The Letter

Henry Clinton was 74 years old and never learned how to read or write. Henry’s father died when he was a baby and he was forced to get a job when he was nine so that he could help his mother make ends meet. He had always dreamed of attending school, but it never worked out that way.

When Henry was 21, he met Janet Goodson one Sunday morning during church. They married a year later and she bore him three children. Time went on and Henry did the best he could for his family. Henry’s life evolved around his wife and family. He would work overtime and even take two jobs to make sure that there was enough food on the table.

When Janet was 33, she developed breast cancer that spread to her lungs. Henry remained by her side constantly until she died less than a year later from complications. Henry’s children, John 12, Russell 11, and Jill 8, were understandably devastated and comforted their father the best they could. With the help of professional counseling, Henry was able to cope with the loss of the person he loved most in the world, although he never got over it.

Two years later, Russell was on his way back from a weekend skiing trip when the car he was riding in collided with an out of control pickup truck. Russell was killed on impact. Henry once again relied upon his family to pull him through yet another difficult time.

John joined the Marines when he was 18. During Operation: Desert Storm, he was sent to Kuwait. Henry would remember having a negative feeling when he learned where his eldest son was stationed, but he tried to be optimistic. Less than a year later, Henry learned that John had been killed in action. His whole life seemed to be falling apart and there wasn’t much that he could do to stop it. “No child should die before their parents.” It was a phrase that he often uttered, but it fell on deaf ears.

It took some time before Henry was able to come to terms with the loss of his sons. It was obvious that he had not completely healed from his wife’s death. His daughter married and had children of her own. Henry remained at the same house that he had lived when he married Janet. Pictures of his wife and children adorned the walls. He looked at the pictures often and liked to go through artworks and letters that the children had written him several years ago, even though he had never been able to read them. There was a letter from his wife that she had written to him before she died. He desperately wanted to read the letter, but was afraid what it said, afraid of opening wounds long closed. He thought about having the children read it to him, but he didn’t want them to know that their father couldn’t read.

Henry was 71 when his daughter told him that she had breast cancer. She assured him that the doctor was optimistic that he had caught the disease in the early stages. Jill had surgery less than a month later and she proclaimed that the cancer was gone. Less than a year later, the news turned bad when the doctor announced that the cancer had returned, but it had spread to her lungs. Henry remained by Jill’s side throughout her ordeal, but in the end, she passed away the day after her father’s 74th birthday.

Henry mourned the death of his daughter and visited the site of her grave as frequently as he had the rest of his family. He became reclusive and only left the house when absolutely necessary. He had often thought of counseling because it did seem to help him with the passing of his wife.

Henry awoke one morning and decided that he wanted to learn how to read. If he could read then he could decipher the letter from his wife and the letters that the kids had written him. John had also written letters from the Marines that went unread. He always regretted not being able to read the mail and return a letter.

Henry signed up at the adult education center to learn to read. Henry showed up to every class and did all the homework that the instructors gave him. He even stayed later than the normal class period so that he could learn faster. The instructors were so impressed with Henry’s enthusiasm that they agreed to take turns visiting Henry’s home to help him achieve his goal. The instructors also used Henry as a model of how fast a person could learn to read and write if they really wanted to.

Henry graduated from the class almost a month ahead of time and was to receive a diploma for his hard work. Agnes Burkhard had grown attached to Henry’s charm and gentlemanly ways. She only wished that she could find a man her own age that was half as nice as he was. It was a pleasure to have him in class. Sometimes she believed that he was the only person listening. He reminded her of her own grandfather, who passed away when she was young. He had the same full head of hair and elegant style of talking that mesmerized her. It was like listening to someone who knew everything there was to know about the world.

Henry’s diploma arrived and Agnes couldn’t wait to give it to him. She thought about the way his eyes would light up when she presented him with the model of his hard work. After her last class, she drove to Henry’s home and rushed up to the door and rung the bell. After three rings, she was just about to leave and possibly try back the next day when she heard the faint sound of music. Thinking that possibly he couldn’t hear the doorbell over the music, she opened the unlocked door. The interior was well kept, but dimly lit. She walked through the kitchen and into the living room, where the sounds of the music originated. A lamp partially lit one end of the room. Beneath the lamp on the end table she saw a stack of letters. She looked at the letters and quickly read through some of the children’s notes to their father.

She heard a creak from inside the room and turned, expecting to see Henry walking up behind her. Her smile faded as she saw Henry dangling in mid air with a rope leading from his neck to a rafter on the ceiling. She screamed and quickly ran to his side. Judging by the state of Henry’s body, he was obviously dead. Before she called the police. She noticed the letter from his wife, still clutched in one hand and his wife’s photo in the other.

The Letter


Ashmore, United States

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