“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”~Albert Schweitzer
When I returned to the classroom a couple of weeks after my almost sixteen-year-old daughter was killed in a car crash, I returned to students her age, some of them her friends though she attended a different school from the one where I taught. I returned to classes of beginning and advanced journalism students who were writing and designing the school newspaper and to classes of eleventh grade English who were studying American literature.
I had been teaching for more than 25 years and had often taught the English III curriculum, but that fall I became acutely aware of the many pieces of American literature that dealt with death, often the death of a child. When I began reading the pieces afresh, planning to teach them, I would crumble, and I wondered whether I could possibly face those classes and talk about death when my child’s death had shattered my heart.
I read what my newspaper editors wrote about my daughter’s death to tell the community and to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” as I had taught them. Even with their skill and good hearts, where was comfort? The words could not be edited to make my daughter alive again.
Mark Twain’s 24-year-old daughter died of meningitis while he and his wife traveled abroad. He wrote in a letter to a friend, “To me she was but treasure in the bank; the amount known, the need to look at it daily, handle it, weigh it, count it, realize it, not necessary; and now that I would do it, it is too late; they tell me it is not there, has vanished away in a night, the bank is broken, my fortune is gone, I am a pauper. How am I to comprehend this?“ Vanished. I had told someone that Elizabeth was a light in my life. And now she was gone. And it was so dark.
We read William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” a meditation on death written when he was a teenager himself. It ends with “approach thy grave,/ Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch/ About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.” And I had just approached the grave of my daughter and had no hope of pleasant dreams–ever.
Though many of Emily Dickinson’s poems involved death, some of them were oddly comforting. I read again:
The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth –
The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity –
So much of that fall is blurred to me now, but some lights in that dark abyss were the persons around me who held the dustpan while I swept up the shards of my heart: the students who sensed my difficulty with some of those writings and lent their hearts in response to the literature we read; the line of them who came at the end of a class to give me a hug; some of Elizabeth’s friends (but not my students), who stopped by my classroom every single day and who helped with bulletin boards in my classroom as Elizabeth had done; the mother of a former student who came to substitute while I was home and stayed on an extra week when I returned to class in case I needed her to lead the class–her daughter had been seriously injured in a car crash a few years before, and I had struggled to find ways to help her and felt so inadequate; my friend and mentor who drove two hours to meet my classes on the Monday after the car crash and who shared the news with my students with caring grace; my friend who offered a safe place in the bowels of the library should I need a place to weep and who listened daily by email and responded to my anguish; fellow newspaper advisers from other parts of the state who finished preparations for a bus trip to Chicago, who took care of me and my students and who celebrated for me when my daughter’s cross country team won the state championship in her memory; a coworker who gathered a basket of freshly fallen gold ginkgo leaves, each one a tiny hope; the newspaper staff who continued to report, write, edit, photograph and design a publication despite their adviser’s absence of mind and presence of broken heart. So many more lights like sparks or stars in the darkest of nights. I wish I could name them all for you now.
I wonder now what I taught those students and coworkers that fall when I returned to class after the death of my daughter. I know that they taught me that in the darkest night, the stars that seem so small can puncture the deep black and let some healing light in.
Juliet’s prescient image of her Romeo, “Take him and cut him out in little stars,/And he will make the face of heaven so fine/That all the world will be in love with night,” was sent to me by a dear friend in a sympathy note. I still like to walk outside before first light and look above in the darkness and think of Elizabeth, who loved stars. The glow-in-the-dark stars she placed on her own ceiling still glow all these years later.
I am so grateful for all of those lights, stars in my life’s dark night.