A percolating coffee pot sounds a lot like a person dying of lung cancer trying to breathe. I made this analogy at age 8, sitting in my aunt Sally’s apartment in Springfield, Missouri, surrounded by depressed relatives. “What’s that bubbling sound? It sounds like Granny Anne.” I was just being honest. She died that night in the cold fluorescent hospital, holding my dad’s hand. What I didn’t know was that some of my soul would close as her breathing silenced. That her black silk head scarves and red cigarette lips would haunt me. Gin and tonics would drown me. Sounds dramatic, but Granny Anne’s death set off a chain of soul-closing events that drug me to the bottom, then in due course, forced me to swim to the top.
When my dad lost his mother, his soul closed some, too, maybe more than mine. He had a full-blown midlife crisis, but not the type where you buy a motorcycle and get a tattoo; his to-do list read: divorce, sell the record collection, drink a liter of gin, slice wrists with a razor blade, be found by teenage son two days later, survive, and within some cold winter months of waiting to hear from an overseas teaching company, move to Japan. In his losing his mother, I lost my father. I remember sitting balled up in my closet, refusing to come out for dinner. My brother crawled in with me and told me I couldn’t stay in the closet, that I had to come out. When I eventually emerged, I held tight to boys, booze, and any mind altering substance that would make me feel different than I really felt. Once my dad said his depression felt like he was trapped in a dark hole, and he couldn’t see to get out. I could relate. I can chart the timeline of 1993 to 2006 in strung-out boyfriend’s t-shirts, cigarette brands, foreign countries, and mixed drinks.
Fast-forward that mixed tape to this September morning in Arkansas, reversing the driveway in the Ozark mountain fog, Hakuna Matata blaring through Harman Kardon speakers, two small children playing “buddies” with the raindrops streaming down the backseat windows—each a dying friend: “NOOO, BUDDY, Don’t GOOOO!” Strands of twisted morning glory, shiny and invincible, wind up the mailbox trellis, choking the dying clematis. We pass the soon-to-be pumpkin patch at the Methodist church, tarps and pallets lain, painted photo props anxiously waiting. We turn right and wind down wooded Ash Street, as Hux rolls down her window to look for the “sleeping deers.” Three more stop lights to school and Kiki mentions that the poor puppy is still lost. The once vibrant color-copied Pomeranian has endured the cycle of rain and sun so many times it looks like a watercolor. Still, it hugs the telephone pole, epoxied with packing tape, offering a reward, hopeful but forgotten. Now parallel parked, Huxley and Keats will race to the doors of their preschool, want a picture with the statue, and fall into finger painting, sandbox digging, or water sensory play. It’s predictable and middle class. Then, I make my way to the high school, where fingerpainting is replaced with Time magazine, annotating the Juul epidemic, and Greta Thunberg’s chilling call to action.
This has been my toughest year in education. The ‘Am I going to be shot today?’ stress is a real thing. The teens who I work with are closed souls, like me, and that is why I like them. They’re rooted in traumatic childhoods. They clasp to fast friends, e-cigarettes, and peach schnapps like my morning glory to the trellis. And I can’t keep them from that decade, that inevitable timeline they’ll mark with various attempts to try to awaken their souls. I wish I could hand it to them, beg them not to do it the messy past mistakes way I had to do it, but the ones I’m worried about are already in the thick of the mistake, and it isn’t their fault. I just do what I can to be real with them, let them be real with me, and the best days are when we all can laugh together. Real, uproarious, belly-hurting laughter that binds our souls back together. The answer, if they’re lucky, is waiting somewhere along the way, a moment of clarity tucked between some bad decisions.
I do my best to teach them gratitude, selflessness, and tolerance, along with reading, but they’re not seeing it today. Emerson said, “the years teach much which the days never know,” a philosophy I keep close because it’s true. I picture my worn jeans, baby barretted bangs, my glittered blue eyes, afraid to look up to meet the gaze of my 10th grade English teacher, Mr. Foster, who, peering down at me with a face somewhere between outrage and repulsion, read my report card aloud, slowly, one D and one F at a time. He caught me in a place where a dismissive giggle wouldn’t suffice. But I didn’t really care about the grades; I had let him down, someone who cared enough to say something. A five minute conversation about my suffering grades would later change the direction of my life; however, ask 10th grader me what I thought of him embarrassing me that day during advisory.
I can sometimes see wayward events shaping my oldest son, Hendi. His sensitive nature. His ADHD, and the teachers who labeled him “bad” and sent him to the principal for cutting June’s hair, taking Ricky’s shoe at carpet time, punching a stranger in the face the second day of kindergarten after being left in the cafeteria and not knowing where his classroom was. It scares me sometimes to know I can’t fix life for him. Nor can I fix it for my students, who are all further in and more closed off than my son, who at 7 visits a play therapist, takes daily medication that helps him focus and learn and grow, and is a part of a swim team.
My family and I went camping this past weekend. The Buffalo River was milky green and rushing; the Steel Creek bluff held her as she roared along our campsite. My kids played with sticks in the fire, we stripped layers as the morning fog lifted above the valley walls, and we found river stones, heart rocks, and arrowheads. We danced beneath Twin Falls. We laughed. I noticed the sun’s warmth gleaming off the water’s edge and shining through the viney underbrush, creating shaky light speckles and shadows that danced along with our footsteps, filling me with glorious joy. I was open, like the morning glory to the sun, my veins bleeding an inky purple and rushing, grasping twigs and vines, my child’s hand, embracing my husband, letting the cold fall’s mist spray our faces, an invigorating reminder that we are indeed alive.
B. TREADWAY is a writer and English teacher who lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She writes poetry, prose, and fiction, and was published in PANK magazine. She curses, meditates, and drinks a lot of hot tea.