I am happy. Really happy. Sometimes bordering on delirious. It feels like cheating. How can I be happy when Chris is no longer around to be part of it? Shouldn’t that joy be tainted? Am I a bad person for happiness not taking longer to manifest after his death?
But there is it is. Bright, shiny happiness. I suppose it’s not so ironic that this newfound elation correlates to changes I made because of his passing. Death has that power to make us seek more in life. We have evidence of our days being numbered and want to make them count.
Since Chris’s passing, I have felt the distinct needs to connect with people and be of service. Not that I am some antisocial hermit that lives in a cave. I tend to feel uncomfortable talking with people I don’t know. I don’t enjoy mingling. On good days, I like to spend time alone. On bad days, I don’t so much isolate as push away with force. So this need to find and know people is foreign to me. But as I put myself out there, as I attempt to connect, I find comfort in discovering the things that unite us as humans.
The greatest example of this urge is that after seven years of staying home with my children, I now have a job. I work as an instructional aide in a preschool. About half of the students in the class have developmental delays.
Prior to starting work I thought This is going to be the coolest job ever. I’m going to get paid to fingerpaint and build sand castles and put straws in Capri Suns. After my first day on the job, I texted a friend to say that I didn’t know if I could handle it.
The students deserve privacy, so I will attempt to describe without going into identifying specifics. Some of our students have very significant needs, many of which scare me. I have become acquainted with words like “medically fragile.” I’ve witnessed kids so frustrated with their inability to express their emotions that they throw violent tantrums. Then there is the stuff that is just unpleasant- uncontrollable drooling, runny noses, poopy diapers. Not to mention the unbridled insanity of trying to wrangle a large group of three year olds. That first day I came home and thought what have I gotten myself into?
We have a student in the class who can not sit still. Of course, preschoolers are fidgety and rambunctious by nature, but this kid just can not sit for longer than ten seconds at a time. The other students sit on the carpet going over their letters and waiting for a story. This child tears right through the middle of the circle. The other kids see this behavior and think “that looks pretty fun.” As you might imagine, circle time quickly dissolves into chaos.
The lead teacher sends me an email each morning with new strategies to try. After a couple weeks of failed circle times, I thought this kid can’t do this. It’s going to be months before sitting at the circle happens.
There is a sign on the door of our classroom that reads “If you have told a child 1000 times and he still does not understand, it is not the child who is a slow learner.”
I kept trying the different strategies, kept working with the student. Somewhere along the way, we found one that worked.
It’s not perfect. We’re still working on it. But a couple of days ago, this child sat through a game, patiently waiting for a turn. When the wiggles would try to overcome, I reminded- “First sit, then your turn.” After taking a turn at the game, this kid throws arms around my neck, radiant with joy for having a chance to participate. It brings tears to my eyes. This child is going to be able to sit for dinner with the family, is not going to miss out on having a turn, is going to be able to sit long enough to LEARN.
Every day, something like that happens. A child who struggles to speak says a word I didn’t realize he knew. A kid learns the signs for “more” and “all done” so he has control over how much snack he’d like to have. A couple of boys decide their new favorite game is to pretend it’s Miss Kat’s birthday and hiding “presents” for her to find. A child hugs me so tight as a way to find comfort during a moment of self doubt. I have the most inspiring, amazing, gratifying job a person could hope for.
My mindset is different. I’m finding my own strategies. I hide a tissue in my pocket for moments of drool or snotty noses. When I see kids fighting over a toy, instead of a lecture on sharing, I say “Who wants to do a science experiment with me?” Poopy diapers are poopy diapers- I still haven’t figured out the strategy to make those pleasant, but no job is perfect. I take this mindset with me. Nothing is impossible.
In the morning, I have twenty minutes between dropping my kids off at their school and heading to mine. I pop in my headphones and go for a walk. I start the day with good music and movement. I appreciate ears that hear, legs that move.
During lunch, I read a book. The book I’m reading now, The Tortilla Curtain, was recommended by two friends. When Ben and I were dating, we exchanged three books to read so we could get to know each other. I’ve started asking people what three books they would recommend with that scenario in mind. Each time someone offers a recommendation, I add it to my wish list. It ensures that I am reading quality books, but it also offers me more of the connection I seek- the opportunity for discussion once I have finished reading.
I don’t know if its being away from my kids all day, or inhabiting the wonder of children in the classroom, but when I hop in the car to pick up my own kids, the car can not go fast enough. I can’t wait to see them, to hug them and put my nose in their hair.
At night, when I tuck them in bed, Liam always asks “Will you stay with me?” in his sweetest voice. It has become a game- a way to play a little longer, read an extra story. Until I started working, I hate to admit that on most nights, I couldn’t wait for bedtime to be done. I craved the after hours. Now, I find myself lingering. It is cliche to say, but childhood is so fleeting. It will not be long before they no longer need me to tuck them in at night. I have time for an extra story or a bit of secret sharing after lights out.
I am humbled by this life- beauty in its’ challenges, joy in the most routine of tasks. We are here. We get to experience it. That is not a given. It can be taken at any time. For some, much too soon. We owe ourselves the reward of being present in it, of allowing it to touch and guide us.
I guess the joy is tainted just a bit. I still wish Chris was here. I know he would be so happy for me. I know he would understand the feeling of finding your place in the world. I still hold out hope that one day I will see him again and get to tell him all about it.