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,”)

simplicity

My boys were singing in the car this morning on the way to school…loudly…and giggling the whole time. Effervescent joy permeated the air lending levity to the mundane.As they sang along with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” I paused.

School mornings bring a bit of insanity and frustration to my house (I don’t think I am alone here). Getting lunches and backpacks ready…cajoling kids out of bed…debating the “I’m not hungry for breakfast” dilemma…fuel the potential for disagreement and discord. (I should mention at this point that I am an all out morning person in a house full of boys who possess no love for the hours before 8am–like I cannot wait until they are old enough to be caffeinated!) I work to preserve their moods but also my own because it is impossible to walk into your day feeling like it will be successful when you have spent the morning arguing over the location of socks and the necessity of  brushing away morning breath.

The singing without abandon in the car freed all of us from whatever morning drama had occurred. And it reminded me. It is truly the simple moments that populate my day with positivity. Without being present in those moments…noticing and feeling grateful for them…they would flicker and extinguish themselves into meaninglessness. Lacking focus on these smaller moments of delight would make it easier for negativity and pessimism to creep into my internal dialogue. When I’m consumed with the busy-ness of my life, when I let the less important things creep up the hierarchy of my priority list, I don’t take the time to notice and revel in these bits of positivity and in the people I love most…and my entire outlook changes.

The point of this positivity project blog series was to shift my gaze–to realign it. This morning’s pause offered proof that intentionality is certainly a crucial step to mindset and outlook. This morning’s pause set the tone for the day and realigned my perspective moving forward (so, when a student in my AP Lit class wondered if Marianne Dashwood would be a VSCO girl, it was easier to crack up in laughter, lean in and be grateful for the gift of my job and the even greater gift of my students).

Flashes of delight fill our days, but they don’t wait around too long hoping to be noticed. We have to be in the moment, expectant, hopeful, ready to grasp them in gratitude and to store them up like fireflies in a jar.

Things don’t have to be complicated to be worth our attention. Embracing simplicity can change everything…if we let it.

magic

There’s a magic that happens when a baby enters the world. An enchantment stirs inside of the hearts of those who, for months, have been anxiously awaiting the moment that tiny new life would pronounce its presence in person.

What never seems to allow itself into definition or explanation is that the depth of that love grows as the child does. I tell my kiddos everyday that, without fail, every time I think it is impossible to love them more, something inside of me stretches to lend a bit of extra space. And that is a true statement.

Today is one of those days. One of my boys turned ten (double digits…how?!) and the other opened with a leading role in the school play today. As I watch these boys grow into the world shaping the humans they will become, it is pure joy to witness the avenues they travel while seeking their passions. Whether soccer or the stage, watching each in his element swells my heart a bit more.

Not sure what I’ve ever done that warrants the treasure of these children, but it is one that I cherish and honor (even when it isn’t like tonight…even when it is hard…even when there is attitude…because that is all part of the job). And this job pays richly.

(Day 34!! It’s short and down to the wire but still got it in!)

mindset

My 11 year old has had some rough mornings this week. He is stressed and tired and a bit under the weather…and, you know, as human beings tend to do, is taking it out on the rest of us. Yesterday, he texted me at work that he had been having a difficult time.

(I have to interrupt here to note that I am optimistic to a faulty degree. I can see a silver lining in just about any moment of difficulty and if you come to me hoping that I will get angry about something with you, chances are I will end up pointing out how we can make it better instead. People don’t always love this about me. I get it.)

So, when he texted, I immediately replied that his day would get better. Being the anxiety ridden realist that he is, he texted back “How do you know it will get better? It doesn’t feel like it will.” Ouch. It is hard enough making this transition to being at work and not at home in the mornings with my boys most days of the week. But on a day like this, when he really just needs a hug from his mom, and I’m not there to give him one, it is even tougher. All I could do was text back “I don’t know but I am hopeful that it will. You can make it better—just decide.”

His thoughts on that advice? “That doesn’t help.”

Double ouch.

Except not so much because I am a deep believer in that advice. I honestly trust that no matter how bad the day is, how we react to it is always within our control. Sure, some days are harder than others, but you know what makes that worse? Sinking in to the difficulty and suffering, languishing beneath the weight of it. I just can’t do that. It feels like a waste–of time, energy, life. Does that mean that all my days are glorious meadows of joy? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. It simply means that my mindset gazes above the negativity with a hopeful heart rather than one resigned to mere misery. This focus is a conscious effort and I often have to remind myself to see beyond the moment, but doing so allows me to more fully participate in the world around me, in my own life.

So, much to his dismay, I will continue to preach this message to him–that he can make it better if he just decides to–because I think it applies in this situation and in so many others. When we feel out of control in situations like this, we become victims of our own selves and our own mentality and anxiety. We become helpless. That is the last thing I want for him or for anyone, really. I want him to know that he has the power to improve his own frame of mind–his own heart, the power to improve the world around him. He needs to know that he can make a difference, but if he can’t make a difference in his own day, how will he ever be able to come to the aid of others?  He needs to own the power of a positive mindset, and he needs to fight for it.

Because all that negativity will only doom him to frustration and stagnation, and that is no way to truly live this life he has been given.

(Day 26!)

 

Her Story, Mine

There is a story I’ve been told for as long as I can remember…

The first time my mom met her future father-in-law, my grandfather, and revealed, upon his request, that her major was Secretarial Sciences, his response was, “What are you gonna do with that?”

I like to imagine my mom in that moment…taken aback by the comment, polite in response, but accepting of the challenge—as though her thoughts spoke even more loudly this– “What am I going to do with that? Watch.”

As an English major at LSU, I ran into similar commentary from more people than I care to admit. “English, huh? Well, that’s a husband hunting major.” Which, in case you were wondering, translates like this: “Well aren’t you cute, little lady, with your fluffy major.”

“What am I going to do with that? Watch.”

As a teacher for the last 20 years, the script has seen few revisions. “Well, I mean, it’s not like you have a real job…you get off at 3:00 after all and those summers, I would love to have summers off…I mean if you were really capable, you wouldn’t be justa teacher” And nearly every time I’ve heard these words, I’ve simply imagined my mom facing my grandfather, the challenge she met with a quiet fury, and the accomplishments that followed. Sure I’ve been baited into argument over these statements…I am the daughter of an attorney after all—I know how to build a pretty formidable case and sometimes, I cannot resist. But more often than not, my response is a quiet, internal impulse to excel, to achieve, to succeed.

“What am I going to do with that? Watch.”

These diminishing questions make a statement that extends far beyond a major or a profession. Women have been enduring “well-meaning” demeaning commentary for centuries and continue to carry the burden of having to prove themselves equal, worthy of being heard, and strong enough to lead.

This past August, my mom and her business partner sold their court reporting firm and she finally stepped into a much-deserved retirement. As she began planning for her days without the stress of work and owning a business, I was stepping out of my classroom and into a far more stressful position—Head of High School. The juxtaposition of these two moments struck me and I think that maybe for the first time in my life I fully understood the weight of my mom’s example in my life.

You have to know this before we go any further here: I have a really amazing mom.

The kind who finds out her adult child is sick and spends every waking hour for two straight days cooking so her sick child won’t have to…the kind who shows up at the hospital when she has the full out flu because her little girl is giving birth to her first child—20 weeks early, too early…the kind who teaches you that “nobody ever said life would be a bowl of cherries” and then comforts you when it isn’t…the kind who owns Thanksgiving like a boss…the kind who you can emulate but deep down you know you will only ever be able to be a shadow of the mom she has been and continues to prove herself to be.

My mom is certainly not the first working mom. However, in a world where so many moms feel judged and judge themselves even more harshly for the choices they make (stay at home, work, nurse, bottle feed, etc), her example enables me to feel validated in my decisions—to feel that I’m not sacrificing selfishly. She has always been fully a mom and has also always worked—first from home, then for a boss in an office, then in her own office as she and a partner bought the company and kept it going for nearly 23 years. She had to be creative at times both in how she worked to keep her company afloat and successful and in how she worked to still be absolutely present in the lives of her family. Her notebook was always in her bag and she was always at the ready to answer calls “Alliance Reporting, this is Karen speaking…” And this was true whether she was at home, at the hospital with one of us, or spending the day with a sick grandchild. Work was always present in her life, but so were we, and as she strove for balance there, the love and kindness she poured out were undeniable.

My mom has this strength that is formidable and a savvy intelligence that I’m not even sure she recognizes. I have a vivid recollection of the hours she spent ensuring a software patch was installed that would survive the feared Y2K crisis. I mean countless hours with the tech guy, on the phone, in the office.  A lot of people did this I suppose—things were so uncertain and planning felt necessary. However, I feel it is pretty important to note here that in that same year, in those same moments, she was also making my wedding dress (that’s right-making it without an actual pattern) and doing the lion’s share of wedding planning as I was in the middle of my first year of teaching and sort of just threw it on her. Needless to say, my dress and wedding were gorgeous and her company survived Y2K without a hiccup—but none of that would have happened without her tireless persistence and resilience

I could go on at length with examples like this but what does it all come down to besides the fact that I have been blessed by her ever-present love and strength?

It comes to this.

I never gave her enough credit for being more than a mom. I never stopped to think about the example she was setting for me. I never paused to realize that all my feisty independence, all my “don’t you tell me I can’t…” came from her quiet presence. I never understood that while I look up to all these women who have proven that women are more than they are often given credit for—and there are so many—the woman who has influenced me most in this way is my mom…the woman who has enabled me to fight (hopefully with grace) for people who need a voice is the woman who gave me my own.

As I begin this new rather auspicious job that kind of terrifies me as much as it exhilarates me, I’m leaning on her example more than she realizes. As I blindly seek balance between my school kids and my own kids, between my coworkers and my family, I remember that my mom has done this already, that we all survived, and that we always knew she loved us. When I fight for kids whose voices desperately need and deserve amplification, I remember the spine and integrity with which she led those she worked with and my own is strengthened. When I feel like I have so much to prove and that there are those who will second-guess, the quiet hush of my heart speaks these words:

“What am I going to do with that? Watch.”