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Friday, March 27, 2015

Yeah, Though I Walk - This Cannot Be! - My Drummer Boy Student

He was a student in my eighth grade English class the first year I taught. He never stopped moving and he never stopped drumming on his desk. I watched him grow from a gangly, rather awkward young man that some compared to the old TV character Steve Urkle into a polished, debonair college man. He was full of humor and laughter, worked hard, and was a kind and generous young man. He was also honest and not afraid to speak the truth even to one of his teachers. I became a better teacher because he was brave enough to respectfully speak truth. 

I remember the day he came into class and told me his father (a leader in our church who I loved and appreciated) had died of a heart attack. He had me convinced this was true for several minutes until he ‘fessed up that it was just a prank. I also remember the times he was working in the school cafeteria and gave me my lunch for free and how he worked hard to gather donations to take to families in need in our community. A prankster? Yes. A heart of gold? Yes.

I came to school on March 28, 2007 and the mood was somber. One of the teachers pulled me aside and told me that My Drummer Boy Student had been killed the night before. He was out with some friends from Quinnipiac University and he got on his motorcycle and pulled out to leave. No one seemed sure what had happened, but he was thrown from the bike and died a few minutes later in his girlfriend’s arms. Oh, this could not be.

At his funeral we heard about other pranks he had pulled such as convincing a family during his college days that he was an Egyptian Jew while attending their Passover. Another time he sneaked past a friend’s driveway warning system and scared one of his friend’s brothers. We also heard stories of his ability to form and maintain friendships and the many ways he had touched the lives of others. He was particularly sensitive to the individual needs of his friends even from a very young age.

My Drummer Boy Student is missed deeply and by many. His parents established a scholarship at our school in his honor.

Oh, yes! And, he actually took drum lessons after that first year I had him as a student and eventually played as part of our worship team.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Yeah, Though I Walk - A Hesitant Farewell

I hesitated. People in dark clothes with somber faces stood in small groups on the gentle slope. In a nearby field of clover and alfalfa the sound of a tractor hummed and a hay bailer whirred. Overhead the sun was bright and warm; it seemed out of place. My eyes burned with unshed tears and I felt a lump in my throat. I did not want to bend down and pluck a flower from the bouquet. I did not want to lay that flower down. I did not want to say farewell.
Whimsical . . . warm . . . friendly . . . cheerful . . . caring . . . compassionate were all words I would use to describe Jill. I had come to this town alone several years ago to begin a new life as a teacher and youth worker. On the day I moved in, our youth pastor and one teen, a handsome young man named Kyle, came to help me carry in an array of boxes from the truck and arrange furniture in my new apartment.  Kyle was helpful, polite, a little shy, and yet personable.  My encounter with him as he lifted boxes and bundles, and rearranged furniture (until it suited me just right) left me with a warm, pleasant memory.  As I settled into my new life, I saw Kyle occasionally at church or youth group.  After a time, a pretty girl started coming with him. Before long it became apparent that Kyle and his blonde-haired, freckle-faced Jill had a very special relationship. I enjoyed watching them grow together and was delighted when eventually they were engaged and married. Although I didn’t see them often, I enjoyed talking with Kyle and Jill when I had the chance. They greeted me with smiles and hugs and plied me with questions about my life and I asked them about high school, then college, and most recently, their teaching jobs and new home. 
Although young, Jill was a cancer survivor. She had gone through chemo, hair loss, insecurity about relationships and love, and the fear of impending death. I think perhaps it was that close brush with death while she was still a teen that gave her that extra-special quality of reaching out to people, of seizing every opportunity, of facing life with energy and enthusiasm.
As I started to reach out my hand to pluck a flower and then pulled back, I remembered a moment three days before. I had been walking down the hall in our church, unsuspecting, when our pastor’s daughter stopped me.  Normally a bubbly, outgoing, happy person, Carrie seemed subdued.  She asked, “Did you hear about Jill?”
“No.  What happened?”  I replied, a sense of foreboding coming over me.
“My dad got a phone call last night to come to the hospital.  Jill was in a car accident.  She died.”
             Memories of Jill and Kyle flooded my mind as I tried to take in this news. I had just talked to Jill at church the week before. As always Jill’s face had been aglow with a smile that included her eyes, her cheeks, her eyebrows, even her nose.  Also, as always, she asked me a million questions about me and redirected the conversation back to me after she had briefly answered my inquiries about her.  Whenever I saw Jill and talked to her, I felt like I was the most important person in her world at that moment.  How could Jill be gone? She had been coming home from her graduate classes in a bad rainstorm. On a curve her car had gone off the road and she hit a tree. I heard the facts. I understood the facts. Yet still my mind and heart struggled to comprehend that Jill was gone. 
I hesitated.  I didn’t want to pluck a carnation from one of the many baskets.  I did not want to say farewell.  If I pulled a flower from the arrangement and laid it on Jill’s casket and walked away it would be real and it would be final, too final when I didn’t want to say farewell at all. I felt the pain of losing someone I didn’t know well, but who had touched my life. I felt the pain of losing the opportunity to ever know her better. I had thought I would have many years to build a friendship, but now I saw I never would. The chance had passed me by. I regretted every instance I hadn’t taken time to talk to her longer, all the opportunities I had missed to really get to know her.
I looked across the casket at Kyle, his face etched with pain, in some ways so like a lost, lonely little boy, in others so like the strong, mature man he had been forced to become overnight.  Kyle was surrounded by his family. His mother and grandmother were seated beside him.  His father and brothers stood behind the chairs. His father laid one hand on Kyle’s shoulder and the other hand on his mother’s shoulder. Jill’s family was there too. There was no way to disguise the raw pain they all were enduring.  The tears streaming down cheeks, the jaws set hard, the eyes so sad, the drooping mouths told the story of their pain. 
I hesitated.  I felt a strong resistance deep inside.  I did not want to say farewell, but really that choice had already been taken from me.  Jill was gone and no one had asked me if that’s what I wanted.  Surely no one had asked Kyle, his family, or anyone in Jill’s family. Yet, Jill was gone and we were left with her memory and countless questions all beginning with “why” or “what if”. We’d had no choice whether she lived or died, but in our love and grief we had all come together on this day to lay to rest someone we loved, someone who had made a difference in our lives.

I hesitated.  Then, at last, I bent down and pulled a flower from one of the baskets surrounding the casket.  I fingered the pink carnation for a moment; still fighting the struggle within, still loathe to say farewell.  Then I laid the flower on the casket as my heart whispered, “Farewell, Jill, you loved well and were loved well. Farewell, dear one, until we meet again one day.”  

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Yeah, Though I Walk - Shock - The Math Teacher's Wife and Son

Tuesday, February 10, 2004 started like any other day at school. I was teaching Bible to high school students and thinking of things I needed to accomplish throughout the day. During my morning free period I walked through the gym to the church office to return a stapler. The secretary was on the phone. She motioned me over and held out a piece of paper for me to read. The words were simple . . . and terrible. “Math Teacher’s wife and baby--dead.”  She ended her call and explained what had happened. The Math Teacher’s Wife and Infant Son had been in a serious car accident. The Wife was gone, passed through heaven’s portal and The Son was being airlifted to the area trauma center. The Senior Pastor could not be found nor could she find the Youth Pastor. She asked me to find the Youth Pastor and ask him to go to the school office.  I looked in a couple of his favorite haunts before I found him.

He was in the computer lab, chatting with another teacher. Not wanting to disturb the classroom or be overheard, I whispered the news of what had happened and told him he was needed down in the school office to be with The Math Teacher.  He took a deep breath and headed downstairs.

Once again we gathered the middle and high school students in the sanctuary. I remember standing at the doors, directing the students into the room. Three of our senior boys stopped me--each of them either an EMT or volunteer firefighter--they wanted to know if it was another 9/11 situation and did they need to go serve? I was so proud of those young men, so proud.  I told them that no although this was serious it wasn’t another 9/11 situation and they didn’t need to go.

Our Science Teacher explained to our students what had happened. Again we spent much of the day in grief and prayer. Our Youth Pastor went to the trauma center with The Math Teacher and grief counselors from another church in the area came and met with our students. In a small school such as ours all the high school students knew the Math Teacher and many had met and bonded with his wife and son as well.

“Why? What will he do? How will he survive this? Why?” echoed over and over throughout the day.

The Math Teacher’s wife was killed instantly. His four month old son died at the trauma center a few hours later. We were a somber, sad, and mourning school. This was the beginning of a season of asking “Why?” as a school, of wondering what God was doing.

Over the next two years we walked with The Math Teacher through his grief and loss and saw him marry again. He established a scholarship at our school in memory of his son, a scholarship for a graduating senior who planned to work with children. Each year the scholarship is given out accompanied by a stuffed Winnie the Pooh, the little guy’s favorite.

What kinds of things have you established as a memorial to a lost loved one? 
What would you like to establish given the opportunity?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Yeah, Though I Walk - Learning about Grief

In 2002 I began to awaken to an awareness of grief flowing through the experiences of my life.  In typical Dar fashion, I wanted to understand it, so I began to study grief. My learning was primarily at an intellectual level at this time. I read books about grief, particularly those written by people who had experienced profound loss in one form or another. As I read, I reflected in my journals about what I was reading and learning.

With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I am thankful for the reading and searching I did at that time, yet, as is often the case, the theory and the reality were different. As I have experienced deeper losses of my own, I learned lessons of my own. The books, others’ stories, had given me a foundation and perhaps words to label my experience. Still the experience was not an intellectual thing as the learning had been. The experience was emotional--painful and at times overwhelming. Things I expected based on my reading didn’t happen and things I didn’t expect took place. I realized the truth so oft repeated in grief work – everyone’s grief is unique to them.

One lesson from my reading, learning, and contemplation brought theory into reality in a positive and helpful way.  I had observed that those who accepted the reality of their loss and were able to courageously face it and do the hard work of grief were also the most able to continue on and have a healthy productive future after a significant loss.  In the face of my own loss, I found this to be, for a time, a draining task, hard emotional work, and yet, I am thankful to have been able to process my grief in a way that honored those lost and that deepened my life, my soul.

However, I am getting ahead of myself. God had more grief experiences for me to observe, to feel as a peripheral participant before I faced my own deep losses. 

“Part 3 – What is God Doing?” will explore some of those grief experiences. 

Has a particular book or person's story helped you in your journey through grief?