The unavoidable lesson.

December 23, 2012 § 8 Comments

The class hamster.Each period of the school day brought another wave of fourth graders to the library.

Hugging their notebooks, they swarmed the tables, ready for my writing workshop–except for the class that had just attended  a funeral.

The class hamster had died.

The children were grief stricken. Shoulders shaking they gasped for breath as they cried.

“How long have you had your hamster?” I asked.

“A long, long time,” a boy moaned. “Since the beginning of fourth grade.”

Amazed at their unrestrained sorrow I realized that they had probably just attended their first funeral–and that I had become an old hand at death.

But like them, I began as an immortal novice in a world without end.

My first cold shiver at the thought of death was for my parents. If they were late picking me up I would stand on the wintery sidewalk in front of catechism or piano lesson and know that they were dead. I’d instantly go back to the oblivious present, thinking about homework and a snack as the station wagon rolled up.

I didn’t imagine my own death until one day when I was about fifteen, I did. It was as if I walked into a wall that had always been there. I was going to die.

Children's graves, Apalachicola.

Children’s graves, Apalachicola.

Being young did not protect me. The young were struck by lightning, hit by cars, they contracted rare, incurable diseases—and they died.

I traveled through the next week, startled and intensely afraid.

Watching my friends I realized, they don’t know.  If they knew they wouldn’t worry about their hair or what he said she said.

They too would be slammed with the futility of attempting anything, planning anything.

The feeling subsided as I let myself be distracted by what he said she said and the day-to-day enterprise called life, but the non-negotiable condition, death, remained.

I was going to die, and so was everyone I loved.

This truth was a grain of sand that, through irritation, gradually created a pearl; not a smooth and perfect one, but one that was more comfortable than the constant irritation of coping with something that seemed wrong and out of place.

Over time I came to understand, death belongs. It is the shadow cast by life.

I watched death come to my mother after a series of strokes had annihilated her essential self, a kindness that allowed us to remember her as she had always been.  I watched my father accept death. Being a scientist he was curious. Being human he hoped to see my mother again. The years without her had been years spent in the waiting room.

I am not easy with death, but it has been a long time since it has blind-sided me. Then, just  before the holidays, twenty children were murdered in Newtown, Connecticut.

I saw the photos of the young victims, a parade of smiling faces with gappy front teeth, and imagined them as the adults they will never get to be.

Suddenly, I was fifteen again, the finality of death recent news, news I had no way to  understand or survive.

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§ 8 Responses to The unavoidable lesson.

  • craig reeder says:

    as i read this, i realize again what an essential service you writers perform for the rest of us. to help us understand things confusing and frightening by masterful use of metaphor, like the pearl you spoke of. and for elevating the significance of the human experience, and infusing it with meaning. PS: i loved the phrase you used about your father “years spent in the waiting room.”

    Like

  • Debbie Moore says:

    How beautiful you have put everything into perspective for me – once again. That is your talent, that is your gift and I will forever be grateful for the craft of your words. As a mother and a teacher I felt complelled to share a quote Aarin Sorkin wrote for the TV series West Wing and it was the president (Martin Sheen) telling of an incident. Sorkin did steal one line from Tom Hanks acceptance speech of his academy award for Philadelphia -” the streets of Heaven are too crowded with angels tonight.” I would like to share what I sent to our superintendent and school the day after the shooting:
    In response to the incident in Connecticut I am reminded of a speech given by the president in the series The West Wing in response to a pipe bomb being set off at a university. “More than any time in recent history, America’s destiny is not of our own choosing. We did not seek nor did we invite a confrontation with evil. Yet the true measures of a people’s strength is how they rise to master that moment when it does arrive. 44 people were killed a couple of hours ago at kennison State University. Three swimmers from the men’s team were killed and two others are in critical condition. When, after having heard the explosion from their practice facilit, they ran into the fire to help get people out. Ran INTO the fire. The Streets of Heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They’re our students and our teachers and our parents and our children. The streest of Heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will acheive what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars. God bless their memory, God bless you and God bless the United States of America.”
    The principal and teachers that were killed at Sandy Hook, when hearing the shots ran TO the sound to protect their children. God bless them. God bless us all during this season of giving. God bless Adrian for putting such a harsh and horrific event into words my daughter can understand and find peace with – you are the best!
    From Mackenzie’s Mom, Debbie

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  • Thank you, A. Insightful as always.

    Like

  • KM Huber says:

    “Mustering the courage” is the key, I think, to what we must do on many issues. It is within us but will we finally say, enough? A lovely, poignant post, Adrian. Thank you.

    Karen

    Like

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