Death on St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick is said to have died March 17th over 1500 years ago. Was it expected?  It wasn’t when my mother’s mother died on the same date fifty-one years ago.  It wasn’t when my friend died on St. Patrick’s Day just past.  I’ve never believed in luck, but for me, it’s a day that marks loss instead.

Part of my current goals as an English teacher at an alternative school is modeling how to respond to conflict.  Sometimes, I write songs or poems about what I’m going through and turn them into lessons that teach core standards and socio-emotional skills.  I told my students that I was only wearing green this year because it was in the school logo, and then I told them why I’d never celebrated.

I never got to meet my grandmother.  She died just months before my parents’ wedding after complications to a routine hysterectomy.  She would never turn forty-nine, never hold her grandchildren, never teach me recipes for the Italian dishes she prepared for my mom.  My students were able to share some of their own unexpected losses in class after I’d modeled, and we talked about coping by connecting with memories. 

When I want to feel connected, I cook Italian food.  I imagine Grandma Theresa in the kitchen grabbing out whatever was in the cabinets and throwing together a meal for whichever guests her husband, the pastor, was bringing into their home that night.  My mother preserved her memory so well in stories that I can conjure a moving picture of her with a radiant smile and deep, resounding laugh.  We’re cooking together in my kitchen in Pickens, just me and her memory, a half a century after her death. 

In recent weeks, I’ve been tweaking an Italian Sausage and Lentil soup recipe.  It’s what I was making when I got the news that my friend Josh had died in his sleep on Friday.  I calculated the date mentally, stored away the irony to process later.   He would never turn forty-five, never… I can’t finish that train of thought.  You can, but it hurts.  I had to finish that soup, though.  I chopped. Sautéed.  Browned. Boiled. Simmered. That was all I knew to do.  And after I was done, I stopped.  Sat down.  Wept. 

With St. Patrick’s Day and the first day of spring so close together, I’ve always been keenly aware of the juxtaposition of life and death.  It’s a sober holiday that reminds my family that death comes eventually for every new life, sometimes sooner than later, and for me, there’s another death of a different kind that weighs on my soul every March.  These were my thoughts while on the floor of my kitchen, knees drawn up to my chest, when a former student messaged me a reminder for a reunion for Nashville School of the Arts where I’d begun my teaching career sixteen years ago.

Then, I knew at least a little of what I would do.  The reunion was the same weekend as Josh’s funeral and just a couple hours from Huntsville.  I would line up subs, drive to the reunion Friday afternoon, and head south the next day.  I knew the drive well, had done it many times in the decade I’d lived in Nashville. But on March 17, 2013, I left the city.  I left my husband.  I moved to my parents’ house at thirty and was back in my princess bedroom with the floral wallpaper, wounded and grieving. 

The divorce papers would come later, but St. Patrick’s Day marks the death of my marriage and the life that I’d dreamed of building there.  I hadn’t seen any of my students since I’d left ten years and a week ago.  Despite tornado warnings, the perfect intersection of students and faculty fared the storm, and it felt like I was walking through the halls of a character I played in a different life, a different story.  Some of them knew me as Ms. Palma, others as Mrs. Perales, but they all knew me as a teacher who knew writing and made good writers.  Some asked if I’d ever published my writing.  Apart from this blog, no. 

The next morning, I met one of my students for coffee before hitting the road.  I used to write in college at the Starbuck’s he’d suggested, but when I parked, there was a bubble tea shop.  It had moved across the street, but I couldn’t see it.  I pulled up Google Maps, and I noticed that I had just one favorited location saved in all of Nashville.  When I lived there, I didn’t even have a smart phone.  It was Josh’s house when he managed the comedy club a few years ago.  It’s where I fell in love with him again.  In a few hours, I would see his mother, but first, God knew I’d need a little perspective check.   

The conversation over coffee that morning was encouraging.  This boy-turned-man affirmed the role I played in his life as his sophomore English teacherI was perplexed when I said he wouldn’t be where he is in his career without me; he’s a software engineer.  However, he tracked me going backwards in the curriculum to diagram sentences to making him be able to understand Spanish and then computer languages.  Student then became teacher, challenging me to pursue my writing dreams and scoffing at my weak excuses not to.

Then, I headed south.  The last time I’d made that trip, Joshua was in the driver’s seat.  We were going to the same house, only it was to celebrate Christmas, not grieve another jarring loss.  I sat outside for a few minutes trying to collect myself before going in, but when Marci hugged me at the door, I didn’t have any words for her; no mother should be picking out the photos to display at her son’s funeral. 

But then we sat down, just the two of us, in the living room, side by side on the couch.  Joshua had cuddled with me there, one arm draped around my shoulder, as we’d admired Marci’s Christmas village collection.  Suddenly, I did have words.  We talked for a couple of hours.  We shared stories about her son and looked at pictures where his smile dominated the screen.  His laugh we recall like my grandmother’s, one that was so powerful people questioned if it was real.  When you’ve got joy like that, though, it’s got to come out some way.

It was while I was trying to comfort Marci that I stumbled on words of wisdom I needed to take for myself.  When you lose someone you love and you find yourself zoning in on something you wish you’d done differently, turn the lens on today.  Is there somewhere in your life you can do it differently now and moving forward?  I’m doing it differently now, wearing Josh’s Alabama hoodie, typing my way to my dreams.

We had many dreams when we were dating.  We’d get married at the chapel where he first saw me, and what better place for a reception than his friend’s farm?  On Sunday, we attended his funeral at that chapel and we scattered his ashes at that farm.  All day, on repeat, I regretted never making it the right time.  Eventually, we’d end up in the same place at the same time… and we did, only it was to honor Josh’s memory.  We’ll never get a place on the river where I can write and raise our kids and we can live off the fat of the land… but please, shame me if I keep putting off my dreams as if tomorrow always comes.  It doesn’t.

And when it doesn’t – when we experience loss, we are never the same.  For the worse or for the better?  You can’t skip the stages of grief in death or divorce.  You’ll wake up to the absence, maybe always.  But Josh is still changing my life for the better, too.  The scripture for his namesake says to be strong and courageous and not be afraid.  Joshua lived that way, and he wanted me to take risks with my writing career.  I’m taking them.  I don’t know why I’ve let fear stop me from being with a man I loved, and I can’t let it stop me from doing what I love. Luck has nothing to do with dreams or loss.

Back in my kitchen again last night, I made another pot of sausage and lentil soup.  My imagination cast two companions this time, Grandma and Joshua.  As I chopped and sautéed, browned and boiled, memories of them both simmered in my mind.  

I can hand over my thoughts to regrets over the recipes Grandma will never teach me and the milestones Josh will never reach, but I bet they’d both prefer I remember the way they lived and their love with that brain matter instead and do better, be better, love better because of them. 

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