This is the post excerpt.
I did not know how to say how I loved you.
Once I knew you had passed, my mind began to map out the area of three-dimensional space you had inhabited in my heart.
I never knew just how much.
And once I had mapped it, I knew its breadth, its height and its depth.
It was vast.
I was sad.
Your absence left a vacuum in my life.
My Aunt Baby passed away this past Tuesday. Her real name was Viola, but her family nickname was Baby.
Oldest sibling of my mother’s five – two males, four females in all – my Aunt Baby was a formidable woman – strong like a granite fist, her mind for most of her life, razor sharp.
Yet she laughed at the ridiculous and the absurd – and that’s one of the things I loved about her. She also had her fussy ways and I know that despite the distance that created between us, she loved me.
The love I felt from her was like the love you’d want to feel from your favorite elementary school teacher, or librarian.
It was distant, but it was neither cold nor dismissive nor neglectful.
It was a very certain and specific love, the dimensions of which were easy to comprehend. And yet, maybe, in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, you knew that she loved you to the near-bursting point of those boundaries.
And it was that knowledge that made it good and true.
It made me feel safe, the reliability of it. The security.
It was balanced, and it was nice.
I did not know you that well while you lived, but your presence served as one of a select few guideposts that defined my life:
Don’t hide your intelligence.
Speak your mind.
Live with dignity.
Enjoy the small things.
I am so thankful that you were in my life, Aunt Baby. I didn’t know that I needed you in it.
There is always beauty.
That is all that is left.
So many times in my life, I thought I had come to the end of me.
So many times, I thought I had broken myself, into pieces too brittle and infinitesimal, to ever believe that I could put myself back together again.
So many times I thought I had broken those I loved, those who loved me.
So many times I felt the cold hollow cave made of stone and frost and filled with a chill wind that blew eternal in the pit of my stomach, the sum total of all the lies I told, of all the hearts I broke, of all the oaths I abandoned.
So many times.
But that last, that last was worst of all …
Lost to the dark.
Alone, in a ball, in a hole, in a wall, in the deepest darkest crack I could slither in, and crawl.
So many times.
So many times.
And then …
A glimmer …
A glimpse …
I would open my eyes.
Dry, burning, bloodshot, blurry, and red.
And I would look up.
And the height, the height of just where I fell from.
It was so high.
I had fallen so far.
All that trust built.
Smashed to bits with a single action, a cruel word.
But I would get up, like I had all those countless times before and my spine felt so weak and all I felt inside cold wind and hollow.
And I would get up.
My stomach would spasm reflexively from all the ragged crying and my eyes burned.
And I would get on my knees, scarred and pitted from gravel digging in, from years of gravel digging in, digging all the way into my cartilage.
I would wait there, gasping, until that pain was too much, and I would reach out and grasp that first rock again, with cracked hands that split from countless cold December nights when my hands were soaked wet from bleach and piss and mop water and Fabuloso and Murphy’s Oil Soap, from countless nights of cleaning and wiping and scrubbing, and I would begin the slow climb, back up to the top, back up, to the light.
And so I would grab another.
So many falls.
And so many climbs.
So many promises made.
So many promises broken.
So many scars, from within, from without.
Holding the hand of the one whose heart I broke.
What else could I do?
I couldn’t stay down there.
Not when I was needed up here.
Not when, if I couldn’t make us better, if I couldn’t heal us and make us whole, I could at least help you.
Help you get through.
At least I could do that.
So I did.
And those whose hearts I’d hurt, saw that I did my best to heal.
I left, but I did my best to heal.
I left, and I hoped that they had healed.
And to my surprise, they did.
As sure as spring follows winter.
As certain as day follows night.
As raw and red and as certain as the dawn, or a healing wound.
And time would pass, just as sure as spring follows winter.
As certain as sunshine follows rain.
And, with that passing left the pain.
And those who I made cry, I now made laugh.
I repaired what I could, and now, gray-bearded and older, I keep my vigil.
I watch and I care and I protect.
But I stay away.
And I marvel that in the passing, the pain fades away, like shadows melt away at dawn, and with that growing dawn light, in that shining sunlight, only the beauty is left revealed.
And nights, dark and dim they may be, are now just nights, because now I have the knowledge that the sun still shines on the other side of the world.
Nights reveal starlight, and moonshine, and the reflective glimmer of cats’ eyes.
I know this, and I shall never forget – in my depression I have hurt people, and though it was my depression, it was still me.
I know this, and I shall never forget – in my depression I have hurt myself, and though it was my depression, it was still me.
And I know this, and I will never forget – I have managed my depression.
I have named my demon and I have locked it within a faux-gold-covered wooden box.
And I will never open it up.
For I know this – with time and work and the healing-fevered pain of resetting bones, all the bad fades away.
Fades away, but does not dissipate.
It is always an ever-present reminder.
But what comes to the foreground, what comes into focus?
The pain, the dark fades away.
All that’s left is beauty.
The dying bee landed on my chest.
It fell seemingly from nowhere.
At first I didn’t know that it was a bee. Nor did know that it was dying – yet.
A cloud of flies and mosquitoes skimmed and buzzed about me as I lay on our outdoor patio sofa as if I was an Imperial Cruiser under attack from Rebellion fighters. They didn’t really bother me. I didn’t really feel anything. I was numb and drowsy from the day, from pipe tobacco smoke, from dragon smoke. My mind wandered far afield.
About two weeks ago, during a lull between the constant rain showers that came with the hurricane storm systems from the Texas Gulf, I took advantage of the semi-fair weather and brought out the sofa cushions to laze about on my Saturday afternoon.
The mosquitoes and flies had the same idea, apparently.
I did feel the small but substantial thump on my chest.
I did see the small insect bounce off my chest and arc down onto the patio concrete.
My senses weren’t so completely numb to make me believe that it was a huge fly.
It took me a second to register that what I had saw and felt was a bee.
I looked down from the sofa. The bee crawled around the cracked concrete of the patio. Something was wrong with it. One of it’s wings was opening and closing slowly, out of sync with the other.
You know that cliché about staggering drunkenly? That’s exactly what the bee was doing, in circles, and leaning to one side. I reached down and as gingerly as I could try to help right itself with my index finger. It didn’t help.
You see, I had held bees before.
Many bees had entered my classroom, and being a teacher of children, their reaction, after shrieking in fright or delight, is always to swat it or crush it. But I don’t want to encourage that in my students. I want to encourage them to have a healthy respect for all living things. So I would just quickly but calmly reach for it, and let it land on my hand, let roam about. I would explain to them that bees only sting when they feel threatened, which they do anytime anyone projects their fear and shrieks.
I would show them how harmless they could be if they were treated gently and with respect, then I would open my classroom door and then open the door that led outside ( I’ve been lucky to have a classroom right by the hallway exit) and release it.
I don’t like killing living creatures – even insects. If they look dangerous, and are in my house, then I do, because I don’t want to risk my mother being bitten by something poisonous. Call it guilt-ridden anxiety. But bees are fine.
Except this particular bee was obviously not, however.
The bee flipped upside down. My own buzz was just making it worse. I tried to calm myself and focus – I didn’t want to damage it’s wings. After a few more attempts I sat up and reached down with both hands. I was finally able to get the bee onto my hand.
I studied it, sadly. It was dying. The thumping landing on my chest made sense now.
A thought occurred to me then.
My older brother had had a really bad weekend a week prior to this. He and his partner had moved back down to Laredo from San Antonio three years ago to help care for my father who had been diagnosed with terminal gall bladder and liver cancer, and they have stayed ever since. But like any couple moving from their own home in which they lived alone for years back into the home of a parent, their space has become limited.
I’d been in that situation before – my ex-wife and I had to share living spaces with her mother and their family many times over the eighteen-year period we were married. Those times were at best, manageable. So the cabin-fever brought on by days of rain culminated that weekend prior.
Then there was the squirrel.
Later that week my brother had told me that the tipping point for that weekend was a squirrel. He had found a dead squirrel out in the front of our house. He had found something to wrap it in and placed it in our trash bin outside.
Later the thought had occurred to me why he hadn’t buried it – I would’ve gladly helped – but in retrospect the idea of burying the poor creature would have been too much for him. After dad, the aspects and realities of death and dying affected all of our family in varying and unexpected ways.
I laid the bee gently down on the blue seat cushion, where my ashtray, pipe, and pipe tobacco rested, making sure it was placed so that it would not fall off again. I thought of my brother and his weekend from Hell before. I hesitated a moment. Then I texted him to come outside quickly.
This felt right.
He came outside to the backyard. I held the bee out towards him in my hand, showing him, and I told him. It’s dying, help me place it somewhere safe so it will die in peace, without fear of being eaten.
Where, he asked.
I looked about our backyard – and I saw one of the bushes growing lush with bright yellow bell blossoms, the wells inside of which would keep it well-hidden from predators or from falling back onto the unforgiving lawn.
I handed him the bee. Place it in there, I told him. With both hands out, he took it. We walked over to the bush, found an upright bell with a sturdy stem. My brother placed it gently inside. There you go, he said softly. The bee slid gently into the well.
There, I said, a fine place for a bee to rest. Then I hugged my brother. Karma, I told him, a little light to drive away the dark. A little positive energy to counter the negative.
The moment passed. We stepped apart to let the space of the world back in. I told him that I was still going to hang out here and smoke for awhile longer. He said okay. He went back inside.
I love my older brother.
We clash, of course. We wouldn’t be brothers otherwise. But he’s been both father and mother to me countless times, when my parents couldn’t. He’s been my sounding board ever since he moved back and I had to admit to him my weaknesses that my Major Depression and ADHD brought about – even when medicated. He’s been the voice of reason in my head the few times I stood too close to the edge, and brought me back.
We’re ten years apart. He’s now fifty-three while I’m forty-three – the oldest and the youngest in our family.
He still looks out after me.
The least I can do help his spirit when it sinks.
The least I can do is remind him that there is still some magic in this world, faded though it is.
The least I can do is look after him for all the times he’s looked out after me.
I always will.
He’s my brother.
What I’m listening to:
Human Qualities by Explosions in the Sky.
The little boy would not enter my classroom.
I saw him lingering, out in the hallway in front of my doorway, amidst the organized chaos of our morning routine, as the other students were coming in. Then, a moment later, he was gone.
I didn’t think much of it.
He was either afraid, or he was having a bad day. Or both. His teacher – my colleague – had to take the day off unexpectedly because her son woke up with a high fever.
On days when a teacher is out, we normally split up that teacher’s class between the remaining four 5th grade teachers, so we get an additional five to six more students.
We do this because on a campus like ours, located just a mile away from the U. S.-Mexico border, where we service a heavily Spanish-dominant population whose median income is below the poverty level, and we have to prepare them to pass the 5th grade STAAR exams, losing a day of instruction can really hurt these children.
Rather than having twenty-two to twenty-three students doing busy work, increasing the chances of them acting up with a substitute, it’s better they come to us and continue getting actual instruction.
There are space issues. Classroom behavior spikes a bit, but as long as we’re prepared with constant instruction, lessons, activities, the students are too engaged to even try to act up. Usually it ends up alright.
This day, we’re testing our district’s CBAs – a mini diagnostic to check if teachers have been teaching and if the students have learned what their teachers have been teaching. I get my students settled and working on their morning routine while I make room for the extra students.
Our special education teacher comes in and tells me that the little boy went back to his teacher’s classroom.
He’s in the room by himself.
He doesn’t want to come to my class.
I can cut a pretty imposing figure, with my size and my beard, and the children can find it intimidating – even threatening if I stand too close to a child.
This little boy has ED, so there are times when he won’t cooperate, won’t want to go where he is supposed to.
I head over to his classroom.
The little boy is there, standing up against a whiteboard. He looks unsettled, with a small light of defiance in his eyes.
The substitute is there as well.
I ask her if she could go to my class and watch my students since I left them unattended. She does so.
When she’s left the classroom, I ask the little boy if he’s going to come to my class. He just stares at me.
I ask him what his name is. He mumbles. By this time, morning announcements have begun, and with my peripheral deafness, I can’t make out what he’s saying.
I ask again.
I still can’t hear him. I ask him again and I explain to him why I keep asking. This time he yells out his name.
I shift my demeanor and I tell him firmly not to yell at me like that.
I wasn’t yelling at him and I honestly couldn’t hear him. There was no need for it. I tell him he’s being rude.
He says his name again, this time in a softer tone.
This time I hear him. I thank him.
I slowly walk towards him, but he begins to walk around, opposite me, keeping himself equidistant from me. We’re both feeling each other out, and we both know it.
I sit down.
For a while, I don’t talk.
I just sit there, calmly listening to the morning announcements. I’m not frowning. I make sure that my posture is relaxed.
I make sure that I’m giving off an aura of calm. I let him grow accustomed to my presence. I ask him if he wants to sit. He shakes his head no.
I calmly, gently explain to him that he needs to come to my class and I tell him not to worry.
I explain to him that I don’t want him to get into any trouble.
Then his special education teacher comes in and begins talking to him in a rough manner.
She needs to take him to her room so she can give him his test.
I use this time to call the front office and ask for our assistant principal to come by.
I step out into the hallway and when she reaches me, I explain to her the situation.
She tells me she’ll take care of it and tells me to go back to my class.
I do, and I get my kids settled down and pass out their tests.
As soon as I’m done, I see the little boy at my door.
The security guard escorted him. I tell the boy, hi! Come in and sit by me. I gesture at a chair on one end of my banana table and I sit. He walks in slowly and sits down.
I have a colorful tray filled with different types of markers that I use to create my classroom posters. I give him loose-leaf paper and push the tray towards him.
I ask him if he likes to draw.
He says yes.
I ask him if he could draw me something he likes. I sit there beside him as he draws. It’s a crude child’s drawing of Superman.
I tell him that I like Superman. I tell that I like to draw also.
I ask him, would you like to draw with me? I could draw you Superman after you finish your test.
He smiles and nods yes. His teacher comes for him and he leaves my room to take his test.
I tell him goodbye and that we’ll draw as soon as he’s done.
He never comes back.
Later I find out that he was sent home because of his behavior.
This was Thursday.
It’s Friday now.
We have two 5th grade teachers out all day at a training.
This time I get seven additional students.
We’re done with testing.
It’s “activity” Friday, and I give my students an extra thirty minutes.
Again I’m getting all the students settled and working when a student stops by my class and asks if I can step outside so his teacher can talk to me in the hallway.
It’s the little boy again.
He doesn’t want to go into his classroom teacher’s room.
The special education teacher is there again and she says he wants to go back with me because I told him that I would draw him Superman.
She sounds angry and frustrated but I respond cheerfully, of course he could come with me!
I ask him to come with me.
He follows me.
As I pass, I tell the special education teacher to come by later, once he’s settled down, so he could be picked up and do whatever work he needs to be done.
We can’t have a student out in the hallway unsupervised. It’s a safety concern. Better he’s with me in my classroom where I can keep an eye on him.
The boy sits down back at my banana table.
I sit beside him. I gently explain that he is always welcome in my room and I’ll always find time to draw with him, but he has to go with his classroom teacher later and he has to go with the special education teacher so he can learn and be smart.
He says okay.
Then I explain to him that I have to go about teaching my class and showing them the activities they need to complete.
He doesn’t blow up.
He doesn’t have an episode.
He nods and sits and waits calmly.
I go to my instruction area, I get my students attention, and I begin modeling the activities for my students using my document camera.
Then out of the corner of my eye, I notice something.
I have the lights off, so the class can see what I’m doing on our smart board.
Off to my right, in the back corner of my room, the little boy is standing up.
I continue my modeling with one eye on him and I see what he’s doing. I was actually surprised.
He’s straightening up my banana table, organizing my papers, throwing scraps of cut paper into my recycling basket, putting all my stray markers, pens and pencils where he thinks they belong.
I pause in the middle of my instruction and I tell him thank you, you’re doing such a great job and I appreciate it.
Then I finally reach a stopping point.
The class is working and they’re in their flow, so I’m able to go back and sit down with him.
I have my phone jacked into a speaker system, and I start playing some instrumental chill hop and trip hop. That always gets the kids working but it doesn’t over stimulate them.
The lights are off, but I have a multi-colored octopus lamp that bathes the room in a soothing glow.
I start drawing Superman for him.
He watches me, smiling with delight as Superman slowly takes form, flying up into the air, his cape billowing around him.
It’s not my best work.
I stopped practicing my figure sketching in college, but I would sketch occasionally, and I’ve slowly taken it up again as I sketch out character ideas for the manuscript I’m working on.
I’m smiling, too.
I’m keeping an eye on my students making sure they’re on task, but I’m relaxed.
When I finish, I hand it over to him, and he starts coloring, asking which part of his costume is blue, which is red, and all that.
I tell him, but I also encourage him to color however he wants to, change it up.
I sit beside him and watch.
My students come to me with questions about their assignments.
I answer them.
Eventually, the special education teacher comes for him, and he leaves, not one complaint.
I take a breath.
Seven students working on their own separate activities, my twenty-two students working on their assignments, and this little boy, who calmed down when I began drawing him his Superman.
Teaching children is a nonstop job. You have to be good at juggling and have a quick mind.
You need to teach them the skills in Reading, Math, Science. Writing, often. Social Studies when we can.
But that’s fifty percent of the job.
The other fifty is seeing to their needs – and there are twenty-two very different students with very different personalities, with different levels of learning.
Guiding them when they do their work. Building their confidence by showing them that they can master any concept. Showing them different ways to try and solve problems. Teaching them to recognize their own self-worth. Showing them how to use their words and communicate with one another in respectful ways to settle differences.
These are not suburban kids.
Many of the students I teach have fathers and uncles and cousins in prison.
They come from homes where the stress level is high, parents, single or together trying to make ends meet.
Quite often the default tone at home is yelling.
Some only have the breakfast and lunch the district provides for them as their only meals.
There are some parents, single, grandparents, stepparents, who really care about the education of their children.
And there are an unfortunate few who don’t pay attention.
All these children want is to know that they can be good at something.
All these children want is to learn and be a success and have fun doing so.
All these children want is to know that there is someplace safe, with regularity, stability.
All they want is to know that there is someone who cares about them.
And I’ve grown with them.
I’m a forty-three year old man. I have Major Depression and adult ADHD.
I’ve been medicated three years now, and I finally feel that I am the teacher I want to be.
The loss of my father and my longtime relationship has tempered me.
As a Gemini I seek peace and balance. And all of that has informed my teaching.
I’ve grown into a father figure for my students, my children, whom I love driving thirty minutes from my home to teach.
I’ve been teaching 5th grade at this campus for eight years now.
To teach, it truly takes love – not some squishy, saccharine love, but a fighter’s love, a fighter’s heart.
It takes dedication.
It takes an almost monastic devotion.
There is a craft to teaching children, an art.
It takes a fair mind – free of bias or prejudice.
It takes kindness.
It takes a soft word and a firm but gentle hand.
It takes never giving up on any students.
It takes humor.
It takes breathing – a lot of breathing.
And it takes patience.
And sometimes, just sometimes, it even takes some colors and Superman.
Rainy days always put me in a thoughtful mood – more so than usual.
Rain drops falling steadily like tears …
Not the tears of a broken heart, but healing tears, as you make up after a fight with your lover.
Not tears of hopelessness, but tears of relief, after the test results come back negative.
Rain brings growth. Rain cleanses. Once the rain stops, the sun, eventually, emerges, and shines.
Rain is a mug of good, hot coffee. Tea, mellow, thoughtful and sweet – like your favorite friend.
Rain is reading good books curled up on the couch.
Rain is listening to music while you stare out at the graygreen world.
Buried under blankets, hugging a pile of pillows, watching your favorite movies.
Rain offers us a break from mad dashing to and fro from the self-imposed prisons we call life, responsibilities, obligations.
Rain says, take a break, I got this. You’ll just be in my way.
Rain forces us to be together, to talk about what’s been bothering us, to tell “Remember when” stories, makes us laugh.
Rain reminds us gently of Mother Nature’s power, gently puts us back in our place, keeps our ever-growing selfish sense of self-importance in check.
Rain forces us to pause and be thoughtful. To take stock of our lives, to slow down, to breathe.
The smell of rainy days, to me, are like the smell of fall and winter – it’s the scent of being in love, the scent of being alive, the scent of living.
How many great poems were written, because of rainy days?
How many great songs composed?
How many great novels were inspired by rainy days just like this?
How many loves, friendships, solidified, during rainy days?
Rainy days are magic.
I came downstairs this morning.
I said good morning to my mother.
It’s an ugly day outside, she said.
I looked out the kitchen window to our backyard. The rain had turned our Laredo dry grass into a verdant and lush paradise, an enchanted forest.
I was alive, so was my mom – so were my brother and his partner.
We had safety and shelter from the storm.
We have survived so much.
Death, mental illness, physical illness, arguments, fights, spats, conflicts, disagreements – survived them all, and helped heal afterwards. A glacier’s pace often, but forward motion is still moving forward. And we’ve grown closer because of it.
My depression has mellowed with my medication.
So much life.
I stared out, lulled by the repetition of steady falling raindrops.
It’s so beautiful, I said.
What I’m listening to now:
On the Warm Side by Mimicking Birds.
Is it weird that I’m forty-three years old and I feel the most comfortable, the most “myself,” like this?
Is it weird that I feel like I truly do not fit into any category – especially as a straight male – and so I feel like I do not fit into this world?
Is it weird that I feel like I’m too young to be this old, while at the same time I feel like I’m too old to be this young?
Is it weird that my teenage boy heart that used to beat to the pounding truth of Pearl Jam beats to the pinning, yearning punch of Snail Mail now that I’m a forty-three year old man?
Is it weird?
Or is it me, in my isolation?
Do you feel like me?
Do you feel alone because you don’t feel like you “fit” into any acceptable social “category?”
Is it weird?
Am I wrong?
Am I not alone?
If so, I would really love to know it.