Monday, March 19, 2012

Getting a Grip on Letting Go

(Written in 2010 upon the graduation of my first class of seniors.)

As an undergrad, I always wondered how my teachers did it—how they said goodbye to us semester after semester without shedding a tear. How they could change into shorts after convocation and head to the beach without even a backward glance at the students who had just disappeared out of their lives. Weren’t they sad that we were leaving, or afraid that others would come and make them forget us? Or did they actually want to forget us?
Now that I’m on the other side of the desk as a teacher, I’ve embraced this essential truth: for both students and teachers, college is a place where goodbyes are drafted the moment you say hello.
During my first year of teaching, I instructed mostly freshmen and sophomores, students who weren’t going anywhere soon. But when I began teaching upper level writing classes, I forged significant relationships with the students, especially my seven seniors. Though I wasn’t much older than they were, those few years provided enough distance for me to regard them with maternal care, affectionately dubbing them ‘my kids.’
By the spring semester, I had grown so close to my kids that even thinking of them leaving made my heart feel hollow. For no apparent reason, the Wednesday before midterms acutely reminded me of graduation’s proximity—acutely enough to propel me into a melancholic stupor.
Refusing to wallow pathetically in my office, I walked to my car, deciding to wallow pathetically somewhere else. Clearly, my sullen soul needed a drink, more specifically a bottle of green apple Jones soda—no, make that two; it was, undoubtedly, a two bottle day.
Just outside the front gate, the wad of emotion in the back of my throat began to slowly unfold, choking me. Typically, with the distraction of the radio or of people in the surrounding cars, I can redirect my emotions away from my tear ducts. That day, I didn’t even want to try.
Seventy days from graduation, I indulged in a full blown pity party, thinking of them, my regalia-clad kids, walking across the stage and out of my life. Already, I missed seeing their faces peek into my office window, watching their heads droop in shame as I collected everyone else’s manuscript, hearing them call my name across campus, listening to their quirky muses, and proudly claiming them as mine when others might look cockeyed at their eccentric antics.
Is this what it feels like, I sniffled, for parents to put a Barbie lunchbox in their little girl’s hand or a Superman backpack on their son’s back and wave goodbye through a bus window? Is this what parents suffer when they stare dolefully at the back window of a car stuffed with dorm accessories or filled with wedding balloons?
One and a half bottles later, I sought relief from a real Source of comfort—God, the Expert at letting go of people He loves. He responded to my plea for consolation by first making me accept that in two months these students would leave and, what’s more, that others would come and others would go. I already knew, of course, that whether or not I wanted to let them go, my kids were going to drive out that gate after convocation—I just hadn’t accepted it.
Once this literal struggle had been addressed, He gently pointed out the deeper one, reminding me, I never entrusted them into your care for you to keep them, only to guide them—and, all along, that guidance was meant to direct them out the front gate.
“But away from me!” I whimpered, dramatically soaking another tissue, taking another swig.
Yes. But if they were to stay here with you, they could never find out how I want to use them.
At this, my tears hiccupped to a stop. He was right. Holding them here would mean withholding them from adventure, from His provision, from trials and triumphs—from life. Life, after all, was what they needed to discover. Only through living life to its fullest would they find the inspiration to become the writers He's called them to be.
He assured me, You know that if you let them go, they’re going to be in good Hands.
Draining the bottle of its sour green liquid, I released the grip in my heart. “Okay, God. I’ll let them go.” I drew a deep breath before committing to the next part—the hardest part. “I won’t even want to hold them here.”
As I drove back onto campus, peace filled me, emanating from the comfort that God had created out of my emotional chaos. But, as if that peace weren’t enough, He offered a second solace—to match my second bottle of soda.
Just because you have to free them doesn’t mean you have to forget them.
As the simplicity of His comfort shamed my newly calmed soul, I shook my head. Why hadn’t I noticed this obvious consolation earlier—before giving myself a glucose-induced headache with that second bottle of Jones?
Walking back into my office to prepare for the final classes of the day, I thanked God that I wasn’t required to clean out my heart along with my office at the end of the semester; that I wouldn’t have to dispose of my memories along with the drafts of their compositions; that He’d understand if I burst into tears on the beach following convocation, or sniffled in a silent classroom as my kids drove out the front gate.
After four years of saying goodbye to students, I’m finally getting a grip on letting go, but I’m always thankful for that place in my heart where I can hold onto my kids forever.

Not Even a Scar

“Look. Will’s got another new girlfriend,” Mom called to me from where she inspected a Facebook picture on the computer screen.
As I reluctantly glanced over her shoulder, my gaze met the familiar grin and brown eyes of Will, my ex-boyfriend, standing next to a gorgeous brunette with a Crest Whitestrip smile. Immediately, I braced for the pain typically aroused by confronting that part of my past. But the sharp pangs of guilt and regret didn’t rip across my heart as I had expected. In fact, after slowly probing my heart for remaining tender areas, I realized that the old wounds were strangely painless, leaving only the faintest memories of my years as the girl with a blade.
Some people hurt themselves to create a distraction from life’s problems. Trying to forget the pain someone caused them or attempting to punish themselves for mistakes or shortcomings, a growing percent of Americans resort to violent scratching, pulling out hair, cutting, or burning to release emotion that otherwise would drive them insane. The thought of people intentionally harming themselves makes me shudder, but I don’t know why—after all, I cut myself nearly every day for years. Though I never harmed my flesh, I mutilated my heart. Rather than knives or razors, my blades were the memories of past mistakes. Somehow, slashing my soul with painful recollections was easier than forgiving myself for hurting Will.
During our early teen years, Will and I were best friends despite my being three years older. In time, our relationship morphed into more than friendship as Will grew to adore me. While I cared deeply for him, most days I struggled to know whether to treat him like a little brother, a friend, or a boyfriend. But by my eighteenth birthday, with college in the near future, I wondered if a better fit waited for me. Tying myself down to a relationship meant possibly missing my true soul mate later on.
Through my indecision, Will’s passion sustained our relationship. But even his consistent love did nothing to compel me to fully commit to him—or to fully separate from him. For two years my affections fluctuated, abusing his unwavering devotion until finally, one evening right before I returned to college for the spring semester, he called. His voice was low, almost expressionless, as if he had expended his passion or anger in planning this confession. “I could never see myself without you, but I can’t see myself with you because you’re so selfish.”
Year by year, he chronicled our unbalanced relationship, recounting the times I refused to say “I love you;” the evenings I recoiled at his touch; and the moments I instigated his affection, knowing full well my unwillingness to reciprocate it. He punctuated the inventory of my offenses by stating, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.”
As I lay in bed that night, his list of my mistakes replayed in my mind. He was right—I had been excessively selfish and blind to the extent that my vacillating affections had injured his emotions. Recalling all the love that Will had granted me in spite of my unwillingness to return it, I decided that ‘sorry’ would never be enough to rectify his pain—‘sorry’ was too easy. I needed to suffer too. That night, the cutting began.
The past became my weapon to disfigure my present. Selecting a memory of a time I hurt Will, I would run it across my heart, feeling the serrated blade of guilt and remorse tearing into my soul. Along with the memories, I tucked away the pink ribbon that Will used to bundle my letters when he handed them back to me. I pointedly referred to him as “my ex” rather than “an old friend” when mentioning him in conversation, hoping that someone would ask me to retell the story of our break-up. Sometimes I called him, just to check up, and I even added him as a friend on Facebook. Readily I collected any method to inflict on myself an equal amount of damage that my actions had inflicted on Will. As the years passed, my heart spread into a gaping
wound, expanding each time my offences came to mind.
A time of grief or pain is natural after a break up, but usually people are able to move on with their lives. So why, for years, did I keep hurting myself as punishment for the pain I caused Will? Maybe for the same reasons that many people hurt themselves physically on a regular basis. Although it’s not a simple answer, Susan Bowman, licensed counselor and author of See My Pain: Creative Strategies and Activities for Helping Young People Who Self-Injure, suggests, “When [people] cut themselves, . . . it becomes a control issue.” This certainly described me. I was willing to inflict on myself what humans naturally avoid—pain. Because pain, unlike the mistakes of my past, was something that I could control.
Almost four years after our breakup, my destructive habit climaxed when I called to check up on him. The conversation was going well—until he mentioned Blair, his most recent girlfriend. I’d seen pictures of her on Facebook. Posed in her booty shorts, low-cut tops, bronze tan, and straightened platinum hair, she epitomized all that I was not.
Hearing Will rave about her angered me. Before calculating the consequences of my words, I blurted out, “She looks like a slut, Will.”
In the silence, I sensed his struggle to contain the white hot rage burning inside him. “Don’t you ever say that again.”
“Well, it’s true.” I shot back. “All you have to do is look at her pictures—”
“You’re just jealous.”
I had no defense and no way to reverse the direction the conversation had taken.
“She loves me,” he yelled, “which is a lot more than you ever did.”
As the memories weighted the silence hanging between us, my heart raced from the confrontation and proximity of the past.
Finally, his voice softened. “You’ll never know how much you hurt me.” I knew he wasn’t referring to the comment I had just made.
The conversation provided enough blades to slash myself with for the next two days. Eating seemed irrelevant; sleep eluded me; even at work, I wielded the memories until my soul had no more surface to be abused.
Jill Pertler, in her article “Cutting: A Teen Trend on the Rise,” says that “self-injury is a cry for help. [People] engaging in these behaviors desperately need [people] to provide understanding and a willingness to listen.”
While a self-mutilator of any kind needs to talk about his issues, the healing process extends one step further than just finding someone to listen. People who hurt themselves by cutting their emotions or their body don’t need to be merely consoled or understood, but to be told that wounds can heal, on the skin or the heart, if left to mend without being ripped open repeatedly like a scab.
In the lowest point of my self-destruction, I slowly began to abandon my destructive tendencies by realizing that healing would come only by releasing my past, forgiving myself, and moving on. No one could pry the blades from me, especially since they always hung just a remembrance away. I would have to choose, each day, to cut or carry on, to bleed or bind up, to hurt or heal.
Forgiveness became my recovery room and time my physician as, eventually, I chose to carry on by removing Will from my Facebook page; decided to bind up my wounds by throwing away his letters; and resolved to heal by erasing his number from my phone. When enough time had passed, I sent Will a letter, apologizing for my selfishness in those years, and settled for “sorry” to correct my mistakes.
After seeing the picture of Will with his newest girlfriend on the computer screen, I marveled at my painless response. Yet in the next thought I wondered what Will was up to, wondered if he was really happy going through girlfriend after girlfriend. Perhaps my distant offenses had ruined his trust in women. Maybe my indecision had caused—
Suddenly realizing what was happening, I jerked the guilt away from my heart and hurried out of the room, away from the picture and the memories, choosing, once again, to leave behind the past, and heal.
The pain and memory of the wounds grow fainter every day. With time and right choices, I doubt they’ll even leave a scar—no matter how deep they once were.

The Words I Meant to Say

December 30, 2009
After following the winding cemetery road for what seemed like half an hour, I parked the Trailblazer and stepped out, hoping to remember the location of the grave. On the day of the funeral, my only depth perception had been the six feet of endless hole five inches from my toes. Now, almost a year later, despite my lack of orientation, I seemed to remember the plot being close to the oak tree about ten feet away. My boots made the first tracks in the two inch carpet of snow as I approached a marker decorated with a small Christmas tree. Taking a chance, I knelt and, with both hands, erased enough snow to reveal the name on the marker. This was it—Pappy’s grave.
Embraced by the dull cold and hovering stillness of the cemetery, I stared at the chiseled name. A towering concrete statue of Christ stood not far behind me, peering over my shoulder, as if ready to grant comfort. But I needed no closure, harbored no lingering questions, stifled no hot tears of anger. I had come to tell Pappy the words I meant to say nearly a year earlier.
February 9, 2009 around 9 p.m.
I opened the Valentine’s Day card from Mamaw and Pappy, guiltily tucking the enclosed ten dollar bill in my purse. I hadn’t called my grandparents in months. But with Mamaw’s tendency to ramble juxtaposed against my overflowing stacks of papers to grade, I once again attempted to reason my way out of dialing the number my fingers had tapped out like a cadence since I was six years old.
But no matter how I tried to concentrate on my to-do list, that night the call wouldn’t be postponed. More demanding than duty or propriety or even guilt, the insistent prodding felt much like one of the imperceptible yet compelling intuitions we obey regularly without understanding why, intuitions such as “wait another minute before walking out of the room,” “take another route to your destination,” “rethink that sentence before you say it.” In this case it prompted, “call your grandparents and thank them for the Valentine’s Day card.”
Obediently, I dialed the number and waited to hear Mamaw’s familiar greeting. Instead the voice that answered surprised me. “Hello.”
“Hey, Pappy.” I smiled, remembering the last time I saw him in August, when he had come back to life after being dead for years.
A stroke had changed Pappy in 2003 from a vigorous 64 year old owner of a construction company, to a lethargic senior, dwindling under depression, forced to delegate his work responsibilities to my uncles. Blaming the stroke for his despondency, the doctors offered explanations of imbalanced chemicals and damaged nerve endings. But I secretly suspected that the stroke merely activated the side-effects of many other disorders that had afflicted Pappy most all his life: pride, bitterness toward hypocritical fellow church goers, and perhaps, worst of all, mistakes from his youth that he had been making restitution for over forty years later. The physical restrictions of the stroke had severed his vivacity and halted his constant activity, forcing him to confront those darker corners of his mind. For six years the ghosts he wrestled with in the darkness had pulled Pappy down, nearly to the grave.
Then, just months before my grandparent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2008, something happened. Whether by medicine or miracle, Pappy broke free of despondency’s grasp. I saw it for myself during my visit for the anniversary party. The spicy smell of his aftershave stung my nose, and his piercing whistle laced its way through my heart, summonsing happy memories of before his stroke. We shared a box of Hostess cakes at midnight, laughing together well after the bedtime he’d kept only months before. His break-of-dawn energy enlivened the house as he hurried out to his carpentry shop only to return a few hours later speckled with sawdust and toting a new piece of furniture for Mamaw. Throughout the house he had wound his collection of antique clocks, offsetting them to chime one after another each hour. With the clocks, it seemed, he had rewound his life.
At the restaurant where we held the anniversary party, Pappy walked from table to table, greeting guests and radiating the fervor of a man who’d finally accepted forgiveness from God and himself. After we finished eating, he burst into a speech, loud and shameless, telling us of the perils he’d faced in his journey through the darkness. “So many times I laid awake at night making plans to end my life. But thinking of you all, I just couldn’t do it. I love you so much.” He punctuated the entire display with a noisy kiss on my grandmother’s cheek.
It was a resurrection worth celebrating. But my family, as if suspicious of his recovery, only edged their chairs back or rearranged the leftover scallops on their plates to avoid embracing the sentimental moment. As an emotionally retentive family, most of us were embarrassed by Pappy’s display of elation, acting as if resurrections happened every day and we could afford to ignore his and wait to appreciate the next.
Seemingly unaware of our discomfort, Pappy went about, scooping up the youngest of his fifteen grandchildren, tickling them, loving them. “I’m ready,” he proclaimed, “for the next fifty years of my life.”
So only six months later on that February night, my heart fell to hear not his lively voice on the phone, but the all too familiar tone of despair. I knew he’d been dragged back into the darkness by the draining effects of his stroke and a lack of support from his family. We chatted half-heartedly for a minute, neither of us exerting the energy to hide our emotions, me my disappointment and him his despair. When his voice grew raspy, he said, “Here’s your grandmother,” and handed over the phone.
My fear of Mamaw’s rambling didn’t come true; her heavy tone revealed the gravity of Pappy’s returned condition. As our brief conversation ended she asked, “Do you want to talk to your grandfather again?”
The unexpected question made me grip the phone tighter as the same quiet urgency that insisted I call in the first place again prodded, Tell him that you love him. Shaken by his returned depression and scared of an awkward situation, I considered my answer for five seconds. Finally, I decided, “No, I don’t guess so. Good night.”
The phone in my hand felt as heavy as the regret in my heart. In the darkness of my bedroom, the clock glared 10:00—too late to call back. Next time, I promised myself, I’ll tell him. Pressing my face into the pillow, I sobbed, fighting against the dread of what I somehow knew, beyond a doubt, would happen.
At noon the next day, my cell phone vibrated. For the second time in two days the voice on the other end surprised me as I stiffened to hear my father’s troubled tone. “Sweetie, I want you to sit down.”
With the previous night’s feeling of premonition fresh on my heart, I ignored Dad’s gentle command and remained on my feet. What I already knew couldn’t shock me. “It’s Pappy, isn’t it? How did he do it?”
Surprised at my confident assumption, he paused before replying, “Shot himself. They found him in his workshop.”
As we discussed the details of my travel arrangements to the funeral, my mind filled with questions; “why,” however, was not among them. Of all people, I felt most prepared for the tragedy since I had neglected one of the final opportunities to prevent it.
At my grandmother’s house, preparing for the funeral, I found a stack of pictures in Pappy’s office, dated just weeks before his death. In the glossy prints, it was evident that the darkness had already consumed most of him. Staring directly into the camera, he appeared spent, as if the effort to produce the weak smile on his lips had drained his energy. His eyes gazed blankly, as if he were too depleted to continue fighting, too weary to plead for light or hope. But even if he had mustered the strength to fight or plead, I wondered if any of us would have come to his rescue. My thoughts went immediately to memories of that last time I saw Pappy alive, when my family had disregarded his unbridled exuberance for life.
At the restaurant the night of the anniversary party, our family had pushed past one another without the common decency of strangers. Armed with pickaxes of petty differences, they silently began gouging away at a sliver-sized dispute that would later break into a chasm, splitting our family down the middle. Pappy’s rousing display of love and restoration, rather than bolstering a move toward repair, only seemed to accelerate the family’s excavation. We sat there fostering our pride and vendettas, ignoring the chance to rejoice with Pappy.
Consumed with ourselves, which one of us had absorbed the love he poured out with his recovery and had watered his soul with it when the dry times returned? Which of us did anything more than whisper our fear and suspicions behind his back or wring our hands, worrying over the inevitable? Which of us reached out to help him when the darkness started closing back in?
For nearly a year after his death, I waited, each day expecting to finally feel the crushing guilt for my own part in watching Pappy slip away without reaching to pull him back toward the light.
But in the cemetery that December morning, tracing his name on the stone marker, I whispered, “I love you, Pappy.”
The wind snatched the words from my mouth like an eager messenger, carrying the white wisps away from the frozen marker, up toward the waiting azure sky.