Category Archives: 2016

Fall Semester 2017

I know people who love fall (Gina!), and though it’s not my favorite season (summer!), it ranks as number two for me. As we move through August, into September, we are in that season between seasons. Wasps remind us that winter is coming and will kill all those annoying insects for a few months’ reprieve. Trees begin to turn, the tops usually start first, just a few golden leaves then gradually more. The mornings…have you noticed? This morning was unusually cool, close to 50 degrees when I rose, too cool to run in my usual tank top; I wore sleeves. No one in western Montana can escape the smoke right now, which is also an indication of fall, at least over the last several years. And if you’re a teacher…well, you’re only too aware that summer is coming to an end. One of the first questions I get from teacher-friends is “are you ready?” It’s a silly question; I’m not ready and never will be, but this fall, for me, is different.

My dad’s birthday was September 1st; this is the first one since I’ve been alive that he won’t be. If you’ve lost a parent or someone very close to you, you understand the “firsts” that occur throughout the year that follows the loss. This is the first birthday; in June was the first Father’s Day. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, my sisters’ and my birthdays, Mother’s Day, their anniversary, all of those passed during this first year, too. This year will be the first Halloween, the day he died, one year ago. My sister, Terri, always loved Halloween more than almost any holiday. I wonder how she’ll experience this coming one.

It seems cliché; my relationship with my father was strained, and now I regret that. Of course, I do. That’s how it works, and I’m not special. Many people before me have experienced the same thing, which is why it’s cliché. We like to believe we’re an evolved species, but I wonder about that. Even when we know better, we continue to make the same mistakes. It’s a form of hubris, I think, a very common human foible. Each of us believes we are the exception somehow.

I enter the fall semester of 2017 with trepidation. Last fall was one of my worst, personally, and one my best, professionally. I hate to think that one precludes the other, but it seemed to work that way. Aside from the fact that my dad is gone, I enter fall semester as an unmarried woman, the first time in twenty-four years. Nearly all of my personal relationships have undergone significant change; some didn’t survive my divorce, some resulted from my divorce, and some are still in transition. In many ways, I’m a different woman than the one who returned to campus for convocation 2016. I hope I’m not hardened; I hope I’m still the Pollyanna optimist I’ve always been, but I’m not sure…

I struggled after Dad died, and the memorial ceremony was one of my worst experiences. My marriage was crumbling, my dad had died unexpectedly, and emotionally, I was a wreck. I survived it, but that was all. Since I don’t live close, I was not there when his cremains were installed in the cemetery, and though I’d been to Billings several times, I never stopped at the cemetery. I thought about it; I wanted to, but I didn’t, until Sunday.

Mark and I went to Billings for a party to celebrate my sister Julie’s new firepit. I told him before we left that I wanted to stop in Laurel and see my dad’s final resting place. On the way home, I got involved in a phone call and forgot my plans (I wonder…), but Mark didn’t. He turned off in Laurel and found his way to the cemetery where we located my dad. It was August 6th, so nine months plus after he’d died. I guess that’s how long it took me to be ready, and I’m not going to apologize for that. To whom would I apologize anyway? Like many other examples I could conjure, I’m frequently late in my ability to make sense of things; I’m a pretty smart person, but sometimes it takes me a while to process.

A few years ago, my dad started playing on the internet. Soon, he discovered memes and “fake news,” which annoyed the living hell out of me. Political opposites, I finally told him to stop sending me that shit, which to his credit, he did. Occasionally, he’d send me something he thought I’d enjoy, and one email message he sent me remains in my “inbox,” and I revisit it from time to time. It’s incredibly emotional for me because I love Andre’ Rieu, I love strings, I love this song, and I loved my dad. See if you can get through it without tears; I can’t. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1yfX6VnrSU

Fall semester 2017 is coming, like it or not. I guess I need to get ready.

SIX MONTHS

Last year, midway through the fall semester (my life is delineated by a school calendar), I lost my dad and my marriage on the same day: October 31, 2016. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect, I see that as the defining moment when I went from Karen Henderson, Nelson’s daughter and Chuck’s wife, to Karen Henderson, temporarily undefined persona.

Losing my dad was a shock, losing my marriage, not so much. My dad had more surgeries over the past ten years than most people have colds; I couldn’t even guess how many times he was hospitalized, but I’m almost certain that the people in the ER at St. Vincent’s Hospital knew him by sight and possibly by his first name. The surgeries started before I even left home. He had major back surgery when I was a teenager, and over the intervening years, a brain surgery to remove a tumor, heart surgeries to install stents and a pacemaker, shoulder and hip replacements, and amputations to remove both legs below the knees. More than once, we gathered at the hospital ready to get the bad news: his heart wasn’t strong enough for the surgery. But that never came. There were some very close calls, some last rites delivered by priests, some miraculous recoveries, but the Grim Reaper was cheated many times, sometimes by a hair’s breadth. So, when on Monday, October 31, 2016, my sister Terri called and said bluntly, “Karen, Dad died,” I wasn’t prepared. Sitting at my computer staring at the screen, my thoughts were that it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. He had been well, all things considered. He’d been at my nephew’s, Ryan’s, wedding in August, and he had been pretty well since then. There’d been no hospitalizations, no close calls, no warnings, none that I knew of, anyway. How could it happen that quickly, out-of-the-blue?

I went into reaction mode and contacted the people who would need to know, my boss mainly. I would have to miss some work, probably. Chuck was already in bed, and I didn’t bother telling him until later, an omission pointed out to me later by Nancy, my counselor. When your dad dies, it’s probably important enough to wake your husband. Yeah, probably, but I waited. I guess I figured the reaper might as well take whatever else in my life that was nearing that precipice.

The memorial service was torturous for me; there’s no other way for me to describe it. I wondered then, and wonder now, if other people feel that way when they lose someone important. I did not want to be there; I wanted to be any other place than in the center of attention, the recipient of the kind comments and warm hugs of family and friends. Constantly afraid of losing emotional control, I steeled my will and my emotions and refused to feel anything. Only one moment caused a crack in my façade, and that was when my girlhood friend, Connie, came up to me at the reception. I hadn’t seen her in the church, didn’t expect her to be there at all. Her words I can’t recall, but the sentiment and her hug touched the very base of my soul, and I almost lost my composure.

I’ve thought about all of that many times since. Funerals, memorials are supposed to offer closure, some kind of resolution, but all I wanted was to get away. I wonder if it is like that for others. One of my favorite “This I Believe” essays is titled, “Always Go to the Funeral,” and its message is quite different, that showing up for the funeral is a sign of support and respect. While I appreciate the outpouring of support and the people who came to show their respects for my dad, the whole thing was painful for me and not something I would willingly endure again.

Only a month and a few days later, I signed the documents that would end my twenty-four-year marriage. Two men, incredibly important in my life, left in the span of less than two months, neither of them entirely willingly. How does a person process that kind of loss in a healthy way?

Six months: that’s what Nancy tells me. She says it takes about six months before a person recovers to a point of being able to make relatively good decisions. “No major life decisions for at least six months,” she says, “and a year would be better.”

From what date, I wonder. October 31st? My dad would say, if he could, that I was always terrible at following advice, bull-headed, obstinate, difficult. God knows, he gave me plenty, and most of it I ignored. Chuck would agree; definitely more temperate than I, he could sometimes see the train wreck before it happened, but he was powerless to prevent it.

People tell you how it will be, and they’re right: at first, you’re numb, and when it begins to wear off, like Novocain from the dentist, you feel tingling, reminding you that you’re alive. Then, unexpectedly, there will be that “thing” that strikes a chord in your heart, sometimes at the most inopportune times. Suddenly, you’re in the middle of Walmart, crying at the memory of something, you’re not sure what, or it suddenly hits you that you won’t ever again see your dad. Never. Not ever. You look around, and everyone is going about their lives as if there hasn’t been a major shift in the tectonic plates of the earth, your earth. You wonder how they can’t know.

I’m always different, always more difficult. It’s unusual to lose one’s father and one’s husband at the same time, and honestly, some people would suggest that I deserve what I get. I can’t argue that; the only thing that keeps me relatively sane lately is this: six months. It’s been four, almost, if I count from October 31st, 2016.

It Was the Best of Times…

As 2016 dawned, back in January, I had no inkling what it held in store for me. I’m glad I didn’t know because much of the beauty of this year would have been marred by my preoccupation with the drama to unfold as the year wound down. It’s been one of “those” years.

In January, we adopted Lance, our newest fur baby. A terrified little guy, he had clearly been mistreated, and we didn’t know if he could ever come to trust us. Since then, and with many hours of Chuck’s patience, he has bonded to us and his sister, Rosie. He’s a different animal than the frightened, nippy little guy we brought home. Getting him was one the bests of 2016.

We spent many days out in the motor home this summer, everywhere from Glacier National Park to Tongue River Reservoir and places in between. I hiked nearly every week of the summer, and floated around in my kayak with June and Julie one great weekend (thanks to my friend, Corrie, for the loaner). My soul soaked in the outdoor love. That was one of the bests of 2016, too.

Professionally, I’ve been at the top of my game this fall. I’m working with some fabulous students, some who not only meet the bar but exceed it by a stretch. It’s been fun and rewarding. I’m advising a couple new clubs that are really showing promise in the way of leadership from some amazing, motivated students. I sit back and marvel that all I have to do is advise and watch. I’m collaborating with other teachers and working on some exciting, new challenges in terms of projects for students, real-world kind of stuff. This continues to be one of the bests of 2016.

However, as is the nature of the yin and yang, 2016 has been brutally painful. It began in October when a student named Joe, who was in my Creative Writing class, lost his life in a lake due to a car accident. He was a beautiful soul, a real writer, a promising student leader and an important reason why, just the day before he died, our class was able to put together Helena College’s first-ever poetry slam. We took it hard; the day we returned to class after his death was little more than tears and processing for all of us, and even now, I tear up when I remember Joe. That was one of the worsts.

It got even worse, however, when on October 31st, my dad died very unexpectedly. So many times over the years he had close calls, hospital stays, surgeries, everything, and each time, we were prepared for the possibility, but when it finally came for him, it was quick and unexpected, a punch in the gut. I did not at all enjoy being on the receiving end of people’s sympathies—though I did very much appreciate them—and I think I did not handle myself very well. To those whom I may have come off as abrupt or testy, I apologize. I’m good at some things, but that is not one of them. Today, I count it a good day if I can remember Dad without getting teary; that was definitely the worst.

It wasn’t the only loss I experienced this year, however. After almost 24 years, Chuck and I have decided to divorce. Anyone who’s ever been married or in a long-term relationship understands that it takes two to tango, or not. I own my failings at being a partner, but we have some very good memories from during those 24 years, including successfully operating our business for 18 of those years, living in the Shields Valley, where we still count good friends, and raising Adam together. Adam is truly as much Chuck’s as he is mine, and I will forever owe Chuck my deepest gratitude for being such a fine father to him. I could never repay that. This is the worst.

I am ready to be done with 2016. I will welcome 2017 with hope and enthusiasm that it will be more of the bests and fewer of the worsts, and I thank you, my friends, for your support and love.