Tag Archives: weariness

Cancer Survivors, Please Take Note:

You are allowed to want:

A clean table.

Fresh sheets.

A few things

(modest household items)

from Pier One

On sale. With coupon.

 

(You are also allowed,

in a lifetime,

One stainless steel trashcan

and two Lowes clearance appliances.)

 

You can want, desperately,

your aunt’s second-hand sofa

with its tufted pillows.

And Lindt Christmas peppermint truffles

at the after-New-Years Walgreens price.

 

Permission granted! Dance with true joy

when your brother gives you

a seventeen-year-old fishing truck

(your only vehicle with A/C).

 

(Even now, there are tears: you possess A/C.)

 

Don’t dare want

the smiling husband at the amphitheater concert.

Forget the gurgling grandchild, alive in your arms.

(We understood your wanting her last year,

but, really?, this year, too?)

 

Accept your fate. Shut up. Sit down.

 

Even after sixteen years–

character building via financial destruction,

$208,000 in medical bills,

a new Nissan’s worth of eyedrops.

 

You cannot desire relief.

 

It is not his fault. Not your fault.

You can’t blame anyone.

 

Stop all that tacky wanting.

 

Like what you have.

Take what you get.

 

And just shut up about the car.

 

There’s no driving away from this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Stillbirth: One Month On

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Memorial flowers still absorb our silent cross-eyed stares.

(What is this? What is this, even?)

Sympathy cards pile on her dresser.

Crisp handwriting and broken words.

(There are no words when there is no life.)

So much stolen that the words go, too.

Meals feralize. We eat all. Or nothing.

Books cannot distract. (The crossed eyes, taut, refuse.)

TV–never compelling–now even worse.

Prayers surround us, unanswered:broken steppingstones.

A few more could not hurt. But they (may) change nothing.

We cannot touch each other.

The ramrod anger stiffens so; there is no bend or ease:

No reaching arm, nor hand of comfort.

Father, mother, daughters–none can hold our own hard sorrow.

(Do not, please, prop yours unthinkingly here even for an instant.)

Work lies like forgotten knitting. One day we craft. The next–indolence.

(It is absurd how little truly matters. The world lies: to claim value in the worthless.)

Our teeth unbrushed. Our unkempt, haphazard hair trimmed in the dim bathroom.

(Who can brave the Southern beauty shop?)

No rest is found in darkness. Nightmares abound, constant and grim.

(Except one sweet reprieve in a garden sculptured with stark metalloid poppies.)

Even the most obtuse pity our brokenness. Impelled to help, nevertheless

Sensing the ridiculous in the grand gesture, so worthless with its words.

This known, they are simple and quick. (Unrelenting.)

Repeatedly they push the stuck and damaged buttons of our broken hearts.

Daily, students press their warm faces to mine; insistent touchstones.

(The whirring cameras document their dogged reaching beyond my statuary.)

Kind questions and hugs in the acquaintance-filled grocery store,

Like spider webs flung over the Grand Canyon–

perhaps (someday) shall lead us back to the known familiar.

 

And we may find the people we were before this devastation.

Before the raging. Before such sorrow.

 

Before we fully knew.

 

 

Mothering (Gray Day) Warriors

If you get the wrong mother, hush.

Never speak of it.

(Maybe she didn’t want you, either.)

 

When you see your classmate with a quiet, lip-sticked Mother

(who is not dancing with the policemen and perhaps never has)

do not want that muted version.

If, at age eight, you play Monopoly at Cynthia’s house and

enjoy brownies, milk, or actual conversation with her Mother

(who framed Cynthia’s artclass hydrangea and hung it in the living room,

shocking you with the power of maternal display)

want what you have instead and be grateful.

When you hear the spectacular anthology of things your mother did

while you were young and insistently ill–your illness precipitating hers

(do not blame yourself, but do not forget that you were the root,

the first pull on her sanity, the initiate seed. That was you.)

accept her warranted beatification without question.

When she now calls at 3:00 AM because her feet are cold and she needs socks

or at noon when her dentures are lost, or at midnight to talk about her sick cat

(you woke her once upon a time, and please do not forget

all of those library trips, which were at least three miles round trip)

listen to her politely. Be kind and good.

(She cannot, after all, be blamed. Tragedy is its own jagged fault.)

If you cannot buy enthusiastic flowers or calligraphed cards

with words of praise and pleasantry on Mother’s Day

(it would be easy to–for one day–feign a right celebration)

do not write the honest words

of hardwood, worthy truth:

She did (every day) the best she could.

(Though you know not how that is not Most Purely Beautiful.)

 

Why not acknowledge that she did (and does) her muddled best

with only the sloppy constant tool of inadequacy and pain?

And chanced to create children who withstand and see and acknowledge and survive

Life. Abundant tragedy. Galore.

(Isn’t it cruel that the world demands a day of silent Hallmark honor

And yellow roses of such warrior offspring?)

The better reward may be

that these resile often-hollow brittled children invite her

to sit on their sofas; bring her cold drinks; answer their phones

rebelliously delighting in the sound of her mothering voice.

They bring long-wrought absolution in

Hopeful cups of over-iced tea; salvation and forgiveness.

Acquitting even the weary gray-bed weeks when, thinking to hide her pain,

she shifted it instead unknowingly to their young clean backs.

 

Society demands plasticine homage.

But she will gratefully sip

even the most lukewarm thimbled water

in mute and reverent celebration of her best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christ: Who Strengthens Me

12976754_920310534764208_2244250461583658971_oOn my classroom white board, there is a list of things I cannot do. Currently, it reads: “Carve into a mountain; jog to Blackshear (nine miles); cross the monkey bars; roller skate; be nice to Abby about her eyelashes” (Ab added that last one).  It’s a silly list, but it’s meant to remind my students of two things: that works of nonfiction may not always be truthful (mountain carving; jogging barefoot through the snow carrying a violin) and that we all have things we cannot do.

An honest and fearless list would, of course, be much longer. It would include more negatives: I can’t help you with a loose tooth or a nosebleed–ever.  I can’t be kind when I’m really, really tired.  I can’t repeat an answer more than three times nicely. (I start spelling each word in thundering tones.) I can’t remember names when I’m anxious. But lately, the biggest Can’t remains this: I can’t cope well with my daughter’s pregnancy, nor with the fact that her anencephalic daughter, Stephanie Grace, is expected to die soon after birth.

I generally fare well in the struggles we face. I always have. From my husband’s leukemia and our family’s cross-country move to students’ in-class seizures, I have handled past crises calmly. But this pregnancy, after a series of smaller family crises in the fall, has just done me in. I’m ready to turn in any medal I won in the Cancer Caregiver Olympics or the Child of an Alcoholic Triathlons–because in the Parent of an Unwed Pregnant Daughter Speed Trials, I’m not doing as well as I’d like.

I suppose that I expected more of myself because I’ve always done well with my pregnant students. I recognize their stammering and hesitant, “Can we talk?” and, if I’m among the first adults they tell, I manage to make the interaction survivable for both of us. I want my student mothers to remember adult support, not condemnation. Logically, I also want that for my own daughter as well.

I just can’t find my footing–I can’t put the pieces together. I can do some things–buy maternity clothes, accompany April to doctor’s visits, get excited when I feel the baby kick, make jokes about the baby’s stubborn streak, and even talk with some equanimity about the plans for her funeral. Anything pragmatic about this pregnancy, I have a pretty good handle on–if I haven’t figured out the logistics, I have a fairly adequate general plan. But in every emotional aspect of this pregnancy, I am inadequate. Not enough.

I couldn’t even be happy before it was time to be sad. 

April, at 24 weeks, is not struggling. If the time with her daughter is limited to Stephanie Grace’s time en utero, then April will make the most of it. She wants maternity pictures, plaster casts of the baby’s footprints, and an adorable layette. She’s letting the baby listen to her favorite songs, singing to her, and making certain that she knows she is loved.

There is nothing, nothing that I would rather do than curl up beside April and read Let’s Get a Pup, Said Kate loudly to my granddaughter, to cheerfully chirp, “What a brand new one?/With the wrapping still on?” and to let that baby learn my voice. But I can’t stop sobbing long enough to read a book. I can’t talk for more than one minute about maternity pictures or help April shop for the right dress. I can’t stay in the baby section of any store for more than thirty seconds before the air leaves the room. I can’t share in my daughter’s fragile joy because I am still gathering the pieces of my broken heart. 

There is no instant fix for this. I’ve been trying to tell myself, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” but I’m finding that, for me, that verse has been stripped to something akin to “I can live another day, and perhaps be kind to people.” I can’t do much more than that right now. I cannot be all that my daughter needs me to be. 

12959564_10208178114863308_601819068_oBut I want you to know, my grandbaby now has a layette. A former student’s mother took April to lunch last week; afterwards they shopped in Belk’s, where April selected a pink dress and bonnet set for Stephanie Grace.  The student’s great aunt, whom April has never met, has also crocheted the baby a blanket.

My daughter has her professional maternity pictures. A former coworker volunteered to spend the last day of her spring break doing a beach photo shoot. In addition to having pictures to cherish, April will always remember the flower crown she wore, the wind whipping her dress, and the nearby wedding that was close enough to hear.

She has a lovely, long maternity dress. One of her elementary school classmates, Caitlyn, loaned April the dress she’d used for her own cotton-field maternity shots. When we went to fetch the dress, Caitlyn sat holding her newborn, whom we’d thought would grow up alongside Stephanie Grace. I marveled at our peace in the room.

She has freshly cut and curled hair. Our hairdresser, whom I have known for over thirty years, made sure that April felt special and looked beautiful for her photos, refusing payment. “She said it was her gift to me,” April explained.

Yesterday afternoon, as April was dropped off after the photo session, we got to sneak a peek at some of the shots. She beamed peacefully onscreen, totally relaxed, trusting God and enjoying the moment. She was beautiful and radiant and loved. She’d accomplished one mission, ticked one item off the To Do list; her pregnancy was, in at least one way, normal and fun.

My part in all this? Well, I had made the phone call for the hair appointment and suggested a pink bow. That’s it. Because I could not do any more, my friends did Much More. They enthused and rejoiced and clucked over April. They smiled and laughed and chatted. They made everything better. 

12968095_920310824764179_7958268002363552032_oLast night, as I was once again wishing my failures away, I thought about that verse in a different light. What if the words “in others” were included? “I can do all things through Christ [in others] who strengthens me” seems a bit more reflective of the way I’m living now. The funny texts, sweet cards, and late night phone calls from friends strengthen me. The Bible devotional a friend gave me months ago feeds me daily. My husband’s patience with me and my daughters’ understanding show me God’s grace. No one is mad that I cannot do what they can; they are simply picking up my load and going forward, then looking back to make sure I’m still straggling along.

This is the only way I will survive this journey: through the Christ in others, ministering to me. Though I wish I could lead the pack and plow confidently ahead, in accepting my current weakness, I am seeing other’s strengths.

I may be lagging behind, lost in “What ifs” and exhausted tears, but I’m still at least journeying toward the finish line that I don’t want to reach. I don’t want to go there; none of us do. But with our friends we are moving forward; through their love, we are all moving onward.

Myself included.

 

 

Inconnaissable

 

We are in the life raft–

Having walked an unexpected plank.

Fallen. Shattered. Piled close.

 

Keelhauling seems kinder.

(Barnacles across our backs

Better than this heartbreak.)

We have no oxygen, at any rate.

 

Months mast-climbing now wasted;

the crow’s nest meaningless.

A formidable, sandless shore

(Still, certainly, with its treasures)

Awaits us now, black-rocked.

We dare not look or think too long.

 

Decades of gathered ballast

Bilge-hidden for such a day

(Godcan/Godloves/Godhears)

Discharge, trickle, and sustain.

 

The cannons boom. “Certainly Lethal.”

Foremast, mainmast, mizzenmast:

All are tangled. Torn, destroyed.

And the wind will show no mercy.

 

135 days of Unknown await.

 

Surely we will again sleep and breathe and eat.

But the waves are high; our vessel weak.

 

And the voyage is so long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gleam of the Now

10575320_1675980529318413_6993199641154948756_oToday, I awoke to a Facebook post. It said simply, “It’s a nice day for a white wedding,” and my heart just broke. The bride, Shelby, is young, beautiful, tough–and motherless.

Like most of the children of the Seattle bone marrow transplant patients, her life has been full of continued medical crises, financial hardship, and forced independence. The kids who ran amok in Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s Pete Gross House in 2001 are between 16 and 24 now; most are partially orphaned, and all are fairly unjaded stoics. They left fairy tales and hopes of happy endings behind before they were out of toddlerhood. They spent hours in hospital waiting rooms, eating stale Cheetos and sipping warm Sprite while their pincushion parents, dragging bags of TPN, stared at Lake Union and mustered half-hearted hopes for better days.

For cancer patients who are also parents of young children, the goal most often mentioned is their child’s wedding day. The walk down the aisle is the holy grail, especially if they have daughters, as we do. Nurses say things like, “You are going to walk your daughter down the aisle. You’ll see” because when you are living from one misery-filled moment to the next, you can’t even see a day when food will taste right again. A happy wedding day fifteen years hence is an almost impotent goal when your crystal ball currently contains only the day’s methotrexate.  So it is the nurses who speak of future years, while the patients content themselves to survive the days.

And now, 906 miles away, Tammy’s daughter is getting married. The day the nurses conjured is now concrete: March 11, 2016–and her dad, who was on the bone marrow transplant ward with my husband, is (as predicted) fine. But his caregiver, his wife–the one who fundraised and moved the family cross country, and entertained us all from the instant she got there–succumbed herself. To cancer.

Words like ironic and cruel and phrases like twist of fate don’t do justice to such heartache, to fifteen years spent watching first one parent, then another, fight for their lives. Yes, these children gain strength and fortitude, that’s true–but they also are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. For the PET scan to find a nodule, for the biopsy to be positive, for the graft versus host to flare. They walk the cancer tightrope right behind their wary parents–and when a parent passes away, they walk again, alone. Inching forward, toes curled, lips pursed, chins set, continuing their journey.

Fortunately, children learn a lot while curled up in a hospital bed beside a sick parent. The power of a smile. The fun in a quiet game of cards. The pleasure of a Veggie Tales video shown for the fiftieth time. They learn to lie still and hold Daddy’s hand and look at the trees in the arboretum. They learn to hold the Now and move forward some. They learn that time is both slow and fast: they live through both the longest and shortest of days.

I don’t know much about Shelby’s wedding–who wore what, who toasted whom, what hors d’oeuvres were served–but I do know this: the sparkle in her eyes testifies to the happiness in her heart and the joy of the day. Surely it was bittersweet. There has been so much lost. But in her eyes, I can see the gleam of the Now, and it is beautiful.

More than most, Shelby knows that things scar and fade, batter and become. She’s seen much, but her eyes in the photo dance.

Her mother would be so proud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Waving of the Checkered Flag

“We were laughing and living, drinking and wishing, /And thinking as that checkered flag was waving, Sure would like to stay in Talladega.” –Eric Church, Talladega

It was a late summer evening, and although it was technically too hot to, I had cooked. My younger daughter, Abby, liked the anchor of a family meal, and my older daughter April’s boyfriend liked my cooking. Long dinners were our Thing for those last several weeks before September made us into the school-year flotsam and jetsam that we so often became.
Our family dinners were a marvel to me. My alcoholic, bipolar mother had seldom cooked. Food–whether it was greasy, lukewarm roast beef or the more standard Burger King Whopper Jr.—was swallowed quickly and our back-to-bedroom escapes were made. Dad, who dubbed himself “Fate’s Whipping Boy,” ate late and alone at the Formica-topped bar in the kitchen. Whichever child chose to emerge and join him would be treated to sardonic stories of his gray day as they swiveled on the sticky faux-leather bar stools. There was nothing warm and Ingalls-y about our mealtime; no passed potatoes, no humorous stories, and very little daily minutiae was shared with nodding and clucking adults.
I exulted in the fact that my daughters expected family dinners. Our table was the first piece of furniture we bought as newlyweds; the chairs were given one by one as Christmas gifts by relatives. The twenty-four year-old chairs, saggy, scuffed, and stained, were no longer prizes; the tabletop, faded and worn from the thousands of meals we’d enjoyed, was no longer fit for the Haverty’s showroom. My now-adult brothers, on separate occasions, each reverently stroked the tabletop and said, “You can almost see the stories that were told here,” in recognition of my treasure.
On Sunday nights, I’d holler, “Who wants what next week?” and each girl knew she could count on one favorite food—Chicken Parmesan, gluten-free pizza, chocolate-chip pancakes—at the end of each weekday. April’s boyfriend, who was hundreds of miles from his mother’s home cooking, occasionally joined in, politely requesting fried okra or red velvet cake. He would smuggle the leftover slices home past his thieving roommates, who especially favored the walnut cream cheese frosting.
The days that ended at the table were days that were bookended by laughter and long talks. We would talk about Marxism, basketball, and Eric Church—one night, as if to show just how weird their mother was, April and Abby allowed me to explain why “Talladega” was the best song ever written, discussing it line by line. Everyone laughed at my sentimental tears over “the summer before the real world started.”

The girls would tell stories of broken arms and field trips, of Camp Winshape and hikes and horseback rides. I’d clear the table as they prattled on, Abby enjoying her traditional York Peppermint Patties and milk while Greg snuck a little ice cream.
So it was this customary evening. We had eaten well and laughed hard, remembering how when we’d asked young April her dolls’ names, she would cackle, “Rubbish and Trash.” We’d recounted her cross-country airplane trip alone at age six where she’d poured Sprite–quite deliberately—down the pants of her middle-aged seatmate, a woman who’d called her a chicken. Dinner was endless, and as we sat there afterwards, I heard a clear voice within me say, “You will never have this again.

I froze. I knew the voice.

In 2001, when I’d heard Greg was in the hospital after a routine doctor’s appointment revealed iffy blood test results, as I desperately said, “Not leukemia” to myself over and over, I heard the voice say, “It is leukemia, but I will perform a miracle of peace.” And these words proved true.
To hear that voice so clearly fourteen years later, clearly and certainly bringing sad news from nowhere –I can’t emphasize enough the nowhere—shook me. I looked at each of the four of them, chortling at the latest story; I took in the dishes and the lighting and the way their smiles shone. They were all so happy. There was joy in the room, hilarity even. It had been a good meal, a great time, and, evidently, the last one, ever.

As I sat there, forty-five, haggard, prematurely gray, having endured much, I can clearly recall a desperate grasping within me, an urge to fight, to say no. I wanted to resist whatever torture was ahead, and I wanted to begin immediately. Post haste. To stand and fight and claim good things–for surely, having lost so much, we deserve to enjoy good suppers. How could that be too much to ask? For a minute, I was like my former students, who now as young new mothers, are trying to perfectly order their children’s and families’ worlds. I felt myself reverting to a time when I naively thought that I could change and save things.
But I was only there a moment.
I acknowledged the voice. I told it, “Well, then, I’m going to enjoy tonight.” I refilled their glasses, grabbed dessert, and we sat long and laughed much. So much. I watched their faces, held their hands, marveled at the blessings they were.

It was a truly beautiful night: we were so rich.

There is no explaining how quickly everything has changed. A break up, an unplanned rebound pregnancy; one move, then another. We were five, and we are now three. And supper at the table is more than this remnant can bear. My husband dines on Frosted Flakes in our bedroom, seeking his solace in Barney, Andy, and Aunt Bea; my younger daughter nibbles frozen chicken nuggets while copying AP biology notes; I eat the pork loin that I made, but no one wanted, as I play online Scrabble with Charles, a stranger in Maryland. My elder daughter is living in a maternity home two hours away; her ex-boyfriend is reduced to terse texts about items I need to mail back to him. There is nothing left of the Ingalls family here.

In the kitchen cabinet, there remain several small bottles of red food coloring. I used to buy Kroger’s entire stock since in a small town, hoarding can sometimes become a necessity. I doubt, however, that I will make red velvet cakes again. They belong in a time that has left me, with people who have as well.
I only had an hour to say my farewell—an hour after dinner in which I was allowed to look, alone, at all that God had given me, to hold it close, to see its beauty, and to bid it goodbye. At the time, I didn’t know whether we would face a car wreck, a third cancer, or an unexpected death. I knew only that the pain was coming.
I thank God that He allowed me one last look at all that joy. For what joy it was.

(What Joy!
It Was.)

Desum

image

Three days ago I had a dog.

Four weeks ago, I had a daughter.

One and twenty one. Pup. Adult.

Known, Quantifiable.

I could press my hand against his flop and brindled muzzle;

Her half-filled cereal bowl (so much wasted milk) sat beside my sink.

His snore a benediction, my nightly au revoir.

The final thing I heard.

Her face–alight from the flicker of a favorite movie–

The final thing I saw.

 

Now, both are gone.

A quick stripping, a sudden wrench, a dark smash-and-grab

(A stealing from all sides.)

Simple tearing and ripping.

No benediction.

Powerless against their absence.

Two lives I thought to help to save.

Two lives I loved.

Gone, wholly.

And I, again, in mine.

Present. In all this absence.

 

 

 

 

Present Enough

Last night, after a hectic weekend decorating for and overseeing Homecoming, Greg and I came home late from the school’s Christmas party and collapsed on the sofa. He was reading, and I was just staring at the Christmas tree, which is fake and spins—something I find splendid. Greg was insistent, “Please read and settle down,” and I said, “I am settling down. I just want to sit here and think about how happy I have been this week and a half in our marriage.” He said, “Week and a half? We have been married five hundred and twenty [pause for mental math] . . . almost a thousand weeks, not a week and a half.” To which I replied, “Yes, and I have been very happy this week and a half.” He looked at me like I was insane, and then, he thought about it. He said, “Let’s see: no miscarriages, no terminal illnesses, no family members dying recently, no denial of our constitutional rights [ala the fostering fiasco], no forced moves. Yep, it’s been a good week and a half.”

And I was wondering what it is about me that can revel in a good week and a half of marriage, celebrating it for the treasure it is; unfortunately, I think it may also be the same thing that can cause me to go into a death spiral during the bad weeks and a half, and that is the revelation that this is, like it or not, as good as it gets. It is what it is. Type your own cliché here, if need be, because there are plenty; my Grandma’s favorite was borrowed from her cook, Ellen: “That’s all in it.” Grandma would laughingly tell me so when I complained about sleepless nights or told horror stories of Toddlers Gone Wild in Cracker Barrel. And she was right—it’s all there, the good and the bad, the happy and horrific.

During our 18 years, I have memories of things that I would rather erase; some are specific: the tear-filled mornings getting ready for work in the time after April was returned to her birth family, lost to us, we thought, forever; the two babies we lost who would be teenagers now, and who are on some days obviously, painfully missing; the bone marrow biopsy in medically-primitive Georgia, a horror Greg doesn’t like to recall even now; our unplanned return to Waycross; the failed adoption of a baby girl whom we brought home from the hospital at birth, then lost to last minute legal wrangling. Others are more typical—the humdrum minutiae of everyday marriages: failed attempts to ask politely for everyone to push your chair in, how hard can it be?; the daily taking for granted of one another—he will be there for me, I know, so I do not thank him when he is. This is “in it” as Grandma would say: we all fall short; we will all have things that we regret doing, saying, or going through.

But there are other times that we will never regret sharing, times that no one but we will ever understand: when April came back (forever!) from her relatives New York, and she ran through the house, shrieking her glee; when our returning plane touched down from Seattle, Washington, and we were home again; when Abby was and is here and healthy and well; and, finally, when we read the New Yorker cartoon about the chickens with self-respect and laughed forever. We know, having lost much, what we have. Appreciation of the minutiae: these times of bored predictability—of Saturday routines involving cleaning garages rather than sitting in hospitals—that’s “in it” as well.

And so, I think, the insanity of being grateful for ten good days of marriage in a row is, all things considered, a positive: it says that I know these days for what they are—part of the ebb and the flow, the bitter and the sweet. A bad week does not a marriage ruin, nor a good week a marriage make—but having someone with you who, having endured the horrific, will now sit with you and enjoy the happy–even in the face of horrors to come–and just watch that Christmas tree spin—well, sometimes, that may just be present enough.

You’re a Teacher

I spend 1500 minutes a week standing in a room with kids. That’s 25 solid hours of face-to-face time, just me and teenagers. I have for sixteen years now. About 1,200 kids have heard me talking about what I am supposed to—like Antigone and Shakespearean sonnets—and things I’m not really supposed to, things that aren’t on the lesson plans. So far this year, I’ve dealt with children of alcoholics; children who are coping with serious illnesses—their own, and those of family members; students who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and students who were at the really wrong place at the really wrong time; students who cut because they can’t stand the pain; students who think that their lives are over at sixteen because that last bad decision they made was, after all, a very, very bad decision.

And I make my God-honest best effort every single day to be there, to wholly listen, to hear their stories and to look into their eyes because teachers did that for me. Frances Dillard sat and listened to me, a fourteen year old who was lost and drowning. She sat for days, and then for years. Howard Fore made me laugh; he stood up for me and defended me, and he gave Colin and the rest of the class a lecture entitled “Yes, I CAN Have a Favorite Student and Rachel CAN be it,” a speech that I have also given in my classroom, verbatim, about students who merit extra attention and praise. Edith Johnson, Bill Leiss,  Joe Haluski, Cyndi Dixon, Loutrell Harris, Coach Pike, Coach Ganas, and even Senora del Castillo were all a part of a long list of teachers who fed me as I walked, emotionally starving, through the halls of Waycross High.

It was only logical that I want to become them and to live professionally and emotionally in the best place I knew: school.

But what the legion of educators whom I so loved and admired didn’t warn me about was the heartbreak, hard and absolute, that surrounds teaching.  A student arrives at 8:00 AM whose beloved grandmother died just five hours before. There is a matter-of-fact discussion among kids whose fathers did not want them. A kid writes an essay about the three outfits he owns. Monday mornings, kids come in hungry enough to eat Ritz Carmelized Onion Crackers by the fistfuls, then search my cabinets for more.

There were no warnings about visiting hospitals, standing at the bedside after your first student is in a wreck, then your second . . . writing letters to distant jails when your first student is imprisoned, then your second . . .

Because the thing about teaching is your students are yours forever, for both the good and the bad. Yes, you will get to go to their weddings. You will rub their pregnant bellies at Wal-Mart and exclaim over their bright-eyed children at church. You’ll see pictures of your former students standing with their eyes agleam in places like Russia and New York and Saudi Arabia. You will look into the eyes of students who are firemen, Marines, linemen, video producers, professional athletes, and web designers, and you will feel pride that you didn’t know was possible.

But there will be other times when you will click on a status on Facebook that begins, “Pray for _____________; it’s really bad,” and your heart will leave you. It will just go. You will message the people who know how bad things are. And you will wait for them to tell you about how the telephone pole fell while your student was standing on it, or the car split in half with your student inside, or your student’s baby was born impossibly small.

You will hear how a fire tore through your student’s mobile home, killing her five year old daughter. And there are no words for this. There is nothing to say to this. There is no way to go from the power was out and a candle was in the bathroom to a child is dead. How can those simple facts add up to total and utter destruction?

You will do the only thing you can, hold your twenty year-old daughter in your lap, sob into her hair. You will pray as you drive to pick up your other daughter, and holding her hand at the red light, you’ll look at the moon, the same moon that is shining on your student’s hospital bed, and pray some more. You will think about leaving this heart-breaking job.

Then, you will see two out-of-place teens walking through a bank parking lot. Out of habit, you will pull over, hollering out the window, “Are you mine?” and they will beam. Then one will chuckle, “Not yet!” with a sparkle in his eye.

As you drive off, your daughter will tell you, “They say the tall one is on drugs. He’s young, just really tall.”

And you will find yourself thinking about him, and his future, and the part you can play in it, however mighty or miserable it may be.

After all, you’re a teacher.