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.

32 thoughts on “Death and Fragility

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  1. What a wonderful tribute to your teacher. I can picture him smiling and saying “Thank You” to you for taking the time to share your gratitude for all he did.

  2. Wow, Em, that was sweet. I too have been thinking lately how I am missing the little things (that are actually the big things) simply because of being preoccupied or too busy with the mundane. At the end of each day when you lie down in bed, it’s the moments of taking time to play catch, or jump on the tramp with the kids, or just chase them around laughing, that count. Why is my first reaction to those requests usually “no, I’m busy right now”? Time is flying by. Thanks for your message today.

  3. Many people live longer these days. I’ve come across people who still have all their children and parents at family reunions. Sometimes even grandparents. Those are the people who tell you, after a few months, that it’s time to ‘move forward with your life’. Those are the ones who have never felt true and final loss of someone close to their heart.
    I, too, learned the importance of taking the time to pay attention to friends and family–to listen to what their heart says, as well as what their words say–and to ‘be there’ mentally as well as physically.
    You are fortunate to have had such a friend at a young age, and to learn such a valuable lesson from the loss.
    Thank you for writing about it.

    1. Yes, definitely fortunate and blessed to have known him. I think it took me a while to learn the lesson. It is one that I have to keep relearning, but sometimes those profound and painful moments are the catalyst for helping me to remember.

  4. What a wonderfully heartfelt story.
    I had a similar experience with the death of my junior school headmaster, Mr Roxborough. The kindest giant of a teacher I ever had.
    Thank you for posting that.

  5. That was wonderful Emily I do enjoy your posts so much.I know the feeling of loss especially when it is someone young. I remember how I felt when we got word your Uncle Kenny was gone.It is just that you can’t believe it. Like you he was a talented writer and could have gone so much farther.I was very angry with him for a long time but I have learned not to dwell on . It accomplishes nothing.

  6. Wow what an incredibly moving post. A wonderful tribute to your teacher but also a great reminder to slow down and enjoy life…I am always guilty of rushing to make sure everything is done, house is clean study is done etc. So often I think I can’t make time for friends because I am too busy…this post reminds me of the priorities this morning! thankyou.

    1. Thank you! I, too, find that I like to be busy and I like to have everything done and in place. I’m glad I wrote this and then found it this week again, when I really needed to hear it. How wise I am when I’m not feeling sorry for myself! 🙂

  7. Thanks for sharing a piece of you with us. People we treasure are our dearest memories. I am glad you let us get to know him and why he was important. So, you can sing Gershwin as well. I am impressed. What was your other solo? Take care, BTG

      1. You and Paul McCartney covered the same song. Well done. “There were bells on a hill, but I never heard them ringing, I never heard them at all , til there was you.”

  8. So beautifully said. We are indeed rich if we learn from these times, take them to heart and let them change us. You’ve done that we I benefit from what you’ve learned.

  9. I had a religion teacher in high school that helped me, a child of divorced parents who never saw her father. Although I have not lost my father figure as you did, I can understand that connection you had with him.
    Beautifully written, and the lessons you took from this are definitely eternal. RIP Brother Checketts.

  10. Although I didn’t have a religion teacher pass away, my grandfather passed away the day I entered the MTC, which was hard in and of itself. It’s hard when someone that listens and can relate somewhat to you passes away.
    Thanks for posting this! I have to slow down sometimes and remember that it isn’t about the amount of things I get done, but the little moments that I take advantage of to talk with a friend or listen to the hubby. Hope you are well!

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