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On the morning of May 19th, 1902, a huge explosion ripped through Fraterville Coal Mine in Tennessee, its devastating power instantly killing most of the 216 miners who were below ground. For the 26 who survived the initial blast, a side passage of the mine proved to be a safe haven, but not for long—when rescuers eventually reached them, all had suffocated. Found next to a number of the those 26 bodies were letters to loved ones, one of which can be seen below. It was written by Jacob Vowell to Sarah Ellen, his beloved wife and mother to their 6 children, one of whom, 14-year-old Elbert, was by his side in the mine. (“Little Eddie” was a son they had lost previously.)

All but three of Fraterville’s adult men were killed that day; over a hundred women were instantly widowed; close to a thousand children lost their fathers. The Fraterville Mine disaster remains the worst of its kind in Tennessee’s history.

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Transcript

Ellen, darling, goodbye for us both. Elbert said the Lord has saved him. We are all praying for air to support us, but it is getting so bad without any air.

Ellen I want you to live right and come to heaven. Raise the children the best you can. Oh how I wish to be with you, goodbye. Bury me and Elbert in the same grave by little Eddie. Godbye Ellen, goodbye Lily, goodbye Jemmie, goodbye Horace. We are together. Is 25 minutes after two. There is a few of us alive yet.

Jake and Elbert

Oh God for one more breath. Ellen remember me as long as you live Goodbye darling.

 

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The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

The train leaves a line of breath.
O slow
Horse the colour of rust,

Hooves, dolorous bells –
All morning the
Morning has been blackening,

A flower left out.
My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.

They threaten
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

— Sylvia Plath

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In 1989, 52-year-old Long Island resident Joan Cook Carpenter passed away after succumbing to breast cancer — a battle which she had chosen to keep from her loved ones until her final days. In 1999, a decade after Joan’s death, her 29-year-old daughter, Karin, wrote her the following letter.

Karin wrote an award-winning novel partly inspired by the experience, titled What Girls Learn, in 1998.

Dear Mom, What time was I born?
When did I walk?
What was my first word?

My body has begun to look like yours. Suddenly I can see you in me. I have so many questions. I look for answers in the air. Listen for your voice. Anticipate. Find meaning in the example of your life. I imagine what you might have said or done. Sometimes I hear answers in the echo of your absence. The notion of mentor is always a little empty for me. Holding out for the hope of you. My identity has taken shape in spite of that absence. There are women I go to for advice. But advice comes from the outside. Knowing, from within. There is so much I don’t know. 

What were your secrets?
What was your greatest source of strength?
When did you know you were dying?

I wish I had paid closer attention. The things that really matter you gave me early on—a way of being and loving and imagining. It’s the stuff of daily life that is often more challenging. I step unsure into a world of rules and etiquette, not knowing what is expected in many situations. I am lacking a certain kind of confidence. Decisions and departures are difficult. As are dinner parties. Celebrations and ceremony. Any kind of change. Small things become symbolic. Every object matters—that moth-eaten sweater, those photos. Suddenly I care about your silverware. My memory is an album of missed opportunities. The loss of you lingers. 

Did you like yourself?
Who was your greatest love?
What did you fear most?

In the weeks before your death, I knew to ask questions. At nineteen, I needed to hear your hopes for me. On your deathbed, you said that you understood my love for women, just as you suggested you would have fought against it. In your absence, I have had to imagine your acceptance. 

There are choices I have made that would not have been yours. Somehow that knowledge is harder for me than if I had you to fight with. My motions lack forcefulness. I back into decisions rather than forge ahead. This hesitancy leaves me wondering:

Did you ever doubt me?
Would you have accepted me?
What did you wish for me?

I know that my political choices threatened you. Your way was to keep things looking good on the outside, deny certain feelings, erase unpleasant actions. Since your death, I have exposed many of the things that you would have liked to keep hidden. I can no longer hold the family secrets for you. 

I search for information about your life. Each scrapbook, letter, anecdote I come across is crucial to my desire to understand you and the choices you made. I have learned about affairs, abuse, all things you would not have wanted me to know. Yet they explain the missing blanks in my memory bank and round out your humanity. 

Who did you dream you would be?
Did you ever live alone?
Why did you divorce?
Did you believe in God?

One thing you said haunts me still. When I asked about motherhood, you said that children don’t need as much as you gave. “Eighty percent is probably plenty.” I was shocked by your words. Did you regret having given so much of yourself? Now, those words seem like a gift. A way of offering me a model of motherhood, beyond even your own example. 

Becoming a mother is something I think about a great deal, almost to the point of preoccupation. I have heard it said that constant dreaming about birth often signals a desire to birth one’s self, to come into one’s own. My process of grieving the loss of you has been as much about birthing myself as letting you go. 

What were your last thoughts?
Were you proud?
Were you at peace?
What is it like to die?

How frightened you must have been shouldering so much of your illness alone. The level of your own isolation is a mystery to me. In my life, I try hard to reach out, to let others in. I fear loss more than anything. I turn on my computer. Make things up. I tell the truth. My daily work is toward connection. All these questions move me to search, less and less for your answers and increasingly for my own. 

Love, 

Karin

 

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I am losing
Senses of nerves
Bunches of memory
thoughts of betrayals
killing me slowly
lonely darkness
freezing my blood
haters and dislikes around me
paralyzed me like stones 
death is looking me with lust
who cares me existing
millions are coming and going
I am dying, I am dying.
With the crap of these words
I am trying to prove my false identity
As I know I am all alone in my lost destiny.

Author Unknown.

death

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On May 1st of 2003, just weeks after being deployed to Iraq, Army Pfc. Jesse A. Givens, of Springfield, Missouri was killed when his tank fell into the Euphrates river. He was 34-years-old. Shortly after his death, the following farewell letter was delivered to his bereaved wife, Melissa, and his 6-year-old stepson, Dakota (“Toad”).

Melissa and Jesse’s unborn child, Carson (“Bean”), entered the world on the 29th of May, a few weeks after his father’s death.

Transcript follows.

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Transcript

Melissa,

Please only read if I don’t come home. Please put it away and hopefully you will never have to read it.

—————-

22-April-03

My family:

I never thought I would be writing a letter like this, I really don’t know where to start. I’ve been getting bad feelings though and well if you are reading this….

I am forever in debt to you, Dakota, and the Bean. I searched all my life for a dream and I found it in you. I would like to think that I made a positive difference in your lives. I will never be able to make up for the bad. I am so sorry. The happiest moments in my life all deal with my little family. I will always have with me the small moments we all shared. The moments when you quit taking life so serious and smiled. The sounds of a beautiful boy’s laughter or the simple nudge of a baby unborn. You will never know how complete you have made me. Each one of you. You saved me from loneliness and taught me how to think beyond myself. You taught me how to live and to love. You opened my eyes to a world I never dreamed existed. I am proud of you. Stay on the path you chose. Never lose sight of what is important again, you and our babies.

Dakota, you are more son than I could ever ask for. I can only hope I was half the dad. I used to be your “danny” but no matter what, it makes me proud that you chose me. You taught me how to care until it hurts, you taught me how to smile again. You taught me that life isn’t so serious and sometimes you have to play. You have a big, beautiful heart. Through life you need to keep it open and follow it. Never be afraid to be yourself. I will always be there in our park when you dream so we can still play. I hope someday you will have a son like mine. Make them smile and shine just like you. I love you Toad. I hope someday you will understand why I didn’t come home. Please be proud of me. Please don’t stop loving life. Take in every breath like it’s your first. I love you Toad. I will always be there with you. I’ll be in the sun, shadows, dreams, and joys of your life.

Bean, I never got to see you but I know in my heart you are beautiful. I know you will be strong and big-hearted just like your mom and brother. I will always have with me the feel of the soft nudges on your mom’s belly, and the joy I felt when we found out you were on your way. I dream of you every night, I will always. Don’t ever think that since I wasn’t around that I didn’t love you. You were conceived of love and I came to this terrible place for love. I love you as I do your mom and brother with all my heart and soul. Please understand that I had to be gone so that I could take care of my family. I love you Bean.

I have never been so blessed as the day I met Melissa Dawn Benfield. You are my angel, soulmate, wife, lover, and best friend. I am so sorry. I did not want to have to write this letter. There is so much more I need to say, so much more I need to share. A lifetime’s worth. I married you for a million lifetimes. That’s how long I will be with you. Please keep our babies safe. Please find it in your heart to forgive me for leaving you alone. Take care of yourself, believe in yourself, you are a strong, big hearted woman. Teach our babies to live life to its fullest, tell yourself to do the same. Don’t forget to take Toad to Disney World. I will be there with you. Melissa, I will always want you need you and love you in my heart, mind, and soul. Do me one favor, after you tuck Toad and Bean in, give them hugs and kisses from me. Go outside, look at the stars and count them. Don’t forget to smile.

Love Always
Your husband
Jess

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The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

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