Death and Fragility

I collapsed in front of my locker, and black teenage mascara tears drip-stained my knees.  A group of dry-eyed friends tried patting me, hugging me, pulling on me, and cajoling me with soft words, but I could barely see them.  All I could think about was him.  How could the one person who listened to me, who really cared, be dead?

I once invited him to a jazz band concert at which I sang a solo—it was one of two solos I would ever sing.  I sang Gershwin to him, seated right on the front row beaming up at me.

“Although he may not be the man some girls think of as handsome, to my heart he carries the key.”

I made sure the audience knew to whom my heart belonged, gesturing at him.  They laughed loud and long.

You see, this man was Brother Checketts, my high school religion teacher, and he sported a shiny bald head ringed with slick, white hair, squinted through large plastic glasses, and grinned through buck-teeth.  He stood a mere and skinny 5’6” or so, and spoke in excited, erratic tones when telling stories of his youth, days full of fast cars, beautiful women, and baking.  Yes, he’d been a baker.

He’d also been somebody I considered to be one of my best friends.  He served as a surrogate father to me, a girl whose parents divorced when she was six and who now lived two states away from her own father.  Brother Checketts listened to me, cared about me, consoled me, advised me, complimented me, protected me, encouraged me, and loved me with pure intent.

I thought this made me special.  It did, but when he died, I realized just how special he had made all of his students feel.  I sat at the piano during his funeral, accompanying an innumerable sea of students singing with full voices and heavy hearts “How Great Thou Art,” his favorite hymn.  This performance served as restitution for what I had done, or not done, during his last day at school.

The last time I saw him, he stood outside his classroom, greeting and waving at students.  He seemed to be standing in a sea of them, the same sea as at his funeral, their tides ebbing and flowing and crashing about him.  He was a rock in the midst of everybody’s hurrying to make it to the next class.  I too felt myself compelled to move quickly.  I wanted to speak to him, to spend a few minutes shooting the breeze or asking his advice.  I wanted to hear his trademark conversation starter: “A penny for your thoughts?”  Instead, I let the swell of people pull me away.  I hastily waved and scurried to my next class.

He would go home early that day, complaining of illness.  He would be rushed to the hospital with meningitis, slip into a coma, and never wake.  His wife and young children, one of whom was my age, would mourn him.  He only spent a few days in the hospital, and then he was gone, swept out to the great ocean of death, from which none of us return.  I hadn’t said goodbye.  I had tried.  My sister and I sent an enormous balloon bouquet to his room, hoping he’d realize that our love for him was even larger than the latex concoction.  The balloons also seemed more fitting than flowers for his jolly personality.  He would never see the bouquet or read the card we sent, but his wife and children later thanked us for it.

brother checkettsThat moment at my locker, when I collapsed upon hearing of his death, I kept remembering how I had last seen him without really seeing him.  I had looked through him, flippantly waving and concerning myself more with tasks that would soon mean nothing compared to his company.  I would have given anything in that moment of grief, which now defines my senior year of high school, to have gone back and spoken with him one last time.

Instead, the years have taught me not to regret my hasty decision, for I did not know its consequences.  I learned from that mistake to live each day and treat each person as if it may be the last.  Yes, I fail, forget, flounder, crash, and burn with this lesson, but it sticks with me.  I turn back more often, instead of turning my back.  From my mistake, I learned that I’m often too hasty, too efficient, and too concerned with the fluff of life.  It’s okay to slow down, talk with a friend, laugh with a loved one, admire the clouds, watch the birds, or savor a delicious meal.  The housework can wait, the dishes will eventually get done, and people are more important than being punctual.

As a mother of young children, this keeps me centered.  I realized how fleeting life is, and when my little three-year-old seems to be screaming more than is necessary, landing more food on the floor than in her mouth (we call her Fifty-fifty), or practicing her coloring skills on freshly painted walls, or when my seven-year-old has more homework than a high school student, leaves her shoes and socks on the living room floor again, or spends more time relaxing in the bathtub than practicing her piano, or when I put myself in time-out because I just can’t go on any longer as the happy, competent mommy who makes everything fun and worthwhile, I remember the fragility of life and the swift passing of time.  I remember that someday those little hands will not easily and readily throw themselves around my neck and smother my cheeks with wet kisses and those little feet may not scuff the floors or dance to wild music with me as often as I would like.  Brother Checketts’s death has given me perspective, and I know that he is proud of me, even if he’s not here to say it.