Dying in Your Sleep
Updated: Jul 24, 2019
I don’t want to go, not really. Who wants to go to a memorial service for someone in their mid-twenties? This is the fourth death in the past six years of a former student, and this seems like far too many—just shy of an annual event. I loved teaching this kid, and I loved his parents too. I don’t have the right words for what I feel: sadness and disbelief, of course, but he was my student almost ten years ago, so the rhythm of my own day-to-day life is not entirely derailed by the news. My feelings come and go inside the distractions of ordinary living. It’s only when I think of his parents that my heart feels most fragile, how kind and protective and loving they were towards their son, and how appreciative they were of me, and what they must be going through now. With two kids myself, imagining one of them gone . . .
I’m in the backyard—the first real weekend of summer—and the service starts in half an hour. How easy it would be to eat a leisurely meal with my family and friends and just skip it altogether. Would I even be missed if I didn’t go? Or noticed? Can’t I just say I was out of town? I flip sausages on the grill, and picture arriving at the service, giving his parents a hug, saying how sorry I am, marveling that they are able to converse and smile as people approach, when inside their universe must be ashes. So much easier for me to focus on perfectly browning the bratwurst and not think too hard about how each one of us is on this earth in such a precarious way. Any of us could die in our sleep one night just like he did. But I know the decision to stay put isn’t right. The ambivalence tugs. So I excuse myself, go upstairs and put on a button-down shirt. I drive the five minutes to school. I go inside, and there at tables in the cafeteria are nearly a dozen of my former students. How surreal to see them all grown up, each as I remember them, but refracted ten years into the future. As a teacher, I mostly only keep my current students in my head on a day-to day basis. A practical reality of juggling so many over almost two decades in the classroom. But they all still live inside me, every single one. I teach many of my students for seven years, from sixth grade to graduation, so they tend to burrow in deep. I am so happy to see this crop again that I forget momentarily why we are all here. We chat about their lives, their near-universal struggle of being out of school, mid-twenties, trying to figure out how to make a living, find love and friendship, continue to make the art that drew them to this school in the first place all those years ago. I can see the bewilderment on their faces, about how different life seems now from when they were in high school, how strange it is for them to be here again in this cafeteria. And how is it that one of their own has died? How does this happen, and what does it mean? I have no answers, of course, but I love the feeling of sitting with them. That chasm of child/adult has mostly closed. After an hour or so, we decide we should take a picture together outside. It’s an impromptu suggestion, but the solidarity of us standing there arm-in-arm in the parking lot is just what we all need. Afterwards, I walk to my car and drive the few short minutes home, back to the summer evening in the backyard, happy that I went, but sadder too.