Tonight as I tried to fall asleep, these beautiful souls came to visit me and would not let me rest. To all of my dear students who are still living who happen to read this, I hate it when people say this, but there really are no words adequate to describe how much I love you and how grateful I am to have been given the blessing of your presence in my life. God forbid anything should happen to you, but if something does, I want you to know that I’ll be sitting on this side of eternity clamoring for answers as to why I was not taken instead. I would gladly take any of your places. You have given me life. I would be happy to offer it back to you!
Dear deceased ones,
How’s it going over there, yo? That’s a really dumb way to begin this, but I don’t know how else to greet you. Our relationships were characterized by a ton of silliness. All of my relationships are, if I’m being honest. But I have always been more of myself with kids than anyone else. My classroom is a stage and you were my captive audience. I think you liked the show, though. You came back ready to join in the dance every day. . .
Bernard, I remember the day you were overwhelmed by your physical inability to raise your arms above your head to dance with us during morning meeting. I had no idea what to do, but I knew I couldn’t take something away that brought you so much joy that you wept at the thought of not being able to do it fully. I understand aching. So we kept our dance routine and your peers and I gave you an assist, helping you raise your arms and pushing you around in your wheelchair. We all need a little help sometimes.
I know I never told you this, Bernard, because it would have been inappropriate. But my dear friend, Pat, a woman I called my Arctic Momma, was slowly releasing her grip on life here on earth at the same you were. She had brain cancer, too. Loving you through your battle taught me how important it was to love her by keeping our friendship exactly as it had been with perhaps a lot more openness about how grateful I was to have her in my life. You wanted nothing more than to feel “normal.” You showed me how to offer normalcy to a friend who had given me so much in my time of need. Thank you for the assist.
I wish to God I had been able to help you, Moosta. I often wonder if I would have seen your pain if I’d been searching for what was troubling you as relentlessly as I was pressuring you to return the iPod you stole from me. I can still see the smirk on your face now as I shouted my last words to you over the engine of your moped: “Give me back my iPod, you punk. I know it was you!” You giggled, eyes smiling, and took off waving goodbye as if you’d see me later. You knew. You hanged yourself that night, but months later you came to visit me at school.
Your niece, who was in pre-kindergarten by then, was in my music class. As I taught her to dance to the call and response song, “Che Che Kule,” which hails all the way from Africa and found its way to our tiny Alaskan village through me, she shouted, “Ms. J! Ms. J! Moosta has this song on his iPod.” All I could do was giggle and thank you for stopping by. I’d missed you. Did you see the new iPod I was finally emotionally ready to purchase a little over a year after your death? I had it engraved in Italian so we could keep our little secret:
Se lo rubi, ti preghiamo di non suicidarti.
As if unexpectedly losing you were not painful enough, we lost your competition in getting under my skin, too. I can still hear you rationalizing your love for me, Gunner. “Ms. J, you are cheap, but you are not as cheap as the other high school teachers, so I like you.” I liked you — so much! Your humor was the gift that kept on giving. I can visualize you now, laid back in your desk, wondering aloud how I was going to make your life miserable today by asking you to choose a book to read that you’d eventually have to admit you enjoyed because it, too, wasn’t as cheap as the others.
You didn’t make me earn your respect or affection the way the boys did, Marisa. You sat down in our classroom with your partners in tomfoolery, Lexy and Jaclynne, on the first day of school and it was instant, mutual shenanigans. The teasing began the moment we met and it never let up. We were an odd pair of friends. (I have to call us that because as you became an adult, that’s exactly what we were, though you still called me Ms. J.) You were a baller. I’m as clumsy with or without a ball as they come. You were a tomboy. I am currently shopping for the perfect summer purse. You parted your hair straight down the middle. I begged you to let me part it on the side just once so you could see how beautiful you would look. But you were never swayed. You were as loyal to that part as you were to your friends.
After I touched your hand and felt that all the warmth that was you had left your body, I went home and looked at every single picture we took on the senior trip to Europe. In every one we’re both in, you were right by my side. Who stands by the chaperone in every picture? Who leaves their dorm room and picks up their former teacher while she’s having an asthma attack and takes her to the hospital? Who is a friend whose kindness surpasses expectations? My Petunia, that’s who. (Did you actually like that nickname or were you just being nice?) I’ll never have a better, more selfless friend.
I remember exactly where I was when I found out every one of you died. And though the locations were different, I wailed every single time. It didn’t matter that I was in the middle of a restaurant in New York City or that I was in Houston preparing for an important presentation. Losing you stopped me in my tracks. My grief heaved out of me with the same passion and precision that your loving presence had infiltrated my being: it didn’t miss a cell.
Oh, God, s/he is juuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust a CHILD!
I still do not know how to live without any of you. I am writing this now because I could not stop the tears from streaming down my face tonight. I had to talk to you. I needed to let you know how much I still love you. How could I ever stop? You are my reason for being. You are the people who taught me about the infinite capacity of my heart for love. You are the reason I have not settled down or given up. Because of you, I cannot live a lie. And as long as I live, you will remain a living, breathing truth. My humanity is inextricably tied to yours. God I love you!