I go back to work in 36 hours, returning to the school where my husband and I both taught tenth grade, right down the hall from each other. This was a good thing, even a fun thing sometimes. We would send candy or sweet tea to one another, our students the carrier pigeons. Sometimes, if an argument at home made it to work, being together wasn’t cozy. And when Greg moved out of the family home, things would have been more awkward except for the fact that each of us was determined to out-professionalize the other. Our school is an exceptional place for us, and our co-workers and students are among the kindest around.
It is to them that I will be returning on Tuesday. People who cared for my pets, created my lesson plans, sent me money, food, flowers, texts, emails, and memes. I will be returning to 1500 people who love me–and loved my husband and my family. And I am terrified.
It will be three weeks since my husband’s unexpected death. He had a stroke in the hospital on my birthday. After surviving cancer three times, two heart surgeries, eight strokes, skin and bone marrow transplants–after enduring endless indignity and sorrow–when offered a feeding tube, Greg refused. He elected to return home to die on his own terms–with his family, friends, and cats.
Tuesday, when I am again in my classroom, will mark three weeks since his death–seventeen days since his funeral, where our high school’s honor choir sung to our family, my husband’s ashes on the credenza between us. The science department–in its entirety–was there, despite it being the first day of Christmas break, their sad faces filling the front pew. And it’s these people, these kind, much-beloved people, to whom I am terrified of returning.
It is nearly six years after the loss of my granddaughter to anencephaly and more than two years after my father’s death by suicide. I have learned, over these years, that the dread of the anniversary is worse than the day itself, the anticipation of remembered sorrow worse than the quiet sadness of a difficult day.
And I have had practice grieving deeply in front of teenagers.
I learned of my father’s suicide in front of thirty students. And, because we knew that Stephanie Grace would likely die at birth, I endured that sorrow in front of students as well.
That year, my tiny fourth block, only 13 students, prayed almost every day–they initiated this themselves, complete with a time for prayer requests, and they said they could tell the difference when we forgot to pray. Some of those students asked to see pictures of Stephanie Grace without her bonnet, and I let them. I allowed my students to feel my pain.
But this loss, of a husband and a co-worker, of a man who taught them, to carry that pain in front of a student body seems impossible. Greg and I have probably taught 900 of the school’s students.
So, this afternoon, as I sat in my yard planning lessons for Thursday and Friday, looking up at the wind in the cherry laurels, I found myself dreading the day.
In the past few weeks, I have broken down in Walmart in a student’s arms. I have read the sad two-line condolences from teenage boys, read the Crayola-ed sympathies of sweet cheerleaders. Students have appeared at my house bearing Dr. Pepper and popcorn; when I went out to the high school briefly, I found a card from my second block centered carefully on my desk.
There is no doubt of their love for me, of their genuine concern.
So why the dread?
I think maybe it comes down to self-trust.
On sad firsts and painful anniversaries, we don’t trust ourselves to carry our own agony, to bear the weight of remembrance. We fear these days because we fear for our very selves. And as we near the familiar whirlpools and maelstroms of sorrow, we are terrified–certain we will once again get lost, plummeting again to the bottom of the ocean. We are desperate to escape without saltwater in our lungs.
I am too mad, still. I don’t want to write the words that must follow:
He is there.
And it is this assurance, this faith, that is both an agony and a comfort:
He is with me, I must endure. He is with me, I can endure.