With a strong sense of accomplishment, I strode across the parking lot at 12:05 p.m. on my way to my car, fighting back tears. “Just a few more steps,” I thought, “and I’ll have done it. I finally did it.” Once inside the safety of my car, the dam broke. I drove the entirety of my blessedly short fifteen-minute commute with tears flowing, listening to “her song” – Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing – and all the other songs that remind me of my “Rockstar.” What an incredible feat! I was finally able to get through a day of work…well, half a day…on the anniversary of my daughter’s death. Every year since that awful, awful day I have taken a “personal day” off work on the anniversary. My job as a public school teacher requires an amount of energy directed toward the needs of others that I just haven’t been able to muster on this day for many years. So, out of fairness to the little ones that rely on me, I have chosen to stay away and let another caring adult look after them…just for the day.
Completely fatigued after coming off of two thirteen-hour parent/teacher conference days, I approached this day with trepidation. The night before, I stood in the shower with my forehead pressed against the cool, smooth fiberglass wall with the water as hot as I could stand it blasting down upon me. My thoughts were racing. I just wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it through even the few short hours I’d have to function in my role. I was scared. I had visions of falling into a million pieces in front of a classroom full of five-year-olds. I saw myself sitting catatonic at my desk or sobbing uncontrollably crumpled in a heap on the colorful “big carpet” in the middle of the room while one of the “responsible” students wandered the hallways looking for an adult to help. “There’s something wrong with our teacher,” I heard them having to say. I was scared that someone might have to call my husband, tell him, “Something has happened to Christine,” and ask him to come collect me. Or, worse, that I’d have such a breakdown that it would create a “spectacle” and my boss would have to call an ambulance to come take me to the psychiatric ward of the nearest hospital…which is, luckily, just around the corner. As someone with an already precarious grasp on emotional stability, none of these fears seemed out of the realm of possibility to me.
I tried my best to go “off-routine” this morning and not arrive at work my normal whole forty-five minutes before the students. I stopped and picked up a little breakfast. I took a short detour specifically to get a Starbucks coffee, but I still arrived at school close to my normal time. I was the first teacher there. After the previous night’s late hours, most of my colleagues smartly chose an arrival time that would compensate. I sat at my desk, in the quietness, sipping my Starbucks, trying to center myself and prepare. As an introvert who just happens to be a teacher, the sound of the school bell is what I assume the sound of an audience applauding and the sight of the curtain going up are like for an actor. It means that it’s “show time.” It’s always felt that way for me, no matter what day it is. And, like a stage performance, today had a true “the show must go on” feel to it. The students arrived – but only about three-fourths of my class. Some parents kept kids home because half-days can be a pain to make childcare arrangements for. But fewer students meant a quieter morning and the atmosphere I needed to make it through. It wasn’t until I came back to the classroom, after dismissal, that I felt the pressure of emotions so neatly tucked away into color-coded, teacher-organized compartments rising to the surface and tears building. As I closed my classroom door and headed toward the main exit, I made eye contact with a particularly empathetic co-worker – a fellow newbie to the school. I froze, certain that his acute sensitivity would allow him to detect my distress. “Have a good weekend,” I mouthed, as I resumed my beeline for the door. Luckily, I escaped without further interaction. When I got home, I felt completely spent and utterly exhausted from the super-human effort it took to keep it down for four straight hours. My dog, elated by my unexpectedly early return, greeted me with uncontrollable full-body wiggles, sloppy dog kisses, and snorts. But even this, something that normally never fails to comfort me, was just too much after a morning of locked down self-restraint. I had just enough energy left to go to the cemetery and shed the last of this day’s tears. I had to take a nap after that.
Knowing my history, people who have recently experienced the loss of a very close loved one often ask me questions. They wonder if what they feel is normal. I tell them, “Grief is not a ‘normal’ condition, but whatever you feel is just what you feel and that’s okay.” They want to know how long they will feel as awful as they do right now. They want to know, “When will it stop hurting so much?” The short answer is, “It never will…completely.” The long answer is, “It’s different for every person.” I cried every single day during my thirty-minute commute to and from work the first two months after my daughter died. After that, it was just the thirty minutes on the way home. After that, it was just a few times a week. Eight months later, by summertime when I was off work for a while, I was only losing it once a week – usually on my weekly trip to the cemetery. Then, over the years, it was just special events that shook me – the day she should’ve graduated high school, her birthdays, holidays, and the anniversary of her death. The only way I can describe it is that it felt like my grief was slowly…very slowly…turning “inside out.” The happy life events of others started to lose their ability to cut me to the core, as they once did. Graduations, marriages, and the birth of children of people Sarah’s age no longer hurt me quite as much. Now I just wonder…with some sorrow…what Sarah’s life would be like. She would’ve been twenty-eight. My God! How is that possible? In my mind, she is forever sixteen…with long flowing, dark hair and a smile that lit the room. I can’t hear her voice in my head anymore and that hurts. Yet, for some strange reason, I can still hear her laugh. She was always laughing. She didn’t take many things seriously, my little wing.
Sarah’s burial plot has slowly lost the intense feeling of connection to her it once held for me, too, but it took a really long time for that to happen. I remember how incredulous I once felt, when I visited the cemetery, about how people could neglect the burial site of a loved one by only occasionally placing flowers there. Now I understand. After a while, that patch of ground loses the full emotional charge it once had and becomes just “a plot of earth” where the remains of your loved one are buried. The place my Sarah resides now is within me. It took twelve years for me to feel that way. It took twelve years for me to be able to work just four short hours of my “normal” day on the anniversary of her death. I think that says a lot about loss and the power it can have over our lives.
The first law of thermodynamics, also known as Law of Conservation of Energy, states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; energy can only be transferred or changed from one form to another. I find comfort in this principle for a variety of reasons. I like to think of Sarah’s energy…floating around in the world…perhaps embodied in a sunrise or a snowfall or a moonlit night. I like to think about my love for her and hers for me, in the form of energy, radiating out into the universe and flowing into eternity. I like to think about how, one day, the energy that is me will join the energy that is her, and we’ll be joined again in a way similar to when I carried her inside me. Twelve years. It took me twelve years to feel beyond the pain…twelve years to feel the eternity of love.