Thursday, March 29, 2007
The week after spring break is usually my worst week of the academic year. Everyone seems to come back from break feeling more tired than they were before they left. All of us, professors and students, are spacy. Tempers are often short. No matter how well I've been taking care of myself, this is the week when I feel most fragile and vulnerable, and it's been the time when I've most often been blindsided by classroom crises: some I couldn't have prevented, some I should have seen coming but didn't, and some I caused myself.
So I've been jittery this week, feeling as if I'm walking on eggshells. I have two very good classes this semester, but I've still been wary of dropping shoes. And I've certainly been playing the Absent-Minded Professor to the hilt, being disorganized and forgetting stuff. (My students, bless them, have joined me in laughing at myself.) It doesn't help that I've found myself in renewed mourning for a church friendship that went disastrously south about this time last year; it also doesn't help that -- maybe partly because the Maui trip kept me out of church the past two Sundays -- I've been feeling more than usually disconnected from That Which Is Bigger Than I Am, although that tends to happen this time of year anyway.
One of my classes today was indeed unusually emotional, but for once, it was in a good and healing way, not a hurtful one. The students who were involved have given me permission to write about it here, although I've promised not to use names.
In my fiction workshop, we discussed a story about a woman who's just died and can't move on to the next plane, even though she has no unfinished business that she knows of. A helpful angel explains to her that the living sometimes prevent the dead from completing their journey by not letting go, and sure enough, when the woman observes her close-knit and very loving family -- her husband, a married daughter, two grandsons -- she realizes that her daughter in particular is having a very hard time with her death: not eating, not sleeping. The dead woman starts trying to communicate with her loved ones, and discovers that only the children can see and hear her. One of them is just a baby, without language, but at last she manages to get a message to her daughter by having a conversation with the older grandson, who's about two, on his toy cellphone. He tells his mother that Grandma says everything's fine; the protagonist sees the relief on her daughter's face, and can finally move on.
It's a beautiful story, deftly and unsentimentally told by a skilled writer, and everyone in class loved it. One woman was especially moved, and cried when she talked about the story, because a friend of hers died of breast cancer two weeks ago. The story's protagonist has died of cancer, and at one point reflects on what a relief it is to be dead, how she feels "like herself" again, free of the pain and what that pain does to her family. The recently bereaved student found that passage especially powerful.
When it was the author's turn to talk, he told us that the story had been very difficult for him to write -- partly because he was using some new narrative techniques -- but that it was very important to him, because it was a true story. It had happened.
His aunt died just before the beginning of the semester. In the car on the way to the airport after the funeral, her two-year-old grandson started playing with his cell phone. Usually he just pretended to talk to his mother or father, but this time, everyone in the car heard him talking to his grandmother. "Hi, Gramma. How are you? That's good. I love you too. Bye." Then he told them, "Gramma says she's okay and everything's fine."
The recently bereaved student started crying again when she heard that. The rest of the class was silent. I felt like I was in the hospital, listening to one of those everyday anecdotes of the supernatural that float around the ED.
The author explained that he'd written the story to try to explain what had happened: to make sense of the conversation on the toy cell phone and to come to terms with his need to let go of his aunt, whom he misses desperately even though he's glad she's out of pain.
After class, the author and the bereaved student hugged. I hugged both of them. And the author told us another anecdote: his aunt and uncle had a clock they'd bought on a very early trip (maybe their honeymoon?). The clock stopped the instant his aunt died, and stayed stopped. But at one point, the clock started ticking again, and the two-year-old looked up and said matter-of-factly, "Gramma's here."
The class was so marvelous, at least for me, because it made visible a chain of messages. The toddler gets a message on his toy phone. My student writes a story to try to understand the message. And through the story, the message is communicated to someone else who's grieving and needs to hear it.
After that class, I taught my second class, and then dashed to my office for fifteen minutes to check e-mail, and then dashed to a meeting, and then dashed to a poetry reading by visiting writer Martha Serpas. My colleague Ann Keniston, herself an accomplished poet, had told me that Serpas was training to be a hospital chaplain, and that we might enjoy talking to each other.
Serpas read primarily from her latest book, The Dirty Side of the Storm, which is largely about loss. Her work's gorgeous and scripturally inflected in very interesting and resonant ways. But what affected me most was when she said, in response to some question about the loss in her work, "One has to let go of what one most wants to hold onto to join with the divine."
That was, of course, an eerily apt summary of what had happened in the first class. And it was also, I realized with a jolt, a message for me: a reminder of the importance of letting go of this friendship I've been grieving (which I've been trying to let go of for more than a year now, but which keeps haunting me anyhow).
After the reading, I spoke very briefly to Serpas, who must have thought I was a babbling idiot, because I was trying to say so much at once: about my hospital work, about my ED sonnets, about today's class experience. This is typical of the week after break, when I almost always sound like a babbling idiot, except for the occasions when language fails me completely. I guess I have to let go of that too, huh?
Anyway, does anyone else find the coincidences here just a little too thick to be completely coincidental? Or am I just crazy?