Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

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Letters, Notes, and Notebooks Symbol Analysis

Letters, Notes, and Notebooks  Symbol Icon
Letters and writing are important aspects of both the novel’s content and its structure. The sections of the novel that Grandpa narrates are letters to his son. Grandma writes letters to Oskar. The letters that Grandpa writes also appear in the novel: Oskar finds empty envelopes of these letters in Grandma’s apartment, and Grandpa brings the letters to bury in Dad’s empty coffin. The one letter of Grandpa’s that Dad read is circled in red pen: the edits are both grammatical mistakes and emotional missteps (like the phrase “I love you,” which Oskar’s Dad treats like a factual error). William Black’s father also writes letters to others, but unlike Grandpa’s letters, William Black’s father’s letters reach their intended recipients. Oskar also writes letters to celebrities and receives responses from several; some are form letters, some are individualized, and he eventually receives a personalized response from Stephen Hawking. Grandpa, further, only “speaks” through written notes, since he has lost his ability to talk. These blank books have collected around the apartment like a fossil record: all of his words, in a sense, are recorded just like Dad’s last words on the answering machine. Letters and written words seem, at first, to be a more permanent way of preserving speech, but they also provide opportunities for missed connections. Grandpa’s letters were never read by the people to whom he wrote: Anna’s child, his unborn son, died with Anna in the Dresden firebombing, and Dad didn’t get to see most of Grandpa’s letters to him before Dad died.

Letters, Notes, and Notebooks Quotes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close quotes below all refer to the symbol of Letters, Notes, and Notebooks . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Mortality and the Purpose of Life Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Mariner Books edition of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close published in 2006.
Chapter 2 Quotes

I haven’t always been silent, I used to talk and talk and talk and talk, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, the silence overtook me like a cancer.

Related Characters: Grandpa (speaker)
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, which is the first sentence of Grandpa’s letter to his son, Oskar’s father, Grandpa explains that he used to talk incessantly. Now, post-traumatic stress disorder has made Grandpa unable to speak, so he has to write to communicate anything that he wants to say. Grandpa has been writing this letter for many decades, but after September 11, he will never be able to give it to Oskar’s father. However, he cannot stop attempting to reach out. Everything that he has been unable to say aloud has built up within him, and he feels compelled to try and say everything.

Even though Grandpa can no longer speak, he has an infinite amount that he wants to express. Grandpa writes in long, run-on sentences with phrases connected by commas, which creates a sensation of urgency, as if he is trying to atone for his many years of silence. Throughout the novel, characters have a lot of difficulty communicating with each other effectively. Sometimes, too many words might not express anything at all, whereas a gesture or a look can say everything that needs to be said. Talking all the time can prove to be more of a defense mechanism than a method of true communication. In the past, even though Grandpa talked all the time, he failed to listen, and therefore to communicate emotions.

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Chapter 6 Quotes

We took the blueprint of our apartment from the hallway closet and taped it to the inside of the front door, with an orange and a green marker we separated Something from Nothing. “This is Something,” we decided. “This is Nothing.” “Something.” “Nothing.” “Something.” “Nothing.” “Nothing.” “Nothing.” Everything was forever fixed, there would only be peace and happiness, it wasn’t until last night, our last night together, that the inevitable question finally arose, I told her, “Something,” by covering her face with my hands and then lifting them like a marriage veil. “We must be.” But I knew, in the most protected part of my heart, the truth.

Related Characters: Grandpa (speaker), Grandma (speaker)
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

Anna’s death in the Dresden firebombing deeply traumatized both Grandma and Grandpa, as Anna was Grandma’s sister and Grandpa’s first wife. Grandma and Grandpa marry each other with the hope that they will help each other move forward with their lives, but instead, they end up creating elaborate systems of avoiding both themselves and each other rather than processing their emotions. Anna’s death brings Grandpa and Grandma together initially, but the shared grief proves to be too much for them to process, and the grief corrodes their relationship and separates them. Anna’s death also foreshadows Dad’s death as a traumatic experience that deeply affects the whole family, and compels the family to have to figure out how to communicate with each other. The map of Something and Nothing areas is also reminiscent of Oskar’s quest around New York. Each apartment that Oskar enters on his quest has some sort of secret within it, just like Grandma and Grandpa’s apartment.

Although Grandpa doesn’t say so explicitly, the final place that Grandma and Grandpa make as “Something” or “Nothing” is most likely their bed. The description of Grandpa lifting his hands like a “marriage veil” strongly hints that they are discussing their marriage bed and, therefore, whether or not they will continue to sleep together, even though they are drifting apart. They claim that they will, but Grandpa has already written earlier in the chapter that he has decided to leave Grandma.

I have so much to tell you, the problem isn’t that I’m running out of time, I’m running out of room, this book is filling up, there couldn’t be enough pages, I looked around the apartment this morning for one last time and there was writing everywhere, filling the walls and mirrors, I’d rolled up the rugs so I could write on the floor, I’d written on the walls and around the bottles of wine we were given but never drank, I wear only short sleeves, even when it’s cold, because my arms are books, too. But there’s too much to express. I’m sorry.

Related Characters: Grandpa (speaker), Grandma
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 132
Explanation and Analysis:

The idea of Grandpa running out of room to write things down echoes Oskar’s question in the beginning of the novel about what will happen when the number of dead people in the world outpaces the amount of room available to contain all the bodies. Because Grandpa is writing to his unborn son, he is not afraid of running out of time, but rather running out of space. Ironically, however, he does not ultimately run out of space but instead out of time. The letter to Oskar’s father continues for forty years, but before Oskar’s father gets to read it, he is killed on September 11.

Grandpa expresses his desperate need to convey as much information as possible to assuage his guilt at leaving his pregnant wife and never meeting his unborn child. However, the only emotion he really needs to say is “I’m sorry.” These two words carry a huge, rich emotional truth, and the rest of Grandpa’s information is more for Grandpa’s sake than the letter’s addressee. Grandpa needs to feel cleansed by purging all his traumatic history, and the letter represents a way for him to put down for posterity all the things that Grandpa can no longer say out loud. Grandpa has psychologically lost his ability to speak due to post-traumatic stress disorder, and this combined with his guilt of abandonment compel him to try and atone for the past by recording as much as possible. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

But still, it gave me heavy, heavy boots. Dad wasn’t a Great Man, not like Winston Churchill, whoever he was. Dad was just someone who ran a family jewelry business. Just an ordinary dad. But I wished so much, then, that he had been Great. I wished he’d been famous, famous like a movie star, which is what he deserved. I wished Mr. Black had written about him, and risked his life to tell the world about him, and had reminders of him around his apartment.

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker), Dad, Mr. Black
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the novel, “heavy boots” are a personal metaphor for the sadness and guilt that Oskar undergoes, primarily due to the trauma of his father’s death and the events that unfold from that. Oskar spends a great deal of the novel walking around New York City to process his trauma, and he expresses his psychological burdens physically. The phrase “heavy boots” refers to both sadness and guilt for Oskar. “Heavy boots” is also subtly reminiscent of World War II, as the phrase could potentially evoke the army, or people marching through concentration camps in chains. Oskar is likely not aware of this association, but throughout the novel, the parallel trauma to September 11 is the Dresden bombing, and “heavy boots” calls to mind images of war prisoners and war as well as personal guilt and the feeling of "heaviness" that comes with depression or grief.

Oskar wishes that Mr. Black somehow magically had a card about his father, since this would prove that Dad had planted the key as a clue for Oskar to trace around New York City. Oskar’s description of the writing that he wants to see about his father is, however, a description of the very novel that the reader is reading.

Chapter 8 Quotes

I went to the guest room and pretended to write. I hit the space bar again and again and again. My life story was spaces.

Related Characters: Grandma (speaker)
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

The fact that Grandma has been deliberately typing spaces over and over, unbeknownst to Grandpa, symbolizes the fundamental gap between them. Grandpa is heartbroken when he sees Grandma’s sheaf of blank papers, since he thinks that she believes she has been typing actual words the whole time. Grandpa lies to Grandma to protect her feelings, and Grandma lets Grandpa lie, because, to her understanding, this lie is more palatable than the truth, which is that Grandma is typing a blank autobiography because she believes that her life is a blank. Grandma has married her dead sister’s lover, she cannot communicate with him, and her family is gone, so she thinks that her life is now just an empty space. However, an empty space can be filled. Grandma’s letter to Oskar has several spaces between every sentence, and there are many line breaks, yet because she has a message to convey to Oskar, she is starting to have words to put in between the spaces.

Chapter 14 Quotes

There won’t be enough pages in this book for me to tell you what I need to tell you, I could write smaller, I could slice the pages down their edges to make two pages, I could write over my own writing, but then what?

Related Characters: Grandpa (speaker), Dad
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 276
Explanation and Analysis:

Grandpa continues to write his letter, and Foer represents this writing visually in the novel by making the font smaller and smaller, so that the words crowd on the page until they blend together into an illegible black square. Infinite stories are crammed into a finite space, which makes everything disappear into itself. The visual image of trying to cram in as much writing as possible in one book, even writing over previous writing, creates a visual echo of journals by people in the Holocaust. Writers such as Anne Frank often lacked access to blank paper, so they had to resort to cramped script and to writing over their own words.

This desire to cram everything into the book also gives another layer of meaning to the book’s title. The writing is a visual representation of being extremely loud and incredibly close, and there is so much writing on the page that the reader feels very overwhelmed and unable to absorb any of the information presented. Grandpa feels terribly guilty that he has not been able to communicate with his son and his wife, and to try and assuage his sensations of guilt, he wants to keep reaching out his line of communication, even though continuing to push information through won’t bring back the person who is supposed to be on the other end of the line.

Chapter 15 Quotes

OSKAR SCHELL: SON

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker), Mr. Black
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 286
Explanation and Analysis:

Foer not only writes about what many of Mr. Black's business cards or index cards (which contain brief biographical information about people he considers "significant") say and look like, but he also places an image of these cards directly into the novel. Mr. Black’s card describing Oskar resembles in size and shape the business cards that Oskar makes for himself. Oskar’s business card also begins with his name, but underneath it he has packed many descriptions, including inventor, jewelry designer, percussionist, and amateur archaeologist. Throughout the novel, Oskar takes all the roles he describes himself as having and many more. Mr. Black does not have a comprehensively detailed description on every card, but rather, exactly the opposite. He has a vast library of people in his card catalog, and all of them are distilled to one essential description. Oskar may, indeed, do many things and have many traits—but being a son is Oskar’s primary motivation, and being a son is a very complex, layered job that gets at the root of everything Oskar does. Oskar spends the majority of the novel on a quest to discover the mystery of the key in his closet, which is a quest designed to bring him closer to his dead father. But being a son is also about being there for his mother, who is still alive, yet is mostly silent in the background for much of the novel. Even though Oskar concentrates explicitly on looking for clues about his father, it is his mother who is there for him, and whom he has to be there for in the present.

Chapter 16 Quotes

Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you, Oskar.
It’s always necessary.
I love you,
Grandma

Related Characters: Grandma (speaker), Oskar Schell
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 314
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the novel, Oskar’s grandmother has been writing a long letter to Oskar to try and tell him about her past and her relationship with Oskar’s grandfather, which is very difficult for her to talk about. This quote is the ending of the letter. Oskar’s grandmother and grandfather have finally reunited, and they are sitting across from each other in the airport, typing on their respective typewriters. Part of the reason that Oskar has been so obsessed with searching for clues about his father is that he wants to find some closure and so that he can feel at peace with their relationship. Oskar never got to say goodbye before his father died, a fact which haunts Oskar—and this lack of clarity and closure plagues many relationships throughout the novel. Oskar’s grandmother and grandfather have a very troubled relationship in part because they cease being able to communicate with each other, and there are so many walls between them.

Oskar’s grandmother doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past, and so she makes sure to communicate everything that she can to Oskar, or everything that she feels like she hasn’t previously been able to say, in this letter. “It’s always necessary” refers, in context, to the fact that she wished she had been able to say “I love you” to her sister. Grandma is determined not to make that mistake with Oskar. Rather than assume that there will always be more time in the future to say what she really means, Grandma takes the time now to express her feelings in the present. Grandma is trying to reassure Oskar and provide closure so that he and she both don’t obsessively try to rewind time.

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Letters, Notes, and Notebooks Symbol Timeline in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The timeline below shows where the symbol Letters, Notes, and Notebooks appears in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1, “What The?”
Mortality and the Purpose of Life Theme Icon
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Oskar then begins to describe the letters he began to write after “the worst day” (that is, September 11, 2001). Oskar writes... (full context)
Chapter 2, “Why I’m Not Where You Are (5/21/63)”
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...but the narrator is Oskar’s Grandpa.) The chapter is written in the form of a letter that begins, “To my unborn child.” The narrator tells the reader about losing his ability... (full context)
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...the smallest I’ve got,” “I’m not sure, but it’s late,” or “Ha ha ha!”. The letter resumes after a few of these blank pages, and Grandpa describes the hundreds of stacks... (full context)
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...rather, the woman speaks, and Grandpa shrugs and responds through gestures and some brief written notes. (full context)
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The woman (Grandma) asks the writer of the letter (Grandpa) why he doesn’t speak, and the narrator writes, “I don’t speak. I’m so sorry.”... (full context)
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Grandpa flips back to several phrases in the daybook–– “Ha ha ha!” and “I’m sorry, this is the smallest I’ve got” and “I’m not... (full context)
Chapter 3, “Googolplex”
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When Oskar returns home, Stan, the doorman, gives him mail: a form letter from Ringo Starr with a signed T-shirt. (The T-shirt isn’t white, though, so Oskar can’t... (full context)
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...in New York with the name “Black,” living at 216 different addresses. He writes a letter to his French teacher, pretending to be from Mom, to say that Oskar will no... (full context)
Chapter 4, “My Feelings”
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Another narrator speaks in this chapter, which is also in the form of a letter; it’s dated “12 September 2003” and addressed “Dear Oskar.” The writer of the letter is... (full context)
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The writer (Grandma) says that she asks everyone she knows to write her a letter: her father, an inmate in the penitentiary, her piano teacher, her friend Mary, her grandmother.... (full context)
Chapter 6, “Why I’m Not Where You Are (5/21/63)”
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This letter has the same date as the letter from Chapter 2, and it’s by the same... (full context)
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There’s a piece of paper from Grandpa’s daybook inserted—“Do you know what time it is?—and the narration returns to the present. He thinks... (full context)
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After another piece of paper from Grandpa’s daybook that reads “Do you know what time it is?”, the narrator reminisces about the first... (full context)
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There is another sheet from Grandpa’s daybook that reads “Do you know what time it is?”, and the narration returns to the... (full context)
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...address the envelope to “My Unborn Son.” There are a few more pages from the daybook with one sentence apiece on them, ending with, “You’re going to catch a cold.” (full context)
Chapter 7, Heavier Boots
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...she pays for a cab to take him home, where he has received a thank-you note from the American Diabetes Foundation. (full context)
Chapter 8, “My Feelings”
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The narrator of this chapter is Grandma, writing a letter to Oskar from the airport (continued from the previous “My Feelings” chapter, Chapter 4). They... (full context)
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...a hole inside her and realizes that she needs a child. She writes in Grandpa’s daybook to tell him that she is pregnant, which means that she has broken the rule... (full context)
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...Grandpa makes a few small jokes. But then he starts to cry, which makes the daybook wet with his tears. Grandma says that she’s not angry with him. When she asks... (full context)
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...had started to write back to the man in the Turkish labor camp, but the letter lay unfinished on her desk. (full context)
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Grandpa keeps pointing at “Broken and confused” and “Nothing” in the daybook and Grandma points at “Don’t cry” and “Something.” Finally, she convinces him to return home.... (full context)
Chapter 9, “Happiness, Happiness”
Puzzles and Cleverness Theme Icon
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...that week, Jimmy continues to tease Oskar by making really raunchy jokes. Oskar gets a letter from the cab driver who’d driven him to Coney Island, thanking him for sending the... (full context)
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...knows about the key. Oskar asks Alice if he can kiss her. Oskar receives a letter from Gary Franklin, a researcher, telling him to send his resume to apply for a... (full context)
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...Oskar doesn’t remember having told the man his name. At home, he has received a letter from Jane Goodall. Oskar puts a Band-Aid on the part of his chest that the... (full context)
Chapter 10, “Why I’m Not Where You Are (4/12/78)”
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This letter, by Oskar’s Grandpa, has red pen circles around many words and phrases, as though someone... (full context)
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...the spot where Anna and Grandma’s father’s shed used to stand. Grandpa has written a letter to his son every day, he writes. He recalls the homes he used to imagine... (full context)
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...remembers that after Anna had told him she was pregnant, her father gave Grandpa a letter from Simon Goldberg, who had been sent to a concentration camp. The letter says that... (full context)
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Grandpa writes that he knows that he will not be able to send the letter he has just written, no matter how hard he tries. He signs it, “I love... (full context)
Chapter 12, “My Feelings”
Mortality and the Purpose of Life Theme Icon
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...That night, Oskar walks Grandma to her front door, and the doorman gives her a letter that a person had just left for her. Grandma asks Oskar to read the letter,... (full context)
Chapter 13, “Alive and Alone”
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...and finds a drawer filled with envelopes organized chronologically and mailed from Dresden. There’s a letter from every day from May 31, 1963 to “the worst day” (that is, September 11,... (full context)
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...Oskar doesn’t know it yet) opens the guest room door. The man brings out a notebook and writes on the first page, “I don’t speak.” When Oskar asks who he is,... (full context)
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...Black, a barista, and Ray Black, who is behind bars, so Oskar writes him a letter. (full context)
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...flutter, but no sound comes out; he points to the phrase “I’m sorry” in his daybook. Oskar takes a photograph of Grandpa’s hands with Grandpa’s camera (Oskar knows that the camera... (full context)
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Grandpa writes Oskar a note asking Oskar not to tell Grandma that they’d met. Grandpa also writes that if Oskar... (full context)
Chapter 14, “Why I’m Not Where You Are (9/11/03)”
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The chapter opens with a few pages from Grandpa’s daybook, which are phrases he had written to Oskar in the previous chapter: “I don’t speak,... (full context)
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...his arrival in New York, a few days after September 11, 2001. Grandpa gives a note to Grandma’s doorman, and she stands with her palms against the window that night. He... (full context)
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...writes about getting off the plane soon after September 11, 2001. He writes in his daybook to the customs agent that he is there “to mourn,” then crosses out “mourn” and... (full context)
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...hangs up. Grandpa tries spelling out words by pressing the numbers that correspond with each letter (love is “5, 6, 8, 3” for example). He then gives about two and a... (full context)
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Grandma lets Grandpa live in the guest room. He finds his daybooks from before he had left: they are in the body of the grandfather clock. He... (full context)
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...about Dad—who is, she says, “Not our son, my son.” Grandma gave Dad the only letter that Grandpa had ever sent and tells Grandpa that Dad had been obsessed with it.... (full context)
Chapter 15, “A Simple Solution to an Impossible Problem”
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...sale. His dad, he said, had spent the last two months of his life writing letters to all his friends and acquaintances to say his goodbyes. (full context)
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William goes through his father’s Rolodex and talks to everyone about the letters that his father had sent to each of them: all the letters were different and... (full context)
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Grandpa gives Oskar a letter. It’s from Stephen Hawking, who thanks Oskar for all the letters that he’s sent over... (full context)
Chapter 16, “My Feelings”
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Grandma puts the typewriter and paper into a suitcase. She writes a note, tapes it to the window, and takes a cab to follow Grandpa to the international... (full context)
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...says that last night, he and Oskar dug up Dad’s grave, and Grandpa buried the letters he wrote, along with the key to Grandma’s apartment, in the grave. (full context)
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Grandma writes that she is typing this very letter sitting across from Grandpa at a table at the airport. When she is typing the... (full context)
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...in the same bed every night. But, writes Grandma, it’s always necessary. She ends the letter by telling Oskar that she loves him. (full context)
Chapter 17, “Beautiful and True”
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...they will fill it, but he can’t decide with what. Grandpa brings suitcases filled with letters to his unborn son to put into the coffin. (full context)