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Love Letters

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WHEN 8-YEAR-OLD ANDY BREMNER was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1980, only one person seemed to cheer him up: the mailman. “Andy would be in intense pain and very grumpy, lying on the couch and refusing to move,” says his mother, Linda Bremner, 49. “Then the mailman would come, and he’d push three adults over to get to the [door]. No matter how bad he felt PM—pre-mail-man—he felt better afterward.”

After his first stay at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Andy was deluged with cards from friends and relatives—85 pieces of mail in all. But when the flow inevitably tapered off, Linda, then a housekeeper, began mailing her son notes signed, “Your secret pal.” At first, Andy could only guess at the source of his mail, which arrived daily during the remaining four years of his illness. But early in 1981, Linda found him drawing a picture of two unicorns. “It’s for my secret pal,” Andy explained. When Linda examined the drawing after Andy had gone to bed, her eyes filled with tears. “P.S. Mom,” he had written, “I love you.”

Andy died on Aug. 31, 1984, but his mother is still writing letters. Today, Linda is president of Love Letters, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation in Lombard, Ill., that weekly sends handmade cards—plus birthday and Christmas gifts packed in confetti, and glitter-splashed games and puzzles—to some 1,000 seriously ill children. Eric Krenzke, 7, who suffers from dystonia, and his brother Bobby, who died of the same rare hereditary neuromuscular disease last year, have both been on Bremner’s mailing list. Says their mother, Pam Krenzke, a Hilliard, Ohio, school administrator: “[Love Letters lets them] put away the medicine and the serious stuff for a while.”

After Andy’s death, Linda made a touching discovery: Hidden in his closet was a Reebok shoe box stuffed with the letters she had written—and a book with the addresses of 20 children whom Andy had met at a camp for kids with cancer. Linda took it as a sign. “It struck me that a lot of kids out there were waiting for the mailman to come,” she says. “I decided to keep writing to the 20 kids until they stopped writing back.”

With that, Love Letters was born. By posting notices in children’s hospitals, Linda expanded her contacts and within three years was writing to 322 children each week. In the process, she admits, she became obsessive about her new mission. To pay for postage and stationery, she collected empty bottles and sold her wedding ring. “I needed help and wasn’t shy about asking,” she says. After a story about Bremner appeared in 1987, Apple sent her a free computer—on which she keeps profiles of each child, including birthdays and hobbies—and $11,000 in donations arrived.

Bremner, the mother of two grown children, admits to spending too much time being a pen pal to “have a life.” In fact, Love Letters has become a sort of refuge since her third husband, Louie Pettijohn, died in a car accident in 1995. Sadly, all of Bremner’s 20 original pen pals have also died. But she continues to work full-time, for little pay, greeting new children. The gratitude of the hundreds she has cheered festoon the walls of her donated office space. “I will always write a love letter,” Bremner says, “and there will always be a child who needs one.”

PATRICK ROGERS

JONI H. BLACKMAN in Lombard, Ill.