The news came in an email yesterday afternoon from Katie’s school, in the middle of the usual shambles of me trying to do far too many things at one time. I read the first few lines, and all of those things dropped away.
I stared at the screen. Sounds stopped. My head went numb.
“Earlier this morning, Mrs. Scallan passed away unexpectedly…”
Nichole Scallan had been Katie’s first teacher at Chesterbrook Academy for Pre-Kindergarten back in 2010. She was a naturally funny woman with a voice and laugh that filled a room, and the necessary whimsical sense of presence and humor needed to manage a classroom of children just beginning to get used to a full-day away from home.
She was a towering figure; six feet in height, broad-shouldered. When she would lead her charges single-file around the hallways, you couldn’t help but smile. She was Mama Duck to all her ducklings, following her wherever she might lead.
Katie adored her. So did we.
One morning after yet another late arrival, I pretty much slung Katie into the classroom Madison-Track-Racing style. I gave her a kiss goodbye and pivoted to leave. She had something to give me – a form, a letter, something – and yelled out, “BAAAAHHHB!”
The entire class stopped what they were doing, and immediately in perfect unison went, “BAAAAHB!”
That is how nicknames happen. Whenever I saw Nichole for the next six years, She would always say, “Hi BAHB!” Katie picked up on it, and would randomly toss it out there when she needed to get my attention, with a giggle of course.
But now, I would never hear that mocking, goofy tone again. She was gone. The mother of two children under the age of 4, a wife for only seven years, was gone. The woman who’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, who fought it through chemo, radiation, and won – she had WON, dammit – was gone.
At my desk, I thought of her classroom of ducklings without a mama. I thought about the little girl who would only know her mother through pictures and stories, and I knew I had to stop thinking. I put my heart in a box, closed the box, wrapped the box up in chains, put the chained-up box in another box, filled that box with concrete and hid it.
I need to get this out of my system. I need to talk to God. I need him to explain to me why he needed Nichole. I need to understand in what world that makes sense. I need to know how someone like her takes on cancer and beats it, only to be stolen away in a blindsiding moment.
I need to yell. I need to scream “WHY? WHY! Tell me WHY!”
I need God to look at me, I need to look into his eyes, and have him try and make sense of this to me.
But I know he won’t be able to. I know there’s no answer.
I know that no amount of prayers, or faith, or people telling me, “It’s all part of the plan…” will help. I will simply have to be angry, and God, wherever he is, will know this. He will look upon me the same way you watch someone try and comprehend the incomprehensible, and tilt his head, perhaps his eyes as watery as mine as I sit here and ask…
There will be no answer. There can’t be.
We talked to Katie about it. Her classmates – the whole school – leaned on one another today to try and make sense of it. She’s only ten, but speaks so much wiser than a ten-year old. She cried with her classmates today, and then they held each other up through the afternoon.
A school that was already tightly knit drew even closer around itself. Parents got ready to have the conversations that had to be coming – the ones that start with a deep breath, a look above, and a hope that you can find the right words.
“Death is a part of life. Everyone dies, and we hope to be old and have a hundred years behind us when the time comes. Death isn’t something to be afraid of – it happens to everyone…”
“…But when it happens too soon, when it happens to a mother, a wife, someone who still had so much more ahead of them, that’s never fair. It’s never right. That’s what makes this so hard…”
I talked to myself as much as I talked to her. She won’t need to know that part.
“Anyone who tells you not to be sad, or not to feel this or that, forget it. You feel however you need to. You let your emotions run for a bit – we’re right there with you…”
She asked me if I’d had my breakdown yet. I told her the story of putting my heart into the box, the chains, the concrete. I told her I’d have my breakdown at some point, not to worry.
And I did. About seven paragraphs ago. Through the beauty of reading this the next day, you didn’t need to wait for me while I went full Steel Magnolias and lost my religion all in the span of three completely Italian minutes.
And now you’re laughing trying to picture it. Trust me, it’s as absurd as you think it might be.
But so is being a human, and trying to make sense of the senseless.
I cannot explain it to Katie, I can only be there to hold her. I can only tell her, “It’s going to be okay…” While at the same time asking myself, “How can it ever be okay…?”
There are no answers.
We can only lean on each other, take turns being the weak or the strong one, and keep moving. We can love. We can live. We can tell stories. We can try and be the lights that push away the darkness.
We can keep going, even when we don’t know how, or why we should. Because tomorrow hasn’t happened yet. Tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone. So when we get there and start a new day, we should do what we can to remember that, and never lose it.
Tomorrow afternoon, Katie and her classmates will go outside and release a flight of balloons into the sky. A note from their principal read, “…each child and teacher will write a little note to her, and we will send them to her in heaven…”
They’ll lean on each other.
They’ll stare to the sky, and watch the balloons fade into the blue.
Some will wish.
Some will cry.
They’ll look for answers.
We all will.
We won’t have the answers, but we’ll have each other.
We’ll have memories. We’ll have each other.
We’ll have each other.
And even when there are no answers, that’s enough to keep living, moving, hoping, and looking for brighter days.
We’ll have each other.