School lunches, permission slips, the right calculator (the on that you can use on both the ACT and the SAT), teachers’ email addresses.
Ugh. It’s too much. I’m not ready. And I’m not the one actually going back to school. I’m just the lady who buys the new underpants and packs the lunches.
The date August 26th had been circled on my calendar in red for months. “SCHOOL STARTS!” All summer long that damn little exclamation point had been pulling on my sleeve like a 5-year-old at a birthday party forcing me to do the “Hokey Pokey.”
Normally I would have been putting my right foot in and shaking it all about with gusto. Because back-to-school time is when I get to prove that I am a creative and capable mother. How else do you show the world how much you love your children other than cutting up cucumber sandwiches to look like Yoda? Or sewing your own pencil pouches out of the adorable vintage fabric you salvaged from the curtains your friend was about to throw out?
To add to the pressure, I mean love, I typically have treated each fall like a New Year’s do-over. Every new school year brings a new batch of mini-resolutions, like “This year I will portion out the baby carrots so they don’t get slimy in the bag and my kids have to take canned tomatoes as their veggie” or “This year I will proudly display every piece of art my 8-year-old brings home instead of shoving them to the bottom of the recycling bin once she’s gone to bed.”
But this year, it was just too much to think about. And I wasn’t the only one feeling it. None of us were ready. Example? Here’s the photo I took on the first day of school:
The expression on their faces says it all. “Can we just get this over with please?”
We weren’t ready for school because we barely had a summer. You know that Maroon 5 song, “This Summer’s Gonna Hurt Like a Mother?” Maybe you don’t. You probably have better taste in music than me. But that song’s title pretty much sums up our summer.
This summer did hurt like a mother. It hurt, and hurt, and hurt and just kept on hurting.
I used to think my family was lucky.
I come from a family of seven kids. My youngest brother is still single, but the other six of us were all happily married, not a divorce among us.
Those six blessed unions of souls produced 14 grandchildren and then 4 great-grandchildren. All of us happy and healthy, hardly even a broken bone. Those are some amazing statistics, aren’t they?
Even more amazing, we’re a close family. Not the Brady-Bunch-potato-sack racing kind, maybe, but we all get along and enjoy each other’s company.
Happy and healthy. How lucky are we?
When you feel lucky like that, I think you’re always waiting for something bad to happen. Maybe it’s my Catholic guilt telling me not to be so smug, but I’ve seen “Beaches” enough times to know that just when everything seems to be moving along perfectly, you get that phone call that obliterates your world and you’re sobbing your way through “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
And so it was. At the beginning of June, my younger brother, Rick, died suddenly. He was only 35. He left behind a wife and two children. It was – and still is – horrible.
Two days before Rick died, I had reread an essay by David Sedaris called “Now We are Five.” Sedaris comes from a big family (six kids), and the essay was about his sister, who committed suicide at the age of 49.
As I was reading it, I was thinking about some of the similarities between the Sedaris family and my own, and how lucky my own family was. Never count your blessings, I guess. You’ll tempt fate.
One of the things that struck me when I read it was what Sedaris said about identity.
“The following morning [after his sister’s death], I boarded another plane, this one to Atlanta, and the day after that I flew to Nashville, thinking all the while about my ever-shrinking family. A person expects his parents to die. But a sibling? I felt I’d lost the identity I’d enjoyed since 1968, when my younger brother was born.”
My big-family status has always been a badge of honor. It’s a little thing I pull out at parties or when meeting someone for the first time, as if it’s something I had any hand in and therefore people should be impressed. “Oh, wow! Seven kids! Your poor mother!”
So, I knew first-hand what he meant about the identity a big family provides you. I just didn’t know how soon or how precisely I would know it.
Two weeks after the funeral, my oldest brother, Tony, received an award for Iowa Reading Teaching of the Year. My whole family was there to celebrate Tony’s achievement. Later they wanted to gather us up to take some photos, and at one point, they wanted a photo of just the siblings. It was the first photo we had taken without Rick, and even though he was just one person, his absence in that photo felt enormous. Suddenly, my pack of siblings felt as if it had shrunk 10 sizes. And then this line floated into my mind: “Now we are six.”
Rick left this gaping hole in our lives and there is no way we are ever going to fully get over it.
I remember one day, about a week after he died, I had a really good day and was in a great mood. I was a little relieved to feel something other than oppressive sadness. Once I became aware of how great I was feeling I felt awful. I went home and bawled. I wasn’t supposed to feel happiness. I was only supposed to feel sadness. Forever. Ok, maybe not forever, but I felt I should have given it more than a week. What kind of horrible, unfeeling monster was I?
I shouldn’t have worried. It was just a trick. The next day, I heard the song “O.P.P.” on the radio. It made me think of my brother and how much he loved hip-hop when he was a kid, and then I was crying so hard I had to pull my car over. And underneath all the sadness I was mad, too, because what a stupid song to remind me of my brother. Damn you, Naughty By Nature.
It was like that all summer long. I couldn’t listen to the radio. I tried to avoid Facebook so that if I came across a photo of my brother I wouldn’t have to hide out in the ladies’ room while I sobbed. It seemed like the most unexpected things could become minefieds of sadness. I had to hold myself very carefully to keep them from going off.
A month or so later, a classmate of mine died unexpectedly. She wasn’t someone I was necessarily close to, but she was a good person who was brimming with personality and humor. She, too, left behind a child, a family and friends who all cared about her very deeply. My heart broke all over again – this time for that family – and the world just felt unbearable.
And then there were the little things. We went to Chicago for a week and it was either 105 degrees or 65 degrees and raining. The kids didn’t want to go sightseeing. They just wanted to swim in the hotel pool and eat complimentary snacks during happy hour.
There were a couple of beautiful Sundays where I pretty much stayed in bed all day, reading and crying because that was all could work up the energy to do. We ate ramen noodles or popcorn for dinner more times than I would like to admit. We took our girls swimming only once. I got a yeast infection the next day. I know the yeast infection isn’t related to my depression, but it is definitely a symbol of just how rotten a summer I was having.
So, when that August 26th date drew closer and closer, I was filled with dread. I wanted our summer back. I didn’t feel refreshed or rejuvenated. I wanted a do-over for those Sundays so we could go to the pool and eat Sno-Cones. I felt sad for my kids that we had such an awful summer. And, mostly, I just wanted my brother back.
But the day arrived, and things were fine. My kids didn’t care that their sandwiches didn’t look like Star Wars characters. They may have been dragging their feet at the begining of the day, but by the end they were smiling and talking about reconnecting with their friends and funny things the teachers said. I felt that deserved some ice cream. For all three of us.
And I’m starting to learn that it’s okay if we’ve moved into an era of lowered expectations right now. If we need to sit down and laugh through an episode of “Bob’s Burgers” instead of carrying out whatever task is on our colored-coded chore wheel, then that’s what we’re going to do. Because, damn, Tina is funny.
And, I think Rick would think so, too.