych ward and a stabbing. There is mention of her being boxed out as a caregiver and depicted unsuccessfully as mentally unstable in court. 

I know how much my friend loves her daughter and her grandchildren. I remember her excitedly telling me about her daughter's wedding. Her only complaint to me about her son-in-law was the excessive time he spent playing video games. I'm so sickened by the letter that I feel as confused as the writing in it. 

I breathe. I shift. I lie down on the couch and reread the letter. My friend suggests I run two Google searches to back up her claims. She knows how fantastic her story sounds. And she knows one of my first thoughts will be about her extreme involvement in her daughter's life. I never faulted her for it but cautioned her about how it could potentially create problems in her daughter's marriage. 

I reread the letter again. I read it very slowly. I plan to go to bed and pick the letter back up in the morning. I don't plan to Google the references. Given what I imagine is my friend's state of mind, I sense they're stories she's read and incorporated into her account to justify her part in the split. The letter is that incredible and rambling. I don't know how I will respond to it. 

But then I decide to run the searches. How can I not? My friend went to such trouble to write the letter. I move to my phone. I open the Safari app.  I type in what my friend suggests for the first search. It's her daughter's full name and a date. There is no indication in the letter as to what I will find in this search other than it refers to "horrible drama". 

Headlines both sensational and straightforward fill my screen. Two years ago, my friend's daughter took her oldest child with her to a subway station and, after clutching the pretty little girl with curly white blond hair and deep brown eyes, she instructed her to look forward. Then she braced to jump in front of a subway train. An observant MTA employee and some pedestrians saw them and knew something was amiss. The mother and daughter were standing with no bags. My friend's daughter left all of their belongings in the street outside of the building. 

My friend's daughter was charged with reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child. She spent the next seven weeks in Bellevue, the Manhattan psychiatric hospital. The little girl was sent there from the train station as well and put into the custody of the Administration for Child Services.

I imagine the panic rising in my friend when she received the call from the police and the terror and helplessness she felt while riding public transportation to see her daughter and granddaughter. I imagine her pleading with the admittance staff and officers. I imagine them noting how much the granddaughter looks like her grandmother. 

According to the letter, after the suicide attempt, the son-in-law was convicted of neglect and my friend was given temporary custody of her oldest granddaughter and the younger grandchild was sent to her godparents. From what I can tell from the letter, once my friend's daughter was released from Bellevue, the children were given back to her and her husband. 

The second suggested Google search in the letter appears after my friend explains how the son-in-law tried to have her labeled as mentally unstable in court so that she wouldn't be allowed to care for her grandchildren. This occurred after the suicide attempt and she was granted temporary custody and he was convicted of neglect. The suggested search words are his name, "stabbing" and a date. My friend refers to the outcome of what her son-in-law was involved in as a "blessed tragedy". It occurred at the beginning of this year. 

Again, headlines both sensational and straightforward fill my screen. Her son-in-law was stabbed and killed while visiting at midnight the ex-girlfriend of the man who killed him. There were four children in the home at the time. They're the children of the ex-girlfriend and the murderer. My friend suggests her son-in-law was having an affair with the woman. He had told her daughter that he had a night job, but they discovered after he was murdered that he had been going to see the woman at night. 

My friend then explains how her daughter never went back on the medication that stabilizes her after the first pregnancy. It was her daughter's husband who encouraged her to stay off of it according to my friend. She had legal medical guardianship over her daughter until she turned twenty-one.  She questions without directly naming it how something as serious as the attempted suicide and potential murder of a child and a forced stay at Bellevue wouldn't lead to the enforcement of regular medication. She wishes there were better and more flexible laws to help the mentally ill. She believes the current ones protect their rights to the point that can be dangerous. She wishes the laws allowed for a case-by-case analysis when necessary. From what I recall, her daughter dislikes the side effects of the drug she was prescribed, which makes her overly tired. My friend says her daughter and two granddaughters live somewhere in Texas. 

The letter ends with my friend repeating why she says she sent the letter to me, which is to tell me to not send her granddaughters Christmas gifts this year.  She is conscientious and is trying to save me time and money. She apologizes for sharing the "horrible story". She praises her oldest granddaughter for her strength. She says she waits for the day that the little girl turns eighteen and can be on her own and maybe live near her.  She asks me to pray for her family. 

The letter is typed but ends in pen. "Thank you again! Sincerely, …"  


If you liked reading this personal essay, please let me know. I'm working on a series of short stories (memoir and fiction) to be published next year and the ones I get positive feedback on will be included.


Additionally, if you liked this essay, please check out my websiteShe Writes page, novels and follow me on social media: 

Sunday Best (2018) and The Adjustments (2016)

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