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.