When my kids go back to school, it is always an anxious time for me. When I was working quasi part-time (4 days a week) I chalked my anxiety up to the stress of working and keeping track of all the beginning of the year activities like, open houses, parent “meet and greets” and the start of soccer season. It’s been over 10 years since I worked outside of the home and I still react to the beginning of the school year the same way. I know that my angst stems from more than just an overloaded schedule.
The physical energy needed to obtain what everybody needs always brings on distress for me. Heralding the school year with the lunch boxes and school supplies, carpooling and homework assistance typically brings on a lupus flare. In years past, because of being ill from lupus, I missed one open houses. On these occasions, Mark would go without me, taking copious notes knowing what questions I would ask of him about the teachers and the curriculum when he got home. It didn’t matter how well he handled the task alone. It didn’t matter how quickly my kids got over their disappointment that I wasn’t going to meet their teachers that particular night. I felt guilty that I wasn’t going. My inner critic badgered me with questions like, “What’s wrong with you?” “Can’t you suck it up for a couple of hours?” The guilt and self-criticism got worse once I stopped working. “You’re not even working and you still can’t pull it together to go to your kids’ schools.” Even though one of the best remedies for a lupus flare is rest, for me it was hard to come by with such a harsh inner critic at the helm.
With time and help, I’ve learned to quiet but not silence my very intense inner critic. When I feel myself going down the, “You should be able to…” path, I’m quicker now to take care of myself and remember to do what I always urge others to, “Be good to yourself.” Still, I’m wrestling with my “back to school” demons as Open Houses kickoff this week for my kids. At both the middle school and the high school, the open houses are conducted the same way. Parents/Guardians follow their child’s daily, albeit abbreviated, schedule and meet all of their teachers. Going to my daughters’ school, which was also Jordan and Merrick’s middle school isn’t presenting any problems for me. It is going to the high school that has me paralyzed. Mark isn’t sure he’ll be able to go this year and I’m not sure I can go alone.
For Jordan’s freshman year at the high school, Mark went to the first open house by himself. That first year he came home to tell me of all of Jordan’s teachers and his workload. I listened eagerly, liking what I heard and determined not to miss another open house. In the years that followed, Mark and I went to the high school open houses, bumbling along with all the other parents through the 4-story building with its mazes of hallways. It was easy to get turned around because the numbering of rooms follows no logical order. Walking the halls of that massive high school trying to find classrooms has always been difficult for me. I am self-diagnosed as spatially and directionally challenged. Offering me assistance by telling me to travel east or that a building is on the northwest corner sounds like a foreign language. When Mark and I lived in Houston I called him from work during one of our first days there to give me directions to the supermarket. This time was before cell phones or I would have kept him on the line until I reached my destination. Instead I relied on directions written on a scrap of paper. He started his directions with, “When you get to the top of the street, make a left.” I immediately stopped him. I snapped, “Remember who you’re talking to. When I get to the end of the driveway which way do I turn?” I’ve always needed “left”, “right” directions with plenty of landmarks thrown in for cushion. Each time I’m at the high school for a meeting I ask for directions along with the room number and allow myself “getting lost” time.
Last year was our first open house at the high school for Merrick even though he was a junior. He did a mid-year transfer from a private school his sophomore year, so we missed the previous year’s open house. While I’d been as far as the “Welcome Center” to drop off Merrick’s registration forms, the open house was the first time back, walking the halls of the high school since Jordan died. There was trepidation for both Mark and I, wondering how it would feel to bump into teachers we hadn’t seen since Jordan died or even sit in classrooms that he once occupied. With all of our sorrow and fear, we were determined to go. Our children need to know that we are fully invested in their presents and their futures. I kept telling Mark, “It’s Merrick’s school now too.”
We walked from our home to the high school holding hands while catching each other up on our days. We entered the school and were forced into the crush of other parents angling for a place in line to pick up their child’s schedule. There wouldn’t be much time to reminisce. I was relieved. I wanted my focus to be on Merrick, even though every thought had as its backdrop images of Jordan walking the halls. I was hoping too that we wouldn’t run into any well-meaning friends or acquaintances that would ask with pity filled eyes, “How are you?” Pity is hard to accept. Loves, concern, compassion, even discomfort from others are feelings I understand. Pity makes me angry. For me someone showing pity presupposes knowledge and understanding about how I’m feeling and what the grief I’m enduring. It always feels laced with relief that the loss didn’t happen to them. I had my guard up, staying vigilant and hoping that no one would say anything inappropriate about my loss (“He’s in a better place”) or feel the need to update me on their children’s lives even though I hadn’t asked. Hearing people talk about how much their children loved being away at college and that they were planning to see them for parents’ weekend hurt so much in the first year after Jordan died. I was so traumatized by grief that I rarely did more than stand and nod when people would update me on the college experiences of their children even though I wanted to turn and run.
After Mark and I went to several of Merrick’s classes we started to relax a bit. As we stopped to look at the schedule to see where Merrick’s next class was, an acquaintance with whom we shared several mutual friends stopped us in the hall to say hello.. We’ve known each other since Merrick and her son went to preschool together. She wanted the update on Merrick’s transfer to the high school and asked how our daughters were doing. We talked of how big the girls were getting and yes how time flies given that both of our sons are in high school. We stood smiling and then she said, “You have a son in college too, right?” In the seconds after the questions Mark and I looked at each other wondering which of us would answer. How could she not know about Jordan? I stayed mute knowing that the only other gear I had was rage. Mark calmly said to her, “Jordan was killed in a car accident last October.” Her hand flew to her mouth and she said, “Oh my God, I knew that. I’m so sorry.”
Mark told her not to worry. I stayed silent and focused my attention on her right ear. I didn’t want my eyes to meet hers anymore. She kept talking, nervously saying how dangerous the roads were and how she always tells her son to be careful. I thought but didn’t say, “Yeah that was our mistake. We didn’t tell Jordan to be careful. PLEASE STOP TALKING!” The last thing I heard her say was that she almost got into a car accident earlier that day. She said, “Almost”, I didn’t want to hear the word almost and accident strung together, not when my son is dead. Panic was rising in me and it finally dawned on me that I didn’t have to keep standing there listening to her. I had to get away, so I started moving towards the water fountain. An old neighbor of mine popped into my path, hugging me and asking who Merrick had for his guidance counselor. I looked up to see that my acquaintance had vanished. She no doubt couldn’t find a way out of the conversation either and was relieved to have a quick exit. After briefly speaking with my neighbor, Mark and I looked at each other and exhaled deeply. The bell for the next class was ringing and we both wanted to meet the rest of Merrick’s teachers. As we started to walk towards the next class I gripped Mark’s arm in panic, remembering the one place I didn’t want to happen upon, the newspaper room. Jordan was on the newspaper staff starting his sophomore year. He loved the work and the camaraderie and would often be at school until very late into the night when they were doing layout. Thinking about Jordan’s connection to that room and knowing how fragile I was I whispered in Mark’s ear, “I don’t want to go by the newspaper room. I can’t handle that tonight. That’s too much.” I was shaking my head and trying not to cry. Mark asked one of the student guides in the hall where the newspaper room was. She pointed in the direction and told him how to get there, assuming that was our next destination. Mark thanked her and we set off in the opposite direction. He held my hand and said, “We know where it is. I don’t want to go there either. Now we won’t accidentally go by it.”
Going to the rest of Merrick’s classes I was reeling from the trauma of being asked, “You have a son in college right?” and trying to stave off all the reminders of before Jordan died, that being at the school was bringing up. I wondered as I sat at the desks, “How do my kids do make it through school everyday?” I was fidgety and could barely sit still let alone focus on what the teacher was saying. I am amazed at their strength and resilience. At the end of the evening, Mark and I left the school through the door closest to our home. We took a few steps and then I began to weep. Mark put his arm around me as I said repeatedly, “You have a son in college, right?” and then bitterly answered the question, “No we don’t. We used to, but he’s gone. Our son is dead.” I cried and spewed out a variety of responses to the question we’d been asked until we were in front of our house. Mark and I stood there for a moment catching our breath and preparing to enter our home. As we walked in, Merrick met us in the entry. With eager eyes he asked, “So how was it? What did you think of my teachers?” Without pausing Mark and I both said great and gave him the details of our evening he needed to hear.
I’m keenly aware of my desire to be emotionally present and available for my children. The vigilance I carry for my kids and me to ward off unintentional but still hurtful comments is on high alert. I haven’t decided what I’ll do about Merrick’s open house if Mark can’t come. I’ve thought about contacting Merrick’s teachers to see if there’s an alternate time they’re available to meet. Maybe I’ll still go. It’s not as though I haven’t walked the halls of the high school by myself since Merrick started there; I have, numerous times. It’s still hard. Each time I visit, I whisper the same thing to ready myself, “It’s Merrick’s school too.”