I’ve found myself thinking of my dad, dreaming about him in the last few days. I wasn’t quite sure why, and then I remembered that his birthday would have been this week. He would have turned ninety five had he not died at the age of thirty three. Given that his father lived to one hundred eight, and he shared those genes, he might have had thirteen more years ahead of him. Of course that was not meant to be. Instead he was outlived by his mother and his father. He was mourned by his wife and children, children who are now older than he would ever be. Still we think of him, love him, and wonder what life might have been like if he had hung around just a bit more.
Some might consider it impossible to long for someone for sixty two years. It might appear to be neurotic, unhealthy, but it is a human thing to love what death has touched. My father lives on in me and in my brothers, in our children and grandchildren, We see snatches of him and the power of DNA in all of us. Thinking of him does indeed bring painful joy. We cling to the things that we know about him, even though we still have so many questions about who he really was. We see him through the eyes of the children that we were, idealized in many ways because of our innocence. We have learned about him from secondary sources, people who walked and talked with him. They have forgotten his flaws and now only choose to speak of him with a kind of reverence. It is a human thing to be that way. We all do it.
I try to tell my daughters and my grandchildren about him. I don’t seem to have adequate words to reveal his essence, his flesh and blood. They stare at me with blank looks when I attempt to regale them with stories about a man whom they never met. They do not comprehend because they never heard him telling a joke or smiled at the sound of his laughter. They can’t even imagine how much he loved sports, especially his beloved Texas A&M Aggies. They never sat with him on a fishing pier and literally felt his entire spirit soaring with the peace that being near the ocean brought him. They were not lucky enough to accompany him to a bookstore, any bookstore, and to witness his love, his passion, for the written word. They did not see him devouring print while classical music played softly in the background. They never got to watch him smile at his wife with a love and pride that stirred the heart. He is for them only a story, one that is difficult to fully grasp.
Even my brothers are only vaguely able to create a complete picture of him in their minds. A five year old and two year old are only capable of remembering so much. They often come to me for confirmation of the images of him that pop into their minds. They want to know if they are only dreaming or if they have been lucky enough to actually have a small part of him stored away.
Loving is a fearful thing, because sometimes it is punctuated with loss. Loss hurts. It scars. It shatters a part of the soul. Still loving is something that we never regret. We are always better for it. It is human. It is holy.
I recently participated in a podcast dealing with the question of how to form meaningful relationships. As I told my own stories I realized how much I had learned about compassion, gratitude, courage, loyalty, trust and other important morals from my own mother and those of my friends and cousins. I suppose that in many ways I lived a kind of unblemished childhood with the exception of my father’s untimely and unexpected death. From the many women that I encountered, the mothers of my peers, I learned the lessons of being someone on whom others might depend. These were wonderful women who opened their homes and their hearts to me little realizing what an impact they would have on my own development and worldview.
I have sadly been reminded again and again of what these ladies meant to me as they one by one die from the diseases of advanced age. Just last week I learned of the death of the remarkable mother of one of my high school friends. I had only met this woman once, but in that brief encounter I was taken by the way in which she welcomed me and made me somehow feel quite special. I would tell people about her and that brief encounter from time to time as the years passed. It was only in reading her obituary that I realized what a truly stunning life she had lived, and I felt proud to have known her no matter how fleetingly.
The women who were my role models were children of the Great Depression. They were young and on the verge of beginning their lives as adults during World War II. Their early years were often punctuated with sacrifices that few of us born in the second half of the twentieth century will ever completely understand. In spite of varying hardships they all maintained a strong sense of optimism and can do spirit that followed them into their roles as mothers. They passed down their love of family to all of us, both male and female. They were devoted to their children without hovering like helicopters. They worked hard to maintain a sense of peace and contentment inside their homes. They rarely complained, instead celebrating the blessings that they had, regardless of how small they were. They were an exceptional group, and it pains me to see their generation slowly leaving our earth, because they were living breathing angels who gave their all to be certain that we would have good lives.
These were not women who were always barefoot, pregnant and under their husband’s thumbs, even though many of them never worked outside of the home. They were strong and able to overcome incredible challenges. They worked for the betterment of their little corners of the earth through jobs, volunteer work, keeping their families safe and happy. Often their responsibilities included elderly parents for whom they lovingly took into their homes. I used to enjoy visiting with the old ones who became part of the big extended families of my friends. It was not until my own mother came to live in my home in her final year of life that I realized the difficulties of caring for an adult day in and day out. The women I had witnessed had always made it seem so easy.
The women who continue to inspire me thought it natural to pitch in whenever someone was in need. They’d bring food, condolences, and a helping hand to any tragedy. They were not the least bit afraid of long hours of back breaking work. They did whatever needed to be done with little fanfare or need of accolades.
If I were to make a list of the women who taught me how to live a purpose driven life it would begin with my own mother but then continue almost endlessly, for I always found something remarkable about the generation that came before me. Mrs. Barry showed me what love and loyalty really meant when she stepped forward to help me during my mother’s first mental breakdown. Mrs. Daigle taught me how to be the consummate hostess regardless of who came to my door. Mrs. Bush demonstrated courage over and over again, even in situations that might have overwhelmed a lesser soul. My aunts showed me how to keep family close. Mrs. Janot helped me to understand how to balance the daily toil of living with fun. Mrs. Frey demonstrated how to fully utilize my own talents and creativity. Mrs. Wright helped me to discover my own worth. Mrs. Loisey was my teacher who showed me the impact of a great educator. Mrs. Pryor helped me to understand the possibilities found in giving myself to the community. Mrs. McKenna brought beauty and music into my life. Mrs. Martin showed me the new worlds to be found in books. Mrs. Brochtrup seemed to be a living saint whose faith inspired me. Mrs. Caldwell, Mrs. Gallerano, and Mrs. Cash made my life more fun and interesting by spending hoursguiding me in Girl Scouts and on our school’s drill team. Mrs. Mandola was elegant and made me feel that way as well. All of them had a way of making it clear that they genuinely cared for me. They listened to me and valued what I had to say. They understood the importance of every relationship, but probably never realized what an enormous impact they had on me.
Our mothers were our angels on earth, and now so many of them are our angels in heaven. I do miss them and the calmness that they always brought to me. When we speak of women’s rights and the roles of women we would do well to look to these wonderful ladies for examples and guidance. They were far more amazing than our society gives them credit for being. From them I learned what it really means to be a woman.
We hear it over and over again, and may even experience it, yet we so often seem to momentarily forget. Perhaps we do so because to consider the possibilities of such horror is just too difficult, and so we find ourselves being shocked by reality again and again.
Of course I am speaking of our need to cherish and appreciate all that is wonderful in our lives because we may one day find ourselves all too sadly staring into the abyss of a tragic loss. I learned that fateful truth at the age of eight when I awoke expecting to spend a day with family at the beach, but instead learned that my father had been killed in a car accident. There was so much that I might have said to him had I known what was to happen, so many questions I might have asked. Like so many I was blindsided and left with a nagging feeling of wondering if he ever truly understood how much I loved him.
Over the years I’ve seen such situations play out for me and others that again and again. There was the death of a dear friend from a heart attack, and my mother-in-law’s stroke both of which came so suddenly and unexpectedly. Beloved students died far too soon from car accidents and even murders. I comforted a cousin through marriage whose own cousin and best friend was killed in a freak accident while he was vacationing. A long time family friend was close to death after being injured while having an adventure with good friends. That time we all got lucky, and he did manage to survive but not without a long battle to regain his health. Like most people I might go on and on with examples of tragic and shocking events that knocked me off of my feet.
Each of us has endured far too many such incidents. They tear at our hearts and sometimes even leave us with regrets. We want just one more hour with loved ones who are ripped from us so quickly, that we feel as though big chunks of our hearts went with them. We may have complete trust that God’s will is being done as it should be, but still feel as though the very earth has suddenly been pulled out from under our feet. We tell ourselves that we are going to be far better at opening our hearts to the people that we love. We pledge to never again take our lives for granted, and then we let the business of the world intrude.
I was reminded of that hollow feeling in times of great and unexpected loss by a heartbreaking post from my niece. A sweet family including a young couple, their two year old child, and their mom and dad had gone to Canada for vacation. They were traveling in a van down a mountainous highway when something quite terrible happened. They had a head on collision with another vehicle and in the aftermath six people lay dead and two were in serious condition in the hospital. Miraculously the toddler was unhurt, but his father and grandmother had died and his mother and grandfather were injured. The other victims had been in the other car when the fiery crash turned deadly.
My niece, Katie posted the article because her daughter’s kindergarten teacher was one of the survivors. Katie asked for prayers and explained that the young woman was an angel who had been exceedingly patient and kind to her little child. Katie was quite naturally very upset and concerned about the wonderful woman who had made such a lasting and beautiful impression on the children that she taught each day.
Knowing Katie as I do, I am certain that she went out of her way to let this teacher know how much she was appreciated. Katie’s daughter truly loved this woman and in turn felt safe and secure in her classroom. There are probably countless other parents and students who feel the same way, but how many of them actually let their feelings be known?
It takes so little time to voice gratitude or to tell someone how much impact he/she has on our lives. So why do we seem to hesitate or get distracted by work and worries? I’ve brought up this topic so many times because I know without a doubt how important it is to sing praises when someone is alive to hear them. We’d like to think that our dearly departed know how we feel, but why take chances when we might make someone’s day while they are still very much with us? A quick call or note or email is all that it takes, and it will not just make the recipient smile, but will also bring a sense of joy to the sender of the good wishes.
I cried upon learning about the tragedy of this precious family that will never be the same after their horrific accident. I understand in a visceral way the physical and emotional pain that they will endure. I’d like to think that as they travelled together that they had so much fun that once the horror begins to fade, they will have beautiful memories to comfort them. I intend to pray for them, and remind myself once again just how fragile our existences really are. As the saying goes, we just never know what will happen from one moment to the next. We should always be prepared in both the way that we live and the ways in which we build loving relationships with the people that we encounter along our way. It’s a bitter lesson, but one that teaches us the importance of appreciating beyond measure every single breath that we take.
Prince Harry has been quite open about the intense trauma that he endured from the death of his mother. He has admitted to undergoing therapy after struggling with debilitating feelings in the aftermath of his loss. He was twelve when Diana died, so he vividly remembers the shock of that moment, but also treasures his recollections of the wonderful mother that she was. Her influence on him is quite apparent and his feelings for her are as strong as ever. Her spirit permeates his life and the choices that he has made.
The death of a parent is difficult regardless of whether it happens when we are adults or children. A sense of being without the very essence of who we are lingers long after the beloved is gone. For a child the suffering often goes unnoticed and untreated because young ones have difficulty expressing the hurt they are feeling. The emotions become internalized in so many varying ways that they are not always apparent. Harry acted out by being a goof ball and sometimes bad boy. He appeared to simply be a silly and rebellious young man, but he was actually reacting to the fears and hurt that he was enduring. Luckily he eventually found the help that he needed and channeled his angst into purposeful pursuits by emulating his mother’s example.
I find myself feeling a kind of spiritual connection with Harry because of our shared experience of losing a parent at a young age. There are many parallels between our stories. His mother died, and for me it was my father. Both of our parents were in car accidents. Both events occurred around the time of a holiday. Harry was twelve and I was eight. We both endured emotions that we didn’t quite understand after the tragedies. Harry became rowdy, and I became shy and withdrawn. Eventually we managed to come to grips with the what had happened and to better understand ourselves and the frightening feelings that had plagued us. Ours were successful journeys that ultimately lead to happiness and dedication to causes that help people, but for so many things do not turn out so well.
I think of my father quite often, and particularly on the anniversary of his death, May 31. I find myself wanting to know him and talk with him as an adult. Instead I have to rely on tidbits of childish conversations that I had with him. I borrow stories from adults who knew him as well. I have painted a picture of him that is admittedly idealized. I know that he had many flaws and I have wondered about them and how they might have impacted me without my ever realizing. I also recall the wonder of him, and know without a doubt that I am very much his daughter. He lives in me, and I see him in my brothers, and children, and grandchildren as well. Through him my ancestry reaches far back into the history of Great Britain just as Harry’s does, although mine is not quite as illustrious. I am an amalgam of many genes and influences, but his reign over me as much as if he had lived to walk me down the aisle and celebrate all of my milestones. I was old enough when he died to know with certainty how he might have reacted to the continuation of my history.
It is the knowledge of my father’s goodness and his love for me that has sustained me whenever I have felt a bit shaky. I suspect that Harry would say the same about his mother. We made it in spite of the horror of losing our parents because they had already undeniably imprinted their undying devotion on us. Once the love of a parent is imparted it becomes a fountain of strength whose healing waters stay with us. It is our shield from all of the terrors of the world. Like Simba in The Lion King we grow to understand that our parent never truly leaves us. Through some cosmic force they become our spiritual guides. We feel their presence, not in a supernatural way, but in our hearts.
The remaining parent and family members also play a critical role in raising a healthy and happy child. My mother filled our home with a strong sense of safety andcomfortable routine. She went out of her way to surround us with caring family and friends. She religiously kept us in touch with our paternal grandparents. She often told us tales of our father and remarked whenever we did something that reminded her of him. She kept him very much alive in our minds, so that it sometimes felt as though he had merely gone on a very long journey from which he would soon return. Of course we understood that he was gone forever, but it helped to be able to speak openly of him and sometimes even to cry about him.
A child instinctively responds in a vigorous and healthy way when surrounded by the unselfish love of good parents. While losing one of them leaves a ghastly scar that hurts from time to time, with good memories and the care of those who remain things will ultimately turn out fine. Harry and I are both happy people because we were lucky enough to have a beautiful start in life that did not end with our horrific losses. His mom and my dad had already given us tools and examples that were ours to keep for all time. Theirs was love for all time.
Santa Fe High School is practically in my back yard. I see it each time I travel to the beach in Galveston. It is situated along a stretch of road that is dotted with interesting sights, most of which are antique/junk stores, gas stations, fast food places, used car lots, bars, and many dilapidated houses and trailers with trash strewn yards. In the midst of an almost chaotic looking scene is the school, neat and orderly and usually quiet. I have at times found myself wondering who is inside and what is happening there as I quickly drive by eager to seen the sun and surf that is only a few miles away. I almost always quickly forget about my musings, distracted by the fun that I always seem to find along the Texas coast. I don’t think about Santa Fe again until I am once more driving along the highway that passes by a slice of the town. Still I consider the people of Santa Fe to be my neighbors, so it is with an especially heavy heart that I find myself grieving over the violence that took place there last week.
I believe that most of Americans are decent people, and as such we all want to find answers that will finally help to stop the murders that have become far too numerous in our nation’s schools. We want solutions and we need them sooner rather than later. Sadly it appears that we are so divided in our ideas that we may have to endure more deaths until we finally become so weary of the repeated massacres that we get serious enough to make things happen. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the problem is that there are no easy one size fits all fixes. Instead the issues that we must face are complex and laden with many questions. We may make mistakes as we seek to move forward, but surely the time has come to at least begin to try. That requires that we quit yelling and screaming and insulting one another so that we might successfully tackle this issue, or we are doomed to repeat the deadly scenarios again and again. Our efforts will require patience and understanding and a great deal of love.
One of the things that I have noticed is that we are quick to desire almost instant passage of legislation, some of which may or may not actually work. Instead we need to bring together stakeholders at every level including teachers, administrators, students, parents, grandparents, law officers, lawmakers, and, yes, even gun owners as well as those who would eliminate guns. We have to agree to work with trust and flexibility and honesty so that the end results will be effective. If it costs a great deal of sacrifice to make the needed changes, then so be it. All of us should be willing to pay the price of restoring safety and peace of mind to our schools and places of public gathering.
Guns always seem to be at the top of the list for creating a safer world, and they are certainly a topic that must be discussed. There are definite changes to the law that might help, and we need to be willing to consider such ideas and act on them. Nonetheless, the gun is simply the means of violence, and not the only thing causing so many problems. More important is attempting to understand what the driving force for such horrific incidents may be, so that we may get to the root of the evils that are lurking among us. We have a number of disturbing cultural problems that we can no longer ignore, for they are contributing to societal woes that are creating chaos.
We must ask ourselves why young men in particular act out in such murderous ways. Is it something happening or not happening in the home? Are our educators missing the signs of a disturbed mind or just ignoring behaviors that should be addressed? Does our media inadvertently or purposely glorify mass shootings? Are the games that we allow our children to play for hours on end doing something to affect their brains in a very negative way? Are we to blame for fomenting so much divisiveness and anger between ourselves rather than demonstrating ways of getting along? Is there too much or too little religion in our society? Have we lost our way and confused our young in the process? Have our schools become too stressful or do our students need to engage in more hard work? Are we doing enough for mental illness or do we look away when we see someone who is suffering? Are our movies and televisions programs providing destructive examples for our us and our young? What is missing? What do we need?
There is also the subject of building our schools in such a way that they provide safe spaces in the event of any emergency. We may have to invest in upgrades like stronger doors and locks not just at entrances and exits but also for each classroom. Schools need to have guidelines such as keeping doors locked at all times with only faculty and staff members having keys which they must always carry on their persons. Some campuses have already instituted policies that require anyone entering to pass through metal detectors. Students must carry clear backpacks. Staff members need to inspect lockers regularly. All adults must be in the hallways during passing periods. Visitors must enter through a series of locked doors. Student clothing cannot be baggy or capable of hiding weapons. Such measures may sound over the top, but they are doable. and I have been in schools where they have been successful.
What we do not need are armed teachers. Such an idea will only compound the problems. I shutter to even think about such a situation. I can think of hundreds of ways that doing this sort of thing will actually backfire.
At least for a time we cannot be lax, nor can we just continue to do what we have always done. We must be willing to admit that no one thing will be effective. We also need to begin to model caring attitudes for our children because they ultimately learn from what they see. Unfortunately, they are witnessing far too much rancor, and few of us are innocent in that regard.
As a mother and an educator I learned rather quickly that continually insulting or degrading someone does not result in improved behavior. To the contrary, it generally breeds discontent and urges to get even. Right now we are in the midst of considering anyone with whom we disagree or who appears different from ourselves to be deplorable. In truth we humans are simply unique individuals each of whom wants to be heard and accepted just as we are. The message we are sending our children is that half of the population that does not concur with our beliefs is horrific. With our votes we are encouraging to our elected officials to be inflexible and aggressive in their dealings with one another. We seem to want to indict entire groups for behaviors of a few whom we disapprove. We are so busy fighting with one another that we are hardly noticing the effect it is having on our children. All too often our response is to shun anyone whose ideas do not mesh with our own, rather than getting to know them better so that we might realize that they are actually good people.
We have much work to do. From what I am seeing we don’t yet seem ready to suspend all of our preconceived notions in order to ultimately do the right thing. Until we reach that point I fear that we will continue to see needless deaths. We are in dire need os thoughts and prayers, but they must begin to focus on asking God to guide us to the solutions that we so desperately need. This is a time for honest reflection.