On February 14, 2010 Tom Townsend’s son was killed in a traffic accident. He was young (just 21), creative and had his whole life ahead of him. When a young person dies it make everyone who knew him and his family have to rethink how they see the world and approach life. This was certainly true with Alex’s death 4 + years ago. Tom spent the first year after Alex’s death writing a series of emails to himself as he tried to reconcile his deep love for his son with the ache in his heart for his loss. I was privileged to be able to read all 465 emails and found myself alternating between laughing out loud and sobbing. The emails are moving and meaningful to anyone who has suffered the loss of a young person.
One email in struck me as particularly tender, although there were many others also I found heart touching. I have Tom’s permission to share it with you. This email is a letter he had written to his son after Alex had to cope with a particularly difficult time in college, just four months before Alex’s death. Mothering comes in all forms and this letter reflects a poignant example of mothering from a father to his college-aged son.
I was at the work today looking for a certain document related to work, when surprisingly a different one appeared — a correspondence I had with Alex a few months before his accident. I don’t know how that happened. I had written to him knowing that he was really down on himself. He had gotten into trouble here or there, and would beat himself up when he found himself in situations like this. He felt he had lost some good friends, and that he would just chalk up this particular year at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) to one in the loss column.
Here is the email I sent to encourage him.
Subject: Hey Alex
I just wanted to tell you a few things.
1) Don’t be too hard on yourself. Now that you’ve made a commitment to getting things right, forgive yourself and move on. Once you get some days and then weeks under your belt without being so hard on yourself — once you get distance from the past few weeks — the sun will come out brighter and you’ll feel better. Give yourself a break, you deserve one.
2) I know you feel stupid, like you keep screwing up, and on and on. Sure, you’ve made some mistakes, and some pretty serious ones at different times. But having made those serious ones, don’t lump the everyday ones into the same bucket and become overwhelmed by them all as if they’re all equal. If you only know how many times a day I make stupid mistakes, and get made fun of for them. So much so that if I was your age, they’d be saying “what a screw-up.” But since I’m 50, it’s “just Tom.” I can get away with it because I’m not under a microscope. You are, because of the other mistakes you’ve made. So every little thing, even everyday human ones, looks like more of the same. But you know better, so separate them in your own head. You know that car bumps and scrapes happen to everyone. From stoners to boy scouts, preachers to presidents. Don’t add that to your reasons to feel bad. It sucks when that happens, but that’s all.nIt just sucks. It doesn’t mean you keep screwing up. Same for running late, losing keys, misplacing something.
3) BUT one of the causes of your inability to get back on track as fast as you could is your lateness; so do work on that please. You’d be surprised how fun, yes, actually fun, it is arriving somewhere early and just chilling there.
4) While on one hand you are old for a college freshman/sophomore, you are young in the scheme of things. So don’t let your view of yourself, that of a 21-year old, be the one that you think the rest of the world has. In 5 years nobody, including you, will think of yourself as an “old freshman” anymore. Once you’re out of school, people stop counting age and applying the year to what you’re supposed to have achieved by then. Obsession with age falls apart after you graduate. You are very young and have more time than you think to get yourself on track.
5) A lot of people struggle with what they want to do with their life at this stage. Just because this or that kid seems to know, don’t think you have to know. What you do instead is lay the groundwork so that once you do know, you can jump on it, because you’ll have had college, you’ll have learned Photoshop, or ProTools, or whatever software and skills you MUST get at SCAD. So until you know what you want to pursue specifically, pursue the groundwork. Otherwise you’ll only lose more time starting over again once you do know.
6) You’ve made some great friends who you will have for life. That’s awesome, and just think about how 5 years ago your biggest complaint was not having friends. You have no issues there anymore. BUT if when you graduate, you haven’t expanded on that base of friends, you will have lost a lot of the opportunity SCAD, and any college, is all about. You’re supposed to add, pick up, and gather contacts, friends, associates, all of the above, over these years. These people will be your clients later, or your bosses, or your employees. Start networking now. Everyone else is. Don’t let them, the rest of your generation, get such a head start by being slow to venture out.
7) Sometimes I look at people who don’t have as much as I do and envy the ones who are at a stage where they’re getting their act together in order to get in a position so they CAN have more. Or start over. Or clean up their lives. And I’m not talking about people just starting out their adult lives. When I see someone who’s said, “okay, I’m starting fresh, here’s what I’m going to do differently, and we’re going for it,” I’m jealous sometimes. Because they’re experiencing the excitement of trying something new, setting a plan, going for it, keeping track, measuring how they’re doing according to their plan and all. It’s like a life-size equivalent to when you clean your desk and room and organize all your papers and homework and books and pens and paper and computer stuff, then sit down to get work done. It’s a cleansing of the mind and soul that you can will into being, and that brings on its own sense of confidence and excitement about what’s to come. Then you get a little success, and then a little more, and you see what you’re capable of. You got a taste of that when you started at the restaurant in Orlando, had a paycheck, bought groceries, watched gas prices, and balanced all of that with Chelsea and her family in a whole new city you had to yourself. You had a new venture that was fresh, exciting, and had nothing to do with past failures, guilt or regret.
Well, that’s what you have right now, this week, at SCAD. You’ve had some ups and downs, and now tonight you’re at the library with your homework, and as you told Mom, you’d never been in the main library before. So be excited by that. Study, talk to your teachers, ask for help, make them want to help you and give you a break. Get to know them. Learn to admire them for what they know. You’re not in High School anymore with teachers you might not be impressed by. These are accomplished people. Get them on your side. Then watch them start to like you, want to help you, and take you under their wing. Then watch your grades improve. Remember that year at Oliverian School when you kicked ass in awards? Feel that again. And while you’re at it, find different places on campus to hide out and be by yourself, or hide to do homework, or sneak to see great art, or a place to chill in the sun, explore the places you have never seen there. So when you take your kids there when they’re looking at colleges, you can show them more than off-campus houses, neighborhoods, dorms and more. Get into that campus. It’s one of the most famous in the world, and in a city that’s loved around the world.
8) You have ambition. You have desire. What you don’t have is inspiration. Sometimes you have to look for that just like anything else you want. We’re not all lucky enough to be inspired coming out of the womb. So LOOK EVERYWHERE FOR WHAT INSPIRES YOU. Is it animation? Painting? English and writing? Is it a craft? Is it to start a business you think would be cool? Is it not artistic at all? Is it history? Is it social work? Is it just being respected by others? What is it? What makes you feel good? You have to examine that in yourself, watch for hints in your own behavior and reaction to things, and you have to LOOK for it. Go hear the speakers who come to campus. I heard Martin Luther King’s dad, and many others just because they were there on campus to talk. Look for more events than concerts. Speakers, not just bands. Go to an art gallery like you and Amy did last summer. Draw. Think. Discuss stuff that’s intellectually challenging. When you find what inspires you, all the work required to pursue that ceases to be work anymore. I never knew Mondays from weekends when I got into advertising. It’s all I wanted to do. You’re at that age. So find what that is so your sense of work isn’t separate from your sense of pleasure and excitement.
9) It’s a fact that you are the most vulnerable to getting in trouble when you’re feeling recently accomplished, or excited, or like you’re really succeeding at something. It’s then that you feel you deserve to take a break and you lower your guard, or take some chances, or you get hyper and then impulsive. So when you do start to see yourself succeed, know that about yourself and keep yourself under control. Don’t fall for your own dirty tricks again and again. When you’re feeling down, lighten up some. And when you’re feeling great, bring it down some. Find that calm, cool medium. Like anything else, that takes practice. Practice it, practice it, practice it.
10) Take a history course. Georgia history, local history, southern history. That’s your other interest beyond creative things. And you can be creative with history. And you’ll see Savannah completely differently once you know more about it, and that alone makes other people see you positively, and differently, as well.
11) Try to stop smoking. If cigarettes are a crutch to help you avoid other stuff, it’s preferable of course. But as long as you’re in start-over mode, try gum, or lifesavers (I’m pounding Gummi Bears just because of nervous energy). You said it yourself — even if it didn’t ruin your lungs, breath, clothes, cost money, and make you look less intelligent than you are, do you really want to grow up to be the uncle who always has to sneak away for a smoke at Christmas?
12) Take a step back and see where you’ve succeeded over the past 10 years. Middle School and High School can be a bitch socially, and that’s where you had your greatest weakness during those years. That’s history now. You’ll get past this stage too, if you keep wanting to. But you have to want to. And I know you do. So then how do you keep that desire alive? BY REPLACING THE TEMPTATIONS OF OTHER THINGS WITH AN OBSESSION WITH WHATEVER INSPIRES YOU. Find what inspires you, then jump into it, and that will become your temptation instead.
13) Two more things — like I said before, you are younger than you might think sometimes. It’s never too late to start fresh. Take it at your pace, don’t beat yourself up, take it one day at a time, give yourself a pat on the back for every little step, and then step-by-step, that momentum grows. Don’t bring yourself down. Bring yourself up. And find friends, in addition to the ones you have (not instead of ), who inspire you, and they will help bring you up themselves.
14) Lastly, remember this — the reason you’re capable of breaking our hearts is that we love you more than you will ever know until you have a first born child. The other side of that love is infinite affection for you and desire to be with you. So in the end, there’s nothing you can do that will ever separate us. Our door is always open, phone is always on, and interest always intense in being with you. So no matter what, who knows, maybe you and I can start a company one day. Think of that as your back-up. You will always be able to come home, where you are always loved and the center of somebody’s life — my own. And Mom’s. And countless relatives and friends everywhere.
Love you, drive carefully, don’t drive sleepy. PLEASE. Say hi to Chelsea and her parents and grandmother.
Tom has self-published his series of emails to himself titled, In This I will Find Beauty. Additionally he has created a blog in which he is sharing the emails he wrote to himself after his son’s death. These emails documents his struggle to accept his son’s death and what it means to go on without his son living and breathing in the here and now. In order to honor Alex’s life Tom and his wife Jeanne have started several meaningful projects in their son’s name. If you are interested in reading more from In This I Will Find Beauty, please visit In This I Will Find Beauty on Facebook or directly on his blog at I Will Find Beauty.
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