Dear Chris

[This article first appeared in Femina : When her son Christopher was three his father died in an unimaginable way. Here is the letter Amanda Patterson promised to write to her son on the eve of his eighteenth birthday.]

Dear Chris

‘When will we get another Mark?’ 
Your question undid me. You are five and it is two years since your father died. 
‘Never,’ I answered, with half a smile. I loved the idea of simply ordering a replacement husband for me, and father for you. 
You are sleeping. The sky is a squid ink smudge between the blinds. I am crying. Will I ever make any sense of what happened? 
I promise that I will write you a letter about him when you are 18.

All my love 


Dear Chris

It is 11p.m. You will be 18 tomorrow. I have to finish this. I have so much more to tell you since I made that promise. This is my story to you. Perhaps it will help you to understand what happened. It is about love and grief, and hope and dreams. And about the men. I have left nothing out.

My dad made me beautiful with his words. He made me intelligent with his advice. He made me resilient with his belief. When a wave stole me into the sea, I remembered his words, don’t panic, lie on your back. I did, and waited, until he came. You know what he’s like! Grandy, you call him. Practical and a keeper of promises! His simple sure love made me trust men so easily.
You never knew Papa, my grandfather. He was the ultimate risk taker – a taker and a breaker of hearts. He taught me to risk, to try, to dream and to believe. He adored me and gave me anything I wanted. He taught me how to love dangerous men. Strong, unafraid he lived every day as if it were his last. When he died, my heart cracked and ached and bled. I was his girl.

When I grew older boys tried but none of them made a Mark. Until your father came along. I remember the first moment I saw him. My breath caught, time slowed and I knew that I would marry him. I wonder if you know how much I loved him. You should know that. He asked for my hand and gave me his heart, his mind and his soul, and said, ‘Until death us do part.’ We had it all. Careless, with so much love. 

You were born on my birthday. ‘Thank you for our beautiful baby,’ he wrote on a card that still lives in a cupboard beside my bed. He took us home, loved us. We were a family. Your father and I could have had it all. But that ended when the tortured mind and the battered body his family gave him as a child, won. He raised his hand and hit me. We lived and loved and tried. Years went by in happiness until another part of him snapped. I watched the promises kaleidoscope into despair. Until he broke my arm and I said, ‘No more.’ 

Chris, I carried you with one arm through that warm winter’s night. The stars were so beautiful. I was barefoot, determined and unafraid. My world went black with pain, but I walked. Back to the man I knew we could trust. What did Grandy think when he saw me - pale, wounded, and you, his grandson, crying, at his door? 

Mark still wouldn’t let me go. He tried to kill me. Kill us. When Grandy shot him, I wondered what had gone on inside his head. Did he think that Grandy would watch as he killed us? Oh yes, Grandy shot your father. Grandy saved my life. He saved yours too. Mark would have admired him for saving us when he became Mark again. I didn’t cry.

The end of the beginning

Nine months later, my sister, Lee-Anne found me curled up on the icy tiles of my bathroom floor. ‘You’ll be alright,’ she said. Our eyes met and we knew it wasn’t true. I watched the world implode and explode with a drip in my arm and lead in my heart. I saw you. You saw me, trapped in my hospital bed. I didn’t even have the energy to say your name. I cried for a month. I cried when I was awake and I cried when I was asleep. I had no idea that a body could cry so many tears. How I missed your dad. But how could I ever say that? But I grew strong again. I always had you.

Christopher. You have the oldest soul I’ve ever known. Even when you were a baby with sun-splashed, white-blonde hair and the lightest, brightest grey-blue eyes. You can see forever, can’t you? Remember that Saturday night before the accident? You were eight. You sang, ‘When the night has come…Will you stand by me?’ 
You never sang. That night you sang every word of the song from beginning to end with a question mark in every word. My sister, Lee-Anne, her husband, Bernd, Gran and Grandy were there. The world stopped as we listened. 
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I will.’

The next day I watched a steel peg from a cricket game fly through the air and shoot you in your chest. Your small hand covered the wound. I tried to answer the questions in your eyes as we rode in the ambulance. Time. It took so much time to get to the hospital. I couldn’t speak, and it was you that whispered, ‘It’s okay, mommy,’ as they wheeled you into the operating theatre to remove the peg that had pierced your liver. 

I waited. I scratched my arms until they bled. I left my mind. I wept blood beside your bed in the ICU. Five days later, you woke up. 
Oh, yes, Christopher. I will always stand by you. Only a scar divides your liver and your heart. Your father had one in exactly the same place. They cut him from chest to navel too. He was a premature baby. I’ve never told you that before, have I?

Bernd and Lee-Anne

And then my sister Lee-Anne fell in love with Bernd Vallee. We all did. He was our family’s prize after all the pain. He turned Lee into a butterfly. He showed you how to be a gentle man. He was the son-in-law Gran and Grandy deserved. 
It was a joke, wasn’t it, when he became so ill with leukaemia? 
Bernd was the man who wanted to live, the boy in the bubble that we nursed in vain and in masks and in gloves. 
He had to live. 
They moved in with us and I nursed him. Lee-Anne worked so that medical aid covered his treatment. The two of you spoke for hours through the windows. You would sit back to back, separated by a wall. Remember? 
When he fell asleep, you took your wooden sword from nursery school and you stood like a sentinel outside his door. You weren’t allowed in the room. Children had germs.

And I loved him. 
I loved the way he loved Lee and you and Gran and Grandy. I knew you were upset and scared when I went to Germany to help Lee nurse him with the bone marrow transplant. But I had to watch Lee-Anne watch him die. I had to be there when that last flat line came. I had to bear witness.
I’ll never forget how you ran through the arrivals area at the airport and flung yourself into my arms. You clung to me. We were all so scared to lose each other. 

You shone. You did well at school. You became an artist. Then we flew to Kariba to scatter Bernd’s ashes. You loved Tiger Bay. You fished and watched the hippos and crocodiles. We returned home and the Larium medication we took for Malaria knocked me off my feet and straight into post-traumatic depression. You shone, even as that happened.

I had seen too much death and too much pain. I stayed in bed, depleted, exhausted, traumatised. It was terrible, but I didn’t give up. Not on you, and not on me.

We were happy again for a while. Then Lee-Anne wasted away. She never cried. Where I had lost my mind, she bled inside, until she haemorrhaged at my feet. She had acute Crohn’s disease (an autoimmune condition). 
‘40 stat,’ said the paramedic when he arrived. ‘She’s barely alive.’ 
An experimental drug saved her life. I spent lots of time in that hospital too. I watched Gran crying. I watched Grandy watching. I watched until she survived. She lives in London, far away from the pain of the special love she had here. Is she hiding or looking? I think she’s looking for another angel without wings, don’t you?

That’s when I closed my no sense businesses and began to write. Life won’t let you do anything until you do what you’ve always wanted to do. I opened Writers Write. I taught people to write novels. I smiled again.

Love works

I cried last night at your final assembly. Full academic colours, swimming team, chess champion and six distinctions. You received the Gold art medal. You’ve done so well. Six American Universities and four top English art schools have offered you places. Oh yes, love works. I hope when I cry and I clutch the cold photograph of your father that he knows too. Your dad would be so proud of you.

So here we are, you and me, again. You sleeping, me crying and writing. Only 10 minutes to midnight.

I need you to know that I will take the chances and choices life offers. Because real life means more than just surviving. Really living is about the love we still have to give, the love we still need to make and the love we believe we can create. All the pain has shown me how to live. You know that I will always let love in. I know that love saves me every time. It’s saved you too. I’ve loved you all.

I dream my own dreams now. Don’t worry about me. If a man wants to be with me, he has to have a strong heart, he must believe that I can do anything, he has to make my heart sing, he has to have gentle eyes, like the eyes of the angel who hid his wings. 
Most importantly, he has to have the kindness, intelligence and the wit of the man who still calls me Mom. 

I love the power of words. I have found my truth in the books I create. I teach other writers to breathe life into a page with a pen. 57 are published now. I have learned more from them than they will ever know. I have learned everything that I’ve ever needed to know from you.

I hope that I make a difference. I hope that I try hard enough. I hope that you will be proud of me. We have travelled a long, hard way together. In a few minutes, I will have no say over what you do with the rest of your life. It is easier than most people think because I have never owned you. You are your own person. I have never let you be anything else. I was never one of those ‘Dear Moms’ who worked at the tuck shop. I never defined myself through you.

Live, Chris. Live. Try. Paint the world with your talent for art. Write. Read. Learn. 
Be the best you can be. 
Love. Even when your heart breaks, love.

So this is my letter to you. My promise to you. I have no regrets. I hope that you have none either. 
When I think of you, or your father, or when I look into your eyes, it’s always the love that remains.

With all of my love forever, 
Happy Birthday!


This article first appeared in Femina in 2008

Post Note, 2011

Chris, you know I found that man.You called him dad.

When Anton came into our lives, I fell in love with the most beautiful person I have ever known. He was everything I dreamed of, and more. I had the most incredible years of my life with Anton. We were married in 2009. And Anton died in 2011. I am sobbing as I write this. I don't know why life is like this.

I do know that I would never have given up those years with Anton for anything. He is worth every tear. He is worth every breath I struggle to take. He was my prayer answered.We were so very happy together.

I hope with all my heart and soul that you find a love like that one day too.

Amanda Patterson and Anton Behr
23 responses
Watching my girls turn 6. Knowing how much they have suffered. I always worry about how it will affect them as time passes.

Reading this, I realise I am only beginning to grasp a Mother's love. A Mother's strength.

Thank you.

Wow and ow, Thank you so very much for sharing your journey Amanda. Have a great year with Chris, knowing that you have made a deep impact on many with your warm wisdom. You are an AngelBless you

Regards Keith

I don't have any words Amanda. I am humbled, touched and moved in my soul. I lost my dad this week, but I don't have the words you have... I lost my brother six years ago, and writing poems was my therapy then... Thank you for sharing your life...
Amanda, I am sobbing as I write this. I love words as much as you do, but I am at a loss for any single one which would describe the appreciation I have for the perspective and support these ones have given me. I was recently diagnosed with leukaemia, after a long perfect marriage, my husband's demons arose in the process of dealing with his denial, he is hard, cruel, and there is no time for man-made division, I too said, 'til death us do part.' Thank you for such inspiration. May Angels sometimes stop and sit on your shoulder, you have earned every blessing yet to come to you - and they will.
Through such awfulness comes a feeling that cannot be felt when your life is constant or unchanging. You KNOW the true and real meaning of life and love. When you love you LOVE deeply, you LIVE like today is the last day of the rest of your life. Such tragedy, pain and suffering, which leaves scars that will never heal, but makes you understand and feel a feeling like no other. It's like a fire burning inside that will never die. Such lessons to be learned, such strength to be gained. Take care Amanda.
Courage. Emotion. I am too emotional to write more.
Wow. So much pain. So much strength. So much love. So beautifully, concisely written. I am so sorry, and inspired, by you.
I am typing with tears in my eyes. Thank you for sharing this. May love always shine its light on you and your family.
Dear sweet, strong Amanda. I am not often at a loss for words, but the tears in my eyes while reading this letter cloud my vision and make it difficult to write. Yours is a story of courage , strength, resilience and wisdom, but most of all it is a story of trusting and embracing life -and about loving- no matter what. It is a story which touches me deeply and will encourage me always . More than anything else, it inspires me and gives me hope and the belief that we can always rise to meet our challenges and above our circumstances. I wish you and Christopher all the love ,luck and joy in the world. Hold your memories dear and believe that love will find you once more because I know it always will. Much love. Norman
Your boy has perhaps unbenounced ...a built in resilience!
Amanda - this is heart-wrenchingly beautiful and sad. You have had a lot of loss in your life, but, you've managed to come out through it shining and stronger than ever - as if fused together anew in a crucible. Your words, your work and your biggest accomplishment of all - Chris - are inspiring examples to the rest of us of how to move beyond pain and sorrow but, even more than that, to allow creativity be the positive, guiding north star in our lives. Thank you for sharing. All the very best to you and to Chris. I hope he knows how lucky he is to have you as his mother and mentor.
Wow, what an amazing read! Amanda your love has conquered all. Triumph comes to those with a warrior spirit and with a loving heart. You've won the battle before it has even begun. Wow, what an amazing read!
Oh Amanda, this is one of the most heart-rending stories I have ever read. You have experienced more loss than most people twice your age! Despite all you have been through - or perhaps because of it? - you are one of the strongest women I know. A true inspiration - not only to writers, but business women and mothers as well. Thank you for sharing your life with us, in such poetic prose. You are a wise and beautiful soul.
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