What We Stay Alive For

Abriel. Female. Age 24. Deceased. When I taught her eight years ago, her blonde hair framed her full, genuine smile. Her voice emerged in our poetry unit back at Nashville School of the Arts, where Principal boB (yes, he spells his name backwards) led with a passion for The Beatles and Superman, supplemented by now Dr. Williams’ “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful day” over the loudspeaker each morning.

In the classroom, teachers can’t play favorites; however, there are some kids that just grab your heartstrings with the positive vibe they bring in with them. Abriel was one of these, like a Disney cherub, soft-spoken and smiling in the background. She was sweet and kind to me and her peers, jotting me little notes I still have in my “Reasons Why I Teach” binder.

That’s how I remember Abriel, like the pink magnolia blossoms just opening in my front yard, once again the first sparks of color on my street. We kept in touch via Facebook some, and the last she’d shared some two years back was that she was going to get her GED. This weekend, Facebook told me that she had died.

The circumstances surrounding her death are currently unknown and hazy. Investigations may bring some closure, but it cannot assuage her parent’s broken heart or her fiancé’s. I still see her leaning over her desk, think strands of blonde hair falling into her face, smiling up at me, ready to learn.

The Earth grows darker with the loss of that smile. While on Facebook reading about Abriel, my USAToday app notified me of another death the next day. At the age of forty, country artist Joey Feek lost her battle to cervical cancer, her husband Rory and her two-year old daughter survive her. I’ve been following Rory’s blog for a few months now. He weaves in current progression, stories from long ago, and music they made together as he reveals the sweetness even in the saddest of developments.

Rory posted not long after Joey finally went home to be with the Lord. He titles the entry “A Dream Come True”. The tone contrasts with the clamor around Abriel’s death. We knew Joey’s was coming. Rory prepared us even as he was prepared. His blog is reassuring and uplifting, warranting tears streaming down my cheeks, week after week. This entry was no different.

It was Charming’s birthday last week, so I popped up for a surprise visit. He discovered me at a medieval themed party in his honor with his Bible Study. The night was filled with fun and laughter shared with friends. The celebration of life contrasted so sharply with the unfortunate news to come.

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He probably saw me cry more this weekend than collectively over the past six months. Because the next day, on Saturday, my eighth grade social studies teacher, Mr. Sorkin, also died at age seventy-three. My phone notified me of my mom’s email with “sad news”.

Mr. Sorkin was an incredible teacher. I didn’t have a particular passion for social studies at that age, but I adored him. He was stern but effective, and I got to see a softer side of him that year when I was going under the knife for reconstructive knee surgery. Mr. Sorkin gave me this little white bear holding a heart. He said it was for good luck. It was perhaps something he had tucked away in his desk. The plush parts of the bear were faded… or that might be because I held onto it for so long that I rubbed it off myself. It was still in my hand when I came out from under the anesthesia.

The next day, former First Lady Nancy Reagan died at age ninety-four, surviving Abriel by a full seventy years. Mrs. Reagan had seen multiple blossoming seasons. She’d achieved, influenced, accomplished, impacted, affected change.   She had lived. Given another seventy years, what might Abriel’s legacy have been?

Four deaths in four days, and each affected me differently; yet the effect of all four together left me driving home after another fairy tale weekend with Charming ever-focused on mortality. We process grief in accordance with our own personal manuals developed through our mental contracts with the guiding principles of existence. If there’s a heaven and a hell, if there’s eternal life, if there’s an entrance fee, or if there’s nothing… those beliefs dictate how we respond to death.

Are we comforted that the woman we love is with her Heavenly Father, or are we grieved because this is the end of her book? While we celebrated thirty-four years of Charming’s life, the decade-younger Abriel’s life would find itself plucked before ripening.

I don’t know how many years I have, or how many my parents will have. I fret on it occasionally, but quickly combat the line of thought with reassurances from scripture memorized decades ago in AWANA. Philippians 4:6 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Every moment that I spend worrying overshadows opportunities God can use to inspire supplication and thanksgiving. When Abriel died, I was honoring Charming. When Joey Feek died, I was meeting Charming’s co-workers. When Mr. Sorkin died, I was reeling from a St. Patrick’s Day parade extraordinaire. When Nancy Regan died, I was at a play with Charming’s family.

I am grateful for these moments. I thank God for these moments. I thank God for the moments with Abriel in my English classroom years ago. I thank God for the inspiration that Rory + Joey have been to me and so many others. I thank God for Mr. Sorkin’s big heart and setting a standard for how I teach.

Our future plans cannot defeat the question mark on our own expiration dates. Often we fear the earlier demise of someone we love more than our own ending. What comes after that date, that ending of this life, well, what you believe will impact how you do your living now much the same as it influences how you respond to death.

My tenth graders’ end-of-course test is now behind us, and I wanted to reward them with a unit on Dead Poets Society. I introduced them to the unit with my favorite quote from the film where Robin William’s character says,

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are all noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

I ask the students what they think it means, and I secretly hope one of them will see what I see. That we need medicine to keep our bodies going, law to keep us civil, business to fuel an economy, engineering to keep us housed… but all of that exists so that we can experience beauty, romance, love. Those cornerstones sustain us, but our desire to live is in that which delights us.

We don’t know if we have twenty-four, forty, seventy-three, or ninety-four years on this planet. I don’t know how many times I’ll get to see my magnolias bloom. I’m comforted by what I see beyond my gravestone, and I want it to be my life and not my death that defines me. Worries about what might be and grief about what has most certainly been lost are best offered up in prayer requests coupled with praise and gratitude for the moments I stay alive for.

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