Monday, April 4, 2016

Gone Without Rhyme or Reason - But Your Presence Remains

“Are you sitting down…?”
“I’m about to…Why?”
“Are there students or staff around you?”
“…no…why? Jason, what’s going on?”
“sigh…you remember Justin Schaefer?”
“Of course, he’s out in Detroit.  Is he okay?”
“Well…no…gah, I don’t know how to put this.”
“Jason, just tell me, what’s going on? What happened to Justin?”
“Barbs, I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to check out Facebook today or not.”
anxiously nervous… “no…I haven’t”
"Well, Justin was out for a run on Sunday, and…he…died…”
I stop…. “whaaaat...?!  What do you mean he died?! He couldn’t have died, he’s perfectly healthy!”
“He’s gone, Barbs, he died…”
“I mean…was he held at gunpoint; tripped and fell into a ditch; was attacked by an animal?!”
“No, no, nothing like that, there was no sign of foul play, he just collapsed, and died…”

As the severity of the news sunk in after a few seconds it hit like a ton of bricks and the rage takes over "AHHHHHHHH!!!!” as I lean forward in the agony of the shock “NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” as I arch my head back searching for reason from the heavens. my hands hit the desk! GAAAHHHHH!!!!....tears streaming…BAM…as I repeatedly punch the wooden cabinet door behind me….NOOOOOO!!!! I pound my clenched fist back on the desk….tears, whaling, tears and sobbing whaling tears continue for several minuets. 

The sound of Jason’s voice from my phone pulls me back… 
“Barbara, Barbara…”  
“I don’t know what to say, I mean how could this happen?! He was healthy, I just saw him update his profile picture not a week ago where he was walking a bike trail in Detroit.  I have been meaning to call that guy for months now, and the last time I thought to do so was when I saw his updated picture.” 
“Yea, I literally wrote on his wall just a couple of days ago saying how I hope he’s doing well and how we should chat soon.” 
“Damn it! Jason, it was just over two years ago when Justin came up from San Diego for my own dad’s rosary and funeral…sobbingand now he’s gone…I wrote one of his letters of recommendation to the Volunteer corps that took him to Detroit.  the tears stream down my face again.  How have you been taking the news Jason?” 
“Definitely had my cry sessions earlier, and other than that....…as expected.” 
“Gah, I don’t know if I can finish the work day.” 
“You can’t Barbs, you can’t.  You need to go home.”

After I wrapped up the conversation, I stood up to pick up my half eaten lunch and took the weight of my body out of the room and down the school hall.  As I walked down the hall, this familiar feeling of grief and blinders came back to me in these very familiar halls.  I started to wonder if the 3rd or 1st grade classes heard me sobbing and slamming just a few minuets earlier. My steps are heavy and load, isolated in a vacuum of a muffled silence.  I think, and I hope the principal isn’t in the staff room, I can’t bare for the upper grade teachers to see my face.  As the odds would have it, of course she’s in the faculty lounge.  I linger in the first entry way of the lounge where I could remain unseen, waiting and hoping for her to end a conversation.  Surly, she has some other task that’ll take her away from the lounge.  Five minutes pass, and the end of the second lunch is quickly approaching; I have to interject.  With zero eye contact, and head down, I quickly step into the room to expose my grief ridden face, as I place my hand on the principal’s shoulder, “do you have a minuet?” I ask.

Moments later we’re sitting in her office.  I tell her everything I was just told by Jason; and my word vomit proceeds…  
“We were friends in college; he was a Berkeley student in the Newman Club while I did the same at San Francisco State; 
we planned events together for the two campus ministries; 
he came to a couple weddings with me; 
we did a color run together; 
we kept in touch when I went off to Philly; 
he was there at my dad’s viewing, rosary and funeral; 
he helped me as I grieved the death of my father; 
I wrote one of his letters of recommendation to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps; 
he was an only child; his parents just lost their only child, their only son.  
I can’t finish the day today; I can handle the last two art classes for the afternoon, I can’t stay after-school today though – I can’t fathom that right now.” 
“Of course.” And she proceeded with the only thing she could say as I lifted my heavy body up and out of her office, “I’m so sorry…”

The few minutes that were left before I picked up my 7th grade students were followed by throwing away my half eaten lunch in the trash and leftover pizza from my 8th grade class who earned a pizza party from me in the staff room as silence fell into the room at the very sight of my bloodshot eyes and wet cheeks.  Clunk, click and flick as I closed the bathroom door shut and turned the light on.  As I stood there alone, I hung my head over the bathroom sink for a moment as I caught my breath and watched tears hit the white porcelain sink all I could think about was how Justin died – alone.

Lunch’s over.  I quickly move to my classroom and quickly - and as if in a fog - grab the materials my 7th graders will need. As I proceed down a seemly long middle school hallway, I shove all my emotions, all my grief and all my tears just under my facade and place my binders up.  Every heavy step I feel with great intensity and my eyes are focused daggers as the weight of tears are just waiting to pierce through the veil of my thin facade.  I feel every look; and every long stare; by every curious student and every concerned but nervous teacher as I walk by and further down the hall.  I was indeed the elephant in the room - or in this case the school halls.  And through it all, this strange familiar feeling of grief I walked these same halls in the wake of my father’s death in the same…exact…way.  This moment and the memory of returning to work the day after my father's death came right back - it felt all too familiar.  As I step into the 7th grade classroom a grim grey cloud followed my demeanor and the students without necessary prompting or question see it, and sit silently and wait for my directions.  I gaze just over the tops of their heads as to not make eye contact, and tell them what they’ll need; I pause briefly, and simply and quietly say “line up.”

I have never seen a more silent or straight line going from their homeroom to my art classroom; and then to see these students sit like perfectly behaved robots.  I stand in front of this room of 12 year olds not knowing if I’m ready to even open my mouth again, as those piecing tears just lay behind that thin veil.  As I quickly go over what they need to accomplish in the hour I have them in class for, a hand of a young boy goes up. After I finish my sentence, I address the young boy. 
“Yes, Joey?”  
“Ms. Quigley, why are you so sad?” Like a trigger, I felt the piercing trigger being tapped; as it took everything I had not to keel over and fall apart in front of my adolescent students.  I threw my head backwards, clutched my eyes shut, rubbed my fingers through my hair all in an effort to pull down that thin facade.  And the students knew as they watched in their paralyzed hypnosis, as their playful sarcastic teacher gone wretched.  
“Joey, I really appreciate you asking.  But let’s get our work done first, and if that happens and there’s time, I would be fine sharing with you why I’m so upset.”

The class time proceeds as usual, except their playful art teacher has checked out and been replaced by a cold disconnected robot.  Hands go up; I walk over to hands of students; “like this Ms. Quigley?” “No,” as I take their paper, and quickly and harshly show them them how, and then abruptly walk away.  Every place I walk or position myself in the room, the eyes of the students follow as they wonder and are mesmerized by the drastic demeanor change of their strict and playful art teacher: where has she gone? I’m sure they are wondering; what happened? I’m sure was going through their heads.  But they don’t even dare to ask one another. 

The time wraps up and students quickly clean up and sit down to hear the grim news of why their teacher is so forlorn.  I pull my stool over to the front and center of the room and sit before taking a deep breath as I lift my head to look at their faces for the first time.
“I got a call today – just at lunch actually – about a dear friend of mine named Justin from college.  Justin has been living and teaching out in Detroit for the past year and a half, and was out on a run this past Sunday morning, and…he…just…died…  No rhyme or reason, just fell and dropped dead."  Pause…  
"Justin and I did campus ministry together in college, we stayed in touch after graduation.  He was there when my dad passed away, and I even wrote one of his letters of recommendation to go out to Detroit.  And you know what gets me the most?" 
As they all are hanging on my every word… 
"I had been thinking about Justin over the past few months, like man, it’s been a while, I haven’t heard from him in a while, I should call that guy and see how he’s doing and we should catch up…and I never did…and now I can’t…"

and those tears start to trickle through the veil…as the students sat paralyzed, not knowing what to do as they see grief seep out of their teacher.  One student; a boy stands up from the back row, walks up, and hugs me....

A simple yet profound gesture. 

With the fact that Justin's passing happened in Detroit, right before the Thanksgiving holiday, I was more than vigilant in checking social media constantly to stumble on an update on when his services would be in San Diego – his hometown and where his parents live.  As the days passed like weeks, friends from college all came out of the woodwork calling and texting each other searching for answers and a shoulder to let their waterfall of tears out on.  In that two week span I spent more time reading and re reading hand written letters Justin mailed to me or Facebook message threads; more time re watching a home video of Justin, some friends and me making fools of ourselves in a college talent show; spent more time making the long drive to San Diego; spent more time on the phone with friends; more time in sobbing and tear-filled group hug sessions that lasted longer than I even dare to guess; more time wondering why?  God, how…why…this makes no sense...he was so young!

Justin’s rosary and viewing had people from all parts of his life including a fare number of college friends from San Francisco State and Berkeley.  These once silly, seemingly carefree and prayerful group of Newman folks, that merely had the worries of an undergraduate student, now a few years older and not silly or carefree – not this time.  A unspoken silence of an understanding lay it’s fog over us all as we stood in the small room that had Justin’s body in the front waiting for us to pay a visit.  He was so young – 26 fucking years old!  And there he lay so still, so motionless, so lifeless; and yet so peaceful.  It was all I could do, to not shake him.  This isn’t real, just wake up Justin; you’re fine! Instead I turn to a college friend as we weep in each other’s arms!  His funeral Mass rained with his presence, his seemingly comforting presence; despite our either bloodshot eyes combined with wet cheeks, or our robotic demeanor – his presence was certainly there.  As the crowd of mourning folks processed to his resting place the solemn faces remained; silence remained; tears and unanswered questions hovered like luminous clouds just above.  One by one, flowers were laid on his casket as the breeze gently kissed our damp eyes and faces - a comforting a word: Justin.  And arm over shoulder, and arm and arm our Newman friends stood in a line with heavy hearts in solidarity as we watched our dear friend lowered into the earth.  We had just buried our friend.  

As I think of Justin’s life, I think of all the testimonies people said about him over and over.  “Justin always was so present; never distracted; to Justin if you stood in front of him you were always the most important person in his life in that moment; caring; thoughtful; purposeful; giving; intentional; reflective.”  The list goes on.  Personally, I have such high esteem for this young man.  For a friend that I worked closely with in campus ministry while in college, he was someone who believed in my crazy ideas of bringing two identical campus clubs together.  I have some fond memories of him in Bible studies where we both shared a piece of our hearts; there are joyful times of shenanigans in the hilly streets of San Francisco or late night college parties in Berkeley; racing down BART stairs; chasing down city buses; laughing uncontrollably over stories I could never make up; hugs that seemed to heal all hurts and ease all worries.

After college I enjoyed occasional phone conversations and written letters back and forth to Justin as I started a new chapter of  life in Philadelphia.  And when I returned to California, due to my father’s terminal health, Justin was just one of many friends who I could count on as I faced chemo treatments with my dad.  We ran in a San Diego color run; I took Justin as a plus one of mine to a wedding; I’d make the drive down south for taize prayer nights he himself organized; or he’d come up to hang with some mutual friends over some quality happy hours, or a day at Knots Berry Farm when I dragged him and our friend Jason around for my birthday and got them soaked on the white water rafting ride – laughing hysterically of course.   And as Justin questioned his comfy office job, I was one he talked to frequently about his ultimate decision to teach out in Detroit – a program very similar to the program that took me out to Philadelphia.  I was honored when he asked me to write his personal letter of recommendation for the program, and was happy to be a sounding board for his decision to explore the profession of teaching. 

One memory I keep coming back to was one from college.  We decided to grab coffee on Berkeley’s campus before a Newman club talent show that night.  As we sat on this park bench on a sunny Sunday afternoon, sipping our coffee and chatting about midterms and early 20 something worries, he pulls something out of his pocket.  
“I have something I wanted to give you Barbara.” 
“What? What’d ya get me?” Being the geology nerd he was, he hands me a small shiny black rock that’s slightly iridescent.  I look at him, waiting for an explanation.  
“What’s this?” I ask.  
“It’s an obsidian rock, and I want you to have it.  You see, my high school youth minister gave this to me when I was in high school, and told me this metaphor that has helped me.  You see, when you look at this rock, it looks pretty dark and black, but when you hold it up to the sun, you can see a glimmer of light shine through it.  So Barbara, when your life seems dark and hopeless I want you to remember to hold your life up to God, and he will shine His light through the darkness of your life.” 

I remember that day so well, and I still keep that little back rock with that message he gave me when I was an early 20 something fool.  Except now when I hold the darkness or sadness of my life - including the sadness that still prevails from his sudden death -  up to God, and I hold it up to Justin and other dear ones of mine that have passed, and I know they are part of that radiant light that shines in my soul and replenishes my hope and my joy.  

"Crisis can force us deep enough to find that source of passion in whatever you truly love.  The deeper the channel that pain carves into our soul, the greater the capacity we have to allow the river of joy to run through us." 

~Dawna Markova


  1. I am so sorry to hear about the new Barb. This was a great read! I hope to see you soon and we can chat about it in person. And the black rock analogy--brilliant!

    1. Lessons Learned, sorry but what's your real name? Just trying to put a face to this comment.
      And thank you for reading and commenting on my writing. It means a lot to me.