Jeff and I used to fight over the throw pillow on our bed. We’d race to see who could get in bed the fastest. The winner got to prop up their before-bed reading on the perfectly cushioned gray and white polka dot pillow. Of course, the winner would gloat. But I always got the last word: I put my cold feet on Jeff’s legs.
Getting in bed now isn’t nearly as eventful. I go to bed later than I should, which I’ve never done in my whole life. I wonder what life would be like now, if Jeff had lived. I wonder what life would be like now, if Jeff had never gotten cancer. I wonder.
There’s a poem by Robert Frost, taught by English teachers the world over. You’ll probably recognize it: “The Road Not Taken”.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I’ve taught this poem many times. I still have little idea what it means. I used to focus on those last two lines: “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference”. In my high school and college years, that sounded very romantic: take the road less traveled! It’ll be great! You’re unique! You’re invincible!
But as I got older – and, I’m sure that teaching with really smart people also contributed to this – I can’t ignore, “Then took the other, as just as fair”. So, both roads are maybe just as good. And to add to that: “And both that morning equally lay”. The difference isn’t that the speaker chose one road over the other. What has made “all the difference” is that he made a conscious choice at all. The speaker didn’t stay on the road, paralyzed. Life would’ve pushed him down a path. But he didn’t let life do it to him — he chose for himself. And he knew he would be “telling this with a sigh”, wondering what life might have been like on that other road. But life is about making a choice; making lots of choices; and knowing that it’s unlikely we “should ever come back”.
In 10 years, that poem will mean something completely different to me. But where I’m at now, I can’t stop wondering who we’d all be if none of this had happened. I wonder a lot.
I worry, too. I worry that Jeff wouldn’t know me now. I worry that I wouldn’t know Jeff. I worry that Jeff wouldn’t know our kids. I worry that they wouldn’t know him. I’m still the same at my core, but I’m completely different. So very different. And even before Jeff died, he was different. He accepted death right at the very end, but by then, his reasoning wasn’t the same. I wish I could’ve talked to him then. I wish I could talk to him now. I wonder what he’d say. I wonder who he’d be.
Today, Jake found a wallet-size picture of me and my grandma. I am five in the picture. My grandma is wearing a coral sweater, and I’m wearing a cotton dress and blue headband. We’re both smiling. My right hand lays on her chest.
“Who is this?” Jake asked, pointing to me.
“It’s me and my grammy,” I said. “I am five in this picture. That’s what I looked like when I was your age.”
Whoa. That hit me. I remember being five. Jake will likely remember being five. That’s the first time I’ve been able to relate to him in that way.
But even though I can remember it… even though I have a vivid memory of that picture… it seems like a separate life. Maybe even a separate person. My grandma feels as familiar to me as the lines on my hands; and as strange to me as a face I’ve never seen.
My time with her was a moment in time. Which reminds me of another poem. This one by Gwendolyn Brooks:
Exhaust the little moment. Soon it dies.
And be it gash or gold it will not come
Again in this identical disguise.
My moment with my grandma is over. My moment with Jeff has died. He will feel as familiar to me as the lines on my hands; and as strange to me as a face I’ve never seen. And I hate it. It makes me so intensely sad and angry that I don’t know him the way I always have. I will always feel that apocalyptic absence. It’s a blessing that life goes on, but damn… it’s so sad.
“Jake,” I added. “You know what’s cool? Daddy and my grammy get to hang out now. I bet they’ve talked about you. About us. That’s pretty neat.”
I’m choosing my road. Life will push me down one, regardless. Life goes on.
And as life has gone on, I have worried that I’ll let people down. So many, many people did so much for us… are doing things for us. I recently told my friend this: that I was worried I’d let people down, and they’d think, “Man — after all I did for her/them.”
“Then they did it for the wrong reasons,” she said. “If they did it for you, expecting to get something back later, then they were wrong. They gambled wrong.”
Whoa. Yep. She’s right. And so I have started to see kindness differently.
In helping Jake and Kate come to terms with their new lives, I bought a lot of books. Some talk about death in kid terms, but most are about emotions. Barb bought How Full is Your Bucket: For Kids. It’s the same concept as the adult version: we all have invisible buckets. All day, we can add to each others’ buckets, or we can spill part of someone’s bucket. People can add to our bucket, but we can also add to our own… when we’re kind to people. Kindness is a twofer.
I’ve always seen kindness as transactional: someone does something for you, you do something for them. You do something for someone; it’s fair to expect something in return. Man, that’s exhausting.
Now, I realize it’s much bigger than that. People have done and are still doing things for me that I can never give back to them. But my friend made me realize: I don’t have to. At least not in a transactional way.
So many people fill my bucket. By filling mine, that kindness fills their own. The simple act of helping me makes them happy. I forget that.
And then the water in my bucket… I can use that to fill someone else’s, who needs it more than the person who helped me. And then the person I was kind to doesn’t owe me anything… their bucket is full, and now they can be kind to someone else. And so on, and so on.
Kindness isn’t two buckets passing water back and forth. Kindness is a waterfall.
That’s been a big lesson.
Other things have happened, too. This summer, I looked into leaving teaching. I knew I’d go back for this year, but I was dreading it. So, I looked into becoming a nurse. Maybe I’d work in hospice care. I perused the University of Chicago site, looking into some sort of degree in Divinity. I knew I couldn’t go back to my old life. I needed a change. I’m too different; life is too different; things are too different. I love teaching, and I believe education to be my calling… but I just. Couldn’t.
I talked to my psychologist about it. I asked him about maybe becoming a clinical psychologist like him: what would it take? What kind of degree would I need? We tossed around career options. I didn’t know what I wanted. I knew I couldn’t go back. But I didn’t know how to move forward.
Then my psychologist said that he could see me doing well in a variety of fields. He could see me speaking about end-of-life issues. He could see me in therapy. He could see me still in teaching. He agreed that I should stay in some service role. After that session, I left with more questions than answers. But he planted a seed. I realized two things: 1) I am not afraid; and 2) I have work to do.
That is not to say I’m not afraid of anything. I’m afraid of plenty. But I’m not afraid in the way I used to be. I’m not as afraid to die. I’m not as afraid of something happening to my kids. I’m not as afraid of the future. I’m not afraid of the day-to-day things that once seemed of monumental importance. I’m just not afraid anymore.
Part of that is other people. I have people who take care of me. I have family and friends who clean my house and bring me dinners and love my kids and invite us on vacations and come over for dinner. They help me meet the basic needs – and then some – of myself and my kids. They give me a sense of belonging. They are helping me figure out what the heck to do now.
And because of that, I don’t have to be afraid.
And I have work to do.
I have some strong opinions on end-of-life issues now. I believe we should talk about death more. I believe we should use different language when we talk our kids about it. I believe death isn’t something to be feared, but accepted. And I have strong opinions about education. I believe kids bring the best version of themselves to school, and we have to love whoever that is. I believe teachers need their buckets to be full, so they can help kids fill their buckets. And I believe the only way for real, sustainable, positive social change will be to reach kids before they graduate from high school… and probably, it has to happen in elementary school.
I don’t know what all of this means. I know I have a lot going on inside my head and my heart that is just looking for a place to be useful. I’m on the lookout.
I used to think I could see far down the road I was on. That I could see 10 or 20 years ahead of me… I crafted a life by cutting bits and pieces of the lives lived before me, and pasting them together to create an imaginary future that was yet to be lived. But now I realize: planning is mostly an illusion.
Right now – for this season in my life – I get to choose my roads. I get to choose until life takes over again and pushes me down a road I’m not ready for. But while I get to choose — right now — I know I have work to do. And I am not afraid.
Last year, life pushed us down a road that we wanted no part of. I watched cancer dehumanize Jeff and turn him into a skeleton. I held his hand as he died, and kissed his forehead as his body turned cold. But even on that horrible road, we had choices. Jeff laughed. We held hands. He sat on the edge of Jake’s bed as we read Thomas the Train books; and in the red, overstuffed chair in Kate’s room as we read Peppa Pig. Jeff and Barb spent hours and hours watching Law and Order SVU; and Jeff and Randy spent hours and hours watching Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Jeff and Trish traded quips and funny videos through texting; and we trick-or-treated our way through an oncology floor.
Even on a sucky road, filled with weeds and monsters and thorns… even on that road, the sun peeks through the overgrowth. Goodness and love prevail, if you can look toward the sky.