San Diego – I’ve written before that one of the problems with getting old is the increasing frequency with which old friends and acquaintances take leave of this mortal shell and pass on to whatever awaits on the other side. Their travels and travails have been all performed and they are now released from those marching orders.
That leaves those of us remaining behind to make sense of it as it applies to us. This past weekend I received an obit telling of the passing of one of my old teachers. Mrs. M was one of my High School English teachers and one of those for whom I have the fondest memories. It was due almost exclusively to her endless sentence diagramming and forced reading of musty old tomes that I have whatever writing ability I may now possess.
Her daughter, was, in my opinion, the prettiest girl in all of Blue Springs High School, probably in all of Jackson County and without doubt one of the nicest. To say I was attracted to her would be akin to saying I was attracted to breathing. But she was so far out of my league as to seem like some sort of local royalty. She was, of course, courted by the hot shot athletes and though nice to me I never got beyond the dreaming point of asking her out because I just knew I would be turned down and having, as most high school males, the ultimate in fragile egos i was not willing to risk it. I was sure that my being a little farm kid in her eyes placed me on the same social position that a Brahmin would view an Untouchable. She was, I now confess, the source of many good teen-age fantasies but that was the unfortunate end of it.
Her mother, Mrs. M was, it turned out, a complex study, at once wonderful and encouraging to her students like me but less so to her family. She had been ill for years and her daughter gave up everything to be there for her and care for her as best she could until finally and only recently the illness grew to such a state that she had to be cared for by professionals full time and in a proper facility. There needs to be a special nook in Heaven for people like her daughter who put their own lives on hold to care for others in need — sometimes in spite of a past that would drive steel wedges between others and in the face of the refusal of other family members to share in the burden.
The lesson that Mrs. M finally leaves me with is a variation of something I’ve spoken of before. In her last few years, her memory and mind failed utterly and at times she did not even know who her own daughter was. Whatever past behaviors needed to be addressed were now out of reach; whatever emotions that needed to be said were now beyond her comprehension. That door was closed in both directions. So even though she was alive and otherwise in reasonable heath for someone in their 90s, her ability to connect with those around her was gone. And it was gone for them as well.
I usually think and pound away on the idea of telling people you care about them before they, or you, are swept up at the curb by that cosmic bus and pass away. But sometimes, in perhaps the cruelest fate of all, you (or they) are left alive but rendered unable to resolve those things as surely as if you were gone. The person is there… but not there. In someways, that spark that made you what you were is truly gone leaving a shell that is a maddeningly cruel physical replica of the person that is no longer there. And in cases like this, rather than being suddenly swept away, the process of loss is so subtle, so insidious, that no one realizes it (or denies it) until it is too late. And then it is as too late and beyond recovery as if one were truly dead.
So, once again, even if you and they are in the very peak of health, if you care about someone, are thankful for their place in your life, don’t wait to tell them… tell them now. Don’t wait until the time is right or you can free up the time or whatever excuse is holding you back. Tell them now while you can. And tell them every chance you get because it may turn out, that will be your last chance to do so.
So good bye Mrs. M. Be at peace. Thank you for all you taught me.
But it also taught me something else, maybe as importantly. The obit uttered not a word about her lifetime of teaching. It showed, as if low pay did not already, where teachers stand in our society. Everytime I may get cocky thinking that as a teacher something will be remembered of that, I will think about the obit for Mrs M and realize whatever reward will come, comes on the spot, in the moment, and from the internal sense of accomplishment I receive trying to help students.
My own obit will probably be even shorter. Hopefully some students will remember as I remember Mrs. M, but society as a whole has reached a point where teachers are of far less value than athletes and movie stars and celebrities. Our contributions to the culture and society are deemed worthy of less recompense that those who play games for a living or pretend to be other people. And there can be no denying it: our society shows its value of people monetarily.
It is a sobering thought. Thankfully for me it changes nothing.