Last letters

Jody Noland helps the dying pen their final correspondences to grieving loved ones.

By Mark Davis | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A man had a brain tumor. Before he underwent an operation, friends and family packed into his hospital room to offer a prayer, a firm hand, good-luck wishes. He’d been so strong, so healthy! Everyone was shocked.

The man’s wife squeezed past the crowd of loved ones to reach her husband’s side. He looked at his life mate.

“Did you bring pen and paper?” he asked. She had.

Pen and paper? Onlookers were puzzled.

The next day, they learned why. The man wanted to write goodbye letters to his children — just in case.

Jody Noland, a 58-year-old resident of Cobb County, was among the well-wishers in the man’s hospital room that day.

Letters. It struck a chord with her. Her mother had written Jody letters, and Jody had picked up the habit, writing letters to her child. Letters, she knew, last. They anchor memories, connect one generation to the next, become keepsakes, the folded treasures in dresser drawers. Letters matter.

As did those missives written by her friend with the brain tumor. He lived nine months longer — a short period in a human life, but time enough for him to take care of writing to those who mattered most.

Thus was born an idea. Jody now preaches the power of the printed word. She’s done it in church groups, in private meetings, in emails and phone calls. Always the message is the same: Do not put off writing those you love.

Like so many passions, it may not pay the bills, but Jody believes her life has prepared her to launch a letter-writing service she calls Leave Nothing Unsaid (www.LeaveNothing Unsaid.com).

“I’m on a mission,” Jody says. “My passion is about inspiring people to write affirming letters to people who matter the most.”

The implied footnote is: before it’s too late.

2

Life-changing moment

The missives are yellowed with the passage of years, creased from multiple readings. One is just a card. The other comprises two pages in a distinct cursive handwriting. Each is a touchstone. They are two of Jody’s most prized possessions.

The card? It came from a Mrs. Benz, a long-ago chemistry teacher. She penned two lines to a high school student, Edward Cook, who one day would become Jody’s father. Then just a boy, Edward was born to working-class parents and figured he’d follow their example. When he graduated, he’d find a manufacturing job. Mrs. Benz urged him to reconsider.

“A remembrance for my chief chemist of last year,” she wrote in the card. “I hope you will try hard to get on to college somewhere.” A seismic change shifted in young Edward’s life. Inspired by those two sentences, he decided to go to college. He studied chemistry, eventually earning a Ph.D. He became a professor — and later dean — at the U.S. Naval Academy.

“That teacher changed the trajectory of my dad’s life — and inevitably, of my life,” Jody says.

The second letter was written by Garland Noland Jr., Jody’s father-in-law. He wrote it to her husband, Mike, when the younger man turned 35. It is a remarkable document, one man opening his heart to the other.

“We have had the pleasure and privilege of seeing you develop into a fine young man with high standards of living, completely responsible. ... Mike, what I’m really trying to say is that we are very proud of you and so happy to call you our son.”

In the letter, the older man reveals what made him pen this heartfelt letter to his adult son: “Quite a few years ago I received a similar letter from my dad ...”

Both letters turned up in dresser drawers, each discovered by loved ones after the recipients had died. In life, they kept those letters close. In death, they passed them on — heirlooms to be handed down.

“Don’t underestimate the impact your words can have on someone’s life,” is the lesson Jody learned from these two letters.

She handles each one so gently, as if they are priceless texts.

In fact, they are.

How we got the story

Jody Noland and her unique service came to Mark Davis’ attention via a colleague. Moved by staff writer Steve Hummer’s Personal Journey about a coach in late stages of ALS, Noland contacted him to offer her letter-writing service free of charge. Davis was so impressed with Noland’s heartfelt offer, he contacted her to learn more. He soon realized she had a compelling Personal Journey of her own to tell.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com

3

Difficult letter to write

Jody met her husband Mike at IBM, where they both worked. They settled in Atlanta in 1985 and got married. Theirs was a blended union: He already had two daughters and a son from an earlier marriage.

They bought a fine, four-bedroom home with a back porch overlooking a yard dotted with hardwoods and pines. Mike used it to pursue his new career as a financial consultant. In 1992, they welcomed a new resident to the house: Anne, their daughter.

She was born at Piedmont Hospital. Jody recalls the nurse bringing her the child for the first time. Anne was a snoozing lump. Her mother admired the infant’s little arms, the exquisite fingers.

That night, Jody wrote her first letter to Anne.

Thus began a pattern that repeated itself nearly every year on her daughter’s birthday. “I want so much to be a godly mother,” she wrote in a 1993 letter when Anne turned 1. “To love you, care for you, to help you grow, to laugh and play with you, to teach you the joy of giving to others.”

Before Jody knew it, her daughter was 6.

“Anne, you have a love and enthusiasm for life that is infectious,” Jody wrote in that 1998 missive. “Your smile and sparkle are such a blessing.”

Anne was in Uganda on a volunteer mission at an orphanage when she turned 20 in 2012.

On her birthday, she opened a packet from her mom. In it were all the letters Jody had written over the years. Anne had read some before, but never had she received them all at once.

She started with the most recent, a typical worried-mom message.

“I have my moments of anxiety/fear/concern about your being so far away,” Jody wrote.

Anne shrugged off those fears, and kept reading. She devoured every word. It took more than an hour.

Reading, then rereading those letters is a memory the younger woman will take to her grave. “I got emotional,” says Anne now a senior at UGA. “For my mother to have written all those letters ...”

Not every letter has been easy.

In 2009 Mike was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer. He was gravely ill.

They’d not always enjoyed a happy marriage. He’d been critical of Jody and their daughter. Some days, says Jody, she felt she was “living a lie” — pretending that everything at home was OK. It was not.

Still, as their 24th wedding anniversary approached, Jody turned to her laptop. “Dear Mike...” she wrote.

Her letter extolled Mike’s pursuit of excellence, his tenacity and his commitment to his clients. “I thought and prayed and composed a letter that sincerely expressed my gratitude for the positive things he had done,” she recalls.

She handed him the letter. He read it, then put his head in his hands. “I haven’t been a very good husband to you,” he finally said. “And now there’s no time to make it up.”

As his cancer worsened, Jody begged, cajoled and, yes, nagged him: Please write some letters to your children. She asked to help. He said no. She offered to write them; all he’d have to do was sign them. And still her husband did nothing

On the day of Mike’s funeral, a daughter from his previous marriage approached her stepmother, an expectant smile on her face. “Did Dad write me a letter?”

Jody searched for words. She has trouble choosing the right ones, even now. “It broke my heart to say no.”


Words become treasures

  • “Don’t underestimate the impact your words can have on someone’s life,” says Jody, who writes letters to her daughter every year. Brant Sanderlin / bsanderlin@ajc.com
  • Jody speaks to a group of senior citizens about the importance of writing letters to loved ones before it’s too late. Photo: Branden Camp
  • Jody speaks to a group of senior citizens about the importance of writing letters to loved ones before it’s too late. Photo: Branden Camp
  • A woman picks up Jody’s book “Leave Nothing Unsaid” at a recent workshop. Photo: Branden Camp
  • Jody holds bound copies if the letters she's written to her daughter Anne. Photo: David Tulis
  • A letter from his high school chemistry teacher changed the trajectory of Edward Cook’s life, and by association, the life of his daughter, Jody Noland. She is on a mission to teach others about the power of the written word. Photo: David Tulis
  • A detail from one of many letters Jody has written to her daughter, Anne, over the years. The first one Jody wrote was penned on the day Anne was born. Photo: David Tulis
  • “I’m on a mission,” Jody says. “My passion is about inspiring people to write affirming letters to people who matter the most.” Photo: David Tulis
  • Jody tried to get her husband, Mike Noland, to write letters, too, before he died, but he refused. Since then she doubled her resolve to urge others to write letters to loved ones.

4

A new mission

Jody’s dad was next. Edward Cook, 93, died 2010. Her mother died eight months later. Two months after that, her daughter left home for her freshman year at UGA. In the space of two years, all the roles by which Jody had defined herself — wife, daughter, mother — had changed. The only constant was Summer, the golden retriever — and she was getting on in years, too.

Jody wondered what was next. “Everything that mattered, I lost, or had changed, in a two-year period.”

A 2012 phone call gave her new purpose. It was the man who’d bought Mike’s business. He knew Jody sometimes helped people write letters. A friend of his wife was dying; he’d heard Jody might be able to help the dying woman write some letters to her family.

In fact, Jody had a handbook on writing letters. Back in 2006, she had enlisted a group of her friends at Mount Bethel Christian School to help her craft an instruction manual titled “Leave Nothing Unsaid.” She had printed the book and shared copies with a smattering of friends, in church groups and at other gatherings. It was something she did on nights and weekends. But when Mike got sick in 2009, she had set it aside.

Now she reconsidered her decision to give up letter-writing. She revamped her book. She gave it a better cover, better graphics, heavier paper. What had been an afternoon’s project at Kinko’s turned into a publishing enterprise, a bona fide business.

Some tips: Express your heart. Be sincere and affirming. Don’t use this platform to criticize, correct or apologize. Keep it simple. Finish. You can always revise it later.

And this:

Be sure to sign the letter by hand.

In early 2013, Jody turned all her energies to Leave Nothing Unsaid.


“Your smile and sparkle are such a blessing.”

JODY NOLAND, in a letter to her daughter Anne (above right with their dog, Summer) on her birthday in 1998, when Anne turned 6.


5

Personal treasures

Ingrid Brown had been the matriarch of her family, a wise and loving presence. What would the holidays be without her?

Last Thanksgiving, her family found out. It was the first holiday that Ingrid — wife, mom and grandmother — wasn’t with them. Leukemia had claimed her earlier that year.

Still, there is comfort in routine, and so the children of Neil and Ingrid Brown celebrated the day. It was a good meal, even if her absence overshadowed everything.

When everyone was finished, Neil stood. In his hand were 13 envelopes — in each, a letter, written specifically for the children and grandchildren. Before she died, Ingrid had written them. Jody had helped. She’d visited Ingrid at home, taking a seat in the family room and listening. Ingrid had a scarf on her head, Jody recalls, and words in her heart. Jody eased them out as the older woman struggled to speak. It took three trips to get it all down.

Everyone — adult children, grandchildren as young as 5 — reached for a gift from the grave. Each found a quiet spot in Neil’s Roswell home to read.

Ingrid’s daughter Kristin Cline held her one-page letter in shaking hands. “Who doesn’t want to hear words of affirmation from their mom and dad?” she recalls later. “Or, for that matter, from their children and grandchildren?”

Jody also spent time at the bedside of Carolyn Henson. Last year, physicians diagnosed the Toccoa resident with inoperable colon cancer. Winter 2014 eased toward spring; people who knew and loved the 78-year-old woman readied for the inevitable.

Jody visited Henson at Hospice Atlanta. Sunlight poured through a window, illuminating the dying woman’s handiwork — some cloth adornment for a wedding veil. Her granddaughter planned to marry later in the year.

Jody took a seat on a recliner and listened. The dying woman wasted little time.

Jody crafted eight letters, one each for the people nearest Henson. And just in time, too. From diagnosis to death, Henson lived 37 days. Two days after she died, her family gathered at a Toccoa funeral home where the letters were distributed.

“There aren’t adequate words to express how thankful I am for your unselfish care for me,” the dying woman wrote to her daughter, Lynn Chandley. “You have given it so generously.”

In a separate letter, delivered to the bride-to-be, Henson congratulated the younger woman on marrying a good man. She also couldn’t resist some grandmotherly advice. “Just keep Kyle (the groom) straight!”

The letters are invaluable, Lynn says. “If something was to happen to my house, and I had to take out only the things that matter, the letters would be part of my personal treasures.”

About the reporter

Mark Davis joined the AJC in 2003 after working in Philadelphia, Tampa and his native North Carolina. A graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Davis has reported on heroes, bums and creatures that walk, swim, crawl and fly.

6

Faith, prayers, belief

Jody eyes a room full of retirees who work in the after-50 ministry at Johnson Ferry Baptist, where she’s been invited to speak.

It’s Valentine’s Day; each table is decorated with tiny candy bars wrapped in the colors of the holiday — red, pink, silver. “How many of you have written letters to loved ones?”

A few hands rise, uncertainly. Jody nods.

“How many people have been to a funeral lately?” she asks.

That strikes a chord. This crowd knows about funerals. At least a third of the people raise their hands.

Were the eulogies thoughtful? Did the living say nice things about the dead? Lynn wants to know. Folks nod.

“Did they (the deceased) know that people felt that way?” This time, not everyone nods.

That is Jody’s take-away message.

People, she says, need to write their loved ones now — now, when they are able. Don’t put it off.

That advice is at the heart of her enterprise.

Presentation by Shane Harrison.