Last Friday my husband's father passed away quite suddenly. We rushed into Nashville at midnight to be with his mother, thankful that we live only a half hour away. It was a somber drive as we rushed in the rain toward a destination we didn't actually want to arrive at - because then the grief would be real.
In the days that followed we fielded phone calls, received flower deliveries, and thanked friends for bringing by food. We helped where we could in making arrangements - I stayed at the house to answer the phone and the door while my husband accompanied his mom to the funeral home to make plans. We wondered if my husband had a suit jacket to wear to the service. I thought about how grateful I was for the pictures we have of all of us together from Jason and I's wedding just a few months ago. We talked about what a great man Bob had been, and we laughed through our tears as we remembered him.
I simultaneously leaned in and stood back, ready to help however I could, but not wanting to be in the way. I found myself thinking that the reason I could function and get through these difficult days resulted directly from a class I took in 11th grade.
There was a teacher in my high school - Mrs. Mattfeldt - who offered several literature electives. I loved to read, and I loved this teacher - I took every class she offered. She was great because she gave us time to read during class - and she thought it was funny that while she assigned us just a few chapters of a novel at a time, I would finish the book the first night. I wasn't about to wait two weeks to see what happened! She let me read whatever I wanted during class as my peers plodded along as assigned.
One of the classes she taught dealt with death and dying - I don't even remember the official name of the class. We just called it Death Lit.
This was a unique class. Almost 20 years later, I remember sitting in that classroom, struggling to think about and confront ideas - and accompanying feelings - that I had pretty much willfully ignored up to that point in my life.
We talked about death. We talked about how dealing with death has changed in American culture: previously when a person died, they stayed at home until the burial. The family prepared the body, and the viewing and visitation all happened at home. This seemed so weird to us, which led into the discussion that American culture has a kind of phobia about death. Because it's so divorced now from the home, it seems foreign and scary, where previously it was an extension of life.
We talked about the five stages of grief and had to memorize them. We talked about the euphemisms our culture uses about death - such as saying someone "passed away" instead of "died." We talked about the funeral industry and how the most expensive caskets are placed to the right in the "showroom," because people are more likely to turn right when they walk in a room.
The most memorable moments from that class came from the day we took a field trip to a funeral home. Being that we were in rural Montana, we traveled two hours to Billings - like we did for everything else in our lives. Many of us had never set foot in a funeral home before. The mood was strangely somber that day for a bus full of high schoolers.
We nervously entered the funeral home, not knowing what to expect. Some of us cried when we were shown the smallest caskets, intended for babies and young children. I literally caught my friend Jessica as we stood in the embalming room and she fainted because they showed us the needle they used.
My memory of the origins of my obsession with the poetry of Emily Dickinson is fuzzy, but I know it was already going strong by 11th grade. I have to think we read some of her thoughtful, stunningly vivid poetry about dealing with death. In the days following Bob's death, as I tried to do anything I could to help while simultaneously holding my emotions together (to say I cry easily is a gross understatement), I found myself reciting Emily Dickinson poems in my head. Never had they made so much sense as in this moment. The one I kept coming back to is this:
The Bustle in a HouseThe Morning after DeathIs solemnest of industriesEnacted opon Earth –The Sweeping up the HeartAnd putting Love awayWe shall not want to use againUntil Eternity –
Time spent in school is absolutely not just about college and career readiness. It's about preparing children and then young adults to be human - to be compassionate and flexible and thoughtful as they navigate life. Nothing we did in that class was chosen to meet a state standard, and we didn't learn anything that would have raised our scores on a standardized test. Good educators know that it's not about what can be quantified and tested - we give students tools to draw upon whenever they might be needed. By teaching that class, Mrs. Mattfeldt gave me a gift that will last my entire life - a gift that in the past week has helped me to be a better wife and daughter-in-law when I was needed the most.