It’s been almost two weeks since Charlie died. I’m still taking it pretty hard. For days after I got the news I could hear Charlie’s voice in my head, and I started dreaming about my grandfather again, who has been dead for 16 years and to whom I was very close. Obscure moments from the past school year kept popping unbidden into my head: Charlie coming to my room to get work for one of my students who was in his detention, Charlie emailing the whole staff a hilarious email about animal torture after the marine biology teacher and another coach captured a rogue bat in the gym one afternoon, Charlie wearing the coolest college team sweatshirts (I was always threatening to mug him and steal the Notre Dame one). You might say Charlie has been invading my psyche.
I hadn’t been to my school building since Charlie’s death, but today I had to go pick up some things I need for one of my grad classes, and all the way there I had this feeling of dread in my chest. You see, in some part of my mind, I’m still expecting all of this to be a mistake, still expecting to sit next to Charlie at the first faculty meeting of the year, still expecting to enjoy his dry, mischievous wit on a daily basis. But the rest of my mind knows that’s only going to happen in dreams, like the one my friend Cheryl had recently: the gang from school was having lunch on a teacher workday and in walks Charlie. Just as we had hoped, he hadn’t died after all, but had faked his death to escape some students who were after him. Cheryl threw her knife at him and screamed, “Do you know how many tears we’ve cried for you?” and Charlie just shrugged and grinned (which is exactly what he would do, were any of this remotely possible).
As soon as my feet hit the sidewalk, the one Charlie and I sometimes walked together on our way into the building because we often arrived at around the same time (late), I had to choke back a sob. When I checked my box in the mailroom, Charlie’s empty box, his name already removed, looked like a black hole. Tears flooded my eyes. I escaped to my classroom, which, after nine years, will belong to someone else come August when my department relocates to another wing. I managed to pull myself together and then made my way to the library across the hall. Out of nowhere the sob I’d suppressed and the tears I’d dammed came pouring out. Most of my encounters with Charlie were in the library. We shared a planning period and he often spent his in the media center checking his email or working on grades or, during football season, looking at game stats and plays. We often sat at the same table during meetings, and by the luck of the draw, were often grouped together for staff development activities. At the last inservice he and I would suffer together I got mad at him because he blatantly refused to help with the group writing assignment we’d been given. “I teach P.E., you teach English. I think our jobs here are clear,” he said matter-of-factly, and when I protested he just crossed his arms, leaned back in his chair, and flashed me that shit-eating grin he’s so famous for. It was impossible–always–not to smile back.
At Charlie’s funeral on Independence Day I watched as people poured into the church, mostly young guys and older men–players and coaches–and by the time the service started there were folding chairs at both ends of every row and people standing ten deep in the foyer. Some boys I taught sat in front of me, and a girl who spent hour upon hour in detention with Charlie came in by herself. After the service ended she told me about how she’s no longer dating the deadbeat who got her into so much trouble last year, how she’d wasted a whole school year and planned to do things differently in the fall. “Mr. Griffin would be proud of me,” she’d said, and she was right. Listening to people speak of Charlie during the funeral was enlightening. He did things for kids that few people knew about–made sacrifices of time and money and heart that incited the pastor, who went on and on about Charlie’s spirituality, to compare him to Jesus. Later that day a friend who worked with Charlie at another school for several years, and I talked about the Jesus comparison after I asked if Charlie had actually been the spiritual man the minister insisted he was, or if he’d just been exaggerating the way people frequently do about someone who has died. Her response was simply, “Well, he certainly wasn’t Jesus.”
I think I understood what the minister meant, though, and it had nothing to do with Charlie being some kind of holy saint. I think he was just saying Charlie was a good guy, in the same way Jesus the Human was a good guy. He was kind. He did nice things for people. People liked being around him. He gave large amounts of his life to helping others become better at things like living a decent life and football. He loved children and saw the future in them and knew that by devoting his life to them he was making the world a little better. I wonder if he knew just how much. I wonder if he knew he left a hell of a legacy.
But I guess it goes without saying that sitting in that church listening to strangers tell stories about Charlie made me intensely sad. I left feeling more than a little cheated. Things I never knew about him, like his avid love of history, weighed heavily on me. I love history, too, and I kept wondering if he’d read The Killer Angels or visited the obscure Chickamauga Battlefield in Georgia. I wanted to ask him. I wanted to compare notes. I thought about all the kids whose lives would go untouched by his influence. I thought about the empty chair beside me at the next staff development. For days my least favorite Joni Mitchell song of all time–maybe my least favorite song, period–played ad nauseum in my head: Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone….I hadn’t known Charlie long–we worked together a mere two years–but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d lost something irreplaceable, something I hadn’t valued enough when it was within reach.
On my way home from the school, I got a little wakeup call in the form of Sarah Vowell’s book-on-CD, Assassination Vacation. She was talking about monuments, about what they really mean to us, about how they are simply symbols of our connection to their deeper meaning. She said that people put up statues of dead guys and build great monuments in their memory to honor what they did, what they contributed to the world. It got me thinking. The Lincoln Memorial wasn’t erected to showcase what ceased to occur after Lincoln fell, but to remind us of what took place while he walked among the living. For days I’ve been fretting over what we’re all going to miss in Charlie’s absence. I have, as we probably all do when someone dies, forgotten to be grateful for what time I had to enjoy his presence. At a stoplight I glanced out the car window and saw a pee wee football team practicing, and the real truth hit me: those are Charlie’s monuments. Kids and The Team and kindness, not to mention a good prank and hot wings and a toast to friendship at the sports bar–these are the monuments we’ll build in Charlie’s honor. These are the monuments that last.