I know the moment when my life changed forever. The details of the last few minutes of “normal” are etched in my memory, and after 23 years the images have not faded.
I was skipping with my classmates to “Skip to My Lou My Darling,” when the secretary came into my first grade classroom and asked me to follow her to the office. I still remember the somber look on her face, and how long the hallway seemed as she stoically escorted me to the front doors. I was scared, and I was trying to rack my brain for any inclination of what I could have done wrong to get sent to the office. I was a good kid, and never did anything “bad.” In-fact, I hardly ever talked, and had never had problems with anyone in school.
When I saw my aunt standing by the front doors, I sighed with relief and smiled. However, whatever relief I felt at seeing her standing there was short lived because I could tell something was wrong. It was a long agonizing few minutes as she quietly deferred my questions until all four of us kids were assembled at the front door. We did not know what was going on, but we were a little excited to be getting out of school early.
However, when we walked through the front door into the sunlight all I could see was my mother sobbing in the front seat of my aunt’s car, and the school counselor was holding her hand. I ran to her side, fear and panic filling my chest. I had never seen her like this, and I was terrified. I looked around to see my grandparents hovering next to my aunt, and knew something awful was happening. I looked back to my mother, and tried to hug her close. I was shaking, and started to tear up as I asked, “What’s wrong Mommy?”
My mother seemed so broken, and was sobbing uncontrollably. I am not sure how she even spoke to me. However, through sobs and hiccups she uttered the words that shattered my world of innocence; “Daddy, was hit by a train.” The world closed in, and those words seemed to pierce my soul.
The next eight days were a blur, in reality the next half a year is a blur, with a few moments of clarity. The moments that stand out are few, but meaningful and life altering. The first of those “moments” was seeing my daddy, my hero, connected to so many tubes and machines. It was scary, and he looked so frail and weak. These words were something I had never known to be associated with the strong man who gave me “horsy rides,” and played ball tag with me in the rain. I was not allowed to touch him, and he could not speak. His chest rose and fell in time with the machines, and the only sounds were the beeping of the machines that tethered my father to earth. I also remember the smell of the hospital clinging to the inside of my nose, and to this day get nauseated whenever I walk into a sterile environment.
The days were spent sitting in a dark room with family. The kids were all coloring picture after picture in books brought to us by caring members of our church. I remember trying to make the adults feel better by smiling at their jokes, or attempts to bring comfort to the children of the man lying in the next room fighting for his life. However, those attempts did not make me feel any less terrified or alone. Yet, I am comforted as an adult knowing they tried to do everything they could to shield us from the pain, and I appreciate their efforts.
Then there was the moment I was laid on Daddy’s chest for the last time to tell him how much I loved him and to say, “Good-bye.” This is a moment I cannot put into words without jeopardizing that last tender touch and feeling of love. Words are not always expressive enough, and these last few minutes with my father are mine to cherish.
After this I have bits and pieces of images, and small conversations that I have logged in my mind. Yet, as I said before, it is mostly a blur of emotions. After missing three weeks we were all ordered back to school. Normalizing was important to get through the pain so we had to face reality again. I do not remember going, or how I felt, all I know is that school was not the same enchanting place it once was. I was constantly on edge when the door opened to the classroom. I had an irrational fear that began to develop that when I would go to school someone else was going to die, but it was not a fear anyone else seemed to understand. So, I spent my days reading, and avoiding interaction with others so I did not start crying. It was harder to keep the tears at bay when someone was talking to me. However, I was not always successful at keeping my tears for home.
One day in particular, I started crying uncontrollably in class. I tried to pull my hair over my face and hide it, but the kids at my group noticed. So, I slid out of my chair and under my desk in a desperate attempt to avoid the stares from my classmates. The tears would not stop and the sobbing grew from small hiccups to a wail of pain. The next thing I remember was my teacher, Mrs. Frederick, carefully pulling me out from under my desk and into her lap.
The other students had all disappeared, and she and I were alone. She pulled me in close and let me cry as she rocked me back and forth. She patted my back, and uttered soft hushing noises as I let go of the torrential downpour built up in my chest. I do not know how long I cried, but once I settled down she held me still.
Then she asked me questions about what I felt my dad would have wanted for my life. She wanted to know if I felt he would have wanted me to be this sad, and losing ground in school, or if he would have wanted me to try hard and get a good education. We talked for what seemed like forever, but then she said something that made my whole world stop.
“Mrs. Fred,” looked me in the eyes, and said; “I love you Alecia.” I remember her big, brown eyes staring back at mine, and thinking it was strange that my teacher just said she loved me. However, that was when I realized there was a warmth in my chest I did not even notice I had been missing. The warmth that spread throughout my entire being and I realized it was her compassion and strength that would get me through this. Mrs. Fred, was a woman who did not have to care, but did so with such tenacity and fierce devotion that I knew it was genuine. This was when I was consumed entirely by one of those “moments.” For this was when I consciously remember thinking, “I am going to be a teacher.”
A teacher who, one day, will make a difference in the life of a child just like Mrs. Fred. A teacher, who loves her “kids” because of who they are; broken or not. A teacher, who teaches students not just classes. A teacher, who will never forget that life’s moments are sometimes more important than an academic subject.
So, thank you again Mrs. Fred for your love. Without you, I do not know where I would be today, but I do know that because of you I am a teacher who loves “my kids.” I am a teacher who understands what you did for me that day, and am working hard to keep that flame alive. Thank you for believing in me, and for keeping in touch with me after all these years, as I still enjoy our conversations.
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