Saturday, December 15, 2007

A letter on the last day of school

Dear Deanna,
I saw you in the office this morning while I was taking Tess to her school. You were there collecting lesson plans for a day of substitute teaching. We didn't say anything to each other because I was busy with Tess who was exchanging gifts with the Iris, the secretary, a woman that Tess has adopted as a kind of auntie/grandmother figure and who we visit each day on our walk to her elementary school. I saw you watching the two of them. Iris fawning happily over my little girl. She cupped Tess's face, her eyes moistening with every moment. Only a year earlier, her only son had taken his own life. From just behind me I heard you murmur to me, "My she's tall."
We were running late, as usual. I collected Tess and we left you and Iris in the crowded office and we made our way outside to her school.
About ten minutes later I sat down in front of my desk and tried collecting my thoughts in advance of first period. You appeared at my classroom door as you used to do almost daily in the fifteen years or so you worked at the high school as my colleague in the English department. My desk, positioned as it was right by the always open door seemed always to divert you daily on your way to wherever you might be going. I'd be working on the computer and I'd hear your voice.
"Hey! Kevin?"
It always sounded like a cross between a courtesy and a question. But what it turned to be was usually the continuation of an interior monologue which you'd been having at the moment you passed my desk. For me your visits became like weather reports from your native bipolar regions. Blizzards of gossip, torrents of complaints, breezy jokes...all of them perennially in the wings and poised to burst onstage. Your visits became such familiar and ritual landmarks in my professional life that since you retired three years ago I've still not lost the sensation arising vaguely from the back of the head that you're about to pop by, stand there fidgeting a bit nervously.
"Hey!Kevin?" you said this morning.
"Hey! Deanna! Who are you today?" I asked you.
"Social Studies," you chuckled. Then you repeated what you'd said to me in the office earlier, "My your daughter is so big!"
Again I nodded. I wondered if you might give me weather report, some soap operatic dish, part rumor, part invention, part yearning. Instead you asked me a question.
"Are you still writing?"
Almost nobody ever asks me that question. To everybody out there I'm an English teacher, but to you, Deanna, I'm someone who, like you, is also something else. We write. We may not be writers in the professional sense; call us practitioners. In any case, you made me stop and reflect a moment before answering.
Was I still writing. I thought about all my stories, poems, novellas and even memoirs all gathering dust on shelves, all shopped about and for the most part unread and unremembered even by me. I had to admit that I wasn't doing that anymore.
"I'm blogging."
"Huh..." You paused, as if unsure what to make of my response. I could tell that you were not a visitor to what we bloggers call the blogosphere. You had cut your writing teeth during the Beat Generation era, scribbling poems by hand, gathering with kindred souls to brandish texts and words like they were saxophones. Writing, for you, had always been a tactile and a confessional kind of experience. I could see the question in your eyes. Blogging? What kind of writing is blogging? It wasn't that you were suspicious of new technology, not like a Luddite; rather, you doubted your ability to master it. You loved films but you couldn't program a VCR. You loved computers but you couldn't find where you saved files. You loved wide screen tvs but you couldn't figure out the remote control. Suddenly, I wanted to see if I could tempt you into visiting my blog.
"Yeah, I write about a variety of things, post photos, short form, first impressions...that sort of thing."
I could see I wasn't making too much progress. I shifted gears. "Here. Look." I brought up my blog on my computer. As soon as words appeared on the screen, you became interested.
"How do get there?"
"Give me you email." I copied my blog's URL into an email message and I sent it to your email at home. "It will be there when you get home from work today. Just click on it and then when you arrive, bookmark it." I said. "I'd love it if you'd drop in on my blog once in awhile."
"Okay!" You chuckled again. I thought to myself that the odds were probably 50-50 that you'd remember. I kept my fingers crossed. Then the bell rang and you left with a hurried wave.
About forty minutes later, my French class had just finished carolling the office staff and I had sent them back to the classroom when a girl came in and said that a substitute teacher was on the floor in the hallway in the old building. I dropped my stuff and ran. I found you there on the carpeted entry ramp just inside the blue doors on the floor on your side. Beside you knelt the school nurse. I kneeled down beside your head. Your eyes opened and then closed, you were on your side, your body was clenched as if the grips of a spasm, your chest heaved, and when you exhaled a long guttural moan escaped your body. I cupped your head in my hands and I called your name several times. You seemed very far away, unable to hear me, buried under the forces wracking your body. The nurse monitored your pulse while I kept talking to you and stroking your hair. Neither of us knew what was going on; we were just holding on until help arrived. Your moans continued for a full minute, maybe more; they seemed completely involuntary and yet they seemed to tell of waves of pain. At length you fell quiet, your body seemed to relax a bit, your eyes now open but not yet seeing me. The nurse said, "I don't have a pulse." We turned you on your back, and she made ready to administer CPR. Then she as she put her hand on your chest she felt your heart beat again. Where are you Deanna? I kept thinking as I tried to keep talking to, hoping that somehow, somewhere you might be tempted to answer me.
Then your eyelids fluttered and your eyes began to regain their light. It was if you were surfacing from underwater. I grew hopeful but then you began to thrash about as if you were in the grips of a nightmare and were trying to wake up. Your eyes grew wide as if fearful. It took you half a minute to clam down and to begin to respond to our words. Finally, you relented, perhaps you were exhausted. You laid there, your breath shallow but regular, your eyes seeing us for the first time. The nurse said, "Don't worry, the ambulance will be here any minute."
Your response was instantaneous. "Ambulance? Not the ambulance. I can't afford an ambulance!"
I recognized you finally in that utterance, however bizarre it may have sounded to the others around us. It was you Deanna - alarmed and confused by finances. It wasn't funny, but it was you and I smiled at your appearance. Your were back. But only barely. When the EMTs arrived they discovered that your heart rate was only 20. As quickly as they could they put you on an IV and then loaded you on to a gurney.
You rambled a bit about the lessons plans for that day and who would be subbing for you the rest of the day. You grumbled some more about the medical bills. On the way out I said to you, "It's good to have you back, Deanna."
You chuckled for the first time.
"Keep that sense of humor. It'll come in handy."
"What sense of humor. Look at me."
"I know," I said laughing. "You're a piece of work."
"Hey!" you said and chuckled weakly again.
Then they loaded you into the ambulance and took you away.
All of us who had been with you, we all looked gratefully at one another and slowly began to think of what we had left behind 20 minutes earlier.
I checked my watch. There were still five minutes left in first period. My kids were presumably waiting for me. As I mounted the steps I barely noticed the tightening in my chest but when I cleared the door to my room and saw my students sitting peacefully in the room, watching a video they had found in my closet, I realized that I was in the grips of a feeling that I had not had time to fully recognize. I turned off the television and began to speak to my kids, trying to explain where I had been since we'd finished singing Christmas songs. But as soon as I opened my mouth I began to lose it, my eyes grew watery, my voice tremulous. Every word was another floodgate and pretty soon I had to stop talking altogether. I took a few deep breaths. I noticed the concerned and bewildered expressions on my students' faces. I tried again, but all I could manage was, "She's alright; she's alright." I not sure these kids even knew who I was talking about, or even if they knew who you are, Deanna. Three years of retirement is after all practically a lifetime to these kids, but all the same, I see it in their faces, they were relieved.
So that's what happened on the morning of my last day at school before Christmas break. If you open your email and visit my blog you can read the whole story.
It's good to have you back,
Love and Merry Christmas,
Kevin

4 Comments:

Blogger adam jk gallardo said...

Kevin, this post really hit me. I wanted to write something profound here in response, but I've been close to a lot of loved ones who've died and the the only thing I learned from those experiences is this: there is nothing profound to take away from it. At least, nothing that you can really put down in words.

So, I'll just say this: I'm glad your friend is alright. I hope she continues to be so. And I hope that you continue to appreciate her.

Take care, Kevin,
adam

11:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm so glad she is OK.

Thanks for blogging your life stories Kevin. I don't comment much but I check daily for updates.

Jerry

11:37 AM  
Blogger Benjamina said...

Hey Kevin,
Can you keep us posted on if Ms. Brickman is okay and if she needs anything? Man, I loved her Film classes.
Thanks.
Benjamina

12:32 PM  
Blogger Erin said...

Dad, I'm so glad you could be there to hang on to her. You've been friends for so long, and she's known me my whole life. Please let her know that she's in our hearts!

9:21 PM  

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