Iconic Canadian Band,The Tragically Hip, had its farewell tour this summer. This post was inspired by the lyrics: “Ahead By a Century.”
February 12, 1999
The sun cast its beams through my kitchen window, as I watched cars carefully navigate the snowy roads, ice crunching underneath their tires. A snowplow, with it’s flashing blue light, removed snow, while neighbours began to sporadically emerge from their houses to begin their day. It was a typical frosty morning in Ottawa, as I pulled my four-year-old’s zipper snuggly up to his neck, pulled the hood over his head and placed his school backpack on his back. His first set of Valentine`s Day cards, completed with his grandmother, had been carefully placed in his bag. It was 7:55 a.m. and time for me to walk him to school.
My mother lived in an in-law suite in our basement. We had purchased our home especially for this reason, to afford my mother easy access to her grandchildren. The close proximity to her grandkids afforded many special moments to bond.
One such moment was the time before school, when my 2-year old, would descend the stairs to spend time with his grandmother. That morning, my youngest proceeded down the stairs. “Granny, Granny, Granny,” he called. Within minutes, he re-emerged at the top of the stairs, “Granny is not waking up!”
“That’s when the hornet stung me.”
Without time to think, I descended the stairs and at the base of the stairs, as I turned my head, I knew immediately. My first thought, ‘Oh Mother, I am so sorry.” My mother’s cup of tea and phone lay undisturbed, indicating her death had been immediate. She remained in the exact position she had sat the night before, when the family had joked and reminisced. The call was made, the first responders arrived, the body was taken away, Last Rites were said, a final kiss on the forehead was given and – time stood still for me.
Life happens fast.
Especially that morning. The serene winterscape outside my window changed as the snowbanks outside reflected the flashing lights of the first responders – ambulance, firefighters and police who responded to the call.
That morning, the first responders still in my driveway, I learned my own strength as I walked my son to school to deliver those Valentines, thereby preserving his last memory with my mom.
That morning, made me conscious of every February 12, every Friday morning, every 7:55 a.m.
That morning, changed my life forever.
It is the small changes you notice first. The lack of her footsteps on the snowy pathway leading to her side entrance. The Ottawa Citizen arriving the next morning, and no one to give it to. The scarf I had borrowed and failed to return. The silence from her apartment below – no running water, no closing cupboards and the mere absence of her voice. All gone.
Tears did not come as I had always imagined they might. But there, two days later,standing in the entrance of my church, the searing tears flowed freely and stung their way down my cheeks. The scent of the incense, the heaviness in the air, the closeness to God. There standing in the church that day, the pain crushed me to my core. The floodlights opened and the emotion writhed out of me. To this day, church is where I find my mother. She is tangible there.
For months, I could not descend those steps to our basement. I was stung by the memory of what I saw at the base of the stairs. There were thoughts about selling the house, and about needing a fresh start. But, time renews and I quickly learned that I could not run from the pain. The best way to face the pain, was to confront it head-on. I stayed, reflected and then, did the only thing I could do. I accepted.
Death is not a comfortable subject for people. It certainly was not for me. It fills us with the fear of our impermanence, and reminds us that our days are numbered. It is a reminder that, really, time is never truly on our side. It is the most feared “hornet sting” awaiting us all.
Life’s stinging blows come in various shapes and sizes throughout our lives. They taunt us, irritate us and interrupt our carefully contrived plans. There is no dress rehearsal or practice time for life’s greatest stings. Nor, is there an opportune time. Life pains us without regard for our timeline and strikes sometimes in periods of tranquility or greatest joy. Or, perhaps, further adds to our current burdens.
What do you do with the wasp in the room? Those potential, painful stings? Sometimes the wasp is something we can attempt to avoid, try to “smoke out” or eliminate. Sometimes the wasp just zeros in on us and stings us, and we must solely deal with the injury inflicted. Regardless, one cannot ignore the power life’s wounds have on affecting our lives and on shaping who we are.
My mother passed away during my first year of teaching. I have learned that our lives, every single sting, ache, joy, and memory, becomes the composite of the teacher we are at the front of the classroom each day. It is up to us to decide how these moments in our lives will influence us. Is it baggage we carry that weighs us down, or something we use to inspire our students to move forward?
My most stinging hardships, like my mother’s death, have created, in me, an openness to deep exploration of life’s greatest issues. No longer do I shy away from them. I now provide my students with a venue for question and discussion.
Last year, students explored topics of their choice – stinging subjects. They investigated self-selected topics of relevance, including Depression, Poverty, Hunger in Canada, Child Labour, and Domestic Violence. Students gravitate to subject matter that burns within them. Allowing students to question and find solutions to life’s greatest problems, invests them in their own learning. It also allows them to smoke out issues which may be personally relevant. Today’s students aren’t just being prepared for the real world, they are already living in it.
We all get stung by life. Its harsh lessons impact who we are as persons, and as educators. The most important gift we can give our students is to be our most authentic selves – whole, human and inspiring. By wearing our stings as badges of honour, we show them the way to live. Life is not a dress rehearsal. The curtain is up – get out there and shine!