Category Archives: Loss

Thankful Thanksgiving

It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I posted something here. I’m the writing teacher, should probably be a little more consistent in my posts…

In my defense, it’s been “one of those” semesters. Without belaboring the details, let me just say I’ve found renewed reasons to be thankful. Let’s get started.

It’s Thanksgiving, almost, in less than six hours. In the spirit of the season, I’ve been thinking about what I’m thankful for, and not surprisingly, the word “people” comes to mind. I am thankful for my family. Like most families, we’ve had our differences over the years, and very often, I feel kind of “out of the loop.” I’m that relative, the one who lives away, the one who’s always been different, the one that no one understands. I get that. I don’t understand myself, so it’s all good. Nevertheless, my sisters are solid supporters and my mom is, well, my mom. Moms never give up on their kids. We had a great time this summer when my mom visited me in Montana City, and one year after my dad’s death, all of us are starting to recalibrate our lives.

Other family…my cousins, I think I’m the luckiest woman in the world when it came to DNA relatives. I get so much love and support from people who are related to me only by a parent…and I never, ever, take that for granted. I’ll call them out: Paula, Lisa, Susan, Joselle, Gayle, Nikki, and Jamie. Jamie, more than any other person, saw me through the pain of the last year, not only supporting me but sometimes calling me on my shit, saying, “Karen…what’s the truth here?” These women are truly selfless and loving and…family.

These people are the foundation of my life, the ones who allow me to have any sense of who I am. However, none of these people live and interact with me daily. Let me mention Mark. We met online in May, both of us a little nervous about another round with love, but we connected with our mutual love for the outdoors. We both have histories, stuff in our lives we’d rather not revisit. We both have sons, which gives us something in common other than our love for hiking and kayaking. We both have jobs that interfere with being together. This is the reality, but we’ve had fun together and enjoy each other, and so far, things are working pretty well. My mom thinks he’s nice because he sends her snapchats frequently. I’m happy my mom likes him.

Then there’s my work: this is where I get most of my sense of self, my confidence, my joy, my motivation. Without my work, I’d not know who I am or what I should try to accomplish. It seems kind of wild considering I didn’t start this gig until ten years ago…and then it was only part-time as a graduate student. This year, especially, I’ve seen the rewards of years of growth, from that insecure, uncertain English teacher in 2007 (which, by the way, my journal confirms was a conflicted, confused individual), to the relatively secure, sure English teacher of 2017. Maybe knowing what one doesn’t know is the key. When I mention my work, what I’m really focusing on is my students. They know who they are: we had a semester that should never happen. We were attacked in a way that is unconscionable, unbelievable, unfair. There were others involved, too, who suffered the effects of being subjected to scrutiny only because of their association with us, and yet we prevailed. And no matter any legal outcome or any professional scrutiny, I know…with 100% certainty…that I have made a difference in the lives of people who are not as “connected” [as if I am] or as well off, or as educated as I have been. I have helped to empower the next generation of people who will continue to question those in power, those with the authority, earned or not. And, oh, by the way, my students in writing are doing amazing, academic, smart, powerful work, and to think that I have had the privilege of inspiring that kind of scholarship…it just does not get any better.

Thank you, universe, or whomever is in charge. On Thanksgiving Day, I’m very grateful.

Checking In: Fall 2017

We just passed the midterm of the semester, and I’ve written here exactly once since school began. “Where have you been, Henderson?” would not be an inappropriate question, and I do have some pretty good answers.

First, for much of the fall semester, I was a member of the hiring committee for the President of the University of Montana; an honor beyond my status in most ways, I was fortunate enough to represent Helena College in the process. I can say with complete confidence, I’m excited about our new President, Seth Bodnar. I think he’s going to bring a lot to the university and a diversity of thought that we need. I can’t wait for him to take over, and I know a lot of people feel that way.

Secondly, I’ve been in Missoula for not only meetings of the committee but also for football games! Mark is a Grizzly fan from way back and holds season tickets. As a hanger-on, I get to attend the home games when he’s going, which has been most of the time. I think we’ve missed one. It’s been fun; I’d never been to a live college football game before, having been a nontraditional, studies-focused student when I attended MSU and not one who made football a priority, except when Adam played in high school.

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Speaking of Adam, we met up a couple times this semester in Missoula, and I got to meet my grand-dog, Virgil, who has been challenging Adam in his parenting skills and patience. He’s a cute little guy, though—Virgil, that is—and reminded me why babies are so cute: otherwise, they’d never live to the teen years, and by then we’ve invested so much into them that we have to see it all play out.

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I also met up with my bestie, June, one time when I was there for committee meetings. She proudly showed me that I have been elevated to the status of having my photo on her mantle, not an insignificant feat, and I had to take a picture—of our picture—to prove it. We had a great visit and since had many phone conversations about school, work, families, and boyfriends, real and imagined.

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It won’t surprise anyone to know I’ve been working a lot, too. Work involves a variety of facets, above and beyond daily classroom activities. My clubs, specifically, demand a lot of my time and energy but also motivate and energize me by our accomplishments. The Helena Helm published its fourth and fifth editions this fall (sixth edition coming next week, God willing and the creeks don’t rise), and its FIRST EVER print edition the beginning of October. Considering that we started out with a ragtag group of journalist-wannabes (including and especially me!) who had no idea where to begin, to now having both online and print editions of quality news and entertainment and the collaboration of the Helena College Tech Club, which is helping us set up a new web-presence and domain, I think we have made amazing progress, and I could not be prouder of the students behind it. Joy, our editor, was also the inspiration behind the newspaper, but we’ve got some new blood this year who promise to add intrigue and levity to our otherwise scholarly publication. Here’s our new site:

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TRIO Club S2S has already accomplished a significant amount of work this fall. We partnered with the Helena College Psych/Soc Club for the NAMI Walk and had good fun doing it. We have several projects we’re working on for the future, including the first ever CAT/GRIZ Face-Off on November 18th. A family-friendly event, it will be an alcohol-free (hey, you can’t have everything!) event on the Helena College campus, open to faculty, staff, students, families, and friends of Helena College. Potluck will be the menu, with TRIO S2S providing dessert and drinks and featuring our “world-famous” photo booth, complete with swag generously donated by the MSU and UM Alumni Associations. During the event (and prior to, for a few weeks), we will also hold a food-drive for the Helena Food Bank, placing bins around campus for food donations dedicated to a specific team. No matter who wins the game, the winner of the food drive will retain bragging rights on HC campus, and the ultimate winner will be Helena Food Bank and those who need food donations during the Thanksgiving season.

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TRIO S2S has another event in the coming weeks: a dedication of our memorial trees (one on each campus) to students who’ve attended Helena College and died during or soon after they left the college. In my five and a half, almost six years, I know of at least six students who’ve been in my classes at some point (two of them at the time of their deaths) who have died. Last fall, with the death of Joe, I asked TRIO S2S to take on some kind of memorial for those students, and they did. It was not a project without challenges and obstacles, sometimes daunting ones, but through persistence, resilience, and determination, we managed to plant two trees and order two very heavy bronze plaques (“these will last 200 hundred years!” said the man at Crown Trophy) dedicated to the memory of students we’ve lost. Wherever I go, whatever I do in the future, this is something meaningful, tangible, honest, and important that I had a hand in. Doesn’t get much better than that.

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The rest of the semester is likely to whiz by just like the first part has. Next week will offer up some difficult memories for me from last year, as we will mark one year since my dad has passed and nearly one year since I began a new life as an unmarried woman. I’m optimistic that 2018 will be a good year, and I’m fairly confident that I will be busy. There’s that. 😊

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And So It Begins…

Students in Writ 095 are currently working on their blogs. The first assignment is an “About Me” piece. Simple, right? Maybe not. “Pay attention to length,” said I, “and grammar and mechanics matter. This is a writing class, after all…”

What about you, Teach? (Spoken in a true, Vinnie Barbarino accent…look it up, you young’uns). Yeah, so I have been teaching at Helena College for five and a half years now, was tenured this last May, and plan to die in my heels. In other words, I’m pretty sure this is my last professional stop, despite my young age…and I have no plans to permanently retire. At some point, I’ll cut back to 3/4 time or part time…but teaching runs through my blood as much as merlot. Not gonna get loose of me in the immediate future.

So, teaching, English, writing, literature, learning, all these are some of my priorities in life. Student success is my biggest celebration, and I would not quit teaching if I were rich, but I’d like to try rich for a while…

I live alone, but I do have a cockatiel who’s my companion. His name is Leo, short for Leonardo, and he and I have weathered 20 plus years together. I have a son who’s 30 years old, and an ex-husband who I don’t write about but who was an important part of 25-plus years of my life. My other passions are hiking, kayaking, music, reading, and teaching, not in that order.

Fall semester 2017 is a new experience for me: it’s the first fall semester, ever, that I’ve entered college with the status of “single.” It’s the first fall semester that I’ve entered college without my dad. It’s not that my dad was especially critical to my teaching, but he was critical to my sense of self: I always had a mom and dad (lucky, I know). He died last October 31st. Every day since then has been, “the first _____ since Dad died.” November 1st will change that, but October 31st will be a tough day for me to survive.

You want to know “about me”? I was a mediocre high school student who grew into a pretty darn smart mom, who became a really smart college student who excelled, who became a competent, committed, caring college teacher, who lives her life to the best of her abilities without regret. Let’s get to work.

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.

The End

Tomorrow is a new beginning; that means that today was an end. I feel like this whole past year has been one succession of ends in my life, and frankly, I’m over it.

Trigger Warning! (for Brad or any of the students from my honors class—they’re a sensitive bunch—there will likely be some very bad language in this post, so if you’re easily triggered, you might want to skip this…)

Today, I sat through several hours of an end-of-semester planning meeting for our 5-year strategic plan. Yeah, so you know what that was like. However, I tried to pay attention, and a couple things really stood out to me. For example, we were reminded that the brain has basically two regions: one is the decision-making part, and one is the language, or emotional, part. Wanna guess which part dominates my life? I don’t know why it was a eureka moment for me. It makes perfect sense. I love language and everything related, and I am completely dominated by my emotions, to the point that rational judgment is often impaired.

We did some good work today, but I was distracted by the fact that there are so many ends in my life now. The end of the semester is a good thing, but it’s also a time of reflection. People who work in education get to do that twice a year, once at the end of the calendar year and again at the end of the academic year, and I was thinking about the past year and wishing I had done it better and wishing it wasn’t the end.

I’m coming off a very good year, professionally. It seemed like I had the Midas Touch though my pal Nathan said it was due to the year of the “Hen”derson (the Chinese year of the Rooster). I had great students, as always, and my special courses, Creative Writing and Ways of Knowing were innovative and successful; The Rocket!!! This is still incomplete as of this writing, but by all accounts, The Rocket project will go down in history at Helena College, and my name will be attached to it; TENURE!! Yes, friends! It was officially announced yesterday, so I feel confident in announcing that I have received tenure and will spend the rest of my working life at Helena College (unless the President needs a new press secretary, which could happen…).

Let me add the new clubs that so kindly asked me to advise them: TRiO Students 2 Scholars and Newspaper Club, the Helena Helm. These students made me look like a rock star this year. Everyone is talking about the successes of TRiO S2S and the first-ever student newspaper, and I was the lucky person they asked to put the oky-doky on the slip. Just wait though…this is NOT the end of these guys. TRiO S2S is still working on memorial trees and is going into the fall semester with a full leadership team on board. They recruited successfully and have been pioneers in club organization within a two-year college. Plans are in place for a fun run in the fall and a huge orientation presence, along with sponsoring the Rocket book, currently in the making. The Helena Helm plans to be in place to record all the good works of all the clubs beginning early in August and has also highlighted some of our faculty and staff who really deserve some credit (Helenahelm.blogspot.com). It really did seem, at times, as if I could not make a bad move professionally. Never fear…I very competently managed that personally.

How someone can be so successful professionally and so unsuccessful personally is something that Bill Clinton and I apparently share. My personal life, over the past year, has been a succession of ends: the end of my marriage (and because my ex-husband is reading this and will object to my pandering, let me just say it was all my fault), the end of my relationship with my dad (at least my ability to impact that relationship at all), the end of my long stint as a dog-mama (I miss my Lancelot more than I can bear to think about at times), and the end of Karen as I knew her, before.

I lost friends from my former life, people who somehow had to “choose” a side; I lost people I considered family because they, too, had to choose, and I wasn’t really family; I lost some self-respect because I wasn’t able to be the person, the teacher, the friend, the woman that I know I should be. Despite the fact that I initiated our divorce, I lost myself in the process; the past year is a blur of just moving forward because I had to.

More than anything, as I come off a very successful year professionally, I wish I had been a better teacher. I wonder how good I could have been if I would have been “on.” I think about the times I went to class on two hours of sleep…how inept I must have been to facilitate discussions. I think about how distracted I was, really, all year, how my emotional state detracted from my ability to foster learning. I’ve been fortunate to bask in the glow of the Rocket (and it really is an amazing project), to receive the accolades of the work the clubs have accomplished, to relish the feeling of earned (?) tenure, but today, when my beloved friend Tammy said to me during a pensive moment, “A Penny for your thoughts,” my response was one she surely did not expect: tears of regret bubbled up in my eyes: How I wish I’d done things differently, and I wish this wasn’t the end.

Oh yeah, the trigger warning? Fuck.

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.

I Didn’t Know

“I didn’t know,” are the saddest words I’ve ever thought or said, and I’ve thought them more times than I like to think about. I was reminded of that tonight as I was (finally) reading the “books” of my creative writing students. They contract for grades based on total content versus quality, which allows for differences in aesthetic values and also allows me to defer reading to more convenient times. Tonight, I read Michaela’s book.

Michaela is a lovely, spirited, charming, young woman, a slight person with a big personality. She may have never missed a day of class, and she contributed energetically to everything we did. Her poetry was inspired, some of our favorites, and her consistency became something we all counted on: she was always there and always prepared.

As I started reading her short story titled “Ears Shaped Like Kites,” I found the tears at the ready. About a childhood dog who dies, it resonated with me from the very first sentence until the last in a way that grabbed my soul and tightened relentlessly. I could neither put it down nor control the tears; at the end, she wrote:

I crouched on the shower floor and wailed ugly sobs for what must have been an hour. I’ve never cried that way before. I must have sounded like a dying animal. Ironic. Everything that had built up the past few days came crashing down like an undertow in the sea after a thunderstorm. Everything came out in a hideous melody. The sound of mourning isn’t a very pretty song.

Right? The last two sentences just seemed perfect to me. She knew how I felt, not only when my dog died, but when my love died, when my other dogs left, when the disappointments in my life suddenly slapped me in the face. It wasn’t pretty.

It was the preface to her book that really got me and inspired this post. She wrote:

…this past semester has opened up a new door for me. My writing instructor Karen has been an absolute joy and the major supportive force in this. The excitement and ease that I have when writing now makes me feel like I’m 8 years old again, and I’m very grateful for that. Words are powerful, and I’m glad they’re back in my life.

So, that was what set my nerves at the ready and when I read the story prompted a vast supply of tears, but the thing that touched me the most about those words was that “I didn’t know.”

I worked with Michaela for four months, and during that time, we lost a classmate to a car accident, so we were a close group, but I didn’t know. Until our last day of class, when she lingered after class with a Christmas gift (including homemade puppy chow) and told me how much she enjoyed the class and appreciated me, I didn’t realize how I had touched her life and, maybe, how she would touch mine.

Then I thought about my course evaluations, from all my classes, and the inevitable evaluations that judge my performance poorly. I remember the words of one student who said she felt left out, that she wasn’t one of the “favored” students, and my reaction was “I didn’t know.”

At the beginning of a new semester while reflecting on the previous one, I can’t help but feel kind of helpless; in these two examples, someone spoke up, someone told me the truth. I can’t help but wonder how many other times I didn’t know.