It has been almost a year, both since we chatted, and since we have not chatted, about your girl. I still remember vividly that morning when, per my usual routine, I stumbled across your post on Facebook and literally hit my knees on the unforgiving linoleum floor of my bathroom. My mom was still staying with us then, post double knee replacement, and she was up early that morning. I could hear her voice mixed in with my kids’ chatter, my husband’s laugh, dishes clinking together a floor below me. I wanted to tell her your story that very minute. I wanted to run down the stairs to where she was and cry and scream into the white hoodie she never took off during those weeks because the blood thinner she was taking made her cold. I was 40, and I was sad, and I wanted to tell my mom. I didn’t go to her, though. I didn’t tell anyone at first. I didn’t even tell you, even though just a week before we had been joking about how weird it is to feel someone else’s hiccups emanating from deep within your own body. Like most everything else in my heart at that time, I locked it up and walked away from it with urgency, but with competing urgency it pulled at me. I could not stop thinking about you. About her.
I spent most of my last pregnancy in a state of fear and panic. It had nothing to do with the actual pregnancy, but that is where the crap storm taking place in my life at that time manifested itself. I regret this admission, but I hardly enjoyed those days when my son was stretching and rolling around a few inches below the surface of my skin. I was too busy thinking about all the things that could happen to him, and to my daughter and my husband, and before I knew it, before I could relax and breathe in the wonder of having a tiny human thriving inside me, it was over. The crap storm, however, was just hitting its stride, and my anxiety about All The Things that could take these people from me swirled in unison. I was a walking Xanax ad. I lay awake at night vividly imagining a constant string of impending crises. Instead of sleeping I stared at the baby monitor, listened for my husband’s breathing, wondered if I would wake my daughter if I crept into her room to check on her just one more time. I was grasping so hard for the illusion of control amid a constant expectation of tragedy. It was not my best time.
I did not read much then, at least not anything personal. I could not bear the weight of anyone else’s sadness. I allowed only good news to permeate the stone wall I was erecting around my heart. I shut myself away from so many feelings. Feelings would be the death of me, I was certain. And so when I saw your post, thinking it was a joyous announcement, I read it with enthusiasm. And then, when I had read too far to stop, with devastation. And for the first time in a long time, I let myself feel the emotions I had been trying to protect myself from for so many months. It was the first point on a long line of points for me, a line that has lead me to this moment, here, today, where I can say with confidence that I have removed most of those stones, have allowed myself to experience a level of empathy and compassion I was actively avoiding a year ago. It has been a long year.
I have always considered myself a compassionate person. I want to help, to repair, to love my people through their messes. It’s one of the reasons I was drawn to teaching. What an opportunity, I thought naively. What a chance to “be there” for my students like so many teachers and coaches were there for me. But none of those people ever warned me about the ways in which some of those students would change me. No one told me their siblings or parents would die on the day they were supposed to take my Romeo and Juliet test. No one told me they would try to commit suicide, or die in car accidents, or lose to cancer. No one warned me about their sad, hollow eyes or their brutally honest journal entries. I was not educated on how to help them cope with 9/11 or the death of a classmate or the destruction of their entire school by fire. And even though I still maintain ties with some of my own former teachers, none of them told me a few of my own kids would make that gradual transformation from student to friend, and that I would continue to be unprepared for how to cope with their pain. Bad marriages, aging parents, divorce, job loss. The death of a child. Until that moment it had been so easy to just “like” your joyful moments, the happy milestones, the wedding pics and cute selfies and funny stories, but with adulthood, with all those life changes, comes the risk of terrible loss and suffering. I was experiencing my own suffering at the time, and so when the opportunity to extend compassion presented itself, I did not, could not do it. I wasn’t prepared.
I started and never finished several messages to you. I eventually told my husband, and then my daughter, about your girl. We prayed for you at night before bed. I asked someone for your address. When my husband made my favorite beer, a peach blonde, I planned to send you some in her honor, but the peach flavor backfired and it tasted awful, and I couldn’t do it. I bought a tiny peach charm, and a little silver “G,” because I wanted to make you a bracelet, but those things are still lying on my craft table, dusty and unrealized. I got you a card that is suffering the same existence. I have not given up on that card, that little peach, but I cannot deny the shame in knowing how much time has passed without a single word. Never mind a six-pack of home brew or a craft project. I have not even said a word to you. And I have lots of them, pages of things I wanted to say and could not say, because I was too lost in my own difficult season to scale the wall between me and all my people. I have regretted this so much, have dealt so harshly with myself about this, because a friend once told me it was shameful to let your own darkness keep you from being someone else’s light. Maybe so, but here we are, almost a year later, and it feels a little less like shame every day, and a little more like relief to say these things out loud, because it is what it is. Or was.
I’ve reached the conclusion that we move when we are ready. We speak when we are able. We get up when we decide we can remain standing. This looks different for everyone. There is no schedule, no scale of difficulty that determines when we can start the process, no comparison chart that ranks our respective crap storms. We all get battered and we all heal in our own brutal and beautiful ways. I have felt so much pride and admiration for you as I’ve read your amazing, devastating words, your stories and letters and lamentations. You have lived at least a part of your hell out loud, eloquently and gracefully for everyone to see, and I am so proud of you. I wasn’t capable of that until recently, and in many ways I am still not, but I am not comparing healing processes any more than I could compare the events from which we are healing, the battles we won’t ever stop fighting. A year ago I was trapped inside myself, devoid of the ability to remove my own pain from the lines of your story, and so I could not even reach out to you and say the simplest words. I am sorry. I am so sorry.
But today I am able to slip through that stone wall, to step outside myself, and hold your story in my heart without hesitation. I am still so sorry. So sorry. I have thought of you and your sweet husband (my old friend), and that beautiful girl every day for nearly a year. To say you’ve been on my mind sounds cliche, but it is the truth. On my mind, like a song constantly playing in the background. I wish I could have told you sooner. I hope you can forgive me. I hope you know how amazing you are to me.
I am sure people have said many things to you in these long, painful months, some of them helpful and some of them meant to be and some of them not at all. In my own journey, I am no clearer on what qualifies as truly helpful than I was 20 years ago when I was convinced my path as a teacher would enable me to help and heal. You have been subjected to so many stories, I am certain (like, just now, when I dragged you into mine). You have listened to advice about what to do to feel better (like this is an illness you might treat and eventually recover from). You’ve heard the scripture and the little sayings about God being in control and how He has a plan (I can almost promise you God rolls his eyes as hard as you do when He hears that). People mean well, but they act poorly sometimes–or not at all, in some cases. The truth is, we mostly have no idea what we are doing, and we are fumbling around trying to figure out how to deal with the way life changes us at every turn. We are used to this person we think we are, and then something comes along and rearranges us, and we are not prepared for it, and so we struggle hard against it, desperate to get back to the normal we knew. And therein is the only thing anywhere close to advice I would give you, and I have a sneaking suspicion you have already figured this out: there is no normal, there is only a constant evolution of ourselves. Everything changes us. Every unexpected sunrise, every overwhelming joy, every devastating loss, and certainly every soul whose path crosses ours. A writer I love says we should not flee heartache, that we should run straight for it, because in heartache we find out who we truly are. I am late to this lesson, but you, my dear–you have educated me about this in ways you may never know.
I thought I knew things once upon a time when life was simple, when the hardest thing I had to do with my day was think of creative writing prompts or figure out how to host a coffee house in the school cafeteria. I thought I knew how to outrun sadness, how to bottle up my grief and put it on the highest, darkest shelf, how to be “together” and “collected.” I thought that was what it meant to be an adult. I thought if I talked about my losses, I would invite more losses. I thought being emotional was a weakness. No one ever sat me down and explained to me that it doesn’t work that way, that I can pretend Bad Things never, ever happen every minute of every day of my life, and Bad Things will still happen–or not. Turning away from grief–our own or someone else’s–does not protect us from more grief. It only makes the next inevitable grief even heavier somehow. I don’t know if any of this crossed your mind when you wrote and wrote and wrote, again and again, about your pain, your bottomless ache, your girl. Your Georgia. I don’t know if you were running headlong into your grief, or if you just needed the world to hear her name as much as you needed to say it: Georgia, Georgia, Georgia. I don’t know. I do know it caused a shift in me, that in the instant I sat in my bathroom floor and read your very first post, you became the teacher, and I your terribly ill-prepared, late-to-class, fumbling-in-the-dark student.
Another thing no one ever warned me about: sometimes your students will become your teachers. But that is the moral of this story: we cannot be prepared for most things. We just have to keep getting up every day, keep allowing ourselves to be changed and schooled by whatever the Universe decides our teacher will be–a piece of paper hand delivered to your front door, a phone call too late at night, a beautiful little life extinguished. A dark haired creative writing student-turned-friend in the most difficult season of her existence. Teachers are everywhere. We just have to find them, to run straight for them, no matter how full of pain and sadness they are–or we are. We have to hope we have the nerve to raise our hands, to speak up, to say something, anything, when life calls on us and invites us into each other stories. We have to keep showing up for each other. We have to remind ourselves that this is a class we’re enrolled in for life.
I’m sorry I showed up so late. I got here as fast as I could.