Category Archives: Loss

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.

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.