Tuesday, December 21, 2010


I'm still having a tough time getting used to this whole "get over yourself, you're human" gig. Especially right now. A very sudden death has occured in my hometown... one of the veritable village elders, if you will... and it has put me in a place to have to think about things I haven't had to wrestle with for at least 10 years. Not up close like this.

The loss itself, naturally, is tragic. He was such a transformative figure for what I'd guess would be no less than hundreds upon hundreds of people. He was a high school teacher. He was also annoying, and frustrating, and frightening and he really really understood what it took to plant the seeds of national pride in each scrubby flock of jackass teenagers that came into his classrooms. We loved him for it. He showed no mercy to the jocks, or the wallflowers, or anyone in between. He took us on class trips to Washington DC. He was skinny and mean and he smoked. We loved him for it.

And now. He is deceased.

My sister in law inherited his classroom when he retired. She probably fell in love with and married my brother because of the irons this teacher held to my brother's feet on so many occasions. Now she's an American History teacher and he's an author (Environmental History of all things) and they're both stunningly well suited for each other and the family they're creating. This singular teacher had an enormous amount to do with that. Though very little of it was deliberate. I'd wager he even had more influence on my brother during our teen years than our own father did.

And now. He is deceased.

He wasn't a religious man in any kind of discernable way, but he did have his strict set of standards. He demanded excellence from us. All of us. Now that he's gone, those iron-clad standards still stick fast to most of us. We have our own private memories of him. We have our own favorite antecdotes, including various absurd encarnations of him.

But now, that is frankly all that's left of him.

Frankly speaking, he is not the "empty shell" that's going to be enterred. That's not him. He's not there. But what has that shell been emptied of? The nothing that isn't there anymore... just isn't there anymore. It is, perhaps, the cruellest trick of adoration and love that the object of our adoration must ultimately be ripped from us and all we shall be left with, shall consist of ghosts and vapors and whatever gooey synapses fill up our heads.

And finally here I am. Confronted with the notion that a happy ending involves re-unification with the best parts of the people I adored most throughout my life. Happy Ending Door 1 we might call it. A little opalescent door behind which shine a thousand smiling faces; porch cats, classmates, ancestors and friends. It's a comforting thought in this brutally mean world.

And yet, it is a brutally mean world. Happy Ending Door 2 is the door that opens to nothing. It's the door that doesn't ... exist. It's the door through which some stranger's hand reaches and flicks off a light switch. That which was there is no more. Just as a hatchling can no longer be confined back in the shell, that which has departed our own human shell just won't be there anymore.

But what of the hatchling? Is there a Happy Ending Door 1 for us hatchlings?

Usually, when I need the emotional crutch most, I do on some level convince myself that there is. There is something. Other times, when the world is at it's most brutal and mean, Happy Ending Door 2 seems infinitely more comforting.

And so here am I. As human as I have ever been. Still in my little eggshell and staring down both barrels of what will ultimately be my own future. As a rule, I don't know what to hope for.

Having said that, it feels strange to admit: I am relieved to at least know that if a Happy Ending Door 1 there be, my highschool American History teacher will already be there, ready to get me sorted out when I arrive.

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