One-third of the year is over, and it always amazes me how fast the months zip by. Especially this time of the year. As a teacher, my life is in tune with the rhythm of an academic calendar. Just when the annual burnout feels like too much to handle, in Southern California the jacaranda trees burst into purple blooms that line our streets, the weather warms, and summer suddenly becomes so close you can taste it. Then we say: I can’t believe another school year is over. In that moment, the drudgery of the winter days, the tediousness of never ending stretches of class periods packed with the trials and tribulations of the classroom, no longer matter. We can only dream of rejuvenation.
On Wednesday, Kenneth will have been gone for six years. An eternity and a moment packed in the 2,190 days since he left us.
I sometimes wonder how he would have aged. I contemplate the kind of relationship he would have with his children as they got older. Sometimes I converse with him in my head. “Oh, you wouldn’t like that,” I think, and often I’ll change my course of action knowing what his opinion would have been. He still gets a say. Other times I boast to him that I was right, and I still get my say. It’s not as fun this way, but the feeling that he has a presence matters.
The end of the school year was always special with Kenneth, who was also a teacher. We had our tradition: a lunch longer than our typical 30 minutes, meandering through a bookstore, and seeing a movie at the theater on the last half day of the school year. I remember our first graduation together, when we ran to his car dressed in our black robes as fast as we could to beat traffic, just to order pizza and watch a movie at my place in that space and time before children and responsibilities and then, death. Graduation has not been the same without him. I learned the essence of companionship, the importance of going through life with a witness, and how deeply lonely it is to not have that.
Grief six years out feels different than the early days. Lauren Herschel described it on Twitter as a ball and a box. At first, the ball is huge inside of the box, and it keeps hitting the pain button. The pain is overwhelming and it doubles us over in pain. Slowly, after significant time, the ball shrinks, and it hits the pain button less frequently. The ball continues to get smaller, yet the pain button doesn’t go away. It just gets hit infrequently, and the pain is less intense. Even six years out, you still hit it sometimes. There is a pain so encoded in your DNA, buried deep within the foundation of who you are, invisible to the naked eye, but inescapable under the microscope of your self-awareness. It can never be separated from who you are.
And yet, it is not who you are.
It was a teacher. An experience. Ideally the impetus for your personal growth, because my wish for anyone who goes through this type of ugliness is that they find their silver lining.
I like the person I have become. Also, I wish it would have never happened.
When Kenneth died, we put a portion of his ashes in a biodegradable urn and planted an avocado tree over it in the backyard. In the first year, our two dogs shredded the baby tree. Literally reduced it down to a stick. I remember sobbing when it happened, wondering what else could possibly go wrong. It took a few years, but eventually the tree managed to grow a healthy number of leaves and looked as if it would make it in this uncertain world. Last year, year #5, we had our first couple of small avocados grow into something we could eat. It was momentous. We’d check on the growing fruit for weeks and months, marveling at how this tree was doing its thing in the circle of life, its roots nourished by Kenneth.
Did you know that the avocado tree needs another avocado tree to fertilize its fruit? It was not lost on me that my tiny avocado tree– the lone tree as far as I could see in my neck of the woods– needed the generosity of a pollinator (maybe a bee? A bird?) to bring the pollen of a nearby tree. It could not come to fruition on its own. This tree was part of a complex web of interdependence.
This year, there are several avocado buds bursting from each stem. More than ever, six years out. It’s going to be a fruitful year. Beneath that little tree, there is a part of Kenneth giving back to life in his own way, just as I see the traces of him in his former students, family, friends, acquaintances, children, and even in me. It makes me wonder what I will leave behind to this world, and it encourages me to be intentional about it.
The big lesson for me from all of this experience– this widow experience– is being open to what lies ahead. My knee-jerk reaction is to close down. Curl up, retreat inside of my shell of security where I control what happens, where nothing new can hurt and it is only me and my thoughts to reconcile. The conditions are known, for better or worse. It can seem like the logical choice to stay in that shell, but I need more in this life. I am not what makes my life beautiful. I think of myself as maybe a museum curator. Perhaps a moderator. A narrator, let’s say. But I’m not enough. I need people. I need experiences. I need sunrises, rain, new beginnings, bouts of joy, painful reminders to sear through my core, and everything under the sun and moon to move this story forward. There is no plot arc locked up in a shell. We need the ups and downs to become who we were always meant to be.
I don’t like the idea of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Maybe it is helpful to get through moments, but not through life. We need light throughout the ride. Aristotle said, “It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” I still find myself in situations where I have to remember to look for the light. I feel like I’m naturally the kind of person who will go to the negative first. In any given moment, there is light, even when the only source comes from within.
Right now, I have great children who are hilarious and by the day developing into their own unique people. Peter Jack wants to try musical theater, but is worried that he will become too famous. “If you’re too famous,” he explained, “then you have too many fans and they harass you every day. I can’t live like that.” I’m not sure he’ll even be able to memorize two sentences on stage, but he has been talking to random people about his new calling, and I can not deny that enthusiasm.
My oldest registered for junior high. At the registration table, the counselor looked up from her list and said, “I know this last name. I had Mr. Shimogawa as a teacher.” As we walked away, Ethan chuckled and said, “It’s hard to live up to that. I’m not going to get away with anything!” I love the way his dad shows up in the least expected places.
Eloise got her first 8U softball homerun (all that to say, it happens when there are a lot of overthrows, lack of catching abilities, and rampant base stealing haha) that was so good for her self-esteem after a hitting slump, she walks with newfound pep in her step. It has been fun watching her stretch beyond her comfort zone, learning new things, working with a team, developing her skills and interest, figuring out what she likes and doesn’t like. I am riddled with anxiety whenever she is up to bat. When she goes up to the plate, there is nothing I can do as her mother. I am paralyzed with fear worrying about her striking out or getting hit, but there is nothing I can do. I can help her practice beforehand. I can debrief after. I can support her, cheer her on, help where I can outside of the game. But not when she is standing there facing off with a pitcher, in what Brene Brown calls “in the arena.” At that moment, she has to defend herself in this world. I’m not a sports person, but slowly it is softening me to its value beyond entertainment. To be scared, but to go out there and swing anyway. To practice and try to get better. To want to be more than you are. To work with others. Those are things I can stand behind. I wish her father could have been there to see how courageous and bold she has become in her life. How fiercely independent, responsible, and creative she is. This is not a girl who will settle for anything, and I get to be a witness. That is a gift.
Today, we are healthy.
I am doing the things that bring me fulfillment.
And I feel super grateful.
I am reminded of the old proverb, “April showers bring May flowers,” because it is true. For every storm, there is the beauty that emerges from the other side.
Plant your seeds. Watch what grows.