In this final installment of our Letters About Literature spotlight, we feature the Level 3 National Prize-winning letter of Aidan Kingwell of Illinois, who wrote to Mary Oliver about her poem “When Death Comes.” Kingwell’s poem also recently made the news.
Letters About Literature, a national reading and writing program that asks young people in grades 4 through 12 to write to an author (living or deceased) about how his or her book affected their lives, announced its 2015 winners in June. More than 50,000 young readers from across the country participated in this year’s initiative funded by a grant from the Library’s James Madison Council with additional support from the Library’s Center for the Book. Since 1997, more than a million students have participated.
National and honor winners were chosen from three competition levels: Level 1 (grades 4-6), Level 2 (grades 7-8) and Level 3 (grades 9-12). You can read all the winning letters here, including the winning letters from previous years.
I know it’s an unconventional subject for a letter; death. A fact of life that most of us endeavour to avoid, or at least ignore. But I, Mary – I have walked side-by-side with death all of my life.
I was thirteen the first time I read your poem, and at that time in my life there was a good chance that I would not see my fourteenth birthday. I had been depressed since age ten, but I had never received any treatment. My mind was very dark; I dove deeper and deeper into my own twisted thoughts with each passing moment. I was someone who was simultaneously terrified of dying, and yet obsessed with the very idea. I was also suicidal, which is a state of being that I cannot well describe, because there are not words that can describe such utter loss of hope, such bitterness and pain and unrelenting sorrow. I wanted to end my own life so badly that most days I could not find one single reason for living. It was not a cry for attention; it was a feeling of utter self-hatred. There is also no accurate way to describe the feeling of hating yourself and your life so much that you long to end it all. It is a feeling of being trapped, of being insane, of being hopeless. When you are suicidal, you are like a wild animal just barely being contained by a think human shell. Your soul is empty and your heart is blackened and dead. You have no straws left to grasp, no ladder to climb out of the abyss, and the only rope offered to help you scramble out is in the shape of a noose, and after weeks or months or years that noose begins to look very, very appealing.
So there I stood, face-to-face with death on a daily basis, wondering if each new day was the day that it would finally consume me. I was afraid of my own mind. I found no comfort in wooden crosses or the taste of bitter crackers, nor in the deluded words of psychiatrists. That eventual uncertainty – the uncertainty of the terror of my own death – haunted my footsteps as I walked from day to day, wearing it like a heavy, bitter cloak. The very idea of my own death was killing me.
The, one day, in my seventh-grade English class, I was presented with your poem. My teacher referred to it as “a dark poem with note of hope underlying,” but within it, I found so much more. Within it, I found new life. My mind opened up as I read your words; I was a frail but inspired butterfly clawing my way from a dark, putrid cocoon. The way you spoke, Mary; the way you talked about death, and how it sought to take all the bright coins from your purse, how it was an iceberg between your shoulder blades leeching the warm life out of your form. I could tell: you knew. You knew what it felt like to be owned by death’s shadow, in the same way that I was then. You had felt the same terror, the same all-consuming dread. But you were also strong. You faced death and said that it did not own you; you had looked into death’s dark eyes and said, “No, you cannot have me, I am not yet done here.” When you spoke of not wanting to have simply visited this world, my own world turned upside down. I began to think about how horrible it would be to have only been a visitor, in the way that you said; to not have made my mark on the world, to have only passed through with no real substance. I thought of a life lived entirely in absence of beauty and amazement, a life barren of love or excitement or laughter. I began to realize that that was what suicide would do to me. I saw that life was fast becoming my own. I saw killing myself would take me away before I even had the chance to make something of my life. Suicide would eliminate my pain, yes, but it also closed any doors of possibility that I might have still open to me; doors that may lead to happiness in my future.
I never would have imagined, Mary, that not killing myself would be one of the hardest decisions that I would ever have to make. But in the end, I made the choice, and I am still alive today. My life has not been full of joy; in fact, it has been dark, and hard, and at times I have even slipped back into death’s unrelenting grasp. But at those times, I have reminded myself of what I thought then – that I want to make something of my life, and that ending it would mean turning my back on all future possibilities, as well as the few pieces of happiness that I have managed to find in the present. At those dark times, Mary, I often also read your poem to myself – the poem that catalyzed my grand suicidal epiphany. I still struggle with this menace of the mental method, but now I have one thing that I did not have before, I have hope.
When Death Comes, Mary – and it will – I want to face it as an equal, and shake its hand as a friend, and accept it as an eventuality. You taught me that that is the only proper way to die. With your words you taught me that life cannot be lived in the shadow of death – that life must be a thing separate from death. And you taught me that when death comes, I should embrace it, but also that I should not welcome it before its time. You taught me, Mary, that there was nothing to be feared in death so long as my life was one well-lived.
“I do not want to end up having simply visited this world” . . .
And When Death Comes, Mary, I will tell it that you were my friend. Because you were. I will tell it that I am armed with your words, and it will bow its dark face in respect, and then, it will offer me its hand and lead me into whatever may or may not lay behind it. I will feel no fear, Mary – I no longer fear death and all its ways. I will know that I have beaten death down with your words and the inspiration that they gave me. I will know that I did not let it take me in any way but the one I wanted. And I will know that my life, no matter how twisted, corrupt, and fearful, was worth living.
So thank you, Mary. Thank you for wrenching death’s grip from my wrist. Thank you for showing me that the burden of my soul was not so dark. That there was still hope left in me.