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Love in a Time of Loss

In her new book, Kristine Carlson reflects on the gift her famous husband gave her before his death.


Photography: www.mitchtobias.com

On a bench overlooking the Northern California coastline, Richard Carlson—the best-selling author of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff—handed his wife, Kristine, the kind of love letter most women only dream about, the kind you don’t expect on your 18th wedding anniversary.

Richard had written about what he’d do if he had an hour left to live. He wrote that he would be with his wife, his soul mate, next to a crackling fire, and he’d thank her for pressing him to follow his heart, accepting him unconditionally, raising two beautiful daughters, and making him laugh.

Just three years later, on December 13, 2006, Richard Carlson left his home in Martinez and boarded a plane for New York to promote his latest book. On the flight’s descent, after writing about gratitude and kindness on his laptop, he closed his computer, shut his eyes, and died. A blood clot fled from his leg to his lung and immediately killed him. He was 45.

Kristine, then 43, got the call on her cell phone as she sat in her car in front of Sunvalley Shopping Center, where she had been finishing some Christmas shopping.

“I saw the 212 number and said, ‘Oh good, he’s there,’ ” Kristine recalls. A doctor came on the line to tell her that Richard had died and to ask about organ donation as designated on his driver’s license.

At first, Kristine thought it was a prank call. She kept asking, “How do I know this is really true?” It finally sank in when they referenced Richard’s flight. She couldn’t breathe and didn’t want to breathe. “I just wanted to die,” she says now, her petite body curled in an armchair, a cup of tea in her hands. “Then I remembered my daughters.” 

It has been a year now, and Kristine is publishing the anniversary letter as well as her own response to his gift. On January 15, Hyperion Books will release An Hour to Live, An Hour to Love: The True Story of the Best Gift Ever Given, a passionate call to live as if death were only an hour away. Richard writes what now seems eerily prescient: “None of us knows, of course, how long we have to live. Even fewer of us realize what a blessing in disguise the ‘curse’ of knowing we will one day die really is. It encourages us to live on the edge, not take life for granted, and to be grateful for what we have, treating life as the miracle it truly is.”

Kristine’s response, in part, is an articulation of her choices since her husband’s death: She sees a door to “breathtaking light, divine consciousness, and abundant love,” and a door to “utter darkness of the blackest night.” She writes about how Richard’s death has inspired an awakening in her and how she will never sleepwalk through life again. She also addresses the misguided American notion that we will live forever if we do “everything right.”

Richard and Kristine met at Pepperdine University when Kristine was an 18-year-old freshman, and Richard a 20-year-old transfer student and tennis star. Immediately smitten, Kristine called her mother to say she’d met her future husband, a man who reminded her of Michelangelo’s David.

Richard made a modest living with his writing until his 10th book—Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff ... and it’s all small stuff—hit it big and spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times’ best-seller list. Readers gobbled up the tome that made accessible to Western readers the Eastern concepts of living with meaning and in the moment.

The Carlsons raised their girls, Jasmine and Kenna, in the bucolic pockets of Contra Costa County, traveled the world, coauthored books—including Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff in Love—and, unlike many married couples, kept being in love.

Kristine Carlson and her family

In publishing this book, Kristine hopes people will learn that her husband was authentic—truly as kind, as giving, and as “present” as he asked others to be. If it’s any indication, some 700 people came to Richard’s “private” memorial service.

She says he stayed humble even after his mega-success. She recalls a time they boarded a Southwest flight when Richard had been featured on the airline magazine’s cover, his face peeking above every seat pocket. She said, “Hon, look, you’re everywhere,” as he tried to slink away.

Like anyone, Richard had challenges. In the final years of his life, he suffered nearly debilitating back pain from a collapsed lower lumbar, and Kristine jokes that the title of his last book—Don’t Get Scrooged: How to Thrive in a World Full of Obnoxious, Incompetent, Arrogant, and Downright Mean-Spirited People—may have hailed from that physical pain. In spite of his pain, on the morning of his death, he walked into the kitchen and told his wife and girls, “I feel great.”

Although Kristine has seldom left the hilltop landscape surrounding her home since Richard’s death, a strong network of friends and her daughters, now 18 and 15, have lifted her in dark times. Kristine says she’s gone deep into grief and come out with epiphanies and even bliss.

“I needed to grieve however grief came to me,” says Kristine, a framed 8-by-10 picture of Richard beside her. She compares her grief to the pain of natural childbirth, a primal, emotional response. She lost the man she’d talked to nearly every day for 25 years. Kristine, who laughs nearly as heartily as she cries, says she feels Richard with her and believes that their relationship continues through time and space.

"People experience tragedy, and it makes their life have greater meaning."

She was always the glue that held the family together and made the space for her husband to publish some 30 books, which sold more than 26 million copies. Now, she’s contemplating the wide-open spaces of the next part of her life.

In An Hour to Live, An Hour to Love, she writes: “In the opening of my spirit from this loss, I have found meaning in carrying on the legacy of Richard’s life and message.”

To this end, Kristine gives readers blank pages at the end of the book to answer this question for themselves: “If you had an hour to live and could make just one phone call, who would it be to, what would you say, and why are you waiting?”

Thinking back to a few months before her husband died, she remembers how Richard had said, “Kris, you know what I love most about the human spirit?” Her tears flow as she gathers strength to recite his words. “People experience tragedy, and it makes their life have greater meaning.”

Even in her grief, Kristine Carlson says she’s finding truth in those words. 

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