Sunday, January 5, 2014

I'm Back.

After a two-year hiatus, I've decided to blog again. I had never planned to stop. Instead, I had originally set my blog to private with the intention of keeping my thoughts available to a select few as I made my way toward a new career in the classroom. I had concerns about having a public blog while trying to score a job in public school. But once the blog was set to private, I stopped writing. I was consumed with my work as a teacher, and I didn't have the time or headspace to string together two thoughts beyond the classroom. 

But now, after successful student teaching at the high school level, a year as a middle school English teacher, and--finally!--a gig as a high school English teacher, I've decided to resurrect the blog. Besides, I know what to post and what not to post if I want to keep my job. Some thoughts...well, some thoughts you just gotta keep private, which is something our society tends to forget in the age of social media. 

For those who followed my blog prior to it being chloroformed, thank you. And please have patience, because I'm really rusty. Don't judge me even though I'm an English teacher. I'm also not bored at a dead-end desk job anymore either, so I cannot promise how regularly I will update this space. But I will update it. Writing is something I have to do. Like yoga. Like being outside. If I don't do it, I feel like I'll explode. So why not do it and share it again, right? 

A quick update, too, for my previous readers: I had blogged a lot about my grandmother, her battle with cancer and my feelings about that. In April 2012 she lost her battle and gracefully slipped to the other side. She died at home, with excellent palliative care and her entire family by her side throughout her final days. In one of our last conversations, I asked her if she was scared to die. She shook her head no, and then--in typical Nancy fashion--she changed the subject to something more pleasant. "How are the dogs?" she asked. What the---? I couldn't believe what I was hearing. She was literally on her deathbed, and her words were very few and far between. Yet, there she was asking about our three mutts. "They're fine, Grandma. Just fine." 

The day she died was beautiful. It was a glorious, warm and sunny April day. A few hours after her death, I sat in my backyard. I was emotionally and physically spent, having just lost one of the most important people in my life. My grandmother. My first teacher. My actual sixth grade English teacher. My biggest supporter in my decision to become a teacher. My biggest supporter, well, period. I sat in the yard, reclined in a chair, feeling the sun warm my tired skin, listening to the squeals and laughter of the schoolchildren at recess just a few yards away and the chirps of birds who seemed to be everywhere that morning. And then they appeared: butterflies. Monarchs. They flitted and fluttered and darted and hovered all through the yard. It was like something out of a Disney movie. I half expected rabbits and chipmunks to tiptoe out from the woods and start singing. It was surreal, healing and beautiful. The monarchs continued to keep me company that entire spring and summer. They were plentiful in 2012. 

I saw one in 2013. 

But that's not what I've come to write about today. 


It was a beautiful tree. And thank God it was a beautiful tree, because a big chunk of this Christmas season was ugly. It hadn't been, originally. Although Advent began on the heels of a late Thanksgiving, and we felt thrust into the "holiday" season, I was excited about this Christmas. It was the first Christmas in a few years that I felt really and truly excited about: I had little anxiety about our family get-togethers over the course of the month. I also think that I was happy with my job for the first time in a long time--since my years writing for the magazine. And because I am happier with my work, I am much happier in general. I love teaching high school, I love the school at which I teach, and I adore my students and colleagues. So I was feeling pretty good. Until Monday the 16th.

It was late. Almost 11 PM. I was jarred awake by a dreaded late-night phone call, followed by police at my door. A word of advice: even if you're expecting that midnight knock on the door, it is still the worst sound you can imagine. I can't get the damn banging of our brass claddagh knocker out of my head. It's a sound I wish on no one. It's like the grim reaper stopping by to say hello. "And by the way, your father's dead."


My dad was 62. Young, as far as I'm concerned. A smoker, so not in the best of health. But he was a guy who left the corporate world behind 10 years ago so that he could do what he really loved: carpentry and restoration. Joseph the carpenter, dead in the middle of the Christmas season. He died on the job while laying trim work at a new house  in Madison. Originally we had thought it was a heart attack, but an autopsy determined it was a brain aneurysm. Snap. Lights out for dad--and for the rest of us. What the hell kind of joke was this? I didn't believe it. My grief was one full of utter denial. And annoyance.

It was Christmas, for God's sake! People aren't supposed to DIE at Christmas! But there I was, in between tears, reviewing my to-do list of "wrap presents" and "bake cookies", and adding "iron clothes for funeral", "write obituary" and "write eulogy". I figured as long as I kept everything in check and organized, we could get through this grief thing and get on with the joy of the season. Dammit.

I focused on that to-do list more than anything else. I fretted everything for the funeral and Christmas wouldn't get done. There were moments in the long week between my father's death and the funeral in which all I wanted was for it to be over. I didn't want to grieve. I didn't want to deal with any of it. I felt as if I understood and accepted his sudden death, so why couldn't we all just move on? Eat cookies. Lots of cookies. I obsessed over the cookies and the wrapping. I obsessed over anything and everything that had nothing to do with what I did not want to think or feel. I was a taut wire stretched between the joy of the season and misery of grief.

The wake was the Sunday before Christmas. That morning I brought the ironing board up from the basement and propped it in the living room, in front of our pretty Christmas tree, to press the clothes my children would wear to their grandfather's funeral. As I stretched out the little size 10 shirt that my youngest would wear to bring up the gifts at the funeral mass the next day, I broke down. That taut wire snapped, and I threw up every ounce of Irish-Italian emotion all over our living room. I had officially entered the anger stage of grief. I swore and cried about how hard it was to balance this Christmas-and-funeral thing. That I was the only one trying to figure out when we were going to wrap presents in the middle of it all. That I was mad and sad that my dad died at Christmas. That I was mad and sad that my dad died. My dad died. My dad died. My dad died.

Now, for every yin there is a yang. My husband is all yin. Sometimes he is too much yin, but that messy Sunday morning he was right there deflecting, absorbing and consoling my emotions that rattled, bang and shook around our home like a pinball. He took nothing personally, even those things I made personal because I was mad at the world. Mad at my father. Mad at God. Mad at every man I had ever loved and who had failed me or, as if they could help it, died. My husband and all of his patience and love just hugged me tight and let me soak his shirt with my McTalian rage, because I had never needed a hug so badly.

Sudden death is very different from being able to say goodbye to someone. I couldn't say goodbye. It was not on my terms. And I was ready to burn down the world because of it.

But we made it through the wake, the funeral, the reception. My brother and sister, so much younger than me, needed me and I needed them. Together we stood at the wake, welcoming the hugs of so many friends, including the entire fire department in which my brother is a junior volunteer. We linked arms throughout the funeral and together delivered the eulogy, each taking turns to read a section about how much we loved and missed our father. We have each other. We have memories. We have love.

A few days later, our beautiful tree glowed early in the morning on Christmas Day while my dad's grandsons opened presents: flat brim hats, baseball gear, books, video games and Legos. We enjoyed a strange and beautiful Christmas with extended family and friends in and out of our house. We even ate lots of the cookies I ended up baking. In the days that followed, we enjoyed the peaceful quiet of our tree, which shone brightly as our fireplace crackled with light and the boys played games on the floor beside it. And some nights, when everyone else went to bed, I would sit in front of the tree--its glow the only light in the house--and just be. Be with my thoughts. Be with my feelings. Be with the waves that crashed and lapped inside me. In the surrealism of the season, sometimes the only touchstone of the holiday was our pretty little tree.

Yesterday, we took down the tree and tossed it into the woods behind our house. I am hoping birds will nest in it this spring.



Anonymous said...

Tough Christmas @ our house as well. Different reasons but difficult as well. And I love sitting in the living room while everyone is asleep just enjoying the tree & helped to calm my soul this holiday season even if my emotions kept me on a continous roller coaster ride.

Mike Wood said...

Nicely done! No signs of rust at all as you captured almost every emotion known to mankind

serenity74 said...

OK, this is a doozy.

I have a friend in New York who was expecting her first child this month. In September, the baby was diagnosed with Downs Syndrome. In November, an ultrasound showed fluid in the baby's lungs. My friend had an emergency C section just before T-giving, a boy named Tyler. He had ups and downs for a month, before losing his battle in the NICU on the day after your dad passed. Then Javier (my student from Common Ground) was killed just after Xmas.

Life is sometimes impossibly unbelievably cruel. Especially to people like us who go through the ringer for everything we want and hope all will fall into place without too much of a struggle. No matter how hard it is to stay hopeful, we have high expectations. So stay hopeful. Even if you remain in cubicle hell. ;) But that is one for my blog when I finally get back to it. I have the time, wtf is my deal? Anyway.

I am rambling now and i apologize, but I wanted to find a way to say all of that to you. So here it is.

Milk Money said...

Thank you, everyone. Serenity, my heart goes out to your friend. That is a cruel pain. I am ok. My father's death was the natural order of things. Not tragic. Just sudden. I have a lot to be grateful for, including the fact that he was my father--chose to be, in fact. He married my mom when I was 10 and legally adopted me as I was otherwise paternally unclaimed.

Javier. That is a heartbreak. A friend of mine taught him at Bishop Woods. Another taught him at CG when she was a student teacher there. I have a student who was good friends with him. He stood sentry at Javi's wake.

I am grateful that I am no longer in cubicle hell. The biggest light in last month's darkness came from my children and my students. I cannot imagine life as anything other than a teacher. :) Hugs from my side of the bridge to wherever you are.