On January 14th 2019 my mother died. I sat with her for nearly eighteen hours, and was there when her breathing slowed and stopped.
My mother taught in Seattle public schools for a decade before becoming a stay at home mom. Some of my earliest memories are of her classroom and the daycare adjacent to her classroom. There was a door with a window between us. A green cot I lay on, but never slept on for nap time. A paper mache T-Rex. It seemed huge. The drawer she said her purse was stolen from. A woman I was not related to, but we called Aunt. Dusty light in a 60’s style classroom.
As a stay at home mom, my mom thrived. She was the type that made things happen: lunches, events, or after school programs. Our county didn’t have a rec sports league so she co-founded one. She taught me to read. Put books in my hands. Drove me everywhere. Music lessons. Friends. Ballparks. Yelled louder than any parent in any baseball stands anywhere. Ever. A growl of a cheer.
She had a huge social network. And she was kind to everyone. My town was small enough, at the time, most people knew her, and therefore most people knew me in any given situation. I hated that fact as a kid. I’m a classic introvert preferring to be left alone often, and she a classic extrovert—thriving on the social network. But mom taught me to be kind, or at least civil, to everyone I met, no matter what. And to respect kindness as the highest form of human interaction.
My mother also was an alcoholic. She would not like me saying this. She would say I’m not preserving her dignity. And from her perspective, she’s right. But in my early life my mom taught me to be kind, she taught me to be honest, and she taught me to pay attention to language. And in her later life she taught me to practice these things under strenuous circumstances. I’ve learned over the years that accurately naming something is a kindness. I would argue acknowledging my mom’s disease, and loving her are one act. I would argue putting the truth on the table under bright light takes away its power. Alcoholism gets between people, naming it (without judgement) puts it to the side.
She struggled with that, and it is ok, because it is hard. She could not untangle the connotation of judgement from the word alcoholic. Perhaps that is a perspective from her personality or from her generation, either way it does not matter anymore. We disagreed on this until the day of her death. But what I’ve found over the last few weeks is that the people who love her most, knew and in their own ways acknowledged her disease and loved her all at once. Life is supposed to be hard. If it were easy there would be nothing to do and we’d have no sense of value. And the lesson of naming something, no matter how difficult, proved just as powerful as my mom’s early lessons about kindness.
The day after my mom died, I went to work. I started my AP Language class with a colleague’s student teacher observing, something planned weeks ago. I tried to teach. I started talking about sentences, periodic and cumulative sentences. I thought I mixed them up. Fumbled through definitions. I couldn’t focus. I started sweating. I have never felt so lost in front of students. Even in my first years of teaching. So, I stopped.
I told my students that we knew each other too well after four months, and I could not continue without explaining why I was a mess. I told them my mom died. A subtle shock wave moved through the room. They went quiet. I’ve been teaching for fifteen years and I really believe the single most important thing a teacher can do is be authentic. I told them I was ok, and would be gone the rest of the week. We were quiet as a group for a few beats. That morning I held back because it did not seem appropriate to burden my students with my grief. But standing before them, I just could not fake it at that level. They saw right through the façade, because I’d worked hard to be vulnerable and real and together all year and when I wasn’t everything was wrong. Naming the reality put everything into the fluorescent classroom light. I stopped sweating. We could move on. They said they were sorry with murmurs, with their eyes, and with their awkward teenage silences. It was amazing.