Eventually the day came when all of the casseroles had been eaten. The grieving began to wain and turn into a throbbing ache rather than the agonizing, gut-wrenching loss. The weeks following my father’s death are grayed out in the past of forgetfulness. My first memory is of blood being drawn at the clinic near the hospital. The doctors were going to test me for mononucleosis or the “Kissing Disease” because I had been sleeping more than normal. We later found out that I didn't have mono. Instead, I was simply depressed about losing a parent. You see, what would be obvious today did not even register when I was a child.
For the first several weeks following, I spent the nights sleeping in my parents’ bed next to my mother. Soon, it was time to return to my own bed, return to school, return to work, return to an absent normalcy. I was looking forward to reuniting with my elementary school classmates. I considered them all to be my friends. Especially the cute olive skinned girl that smelled like bubble gum and always wore “Osh-Kosh” overalls to school.
Sadly, instead of a return and reunion at my familiar elementary school, familiar teacher, desk, and friends, I was to clean out my desk one afternoon after all of the children had gone home for the day. I walked into the classroom and found personal home away from home. It was behind the cute girl that smelled like bubble gum’s desk. I had carved my identity into this spot--who I was and who I was going to be. I learned and dreamed and felt like me in this spot. I knew I was not coming back, and I was scared that I was leaving the last bits of me behind and I would never feel that boy that had a father that loved him ever again.
I had been enrolled in a private Christian school. My mother, for reasons I do not know, thought that I would be better off at a Christian school. As an adult I can surmise that maybe she thought the direct access to God and Christianity would pull me out of my funk and help me be better. Maybe it was more convenient for her work schedule. Maybe someone suggested it, and she went with it because she did not know how to make an informed decision by herself. Whatever the reason, I was not better off. I was not safe. I was not ok.
The Monday following, I walked to the street corner where I would meet a rickety yellow bus and travel the approximately 20 miles to the outskirts of Loveland, Colorado where my new school was located. I boarded the bus full of noisy strangers and found a seat near the front. I stared longingly out the window as the rural scenery flew by in a blur. I wondered what my friends at my old school were doing. I wondered if they missed me. I wondered if the cute girl was wearing her overalls again today. As I sat on the bus, every bump, every smell, every sound took me farther away from what I knew and loved. My life was being hijacked by this old bus and no one seemed be paying attention.
As the bus turned into a gravel parking lot my eyes rested on what was to be my new school for rest of the year. It appeared to be a converted church building, a tall A-Frame structure with a red brick foundation. In places the red accent paint was fading or even peeling from the siding. Other places the siding was missing entirely, exposing the pink lettering printed on the foam insulation underneath. Ashen gray plywood covered the front office windows giving the impression that the building had long been forgotten and abandoned.
Inside was no better. Well worn carpet with frayed holes of various sizes covered the entryway into the only classroom. Dingy, dirty white paint coated the walls. Students of all ages began to find their assigned desks. I stood in the entryway watching as the chaos unfolded around me.
“Joel?” A disconnected voice behind me asked. “I have your books here. Let me show you to your desk.” I followed the voice through the solitary classroom to the last row where my desk was assigned to me. There were six desks to a table with wooden dividers creating a 2x2 cubicle for each student. A small hole was drilled in the boards where a small flag could be placed. It appeared that it had been handmade in a hurry with one coat of watered down paint only to make the graffiti written on it stand out all the more. The disconnected voice told me that there were no formal classes and that each student was responsible to learn at their own pace by completing the assignments given to them at the start of each day. If I needed any help to raise my hand or the flag that was affixed to top of each desk cubicle.
After I was orientated to the school and my first assignment was given to me. The voice/teacher left me alone. The reality of my situation began to set in, grief overtook me and I was unable to do anything but put my head down on the desk and weep uncontrollably, my tears staining the unfinished plywood work surface. I never left my cubicle that first day. Unending tears my only company. Soon, the day was over, it was time to go home, my first private school assignment would just have to wait. I don’t remember anyone checking in on me--not a student, not a teacher. My aloneness was now complete. I had no one.
The next morning, I put on my jacket and walked back to the street corner where I would meet the same rickety old school bus and travel the same roads back to my new school. The tears wouldn’t wait for me to arrive at school. Weeping the entire way, I became so troubled that I couldn't remember where my desk was out of the rows and rows makeshift cubicles. After a few moments of lost wandering I found my way back to where I was supposed to be. I opened my book, and quickly became distressed. Trying to force back the emotions, blankly staring at, what was supposed to be words, only what appeared as gray lines on the page. The tears started to flow once again rewetting the salt stains from the day before.
On the way home, “Another day lost to these dumb emotions,” I thought to myself.
A few more days passed with the same result. My schoolwork wasn't getting done. All I seemed to be doing was grieving the loss of my father, the loss of my friends, the loss of my school. I steeled myself and determined that Monday I would keep the tears from flowing and start on all of the assignments that were beginning to pile up. I sat at my desk, took a few deep breaths opened my science book and began to read. The tears still flowed that day, and I eventually had to change subjects so that I could have a dry paper in front of me. But, the schoolwork was finally getting done.
Each day that passed, despair ebbed into the background the moisture eventually dried. I was beginning to catch up on my school work--an achievement of epic proportions for a grief stricken eleven year old boy with no formal classroom or teachers.
I was worried about my mother. I knew she had been suffering with her own grief and I could see her drifting away into numbness. She asked me the perfunctory questions about my day, but I could tell she wasn’t really there to listen to me. I would mumble something about it being fine and head up to my room to be alone. I had no capacity to care for myself and I didn’t feel like she had the capacity to care for me either. I wanted to keep things simple because she wasn’t listening anyway.
After a few months the science fair came along, I really hadn't prepared anything so I threw something together at the last minute. As I brought in my project the morning of the science fair I immediately found out that I had won first place! A triumph only tempered by the truth that I was the only 6th grader in my school and the project divisions were broken up by grade. What a joke. I wasn’t even worth having anyone to compete against.
My only other memory of my time at Loveland Christian School was of later in the year near summer break. I was called to the principal’s office. I didn’t know why I was going to the office. I thought I was in trouble for something. I had gotten in trouble for not putting encyclopedias back on the shelf in the right order earlier. As I walked to the office I was alone. I noticed they had replaced the boarded up office window with glass. The area was cluttered with papers strewn everywhere, not like the organized office of my other school. The teacher barely acknowledged me, so I had no idea what was going to happen. I sat behind the desk where the principal and a woman sat. The sunshine coming in from outside belied the storm about to explode in that tiny office. The principal introduced me to the woman, a counselor they had brought in from the outside to help me with my grief. After a brief hello, she peppered me with unexpected questions.
“Tell me about your father, was he a good man? How did he die?” she began.
Between the monsoonal torrent of tears, I began to tell the story that he died of pancreatic cancer. I recounted every detail from the doctor that told him he was crazy and needed to reduce the stress in his life, to my very last memory of him crying out to God in anguish and abandonment. The counselor was skilled in her probing questions. After what seemed like days, I broke down and wept uncontrollably. I was no longer able to answer her questions. I felt angry that she had made me re-experience a trauma I had been healing from on my own for nearly the entire school year. As I cried and talked I did not see their faces. I talked to the open window wishing I were somewhere else. They did not speak in a language I could understand through my sorrow. I felt like they were surgically implanting painful spikes into my very soul with each memory, each tear they extracted from me. I did not feel compassion or love. I did not feel heard. I felt as if they were judging a weak boy for crying and not being a man. I had to be a man after all.
From outside, two loud horn blasts sounded, the school bus was about to leave me behind. I was dismissed. I quickly ran to find my seat with my jaw set, and I determined that I had cried enough for a lifetime I would not cry ever again. To this day I find tears difficult to flow. I remember this day and I keep my emotions suppressed so that I do not cry. If I do become tearful I feel angry that I would be so weak as an outward display of emotion.
After the meeting, I was ignored again and back to staring at a workbook. It was like the meeting was a figment of my imagination until I turned a certain way and felt the spike poking me again. My mother never mentioned it. I don’t even know if she knew it happened. I never saw the principal or counselor again. I was surviving--no, I was dying at this school with only the sheer will of desire to be free from this all encompassing pain tying me life. I was twelve years old. I had already lived my life. This was a holding pattern of torment to which I was searching for an escape, or at least someone to hold out their hands and catch me.