“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…”
The sound of Jason’s voice from my phone pulls me back…
“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…sobbing…and 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.”
“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…”
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 returned...as 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.”
“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 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…"
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!
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.
“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."