Now for a Break from the Normal Programing: 2019 in Review

Credit to my fellow blogger, WriterInSoul, for inspiring me with her own year in review post. I’m usually a travel blogger, so I wondered if anyone would even be interested in a year in review kind of thing, but this type of writing can often be therapeutic, in a way. And this year has definitely been a year of highs and lows. I know that a years have ups and downs– and I have had much lower lows than I did this year, but I think the whiplash of sudden change from so good to terrible in an instant is often more unsettling to the soul than a long period of turmoil.

Twenty nineteen was a year of extremes.

The year started off very well. On the 5th of January I drove to surprise a friend with a meet up for her birthday. Rachel and I were roommates in college, and she was passing through the hometown of one of our other friends, Jana, on her way home (northern Illinois) from her hometown (Memphis, Tennessee). So Jana called and asked if I could show up and surprise her when they met for ice cream.

IMG_3132So, I hopped in my car and drove the two hours to see her for thirty minutes. And it was glorious. We laughed and got a little misty-eyed, too. Then she hopped in her car and drove north, and I hoped in my car and drove east, but not before I stopped and visited Jana’s father, who I am fortunate enough to also call my friend. He showed me the truck he was restoring, and we sat in the garage and talked about life and, of course, drank coffee.

He is one of the greatest men I know. Though he is not perfect, he and his wife are both the epitome of caring and giving people. Whenever I come to central Illinois, I am welcome to stay at their house on a moments notice. Like that night, I simply buzzed by on my way out of town for an hour or so of chit chat.

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In March I went on a wonderful spring break trip with students to Ireland (my favorite place in all of the world), and we had a amazing trip! Everything went right, the weather was amazing, the traveling from place to place went smoothly, and we were able to have some of the most amazing experiences ever! I got to hold a sheep!

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But less than 24 hours after this picture was taken, the lead chaperone, my dear friend Chase, got word that a former graduate had died by suicide. I write at length about that experience here, but I will write here that the death shook me to the depths of my being. “Bear,” as everyone called him, had been in my creative writing class the year before.  He was nearly always smiling, and when he wasn’t it was because he was angry that someone had mistreated someone else.  He was a self-proclaimed defender of the weak.

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Bear with his ‘Life on a Cardboard Box’ project. “Get it, Pdise? I misspelled ‘brawn.’ It’s funny!”

He rarely wrote seriously, always the clown, but when he did share his heart, he wrote about the death of his brother and how that changed him and left him heartbroken many years later. We’d talked about mental health and how he just wanted to make people’s days better so they would have a reason to smile.

An hour after we got the news, we were off to a new place to see and experience. I didn’t know how to handle the whiplash. I cried much of the day, and avoided people as much as I could (which is not easy when you’re the chaperone of a group of students), but as I mentioned in the blog post I linked earlier, the grounds at Blarney Castle gave me the solitude I needed.

When we returned to the states, there was the funeral to go to. I didn’t stop crying until well after I returned home. And even now, I feel some level of guilt that he didn’t know how much we would all mourn his loss.

Summer followed quickly, and with it the end of the school year. My summers are usually pretty tame, and I try to soak up as much time with my son as I can. I did a lot of reading, and went to several open mic nights where my uncle and cousin played and sang.

I also got a roommate over the summer, Nina, a former student who wanted to break out on her own, but with a little support. She’s been a blessing to our family now that my son gets on the bus by himself now rather than going to my parents’ house in the mornings. And she’s a great buddy for when my now teenager would rather keep to himself than hang-out with his boring mom. It has made that transition much easier for this mom, that’s for sure!

Nina and me as we try out “lip masks” for the first time – do not recommend!

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and this year, my heart was heavier than usual as I walked in the Out of the Darkness Suicide Prevention fundraiser. With Bear’s death on my mind as well as the other losses to suicide the school had faced, I felt like I moved a little slower. But I walked with a glorious friend, Amber, and her daughter who made the walk easier. We talked about all kinds of things, and they lightened my load. A day that could have been easily one of the hardest I’d had in a few months, had a positive spin to it, and I left the walk feeling much better than I thought I would.

The group that walked this year from Cascade High School

Just a few weeks later I got a text message from Chase, the chaperone who’d broken the news of Bear’s death to me just a few months ago.

“Call me” it said.

I was busy getting ready for work, and I was a little annoyed that she didn’t just text me with whatever she had to say. So I finished my hair and pushed the button on my phone to call her on speaker while I put on my shoes.

She was crying when she answered the phone, and my gut sank. I knew that someone was hurt or dead, and my mind whirled wondering who it could be and how bad it could be.

Nothing prepared me for her words. “Dylan is dead.” And again, my mind searched for meaning in this sentence. Dylan who? How did he die? Was it a car accident? But she was crying too hard to answer my questions. But I knew who it was. I just didn’t want to know. And just like that, in less than a year, we’d lost two former students to suicide. And this one was not only a student, but the son of a co-worker – the woman I’d walked with at the Out of the Darkness walk.

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I’m not entirely sure how I drove to school that day, only that it was through tears. And I’m not entirely sure how I told my first period class the news (the administration wanted to students to hear it from a person, not the PA system – which is a good call, just hard), only that it was though tears. And this time there was no Blarney Castle to clear my mind. I taught all day, I coached the Spell Bowl team (some of them crying on the bus) to win the county meet, and went home to be a single-mom. It wasn’t until bedtime that I was able to sit and try to process it all. Being truthful, I don’t know that I have completely processed it yet. I’d never had Dylan in class, but I knew him very well – he was an outgoing kid who loved to help others, he’d gone on the Italy/Greece spring break trip with us, I’d helped him edit papers for his English class, and he was the child of a co-worker and friend. So I knew him better than the teacher/student relationship.

It has never ceased to amazing me how the world can simply upend itself with one phone call. A few brief words and the trajectory of life is completely altered. That day was one of those days. And the haze of the next few weeks is honestly hard for me to remember. Hugging crying students, co-workers, sitting on the floor in the hallway talking to a student about how to keep moving when life feels so heavy.

And the year kept going up and down. My best friend had a miracle baby. My other best friend had a stroke and was in the hospital in Chicagoland for weeks and I couldn’t go see her. I felt like a failure as a friend because she needed people to help her, and I couldn’t make it up to her when she needed me the most. Up – down – up – down.

November and NaNoWriMo came along with tons of students who wanted to write novels with me. My 41st birthday. The end of the semester, and finally Christmas.

So much up and so much down.

But the big lesson I’ve learned this year is to make sure the people I love know that they are loved. I’ve learned I need to check-in with people with more than the often trite “How are you?” Also, I’ve learned that it is very important to take care of myself- to do things that are good for me physically and mentally.

Over the last calendar year I’ve lost 30 lbs and done my best to get more in touch with who I am and focus less on what I do not have. I have become less downtrodden over my seemingly terminal singleness, and realizing what being single can allow me to do: travel selfishly, invite people to live in my little home, and be available for people easier than if I had to take someone else’s wishes and calendar in mind.

Thank you to all who have been a positive influence in my life these last twelve months. I appreciate your encouragement, your mentorship, and friendship even though I am not the best when it comes to returning phone calls. 🙂

I anxiously await what I have to learn in twenty-twenty.

The Healing Balm of Ireland

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Recently I’ve been doing some travels with my students. Though it is a very different way to travel than the solitary trip to Ireland back in 2017, this trip to Ireland with students was a beautiful reminder of how seeing an old place through new eyes can be a supreme joy in and of itself.

The trip was glorious – I saw things I hadn’t seen in ages (The Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle, and Cork) and places that I had never been before (like the picture above in Spiddal as well as the beautiful town of Bray).

Despite the multitude of people around me, it was still a time of amazing self-reflection.  For some reason travel does that. Is it the beautiful surroundings? Is it the feeling of infinite smallness in the face of giant oceans, imposing mountains, or stunning valleys? Is it the lack of things familiar? Whatever it is, I find it amazingly refreshing.

The trip was not free from heartache, however.

On a gloriously sunny morning in Killarney, I readied myself for the trip to Cork – a likely departure site for my ancestors who came to America for unknown reasons in the 1700s – when the lead chaperone pulled me aside and asked me to have a seat.

No good conversations start with the person asking you to sit down.

She gave it to me straight, without any sugar-coating.  A former student of ours who was in the military had committed suicide in his barracks.

The world stopped, and for a moment I forgot how to breathe.

This young man had been in my creative writing class. We talked about the death of his brother and how that changed him as a young teenager.  He wrote funny poetry, and smiled a grin that would make you doubt that he was the same person who could bench press a small car.

He came back to visit the school during a volleyball game after he got out of boot camp, and seeing that I wasn’t there he asked a teacher to take a picture of him and send it to me so I would know what I had missed by not going to the game that night.

That is the last picture I have of him.

I remained stoic as she told me that we needed to tell the remainder of the chaperones and then the children. Game face. Do what needs to be done. But as she told the chaperones on the sidewalk outside of our hotel, I could not stop the tears. I could not stop hating the birds for singing or the trees for daring to be beautiful in that horrible moment. I could not stop hating myself for being out of the country. What if he’d tried to call me? My phone could not accept calls overseas. What if he’d needed me, and I wasn’t there?

What if…

What if…

What if..

The beauty of Cork meant nothing to me that day. The countryside outside the bus window was lost on eyes that saw only a watery reflection of reality. I truly don’t remember the drive there or much of the museum we went to that day.

I do remember the smell of the ocean as I stood outside the museum, unable to stay inside a moment longer. I remember the sound of the shipyard and the smell of brine and fish. I remember the overwhelming desire to get away… from people, from sounds, from my own mind. And I remember repeating over and over again to myself that this could not possibly be real.

Eventually my mind slowed down that day – my journal helped. I wrote volumes. Emotional vomit that purged the sadness and fear and self-loathing.

And then Blarney.

The kids went with the other chaperones to the castle to kiss the stone and I went off alone and hiked the trails around the grounds. And nature restored my soul in those few hours of solitary reflection. The ivy, the moss covered rocks, the clover, the waterfalls, and the trickling stream calmed my troubled mind until I could breathe again without a searing pain in my heart. My photos of that day chronicle the gradual healing that took place in Blarney – a journey through shadowy darkness to the bright green that gave Ireland its nickname.

Since my first visit to Ireland in 1997, I have often said that though my body lives in the United States, my soul will forever be in Ireland. There was never a time that was as true as it was that day in the solitude I found in the shadows surrounding Blarney Castle. My soul, broken and crushed, found solace in Ireland’s beauty, and for that I am ever grateful.

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