High schools are not exactly the kinds of places that allow for a lot of privacy. I eat in common spaces with other teachers and sometimes other students. I don’t have my own classroom, as we share them, so I can’t just close the door. The history teachers all share an office, and that office has an open-door policy.
In short, whatever happens at my school is often public knowledge.
When Shawn was sick, it was useful, in a way, that everyone knew that I was constantly on the phone with doctors. Everyone knew that my kids were often at school with me early in the morning. Everyone knew that something was up, and that it was important to give me a little extra space to be imperfect.
Once Shawn died, everyone also knew. Many of the teachers and some of my students came to Shawn’s funeral. A few of the history teachers stepped up to teach my classes (on top of their own, which means they gave up their prep period the whole time I was out), and I was incredibly blessed to be able to have some time at home with my family.
So, basically, this time two years ago was terrible. But I felt so supported by my school – something I now know was amazingly lucky and rare.
Still, when I returned to work, every morning felt impossible, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to do a good job for my students. I’d arrive around 7:30, usually before most students and often before a lot of the other teachers. I would pull into my assigned parking spot, turn off the engine, and turn up the music.
And I would play it as loud as I could for at least a few minutes.
I’m not sure why I did this. I never did it before Shawn died. But after he died, it was like I needed to steel myself to go into school, face my students, and remind myself that everything was not about me and my loss. They had needs too. And almost every morning, thinking about meeting their needs was really, really hard to do.
So I played my music. Sometimes it was loud rock music (I was fond of playing songs from Shawn’s CrossFit mixes) and sometimes it was loud house music and sometimes it was loud hip-hop from the early 2000s. My choice of music depended on what exact negative emotion I was having in the morning – anger, fear, frustration, exhaustion or anxiety.
But it was always loud.
I’d put my head on the steering wheel, close my eyes and take deep breaths. Sometimes I’d actually say to myself, “you can do this, Marjorie.” I cried, a lot, those first few weeks back, but I tried to do it before school in the parking lot. It got so bad that I took to bringing my mascara in the car, so I could cry and then dry my eyes and put on my mascara.
Anyway, this continued for the rest of that school year, and for the entire 2018-2019 school year. Somehow, I pulled it together enough at school for the kids to learn (I’m very proud of how well many of them did on the AP government exam last spring) and for me to continue to be employed this year. But my God, it was hard getting out of that car every morning.
I thought about this the other day as I pulled into the parking lot. Tommy had been up the night before, climbing into my bed at 4 am as he has a habit of doing, but kicking in his sleep so much that it woke me up – and then I couldn’t fall back asleep. I eventually gave up on going back to sleep and woke up to grade some papers I hadn’t finished the night before.
By the time I got to school, I was dragging. My head hurt. It was freezing. And I needed another cup of coffee.
I pulled into the parking space and sat for a moment, listening to my music. It was Lizzo, and I was trying to get some energy from the music. I turned it up, and for a moment, laid my head on the steering wheel.
And in that moment, I realized that I hadn’t done that in a very long while.
Yes, I still often come to school tired. I am still overwhelmed by a lot of things in my life. I still miss Shawn desperately at inappropriate times, like when one of my students is talking about foreign policy in class and I have to turn toward the board so that no one can see my face.
But it’s different this school year. I’m still regularly overwhelmed by exhaustion and grief. But I’m not overwhelmed by exhaustion and grief every moment of every day. I can come to school some days, park my car, turn off the engine and get out of the car without laying my head on the steering wheel as I listen to Nine Inch Nails.
I guess this is what healing looks like?
I don’t want to make it seem like life is roses, because it’s not. I don’t want to make it seem like my grief is done, because it’s not. But it’s easier, now, in some ways. The daily feeling of “I cannot go on” is less intense, maybe because I’ve gotten used to this new reality or maybe because time really does help in some ways.
I don’t have some magic secret. As I wrote this blog post, my daughter came in the room and asked me to read her something from my blog “from a long time ago.” I read her this piece, about missing her dad when I went to her guitar lessons, right after he died. I couldn’t finish it, because I started crying so much. “You still really miss Daddy,” she said.
“I do, baby,” I said. And then I turned to her and hugged her, feeling so lucky that she was there, snuggling in my bed. I didn’t push away the sad feeling, but after a few minutes of us talking about Shawn, it eased a bit. We started talking about other things in her life, including what we wanted to do this weekend.
Eventually, we got up and went to her room. It was time for bed. And as I tucked her into bed, I realized that I wasn’t going to go back to my room and sob.
I still miss Shawn every day. Some days, I miss him desperately. But over the past few weeks, I’ve started to see how things are different than they were two years ago, or even a year ago. I’ve started to see how life has changed just a bit, without me realizing it.
I guess this is what healing looks like.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.