In addition to being one of the most notable Physicists of his generation, Richard Feynman was blessed with intense curiosity, quick wit and even played the bongos. Amongst his achievements was a role in the Manhattan Project and sharing the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.
On June 29th 1942, Arline Greenbaum, Feynman’s high school sweetheart was gravely ill with tuberculosis, which was incurable and a terminal disease at the time. Despite concerns from their family, Feynman and Arline took the ferry to Staten Island where they were married in the City hall. After the ceremony Arline was admitted to Deborah Hospital where Feynman would visit on weekends.
Sadly in 1945, Arline passed away, with Richard by her side.
Confronted with the devastating grief that followed Feynman took pen to paper a year after his wife’s death to write a letter to Arline. The letter is eloquent, poignant but also humorous. Feynman, who was only 28 years old at the time, sealed the letter, and it remained unopened for more than forty years, until his own death in 1988.
October 17, 1946
I adore you, sweetheart.
I know how much you like to hear that — but I don’t only write it because you like it — I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you.
It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing.
But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will love you.
I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector. Can’t I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the “idea-woman” and general instigator of all our wild adventures.
When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.
I know you will assure me that I am foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don’t want to be in my way. I’ll bet you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) after two years. But you can’t help it, darling, nor can I — I don’t understand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don’t want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.
My darling wife, I do adore you.
I love my wife. My wife is dead.
PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.
You can watch a touching recital of Feynman’s letter to Arline, read by Oscar Isaac at Letters Live below: