Giving the gift of wordsI’ve written letters since the middle school days of folding them into paper triangles and passing them to friends between classes. There were always details of my day I felt I could better write than speak, especially in those awkward days when it was hard to articulate anything without getting a weird look.

Over the years, I’ve graduated from writing about school life to writing about people, specifically to express gratitude and love.

I recently wrote to a complete stranger whose friend created a post in an online charity. She simply wanted some encouragement and kind words sent her friend’s way for the holidays because it had been a rough year for her. For me, sending sincere words to her gave me hope, the hope that love can not only be sent from a stranger but received as well. It helps to remind me that through all the division we experience and create in the world, we can also build bridges.

Then there are love letters. My husband and I are both writers and have been writing letters to each other since the beginning of our relationship five years ago. Every birthday, holiday, and anniversary, I get out of bed like it’s Christmas morning and sneak past my sleeping husband into the living room. My eyes never scan the room for expensive, wrapped gifts but for the letter I know will be waiting for me.

When I look through these letters, I get to experience not only the timeline of our relationship but also those brief but special moments memory might erase later, and sometimes revelations we’ve had because of each other.

I can recall plenty of fights where I’ve angrily taken up our binder full of letters and forced myself to read them in another room, because they remind me, in my blind moments, why we’re in this together. And it works. Having the weight of our history in my hands reminding me of this moment or that, in his words or mine, is more effective than any couples’ therapy ideas I’ve heard about. It’s not nostalgia that makes me want to open that door, hug him, and say I’m sorry. It’s the love that is so clearly there, even when I’m mad at him.

Of any gift between us, our letters are the ones we both value the most. If my apartment were on fire and I could only grab a couple things, you’d better believe I’d have my cat under one arm and those letters in the other.

Then there are letters to friends and family. During my birthday dinner over the summer, I invited my closest friends here in Austin and wrote a letter to each one. I wanted every person at that table to understand why I wanted them there to celebrate with me and why I care about them. I reminded them of how we’d met, things we’d gone through, and all the things I love about them. What I wanted most that night was for my friends to see themselves as wonderful, special, and worthy human beings whom I am better for knowing. And with that, I finally understood what a friend of mine wrote in a letter to me years ago before he passed away.

When he passed in the summer of 2016, I didn’t have any regrets because we told each other often that we loved each other, in person and through letters. Whether diligently editing the daily newspaper side by side or on long drives where we’d laugh so hard we cried, we always took the time to be sentimental.

In his last letter to me, he wrote that if he had a genie grant him just one wish, he’d wish the people he cared about most could fully comprehend how special they are. He knew that we were very stingy about giving ourselves credit, let alone giving ourselves the kind of love we give our friends and family. I still read his letter sometimes and hope his wish is closer to coming true now than it was then. I treasure his words in memory, but seeing those words on paper gives me a piece of him to hold onto in the world, a physical item that says “See! This happened. I was loved by someone.”

Having a friend pass away put into perspective just how much love was there. There will always be the thought of wishing I could have done more and said more, but having the memory of watching him read my letters, smile, and tear up comforts me. It helps me remember that he did know how much I loved him, no matter how much grief would have me believe otherwise.

To me, no gift in the world can replace someone’s words to me. So try writing a letter to someone you care about. It doesn’t have to be poetic, grammatically correct, or even close to perfect. The things we say to loved ones on their deathbeds never are, but they matter. They matter because they are the things we need them to know before we lose them, in case we never took the chance to say them before because we thought we had all the time in the world.

This is the time of year we spend with the people we love. Don’t miss the opportunity to express to them just how much they mean to you. Love is the reason we’re alive — to give it, to receive it, and to experience it as deeply and fully as we can while we’re here. And if someone has a written reminder of that love, the details can be remembered and experienced as long as it exists.

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Rayla Rutkoskie is a passionate advocate for mental health. She believes in finding creative and compassionate ways to face and love one's self. She learned to communicate difficult feelings through writing by telling herself the truth about any shame she carried. By doing so, she could finally let it go. Her hope is that by sharing her words, others carrying shame can be shown the choice to let it go and start on their own journey to heal.