redeeming grief

In December of 2004, I lost a piece of myself that isn’t really retrievable. It was a week before Christmas and I found myself delivering my first child into a world he would never know. There will be no deep dive into the details of my pregnancy with Nathan and what determined our loss–if you want those, you can find them here.

This blog series is aimed at positivity so it seems odd I would bring this loss up at all, but I promise, it comes with good reason. You see, this year, Nathan, had he not been so sick, would be old enough to attend high school…and since I am a high school  principal and teacher, this weighs heavy. I walk around my school each day and I watch the antics of my freshmen–I hear the silly giggles, still tinged with junior high joy; I see the awkwardness settling as they begin to figure out high school; I reassure their parents that their kids will in fact mature and that they will find success. And I do all of this with a bit of an achey heart these days because I should be more deeply involved in this scenario than just the voice of principalian experience (and yes, I just made that word up…). I should be walking campus tickled by the laughter of my own son and his friends…I should be the parent in need of reassurance. In the midst of this realization, I felt my grief, which I have spent so long taming, rediscovering its roar.

Sadness was welling up and I was struggling to push it down.

This was so much harder than I thought it was going to be…and I spent the summer preparing for it!

But as we have wandered through these early weeks of school, I have learned to live my gratitude (which is what redeemed my grief all those years ago). These days, I walk around campus and instead of feeling betrayed by loss, I feel even closer to Nathan than usual. It is almost as if he is present with me just a little bit more each day. Instead of what ifs, I just feel grateful that I have the chance to work with, teach and help all of these kids who are as old as he should be. It is my gift back in some strange way.

I have spent the last 15 years of my life trying to figure out the purpose to my grief, and while I may spend the next 15 years trying to do the same, I have learned a few things. When I harness my grief to offer empathy to those who are suffering, the loss is less. When I view my students through the lens of “If this were Nathan, how would I want someone to treat him in this moment?”, I am a better teacher and human. When I transform grief into gratitude, my loss is vindicated. When Nathan feels alive in my heart, when I recognize that I am still his mom, his death doesn’t feel so vacant.

People question my sort of annoying optimism regularly. I feel like if they understood the loss and the illness and the sacrifices endured, those questions would dissolve. I have every reason to live angry with the world. I choose not to. That isn’t easy. It is a daily decision; it is an active lifestyle and it is imperfect. But optimism and seeking gratitude allow me to see greater purpose in the difficulty, in my life. It allows me to put myself on the side and to see beyond the periphery of the moment, of the wounds. It allows me to seek positivity each and everyday. It allows me to truly live.

And that is what Nathan would want most for his mom anyway. I can’t deny him that.

(and because I haven’t offered enough poems lately…here are a couple…“One Art” By Elizabeth Bishop“Lost” by David Waggoner (okay, for real, if you don’t click on this link you need to read this line–life changing! “…Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a  powerful stranger,”)

empowerment

Words, language, have become a means of survival.

Air, water, food, shelter, words. Sincerely, their necessity has reached this level.

The easy answer here in uncovering the meaning behind this dramatic assertion is that books have saved me…allowed me an escape…or that writing has…but it isn’t that simple or that obvious, because for a long time, when I was sick and dizzy, reading and writing were not the friendliest options. However, there are realizations in life that shine a light to burn off the fog that has settled in around you…the fog that hinders your vision…not allowing you to see anything else until you recognize first the truth of what has blinded you. Sometimes you get lost and can’t see up from down or details of the world around you.  Then the moment arrives when understanding clarifies the rest and the fog becomes mist which becomes transparency.

So, I have come to learn that when my language portrays victimization (whether resulting from life long struggles with anxiety or my more recent struggles with inner ear disability), that I sink swiftly into a self induced chasm of resignation. When my language falters under the weight of whatever ordeal I am suffering, I surrender any power or control I have in the situation and I become nothing more than a sacrifice to my circumstances. However, when I shift the syntax…when I choose words that reflect the strength of a survivor…suddenly, I repossess my strength, my courage, my vibrance. When I look at a situation through the lens of accomplishment rather than through the fog of defeat, it may not change my circumstances, but it certainly alters my perception of them. This isn’t simple stuff. The words, this “survivor speak” may feel hollow at first…futile, for they are just words after all. Eventually, with diligence, the moment arrives when they aren’t just words any more because what once felt empty has not only  become your reality, but transformed your experience of it.

In the same way that words can be employed to tear down and demean or to reconstruct and elevate others in our lives, they can be engaged the same way in our own.

As I Return to School…

Tomorrow morning, I go back to school. Back to my classroom, to my students, to the profession that is my passion after a weeklong Mardi Gras holiday. However, I will also return to an unusually timed school assembly, to an emergency lockdown drill, to anxious and also angry students, to an unsettled faculty and to locked classroom doors. My own children who are ages 9 and 11 attend the same school where I teach 10th and 12th grade. They are merely across campus from me, which is always a comfort, but tomorrow will feel entirely too far away. Tomorrow, my heart will beat just a bit faster behind the mask of a calm exterior (“We Wear the Mask” Paul Laurence Dunbar). Tomorrow, my heart will break all over again for those lives lost and for the fact that this is the current reality of education—one that I refuse to accept as normal or futile.

And can I also just say that tomorrow, as I climb the steps to my classroom, the memes and the snark that are flying around on social media don’t make any of that any better. No matter how smart that meme you are sharing or tweet you are retweeting feels or how victorious your comment to that person you don’t know but felt the need to take down made you appear, it doesn’t change one damn thing about the days every teacher and student face as they go back to class. Not one damn thing.

Voices need to be heard—I’m in no way denying that. We as a nation, should be in discussion. As I scrolled through social media this weekend, I saw so many people tirelessly attempting to house meaningful conversation and to share fair minded articles of importance. I also know, however, that what I saw more frequently wasn’t a national conversation on an important issue, it was a downward spiral, in many cases, through the wars of “I’m right and you’re stupid.” Real change isn’t enacted in that way.

As a teacher, every decision I make in the classroom is made with my kids in mind—which poem to share, how to respond to a writer so that they learn to elevate their craft and still maintain confidence, when to reach out to a kid in need, what kind of professional development will best benefit my classroom and those who populate it, and so much more. Even with that, I can understand how those removed from schools might not see this issue as anything more than a political scenario to be argued in any petty way possible. So let me say it like this, I’m glad you had that moment of vitriolic facebook or twitter fame, but none of that extends comfort or safer circumstances to the students I will walk through the day with tomorrow and everyday for the foreseeable future. If anything, it makes them less hopeful that any kind of change is possible.

Issues of school safety are far bigger than political and personal opinions. The lives of our children are at stake. They get it—our kids see this so clearly. They get that they didn’t have a say so in who has been elected and in what policies have passed because they aren’t old enough to vote. They have had to rely on us—the responsible adult population—to make decisions that would keep them safe. They get that we have failed them and they are witness the arguments we are stoking in response instead of making any kind of real change.

So what are our kids doing? They are organizing marches and protests to make their voices heard—to be taken seriously—to be considered as important if not moreso to the voting citizens and leaders of this country than the preservation of longstanding political allegiances and opinions. And I would say that it is about time the rest of us wake up and pay some attention.

A former student of mine who graduated last May, Marshall Ponder, sent me an email today with a piece of writing attached that he had composed out of sheer frustration with the current state of affairs in this country. With his permission, I’m going to share a bit of what he wrote:

“…In terms of recent events, I’m at a loss for words. I’ve found myself struggling to formulate my ideas into words in the past, however, those matters were for describing beauty, wonder, and amazement; for the most part the light, not the dark. The one thing I do know is that children are dying, innocent children, our children, and we as a nation point fingers, send thoughts and prayers, yet continue to do jack shit about it.

Today much of my time has been spent reflecting and researching the school shootings our nation has endured. From Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland I find nothing from my research besides deep sadness and skewed political opinions pointing fingers.

If you know me then you know I come from a background of gun wielding outdoorsmen. I was raised around guns my entire life, taught the importance of safety, the effects of what could go wrong and so on. My father and grandfather did an excellent job of educating me in this field that many in this nation are not accustomed to.

In this ongoing yet immobile debate of what ought to be done to protect ourselves from this internal terror, there are two major factors at play, access to guns capable of destruction and depraved mental health; both of which need to be dealt with in full force if we want to eradicate this terror. Even if stricter gun laws don’t solve the problem completely is it not worth a try? At this point any sort of progression towards peace is worth the effort. From a gun owner’s point of view, put restrictions on buying guns and ammo, because we as a nation have proven that we aren’t capable of handling a responsibility as large as that, time and time again.

…I wish I could write more about the mental health issue side of this debate but I’m exhausted. Thinking on this subject matter breaks me down in a way I’ve never experienced. To the people in Washington sending thoughts and prayers, get your head out of your ass and take a stance. If only the people who run our country could go visit each and every one of those families who were shattered, then maybe, just maybe, they’d be inspired to do everything in their power to prevent this from happening again.

The divided nature of this country has driven me to a point of insanity. Learn how to love your neighbor despite how different their views may be, hug your child, inspire love not hate, and reach out to those you see are in need. If we all came together and got close to the problem at foot, then maybe one day we can send our children to school without the panic they may be gunned down, maybe one day we’ll live in a world where different views are rejoiced rather than spat on, maybe one day we’ll see more laughs and smiles, and less crippled frowns, maybe one day…”

Marshall is 19 and he is broken down and exhausted and still he sees this issue so much more clearly than so many of the rest of us. His words also exemplify why I am so passionate about teaching high school students. He sees the brokenness of school safety honestly and is able to put aside what is comfortable for the reality at hand—to sacrifice long standing beliefs in order to stand up for what he sees is right—to see the world through the eyes of another and to push for change. I place my students regularly in situations that ask them to think in this way because as an English teacher, I’m not just teaching reading and writing, it is also my job to help mold empathic human beings who will leave high school ready to make the world a better place. Honestly, we are all capable of this vision and called to it. That is the hope that is left in this world-the hope that impels me forward to my day with my students tomorrow. The hope that we will “inspire love not hate, and reach out to those… in need.” The hope that we can rise above our selfish desire and create a world our children deserve.

I’ve shared this poem before, but it feels appropriate:

“The World Has Need Of You”
by Ellen Bass

everything here
seems to need us

—Rainer Maria Rilke

I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.
Here I am, suspended
between the sidewalk and twilight,
the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.
What if you felt the invisible
tug between you and everything?
A boy on a bicycle rides by,
his white shirt open, flaring
behind him like wings.
It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much
and too little. Does the breeze need us?
The cliffs? The gulls?
If you’ve managed to do one good thing,
the ocean doesn’t care.
But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple.

 

 

 

Step out of the Shade

Last night, I went to church. And I sat there alone (yet with my family) in the dark solitude—in a sort of helpless silence.

It was Ash Wednesday and I had been planning to be there for weeks. I honestly cherish this moment of sitting in contemplation, in consideration of who I have been and who I am supposed to be…who I will choose to become and why. But this year, this moment of post Mardi Gras peace and calm held a different weight, a much heavier one and I found myself a bit lost.

I entered the sanctuary heavy hearted. The afternoon had unfolded unexpectedly into what were unfortunately familiar moments of school violence, brokenness revealed, and grief beyond measure. As a teacher—honestly, as a person in the world—my concerns were past counting. I worried about how my students, on holiday this week for Mardi Gras break, were processing all of this. I worried for my own kids who I hadn’t yet figured out how to explain this news to-as if there is an explanation. And I worried for their teachers who so carefully watch over them every day of the school week. I worried for my own helplessness in protecting the lives entrusted to me in the event of a situation of this magnitude on my own campus (because courage, swift thinking, and calming words can only go so far when weapons have fallen into violent, angry, hurt, or helpless hands).

I didn’t have the energy to be angry yet amid this flurry of concern, though I knew it would come and I knew I would need to direct it effectively or it would be a wasted emotion, serving no meaningful purpose.

So, I sat and I tried to pray, to turn over the worry, to ease the ache, to begin a contemplative process of seeking a way to change minds and make a difference…to find the words needed to convey that the lives of our children are not to become the fuel and substance of a political argument mired in and dominated by selfish desires. The lives of our children should be valued in a way that clears our vision and allows us to rise above ourselves in order to work together to keep them safe, even if only at school—for the love of all that is good in this world, learning in a free country should not be a dangerous endeavor. The lives of our children, of all of our children, shouldn’t be tied to agenda, they should be tethered to our hearts.

Yet, prayers wouldn’t come. I didn’t even know where to begin. My mind was so cluttered. So I just sat there in quiet reflection, which I suppose is a form of prayer anyway, and found myself circling around the same three words—a sort of desperate cry from within for comfort, clarity, and courage.

In the midst of all of this, Gwendolyn Brooks’ “truth” came to mind. The imagery she uses in this poem seemed particularly appropriate to the moment and a means of explaining why comfort wouldn’t come. She begins her poem with these lines, “And if the sun comes/How shall we greet him?/Shall we not dread him,/Shall we not fear him/After so lengthy a/Session with shade?”

Here’s the thing, the sun is here, and it is hot and it is revealing, allowing nothing to be hidden and demanding to be noticed. It is uncomfortable for those who have been lounging in the shade to “Hear the fierce hammering/Of his firm knuckles/Hard on the door,” but we can no longer “…sleep in the coolness/of snug unawareness.” It is time to wake up to the reality of what is happening in this world that we have created and to the reality of what we are doing to each other and to our kids.

Gun violence in schools (and not just in other people’s schools—this can happen in any school) is screaming at us like a child throwing a tantrum and it is not going to be resolved through single-minded pettiness. We are all accountable in this conversation and it begins with opening serious dialogue intended to find a means to successfully combat gun violence and continuing into de-stigmatizing mental health, providing appropriate resources and education, exploring the social media impact, and so much more. The world is a complicated place and the last thing it needs is us fighting over saving the lives of our kids while keeping ourselves comfortable. I feel like this issue is pretty clear—are the lives of kids important are they worth protecting and if so, what are we doing about it?

But at some point, we cannot continue to just talk about this. Action needs to be taken and the onus of making that happen falls to each and every one of us. Not just to teachers and parents and students—to all of us—this is a national crisis and we need to step out of the “propitious haze,” see the truth, and start doing something about it. Not because we are afraid (acting out of fear is dangerous), but because we shouldn’t have to be.

(other poems that I’ve been looking to as I wander seeking clarity include—Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song For the Day” and Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” as well as for some reason Jennifer Grotz’s “Poppies”.)

Reparations

Today, October 15, is pregnancy and infant loss Remembrance Day, so instead of my usual classroom focused post, today’s blog is far more personal and one I haven’t really shared so publicly. But, today, it felt right. Read at your own risk. It’s pretty emotional.

“ —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”[1]

**********

Losing things would seem to be a fault, yet it has always been one of my greatest talents. Quite honestly, it is an art I’ve perfected.

I can still see my six-year-old self pouting and tearful over a lost doll. I knew that once my indiscretion became public I would suffer the disappointment of my mom, the frustration of my dad (that doll had cost money, you know), and the derision of my brother. There was only one thing to do, only one place to turn. I turned my downtrodden gaze upward and sent a desperate prayerful plea to St. Christopher (and probably to my guardian angel too…) to help me find her.

I’m not entirely certain if I ever did find this particular doll; however, this moment sticks out in my mind because it was the first of many prayers for the loss in my life.

The trauma of lost dolls soon evolved into the struggle to find car keys (in the refrigerator? Really?) and credit cards. I became quite good at coping with these losses: stay calm, retrace your steps, pray for guidance, retrace your steps again, ask for help, and eventually find (or replace) what has been lost.

And so my life went for the first 28 years or so. Loss couldn’t touch me, couldn’t shake me—I was good at it. In my 28th year, however, it would seem being good at it wouldn’t be enough. Loss took on new meaning and with that so did my life.

**********

Nathan died before he was born. He died before there was a nursery, before baby showers, swaddling blankets, and pacifiers; however, he also died before suffering the pain his earthly life promised with absolute certainty. This is a pain that, as his mother, I bear for him every moment of my every day, and I do so with gratitude.

The brief flicker of this sweet little life has forever altered mine; for while I delivered Nathan into a world he’d never meet, he and I shared 17 weeks together. Those weeks were filled with intensities of joy, nausea, first movements and hopes of the life we were to have as a family. Those hopes, a fulfillment of a year of frustratingly futile efforts, were real the moment the test finally flashed “PREGNANT” and I never once questioned that he might leave too soon.

**********

“Ma’am, I promise, these symptoms are normal in early pregnancy. Just calm down and take comfort in the fact that things are going so well!”

**********

Mother’s intuition comes more naturally than expected, well, at least it did for me. The refrain of reassurances issued from my well-meaning nurses never proved satisfactory. Somewhere, and maybe only in my heart, I knew that something was terribly wrong. Still, I proceeded naively with confidence.

**********

“Oh dear, that is fluid around the brain! Where’s your doctor? Out of town? We need a doctor immediately.” And with that, the sonographer darted out of the room.

**********

It was the day before Thanksgiving and in a fleeting moment, there we were being worked into a perinatologist’s already full schedule. Suddenly my intuition seemed to be correct after all, only it didn’t feel so good to be right. I felt sick.

This particular doctor, though brilliant, was ambivalent and unwilling to offer diagnosis until Nathan showed further development, which meant four weeks of waiting and wondering. We knew something was wrong but treaded around admitting it out loud.

I spent that Thanksgiving keenly aware that our poor baby would probably never have a “normal” life. I ached with jealousy for those around me with healthy pregnancies and babies. New feelings of loss, of being cheated as well as the anger over that loss replaced those early emotions of euphoric joy and hope: Fulfillment replaced with vacancy.

I struggled in this way for several days, when suddenly in all of my blind self pity, a moment of clarity shed the scales from my eyes to reveal the truth about the love a parent feels for a child.

**********

stay calm, retrace your steps, pray for guidance, retrace your steps again, ask for help, and eventually find (or replace)what has been lost

**********

I was standing in the kitchen, opening the refrigerator door when I understood for the first time that God grants gifts of many kinds and that it wasn’t up to me in what kind of package that gift might arrive. I knew in this flash of honesty that no matter what ailment our child might suffer, no matter what affliction might complicate his circumstances, I loved him completely, unconditionally and that love would translate into meeting his each and every need with devotion and unspeakable emotion. I found my child again and in doing so I found out something pretty important about strength and about parenting as well.

I gathered and rebuilt myself around this new found gratitude and love.

**********

“So, Mrs. Clark, do you have any questions for me today?”

It had happened two days before and I knew it in the moment it occurred.

There is an uncomfortable pause after his question as the unspeakable must be spoken and neither the doctor nor my husband and I care to go first.

I was driving home from a Christmas party and was suddenly breathless as if all of the life had been sucked from me.

“I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but we have been unable to detect a heartbeat. You will have to deliver your son tonight. I want you to know that this is in no way your fault”

He didn’t move again after that, and I knew what that meant, only I couldn’t face that terrible truth. Not until I absolutely had to.

**********

No one prepared me for this loss. They prepped me for “problems”, for “difficulties”, even for “abnormalities”, but no one discussed this possibility.

How was it to be believed?

How could it not be my fault?

Everything I’d lost up until this point had been my fault: Barbies casually kicked under the bed, barrettes accidentally thrown away, credit cards carelessly left in my back pocket.

I should’ve done more, been better.

I should’ve kept him alive, and now I had to deliver him lifeless and forever sever our time together as one. It was as though I was suffering one loss mentally, emotionally only to realize that there would also be a vast physical loss as soon as delivery was complete.

Twenty-four hours later and with my stoic husband by my side singing me through the pain, we delivered Nathan into our presence only to have him wrapped up and whisked away –leaving us empty-armed with “keepsakes” of lifeless pictures, a tiny tape measure, and, at my request, attempts at hand and foot prints. These tokens were all things that I was desperate to possess, yet in truth they were only a small compensation for the vast emptiness left behind by that baby boy.

Yet somehow, I found a strength I’d never known after enduring this most excruciating day of my life. I was proud of that strength and clung to it with fury all the while never suspecting that it was my love for Nathan that endowed me with it.

When the adrenaline waned, I had this moment of feeling barren and painfully alone. This moment turned into days and stretched into months. I felt cheated and abandoned, and this irreparable loss seemed to be “disaster”.

**********

“Who knows how long I’ve loved you/ You know I love you still/ Will I wait a lonely lifetime/ If you want me to, I will…../ Love you forever and forever/ Love you with all my heart/ Love you whenever we’re together/ Love you when we’re apart”[2]

**********

As it turns out, it was my overwhelming love for that beautiful boy which was in effect the root of all my pain and the source for what would be all my healing as well.

This love reached farther than any I had ever known possible and this love did not die with the body. This love was not lost and in finding that, I discovered the one thing that was mine forever.

Nathan would be 13 this December, and he is part of my every day. Sometimes it’s simple things like when a child of a friend who was due within a week of him loses her first tooth and I realize that we should be celebrating the same thing. Other times it’s the moments when my two healthy thriving boys, now 8 and 10, give me fits, patience is lost, and yet I’m able to retrace my steps and find the presence of mind to be grateful for every moment I am allowed to share with them.

Then it’s the precious moments of solitude when I just whisper “I love you” in my heart and I know that he hears my quiet prayer.

I live my life painfully aware of the consequences of loving deeply and eternally grateful for that love because, in the end, that is what enabled me to finally master the art of losing. With that love, there is no disaster. With that love, Nathan is forever with me. With that love, I live a fuller life. With that love, I am complete.

[1] From Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”

[2] From The Beatles’ “I Will”