I am a veteran of The United States Navy. I’ve been one for twenty-one years now. And with each passing Veteran’s Day I am reminded of the four years of service to my country that may or may not look like the traditional path or pursuit of one’s patriotism. A medic, my role within the Armed Forces was often geared more toward the healing that needs to follow hurt.
Given the opportunity to move from a cardiac stepdown ward wherein my most rigorous activity of the shift was to monitor multiple telemetry readings, I moved to a “medical” ward. This ward was known as 9-West or “The Stairway to Heaven.” The patients admitted to 9-West were more likely to pass away than to make morning muster. In my one year on 9-West I learned much of the many ways in which a person can die: alone and in the company of loved ones. With fear and with faith. In pain and at peace. All of these were within the exprience of the patient. But as a caregiver, I could afford clinical skill. . .and compassion.
The person who served some twenty-one years ago is markedly different from the person who reflects upon that service today. The ability to reflect upon my service is what time affords. I’m reminded of the recurring theme of Tuesdays with Morrie wherein Morrie tells Mitch, “I know you think this is about dying, but it’s like I keep telling you. Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.
And my patients taught me much about how we die in the world. And I think I learned the most from those who were alone and those who had advocates.
This has been a strange week for me. For you too, I sense. I learned about the loss of my birth mother on Monday. The election on Tuesday. Learning that I had been omitted from my mother’s obituary (according to her representation the obituary was written by my mother and transcribed “to-the-t” at her request).
I motored on the best way I could back into the classroom on Wednesday. And I was able to hold it together, in part by writing out of my feelings in blog post that came out in a whirlwind of emotion for which so many of you came out to say “thank you.” And I am affirmed, once again, by what writing can do for us and what it means for others when we do it and we share it.
I even got through the read-aloud of the part of Tuesdays with Morrie wherein Morrie tells Mitch that if he could have had another son, he would have liked for it to be him. I got through it because I invited and let happen the emoting of students in the room who responded to that passage the way that I did the first time I read it. The next time I had read it aloud and as I do inwardly each year as the moment in the book approaches. There were kids in the room that needed to here the best reader in the room render those words in a way that conveyed all of the feels of the scene. And this year, the lead reader did not have to add anything artificial to the moment. Masked with a measured reading of the words, inside the man a heart was breaking.
Books. . .they can leave one leveled sometimes, can’t they?
I’m reminded of the passage from Gae Polisner’s Young Adult novel, The Memory of Things:
Change can come in two ways. The first is the blindside way that comes without warning.
That kind takes your breath away.
But other times, change comes gradually, in that sure, steady way you see coming a mile away.
Or maybe a day away.
Or, maybe a few short hours.
And, since you know it’s coming, you’re supposed to prepare. Brace yourself against the stinging blow. But, just because you plant your feet wider, doesn’t mean the blow won’t take you down.
I made it through a difficult week. Difficult for me. There is difficult for you. There is difficulty for them. There is difficulty for us. It comes in ways that startle and surprise us. And. . .they can also sustain us.
I knew that Veteran’s Day was coming. I knew that we would be asked, as a matter of tradition, to gather to deliver the Pledge of Allegiance with the morning announcements. These things to which I can always attend. I can read an email thanking me for my service. I am filled with a pride I cannot describe and a gratitude for an affirmation I recognize has not always been afforded to other veterans in different, difficult times.
But, it was the thank you delivered that you see in the post above that did it. Delivered by the students in the special education classes, it came to my door late within my preparation period. Hayden was the first in the door. A sweet young man who has entered into adolescence because of the manner in which time passes and makes no consideration for the need to catch up and stabilize that being on the spectrum does not always allow.
Hayden will never come into Room 407 by way of academic pursuits, but he walked in yesterday and I could tell he was immediately over-whelmed by all that Room 407 has to offer by things to which one might attend. With a little bit of prompting, Hayden was able to deliver this message:
“Thank you. . .for your. . .service. . .”
And I shook his hand. Firmly. And I told him:
“You. You are welcome. You are all welcome.”
And this was more than reciprocation. This was an invitation. Because I am so thankful that they are. So thankful that they came. So thankful to be reminded.
The group of students walked out and left me alone and the room. And I allowed myself to have a moment. And I lost it. All of it. Everything I was holding onto for five days.
And it was good in every way that letting go can be good.
And then I was able to move into the rest of the day. Writing. Reading. Sharing. Inviting. Reflecting. Bringing reading to life. Connecting the reading to our lives.
The work we do now is for him. For her. For Them.
We invite those in need of advocacy by what we pin to our chests.
And we advocate for them by what we pen to the page.
On the page Hayden delivered, were words of affirmation penned for me. And I am moved in ways I try to describe here.
In the pledge I make of my heart to him, to her, to them. . .to us. . .I pen my affirmation:
Thank you for reminding me that there is still a call to be answered. There is still work to be done. That some enlistments are born of the heart, the work of which are done with the hands.
I don’t need a specific branch.
I don’t need a seasonal brand.
I need only to look to the heart.
And reach out for the hand.
To look within and truly see:
I am “them” and they are “me.”