On Loss

Tuesday afternoon, I received the message no educator ever wants to get in their lifetime: A student has died. More specifically, a student I had taught and coached and ribbed and soothed and loved — decided to end her life.

And so, my world changed a bit. It shifted. Things were no longer quite as reasonable as they’d seemed yesterday. Six hours previously, I’d been changing a diaper and bouncing a ball into my kid’s face and trying to eat something that resembled “moderately healthful” for breakfast and my student was being discovered by her mother and younger brother, dead by her own hand.

The world stopped turning. Not when it should have, I thought; not in the morning hours that J. ceased to breathe during, but rather, hours later when the message came through. It stopped turning, and since then, it’s been rotating backward or sideways or at a crawl barely recognizable as motion at all.

She’s dead. She’s dead. She’s dead. — This thought is hammered into my brain at least a dozen times a day, while I am heating pureed vegetables for Henry’s lunch or watching the sun dip below the unobstructed horizon or kissing my husband’s cheek before he heads out the door. As life continues to inhale and exhale around me, J.’s cessation comes to me at seemingly random moments, knocking the wind from the pit of my stomach.

It’s a queasy feeling, an uncertainty that I’m ill prepared for at 28 years old. The math is easy, she is — she was — ten years younger than me, on the cusp of womanhood. She was supposed to live another 80 years, outlasting me and all of her other teachers. We should have received invitations to her high school graduation, we should have watched her perform her serious solo at State forensics, we should have heard about her career and her marriage and her kids.

We should not have been preceded in death by this student. No teacher should ever be preceded in death by any student.

It’s perverse, this reversal of universal Rightness, and I cannot find a way to correct the problem in my brain. I’ve balled it up and tried shoving it into discreet nooks and crannies but my mind refuses the intrusion, pushing the knowledge forth and springing it open again — She’s gone.

And while it feels like a sucker punch delivered to the kidneys over and over and over again, I know that soon my world will resume as normal. I will think of her less frequently, though never not altogether; I’ll somehow go days and then weeks and months at a time without wondering who she would be or where she would be or how many lives she would have made different just by smiling in someone’s direction . . . and I feel guilty at this acknowledgement. Because for me, the sucker punches will come to an end and remembering will be more of a dull ache of remorse; but for her family, those punches will only keep coming. And coming. And coming.

I wish I could put my arm around J. now, and just hold her. I wish I could tell her, I wish I had told her — I was in your shoes, once upon a time. I tried. More than once. And I’m so very glad I failed, because damn, does it get better.

I wish I could tell her that her suicide has left me reeling, even though we only knew each other for a few years and I really have no right to this profound grief given my minimal impact on her world, but I’m reeling nonetheless and so many others are, too — the community is collectively sighing this sob of remorse and anger and hurt.

I wish I could confirm what I know she had to wonder — Yes, you will be missed. You are. You are. You are.

But I cannot do any of these things because J. is gone, she’s dead, and those things we do not say cannot be saved for better moments.

For now, this will have to suffice. Goodbye, dear one. Goodbye.

Reflections on a Life Unlived

I sat down last night and, for the first time in a long while, I didn’t pick up a book or fiddle with my planner (to make myself feel as though I’m far more productive, busy, and important than I actually am). I just kind of sat there, eyes glazed over with the exhaustion that sometimes comes at the end of a day with Henry. And I thought, Hey. You. You haven’t written anything in a long while. Not even a book review. Not even a reflective idea.

And then I thought —  You haven’t even acknowledged your thoughts for a while.

Sadly, I had to admit, these revelations are accurate. I’ve always been fairly adept at deflecting inquiries as to how I’m really doing — I’m fine; I’m busy; I’m doing okay, no complaints here — so it should come as no surprise that I am not always entirely honest with myself. But still. Sometimes, I am surprised. Like, whoa — there’s that dark place again; how did we get here, Renee?

I’m not sure what’s changed, or what’s spurred the recent self-evaluations that have become so all-consuming in my world, but suddenly I am considering my self and my place daily. It’s an absentminded sort of pastime, admittedly; and I’ve deflected my realizations a bit so that they haven’t arrived fully at the forefront of my mind until just last evening. But here we are, in a place of wonderment where I have begun to ponder —

who are you?

what are you even doing with this solitary life of yours?

and

when you die, what the hell will you leave behind?

When I was ten, I could’ve told any old stranger, without hesitation, that by the time I was twenty-eight I’d be a novelist. People would be reading my stories and they would be smiling and laughing and crying at all the right places; they would be touched in their souls by these words that somehow evoked feelings they didn’t even know could be held in common with a complete stranger from some remote home in a state called Kansas.

I would be special. I’d be a writer. My name would be on the cover of a book, people would speak of my ideas, they would press copies of my work into their friends’ hands saying You have to read this really great book, it’s amazing —

I would be somebody.

But I am twenty-eight, and I am not a writer, and I am not an author, and I do not have an editor or a publisher, and I have not done

anything

remarkable

at all.

And all that I can think of is — how very disappointed ten-year-old me would be to discover this version of myself.

I don’t even have to imagine.

She is still within.

Ode to the Matriarch

First she was a daughter and a sister. Then, a wife to a hardworking blue-collar man for sixty-odd years. A mother to three children, one of whom left her arms far too early; two who live on, bearing their own stamps of her personality like badges of honor. An aunt. Each of these roles prepared her to fill the shoes I selfishly like to believe she loved most: Grandma.

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When we were small (enough that three of us could squeeze into the cab of the Blue Bomber alongside Dad), we loved traipsing along for chores in the mornings. Mom would fix up a hard-egg sandwich for each of us, which we’d scarf down at the table in our cowboy boots and t-shirts. Dad would fill a mug to the brim with coffee, seemingly in pursuit of some sort of daredevil quest to see just how much jostling and bumping his steady hand could withstand before a drop could slosh over the top and onto my leg (or his).

Without fail, minutes after breakfast each morning, Barrett wanted to know: “Is it time for snackies?!”

We’d drive the half mile to Grandma’s, each of us a Real Cowboy reporting for duty, and hop out of the bumbling old pickup and race to the front door, yelling the traditional “Knock! Knock!” before we were even within hearing range. As politely as snackie-minded children could manage, we’d burst through the doorway and into the kitchen that never changed even once in my lifetime. There, she waited: dark eyes glittering, soft wrinkles intersecting on her joy-mapped face, lips stretched upward in a teasing grin. In her soft hands, empty Ziploc baggies waited for each of us.

I’m not sure, anymore, who loved morning snackies more—us kids, or Grandma. She’d shovel fruit snacks and chocolate chips and Gushers and peanuts and orange slices into the baggies until Dad firmly said, “Okay, that’s enough, Mom,” for the second time—and with a wink, she’d drop in just one treat more. The price was all but free: a kiss or three and a tight hug before whoosh!—we were out the door, off to feed cows and check fences and revel in the dynasty that Grandpa and Dad had built: Simon Angus Ranch.

* * *

During summers, we wore the road thin between our house and Grandma’s, riding our bikes with squeals down the Big Hill (and groans up the Bigger Hill). It was there, in the comfort of her sunken living room, that we learned of Oklahoma! and Meet Me in St. Louis and The Wizard of Oz. She cherished these classic musicals and fostered a love of theater in the heart of my sister, who later became Grandma’s favorite actress. In this same space, I also learned to appreciate Dirty Dancing—though it didn’t strike me as odd that she allowed a 12-year-old to watch this until just a few years ago. It is here that Barrett spent an entire summer—nearly every single day—watching Miracle and discussing the Cold War and hockey plans with Grandma, who had never seen a game of hockey in her life. While we reveled in the classic films that came from the treasure trove that was Grandma’s TV cabinet, she’d perch in her armchair with a magnifying glass, reading some article or completing a puzzle; or she’d disappear into the kitchen for a while, from which savory fragrances would emanate later on.

Mom felt guilty sometimes, I think, for all the days we pestered Grandma; but I know Grandma loved these unsolicited visits. Sometimes we’d call (forced by Mom in an attempt to establish something resembling manners), but even when we didn’t, Grandma was somehow never caught unaware. I think it’s safe to say our daily visits were more valuable to her than gold.

* * *

Grandma is most often tied to memories of food and family in my mind, and with good reason: summers and school in-service days meant lunch at Grandma’s. We children would salivate with anticipation in the hours leading up to lunchtime, usually abstaining from breakfast in order to more fully appreciate the glory that would come at precisely 12:15.

In the small, dark wood-paneled dining room, a crowded table waited: decorative seasonal napkins on each plate; glasses filled to the brim with sweet tea any Southerner could appreciate; serving bowls piled high with corn on the cob and heavenly hash, roasted potatoes and her famous cherry Pepsi Jell-O. We learned self control at that table as we waited, squirming, for Grandma to bustle in with the main dish—if we were lucky, tater tot casserole; if we were luckier, pot roast—and beam at the faces that she so loved. Grandma’s table was a bit like those of the dining hall at Hogwarts: even when Tyler and Jacob and Barrett were all three present with their formidable appetites, food somehow continued to appear in dishes until all were stuffed to the gills.

Those who were fortunate enough to join family at that table (most often Jacob’s buddies, come to haul hay or fix fence in the summer) never left hungry—Grandma made sure of that. She made it her top priority on those beloved lunch days to ensure that we were fed like a troupe of the Queen’s finest soldiers, even if that meant we left to work cattle with our pants unbuttoned and pleasurable groans escaping from our lips. (We also may have learned a thing or two about Gluttony at that table. . . . )

* * *

We could all count on Grandma for a few certainties in life. First, her front door was always open to visitors—and you’d better yell “Knock! Knock!” on your way in. Second, she’d always have a pile of lemon crap prepared when Jacob visited from college (we used to think this meant he was the favorite, which I’m sure he’d love to believe, but I’m also sure is completely inaccurate). And third—the most certain and meaningful of all—Grandma could be depended upon to never miss a game.

She became something of a fixture at Flinthills High School, always arriving to games at least 45 minutes in advance (which became a bit of a running joke in the family), her cushioned #1 Fan! seat settled in prime viewing location for the activity at hand. During football, that seat could be found as far as possible from the “Ding-a-Lings,” whose cowbells were Grandma’s archnemises. During basketball games, her stark head of curly black hair could be spotted smack dab in the upper-middle section. I often marveled that she didn’t bring high-focus binoculars—all the better to see her grandchildren with, of course.

No matter the distance, Grandma was always there, decked out in red and black and gleaming saucer-pins from which our faces beamed outward. On weekends, she’d follow Courtney and Brianne’s volleyball teams to day-long tournaments, scribbling notes from the game in her program in that loopy calligraphy so unique to her. When the boys were in high school and lost most of their games by the 45 rule, Grandma didn’t care—she was still in the stands an hour before, watching warm-ups with her eagle eyes; often driving hours to watch forty-five abysmal minutes of football and offer a few hand-squeezes and whispers of tender encouragement before hopping back in the car for a long drive home. She braved long trips and ninety-degree afternoons on sun-baked golf courses for fifteen-minute cross country races, during which she was lucky to catch a few fleeting glimpses of me running.

Distance did not matter to this woman—only Family. Nothing was more important to her than ensuring each of us were adored to full capacity.

* * *

Grandma’s fridge is a testament to her greatest love. It is a collage in the truest sense, papered from top to bottom: newspaper clippings from Jacob’s college games, ticket stubs from Brianne’s performances, photographs of Seth’s matriculation and Courtney’s family (and Grandma’s first great grandchildren), Mother’s Day envelopes with Dad’s signature hidden “MOM” heading. Over the years, the collage changed to reflect her family’s newest accomplishments; the fridge eternally a billboard of all that she held dearest.

She is gone, now, and those words leave a hole in each of our hearts. Decades of matriarchal devotion to her children and grandchildren have come to a close, but she’s left each of us something far greater than material wealth or tangible objects.

Grandma never missed an opportunity to make it clear just how dearly she loved each of us. With each return home, she’d grasp us in a tight embrace, peppering our heads and cheeks and shoulders with kisses as she’d squeak out in that high-pitched, excited squeal of hers, “Grandpa and I have missed you so much! You’ll never know how much you mean to us . . . we think of you every single day.” Her soft, thin hands—surprisingly strong—squeezed ours tightly at every opportunity, as if she could somehow transmit this fierce passion to us through touch.

It worked. She is gone now, and there is a hole in each of our hearts. But over that aching gap, Grandma is already at work, papering a new collage of old memories to tide us over. A Christmas stocking here, a snackie bag there, and nearly-world-famous chocolate brownies filling in all the spaces between.

A Reflection on Identity

In the third grade, my teacher was Mrs. Bagel*. She had pale blonde hair that curled at the ends and sharp angles at all of her corners; I remember thinking she was very birdlike. Her bones seemed frail and tiny, like a sparrow. Or a meadowlark. Something dainty like that.

Mrs. Bagel had a voice that could boom over the classroom like a football coach with a megaphone; but mostly, I remember her as quiet. She didn’t speak unless words were necessary. Most of the time, when she wasn’t using her Teacher Voice, her little bird mouth would open and she would softly chirp out some petite rebuke or encouragement or observation.

Mrs. Bagel and I were opposites.

My mouth could not stop opening like an out-of-control faucet that has no hose attached, only a gaping end where words splashed forth with vigor while onlookers watched in a sort of curious panic — Can this damn thing even be turned off?

Even when the faucet was tightly clamped shut, sound found its way out. Within the pockets of my soft round cheeks, I developed the ability to make crackling, croaking noises like a dolphin might make (or so I imagined). In what was likely a moment of silent boredom (compounded with rebellion), I also taught myself the art of making ripply near-farting noises by pushing bubbles of air through the space between my gums and upper lip. This not only made a pleasing sound, it also produced a tactile distraction for my mouth — and annoyed the ever-living wits out of Mrs. Bagel.

In the third grade, I became a Problem Student.

Initially, I think it’s safe to say I truly couldn’t shut the faucet off — as a younger-middle child, I had an innate need for attention that could only be achieved by running my mouth at the speed of light (so I thought). Over time, though, the inability to stop talking became a signature. It was my trademark. It was also my downfall that year of third grade.

At the time, my mother did not teach at the school that I went to. (That came later, when I was in 5th grade.) So the first that she learned of my Inappropriate Behavior was probably at parent-teacher conferences in the fall. I didn’t attend conferences with my parents, so I’m not really sure what was said, but I can imagine about how things went down.

Mrs. Bagel: So, I’ve noticed Renee is a bit of a talker.

There it is, talker: my main identifying noun.

Mom: *chuckles* Yeah, she’s our little chatter-bug! She’s quite the storyteller.

Mrs. B: *mouth tightens in a firm line* Well. She also likes to make noises.

MomNoises?

Mrs. B: *nodding firmly* Noises. With her mouth. All the time.

My mom came home that night and asked me to “recreate” some of the noises I regaled Mrs. Bagel’s classroom with. Beaming proudly, I puffed out my third grade chest and delivered a top-notch series of bubbly, nearly-farty noises and sharp, dolphin cheek-squeaks. It was my finest work.

My mom, a teacher, gazed at me with a burning sort of intensity while my dad stifled a chuckle at her side. I was sharply reminded of my obligation as an Honorable and Hardworking Student Representative of the Simon Family and sent on my way.

As the year played out, Mrs. Bagel and I remained amicable enough; as pleasant as Taciturn Teacher and Loquacious Learner can be, I suppose. . . . That is, until The Incident.

You see, I was standing at Mrs. Bagel’s desk, probably asking for her to look over my cursive or math sums, and the faucet had been pretty well-managed all day long. As with any weak pipe, there was bound to be an outburst at some time. (This probably followed a 24-hour pledge to Not Talk So Much.) I teetered on my tiptoes at the edge of Mrs. Bagel’s desk, where she sat perched in her chair looking down her sharp beak — I mean, nose — at the work I had submitted for review. It was at this crucial moment of silence (think Inside-an-Egyptian-Tomb Silent) that the dam broke. With a sudden desperate urgency, I began a series of dolphin squeaks — softly, at first, but crescendoing with every unchecked moment of noisy freedom.

The (bird)shit hit the fan.

I don’t think I’d ever been loudly reprimanded by a teacher before, and though this certainly didn’t classify as “yelling,” my cheeks burned with shame as Mrs. Bagel delivered the dressing-down of the century. (Okay, it wasn’t really that bad; but to a third grader . . . who never got in trouble . . . )

I vowed to be a Better Student. I did my work relatively quietly, sat in a sort of sulky silence, and visualized duct-taping my mouth shut whenever I had the urge to chime in. I was devestated when this resolve weakened and completely dissolved within a matter of days. I berated myself over and over.

Why couldn’t I be more like Jamie? She was quiet; she never spoke unless spoken to, and teachers seemed to prefer that.

Why couldn’t I be more like Bailey? She never made weird sounds . . .

Why couldn’t I be more like . . .

Every year, at many different junctures, I asked myself the same questions of myself. I compared myself to my much more meek and soft-spoken peers; you know, the ones who knew when (and how) to simply exist in peaceful reticence. As an adult, I sometimes still find myself longing for this piece of identity that does not belong to me.

Most of the time, though, when I am honest with myself, I can admit that softness and silence and serenity are not components of my identity. No, I am a faucet with the handle cranked wide open, a torrent of words and noises spilling forth without reservation.

I am the Bubbly Fart-Noise Maker. I am the Dolphin Cheek-Squeaker. I am my own Self.

*This name has been changed.

The Waterboy

My grandfather’s face is a topographic map of his nearly century-long life: a deep line down the left side, from his years at Texaco; several softer, branching folds at the corners of his eyes, from years of chuckling at the shenanigans of my brothers and sister and me; another particularly distinguished furrow above his brows, from losing a son in ’80.

His skin is worn and cracked, like the seat of a saddle that hasn’t been conditioned in the seven years it has dwelled in the barn, uncovered. A hooked nose forms the saddle horn, darkened from years of exposure in the scorching Kansas sun. His upper lip forms a neat little downward peak in the middle, though I rarely see this peak, which flattens and stretches like a plateau when he reveals a crooked, ornery grin.

My grandfather’s ears are large and hairy. This is a truth I may have written in the unswerving honesty of a third grader, which remains valid today.

His hands are speckled with scorch-marks from summers spent under the watchful eye of the sun, from the seat of a 60s-era Allis-Chalmers tractor (which also bears the faded mark of long afternoons outdoors). These hands fascinated me as a child: they are rugged and gnarled, his index fingers bent at the uppermost knuckle. This crook in his fingers may have been due to accident, but I prefer to believe the crook exists by design—the bent knuckle is just the right angle and size for wet willies.

My grandpa’s belly protrudes out over his belt, a perfectly watermelon-shaped curve. If I reach back into the furthest corners of my memories, I cannot recall a time when that hard, round belly was smaller, or larger, or nonexistent. It thrives on a steady diet of orange slices, black licorice, and the occasional bottle of Bud Light. This belly, coupled with roly-poly ankles that twist and bend of their own accord, creates a precarious gait that involves a sort of prancing, high-kneed step, step, step.

***

If Grandpa were a literary archetype, he would be the trickster. From an early age, I distinctly remember his gnarled fingers reaching for earlobes to twist with a high-pitched “EEEEEEE!” and the toothy chuckle that reached his glittering eyes.

When my sister and brothers and I were too young to drive but old enough to engage in free manual labor, Grandpa would gather us up in the worn out flatbed chore pickup and haul us to pastures to chop weeds and small trees.

On the way, he told stories.

He told of racehorses he raised with his brother, R.P., and the transition from lithe horses to black Angus cattle on the Simon ranch. He pointed out the pasture where Dad and Terry hopped on the hood of the ancient hay truck and rode the five blacktop miles home, clinging to its headlights. (“But don’t tell your grandmother, kids.”) At our cajoling, he recounted tales of the mischief my dad and uncle engaged in, often involving everyday items like manure, perfume, and our Aunt Syndi.

Grandpa’s mind was a gold mine of historical truths blended with familial legends.

***

grandpa

 

When I was in high school, Grandpa’s name changed to Waterboy.

It all started with cross country. You see, when I was a freshman, my school finally agreed to start up a distance running program, if the prospective coach could drum up enough interest. I hadn’t run long distance before, but I knew that my skills as a volleyball player were limited . . . and after watching Missy, an upperclassman, (unintentionally) pile-drive a ball straight into the nose of one of my classmates, my resolve was firmed. Cross country it was.

I quickly discovered that I was surprisingly good—enough so that my grandparents and parents didn’t mind driving two hours to watch me run for fifteen minutes. (Okay, maybe that had a bit more to do with their unconditional love for me.)

Grandma and Grandpa never missed a meet. Despite my grandfather’s wobbling trundle—or perhaps, in spite of—he could always be found at the starting line, and the finish. While my muscled legs (aka genetically inherited thunder thighs) pounded the earth with youthful dignity (and often, agony), he walked in that almost-stumble from one vantage point to another. Right knee up—eighty degrees—belly tilt—right knee down—ankle flutter—step. Left knee up—eighty degrees—

Grandma often perched at the start and finish, too, but found a place to rest beneath the slightly more temperate shade of a cottonwood tree or on the sticky seat of some ill-used picnic table. She guarded the cooler.

Before the finish, my grandfather would take those painful-looking steps to grandma’s bench, unzip the cooler with his twisted forefinger and thumb, and draw out a miniature bottle of Dasani. He’d head back toward the finish line with deliberate determination, brow furrowed beneath his Flinthills Mustangs cap, beads of sweat on his upper lip.

When I crossed the finish line, legs wobbling from the kind of exhaustion that can only be produced by 4,000 meters of rolling golf course terrain and ninety-three degree Eastern Kansas humidity, there he was: my Waterboy. Sometimes he stood back, waited for my parents to congratulate me and lead me to shade before offering his own congratulations; but often, he was somehow immediately at my side, bottle of water in one gnarled hand, the other reaching around my waist to prop me up.

His brow was never furrowed at the finish line. His lips were always stretched back in a silent chuckle, his dark eyes glittering with palpable excitement. After I could stand on my own, he would reach for the stopwatch that hung around his neck and compare times with my dad. Nobody could be more proud, or more invested. He was my Waterboy, and that was a great honor.

***

Now my grandfather is even more unsteady than when I was in high school. His walk is a bit more deliberate, a lot more terrifying. His knotted fingers struggle with the twist-off caps of Bud Lights, with the keys of his car, with the fork at dinnertime. His ears are still large and hairy, but I no longer believe those hairs are sound-feelers; even with hearing aids, conversations are a struggle.

He forgets things, too. The count for the Leonard pasture; a word, mid-sentence; his 60th wedding anniversary; how to exit the Sprecker, a pasture we’ve rented for twenty years; how to start the car; where the burn barrels stand; the name of someone he’s known for years. He forgets these things, and he knows that he’s forgotten. The recognition of forgetting flashes in his eyes, and they glitter once more—but not with joy, or mischief; they shine with panic, and fear, and frustration.

We watch his memory deteriorate like a sandcastle on the shore at high tide, a few particles at a time until no more remain. Those of us who watch from higher on the beach stand with shoulders slumped, hearts writhing somewhere between our stomachs and our feet. We stand together, separate in our own memories, unable to rebuild the sandcastle with the same particles of sand; bitter that no one warned us the castle would fall so soon. Or at all.

I like to think the roar of water reminds my grandfather of something, though; perhaps sizzling afternoons on browning fall grass and a time when he was called Waterboy.