When C started school this year, his teacher asked parents to get backpacks that would fit an 8.5 x 11 folder. On the first day of school, all the kids showed up wearing backpacks that were almost as big as they were. There were Avengers backpacks, Doc McStuffins backpacks, Elmo backpacks, backpacks that screamed girly pinkiness, or boyish blueiness.
After school on that first day, I was excited to check in the backpack, to see the folder decorated with star stickers and C’s name, and to see what notifications came home in the folder. There was a welcome letter from Mrs. P, and I read it eagerly. There wasn’t much to the letter, it was like an excuse to test the delivery method. It felt real, like I was a real mom with a real boy in a real school who would start to have an impact on people’s lives, an impact that I could not control and would not be a part of. The folder meant that there would be expectations, on C, and on me, as a member of the school community.
It felt good to be part of something, just as I was filled with a tad bit of dread at the prospect of having to participate.
The folder kept coming home. In it invitations to fundraisers, requests for checks to required fundraisers, notices about box tops, and partnership programs with stores in the neighborhood that kick back to the school. The best things that come home in the folder are artworks, made by C. When he brings one home I make a big deal about it, and ask him about it, and tell him how much I love it. We’ve developed a ritual where we take the old work off the fridge, put it in the “art I’m saving forever” folder, and put up the new stuff. It’s thrilling to me to have a fridge covered in finger paintings and paper plate jack-o-lanterns.
This morning I opened yesterday’s folder. I’d already seen the artwork, C had been super excited to show me as soon as I got home. The tee-pee was already well-ensconced on the fridge, along with a big blotch of hello finger-painted sunshine and a construction paper turkey with two beaks and no eyes. The notices where in the folder, and I pulled them out. I feel important reading the notices.
A notice from an alum, who is in middle-school now, and doing a game drive to get some new board games into a center for developmentally disabled adults.
A letter from the class mom, asking for contact info so we could all be in touch about things the classroom might need, and Christmas presents for the teachers.
And then something that stopped me in my tracks.
It is with great sadness that I ask that we join together as a school family and pray for the repose of the soul of ____________, the mother of [student], in our preschool program.
On Wednesday she will be waked at _____________.
The funeral mass and burial will take place in __________.
Please keep [student], and all of her family in your prayers.
May the soul of _________, and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.
I remembered the mother from the first day of school, and her daughter, who was as tall as C. It made me glad that there were a few overly tall preschoolers, it meant that C wouldn’t be alone in towering over the littler kids.
I remembered that the little girl had a complicated looking name, starting with C, and I wondered how to pronounce it. It looked Gaelic, which is pretty unpronounceable if you don’t know the rules.
I remembered how the little girl was scared on that first day, and her mother reassured her C just as I was reassuring mine. We shared a small glance, of uncertainty and anticipation. All the parents did on that day, and when the kids were inside, we all stood there like fools cried.
The notice home didn’t give a reason for this mother’s death, so I googled her. I didn’t find an obituary, or any explanation, instead I found out that she died this past Monday, and that she was 37 years old.
When Princess Diana died in Paris, my mom was annoyed that the whole world made such a big deal about it.
“Mothers of young children die all the time,” she’d said.
“Don’t you think this is quite a bit more tragic?” I asked.
“No!” she’d said, “this happens every day, to children and mothers all over the place, and it’s just as tragic, and just as terrible, every time. In fact, how much more terrible is it when the children are left with no one to care for them, or diminished resources, than when they are left with a palace and a monarchy to inherit.”
This is what she meant. This little girl lost her mom on Monday, and she’s only three years old. When she grows up, she may say that thing that people say when they lost their moms too young. “She died when I was little,” she’ll say, “I didn’t know her.”
I hope when C the little girl grows up, her dad or grandma or someone is there to say “You don’t remember her, but you knew her, you knew her as well as you know yourself now. You relied on her love and tender touches more than you now count on the sun to come up every day. And she loved you with a whole-heartedness that knew no boundaries, and held you close when she needed to block out the terror of the whole world.”
In the event that I go before C has a chance to permanently remember me, I’m counting on one of you to tell him that.
Uncomfortably honest wrote about a similar phenomenon last April, that I thought of this morning when I read the letter home from school. You can read it here.