I’m Still Here

Change is hard.  Looking back at my two previous posts, it is almost comical to me how drastically different they are in tone.  Blooming vs. wilting.  If you check the dates, you will see that the watershed moment between the two is the beginning of the school year.  The new job took a toll.  Yes, change is hard.

This change has amplified all of my emotions.  It’s hard to say whether it was the new job getting me down and making me more sad about Callie or whether I was sad about Callie and it was affecting the new job.  Follow me?  Let me just give you Exhibit A:

You are probably laughing, but this is what a preschool teacher does (totally oversimplifying, but yes, being a total goofball is my job…that about sums it up).  Now imagine that your baby died and you are putting on a fake smile and doing “Pfft the ketchup” when just an hour before you saw a little 8 month old baby girl with dark brown hair as she accompanied her big brother to school….EVERY SINGLE DAY.  Exhausting.  I think we can say from this example that grief was impacting the job.

Now equally on the other hand, the job made the grief worse.  Even though I was looking forward to a change, I didn’t realize how much I would miss some of my favorite parts of teaching first grade.  Also, I had no idea how self-conscious I would feel teaching preschool.  After the first day, I lost complete confidence in myself and my ability.  This was a new feeling for me and these unexpected changes hurt deeply.  I wilted and withered away.  Spent blossoms drifting to the grimy dirt.  And when you’re in the dirt, you’re really down…  about everything.  On top of grieving for Callie, I was grieving these changes too.

It has taken a few weeks for me to actually get to the point where I could write something positive.  (I’m getting there…promise!)  In the meantime, I had written approximately a hundred million bitter, mean, vitriolic letters and blog posts mentally (and even some on paper) just to spit out all my anger about what a raw deal we got.  Because that’s what it was.  A very raw deal.  The crappy part of the random-rare-genetic-disorders-crapshoot.  But every time I went to send the letters or publish the posts, I thought better of it.  It was the grief talking.  Maybe one day, from a long distance out, I’ll share some of those thoughts.  But not now.  Instead, I was lying low.  Struggling to be positive.  I hoped and prayed it would come.

And it did.  Along the wings of yellow butterflies crossing my path.  They seem to fly around every time I need some reassurance.  Oh yeah, and I think I bounced back about the hundredth time I did “Pfft the ketchup”.  Because after a hundred times, how do you not cave in and laugh?  I learned to accept the changes that have come my way.  Notice I did not say ’embrace’….nope, not embracing.  But I got over my ridiculous self-consciousness.  I stopped being so serious and found my silly, goofy side again.  I grew some of those good-ol’proverbial balls.  I even parted ways with the leftover first-grade wistfulness.  Goodbye, Henry & Mudge.  Goodbye, Chrysanthemum.  Hello, Brown Bear, Brown Bear!  Hello, Pete the Cat!  In short, I learned to turn the page.

Someone sent me a quote recently that I wish I could relocate.  Essentially, it went something like this…even though there are pages in the story of my life I would like to rip out or re-write, I can’t.  If I did, the end of the story wouldn’t make any sense.  I turned the page this past week.  I opened up the book to a new chapter.  Once I stopped being so sad about having to turn the page, I realized that the story was still pretty good.  Even slightly funny.  Like the part where one little chica in my morning class ALWAYS has her buttcrack showing…obliviously drafty.  And, the part where my name has transformed from Mrs. Chameleon to Mrs. Canini (rhymes with panini…getting closer!).  And also the part when I asked the kids to share their ‘happy thoughts’ (from another silly song) and one girl responded, “I thought about rainbows, and unicorns, and butterflies, and sunshine.”  Direct quote.  That’s pretty darn happy.  It’s contagious.  I’m afraid to say it…because I’m worried that if I do it’ll come back to haunt me…but I think the old Mrs. C. is back.  Different, but back.

Here’s hoping for a happy ending to this story.  Thank god for rainbows and unicorns, butterflies and sunshine…oh, and don’t forget the GUACAMOLE!

 

p.s. if you are a teacher that loves Kevin Henkes like me, I hope you picked up on some Chrysanthemum themes in this post.  This was my subtly rebellious way of teaching this book again, somehow, someway.  😉

 

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The Question

The icy walls I have built around my heart are tall and strong, built out of Alcatraz-worthy impenetrable stone.  I didn’t know that I had built walls, but I realized this week that they are there.  Guarding my battered heart, protecting my strength.  For months, I have felt like the toughest part of my grief work was behind me…so why don’t I feel like my normal self again?  I have shed many many tears, imploring God to please please let me be “normal” again.  Let me belly laugh.  Let me look a stranger in the eyes.  Let me be warm and open.  Let me not be the wallflower awkward-middle-school-girl when I get in a group of people.  Let me make small talk.  Right now, I suck at small talk.  I avoid striking up conversations with people I don’t know…and to be quite honest, sometimes I avoid people I am super close with too, because I just don’t feel like myself and it frustrates me so much that I can’t just let loose and be myself.  There is so much unsaid.  So much avoiding.  And it doesn’t feel like myself.  I don’t avoid.  I don’t let things go unsaid.  Well, not usually.  I try not to.

It’s the walls.  The walls are why I am not my “normal” self yet.  I survived something horrible and tragic.  I fought really hard, battled tough emotions, got to the other side.  And my heart took a beating.  In its weakened state, I built walls to protect it, to let it heal.  After starting a new job, in a new school, with new people, new students, new families… my walls, so invisible to me before, stood in front of me, formidable and intimidating.  The first time I realized I had built walls was when I was talking with a parent at my Open House.  He was holding his daughter who looked to be about 7 months old…that’s how old Callie would be right now.  I was doing everything in my power not to look at her.  It must have seemed so weird to him.  She was really cute, so I’m sure he was used to getting lots of compliments, feeling like a proud dad.  He kept looking at her, looking at me…I think he wanted to talk about her, but I was avoiding the subject like the plague…answering questions about his son who is in my class instead.  I saw the walls.  I actually think I tried to throw a couple more cinder blocks on top, and maybe some barbed wire too.  Finally, he asked the question.  The one I was trying so hard to deflect.  The one I was dreading.

“Do you have any kids?”

Punch in the stomach.  Tears in the eyes.

“No,” I said.

Grief, washed over me.  And he said, “Not yet, right?”  I just smiled, nodded, and walked away in the least rude way I could muster.

I hate this question.  And it’s not the first time I’ve gotten it.  I have my canned answer ready.  Usually, I say, “Yes, our daughter passed away in January.”  Then comes the awkward pause where the other person feels bad for a few minutes…and my day is ruined.  Every time, I flash back.  Every time, I remember what I don’t have.  Every time, I feel jealous of what they do have.  The innocence that surrounds that question for them fills me with envy.  But, there are times when I just say no.  Because of the walls.  I didn’t want to share my story then and there.  And that’s ok.

But I’ve gotten ‘the question’ a lot this week.  In my classroom in front of my students.  In the teacher’s lounge at lunch.  On Callie’s 7-month angel-versary…twice.  My answer depends on the person asking and the place I am.  But no matter what, the answer in my mind, in my heart is the same.  YES!  YES!  YES!  I have a daughter.  I miss her so much.  I want to cry every single time…every time.  I can imagine that I will always feel this way, even if we are so blessed to have more children.  She will always be there, hidden behind my answer.  Hence the walls.  You see, if I could just not feel this pain, things would be better.  So, I am quiet.  Withdrawn.  Then, maybe no one would ask.  And I could keep my pain neatly pent up inside.

Almost everyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one has described to me the “new normal” that settles in eventually.  I’m having trouble with this.  Because I’m scared of my new normal.  I don’t like it.  I don’t want to accept it.  I want old normal back.  I liked my old normal.  I want the answer to ‘the question’ to be easy like it used to be.  Yes or no.  I want to make friends easily and reach out without fear of getting hurt.  I want to chat with friends like the old me.  Will I always be this way?  Will my walls always be here?

Not sure yet.

But I did feel a piece of the wall crumble this week.  You see, terribly, awfully, I think I was trying not to let my students get too close to my heart.  That was kind of easy after the first day.  The first day was nuts.  Those little four-year-olds ran me ragged and the best way to describe that day is… it was like trying to herd cats.  I’ve heard that expression over and over again…and that’s exactly what it was.  Or like a whack-a-mole game at the county fair.  Craziness.  I came home at 9pm that night, after my amazing husband came to school to help me tweak and improve, and I cried, cried, cried.  But at some point over the course of the week, things started to fall into place and I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but I think it was soon after the fifth time someone called me Mrs. Chameleon instead of Mrs. Cornely, but my heart melted a little bit.  And I let them in.  And, goshdarnit, those little stinkers are really cute and I love them already.

I hope that the rest of these walls come down soon.  I don’t want “new normal” to have walls.  Just open fields.  Sunshine.  Perspective.

And love.  Lots of love.