February 9, 2012 introduced me to a new kind of grief.
The grief of blurred memories; the grief of vague identity lost; the grief shared, and grief led.
I was teaching a rhetoric course – it was a laid-back day. We were discussing mostly current events, and claims, warrants, evidence found (or lacking) in various articles from The New York Times. The students would receive their first essays back, graded. (It never ceases to surprise me, the way students always seem surprised by their grades, bad or good. The good writers still haven’t found the confidence in their abilities, and the not-as-good ones not quite grounded enough in reality to realize their own room for improvement.)
This particular semester I had two sections of the same class. The afternoon class had a much different spirit – perhaps it was as simple as they’d been awake more than 10 minutes by the time they saw me. I enjoyed my morning class; I loved my afternoon class. Though on February 9, I hadn’t quite gotten in a solid rhythm with any of my classes. It was still early in the semester. So early, in fact, that on February 9, the one empty seat in the 12:30 section seemed an anomaly. But not so unusual. The absent student, to that point, had hung back in the back row, was reluctant to talk. It is not wrong to say he was one of the least prepared students, generally speaking. He was pledging a fraternity. I knew all this. So his absence, on a day with an assignment due, did not seem so out of place.
Class ended – a bounce in my step as I could feel the positive rapport amongst the students, with me, building. It was Thursday. I was ready to pack up the assignments, and get a run in before the weekend started. I was stopped cold when I got back to the office.
Questions came – was he in class? Had I heard from him? What kind of student did I know him to be? (No. No. And, um, wait. Why? What’s going on…)
Details seemed to trickle in.
But I felt like I could only hear with a fraction of my ears and my brain. I could absorb nothing.
A car was found a few miles from campus. (Not far, incidentally, from this tragedy.) It was completely incinerated. They were pretty sure the (only) person inside was this student.
After returning to my tiny office I stared at my computer screen, trying to find the news reports. Mostly questions, accompanied by horrific photos of the car. The walls seemed to close in. I didn’t want to be in the office anymore. I didn’t want to be on campus anymore.
I went home. I walked across the street to my friends’ house (my friends who, callously, unthoughtfully, were packing up to move the next week). I tried to explain what happened, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know enough to explain. I didn’t have words to explain.
I don’t remember feeling much of anything that night. If I felt anything at all, I felt fear. It seemed like some kind of untouchable, unseen darkness now hovered over my world. (To make this grief thoroughly personal.) As more details trickled in, as this became a news item (I turned off the news), everything started to sink in. The news reports ruled out foul play, but I never heard anyone publicly utter the s-word. Only in the empty, lonely, cavernous echoes in our own heads I suppose.
I wouldn’t see my students for 5 days – not until the following Tuesday.
I remember feeling incredibly distant and detached from them. It was a hollow feeling. I remember a sense of helplessness. I couldn’t help this student. And I wanted to help his classroom survivors. He died alone. I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want my students to feel alone. I wanted to protect them.
This death came amidst a winter of tragedy. A winter of suicide. At my church we grieved as a community three persons for whom the demons and darkness of this world became too much to bear. The reality of darkness, and our own helplessness in the face of that, weighed heavy on me in those weeks. And then, I remember, worrying, wondering, how I would return to my students? How would I be strong for them, knowing that I could not fix the world for them, knowing that I could not protect them from other people, from the difficulties of life, or even protect them from themselves?
I remember when the grief finally crumbled my reserves of strength. During church, I finally had the freedom to be still. The tears threatened to rain down. Not until after worship – I walked up to my pastor and began to weep. And weep. For what, exactly? I still do not know. Grieving for all of us, in some way.
We had to return to class. I remember feeling alternatively paralyzed and horrified that we could ever dream of carrying on following something like this, and blasé, wondering if I needed to acknowledge it at all. Both wholly unsatisfactory responses.
But return to class we did. I remember how quiet the room was when I walked in (which was extremely unusual for this group of students). I read the words that I had prepared the day before. They were the only words that came to me – the only words I knew to say. And with those few words I felt I had exhausted my entire vocabulary.
Sometimes in the face of tragedy we can do nothing but sit and hold onto the heaviness in our laps. Other times all we can do is get up and move forward knowing that the best way to refuse death the final word is to turn and face the light. I don’t know which our class will need. My hunch is that we will need both—today and in the coming weeks.
And with the cruelest twist of fate that day we had to proceed with our class discussion. On Machiavelli. On Valentine’s Day. And proceed, those students did. We carried each other that day, and for much of that semester.
I’ve hesitated to tell this story. A year has passed, and it still haunts me. I haven’t wanted to tell a story that isn’t mine to tell. So little of what happened feels like it is mine to tell. But some part of it is mine to tell. That’s the holy truth of doing life together – is that parts of your story get wrapped up in everyone else’s. And it’s messy, and blurry, and profoundly humbling.