Funny how one word can trigger a memory. Up late reading about a young boy bedeviled by behaviors beyond his control. I laid the book down across my lap, marked the page with my finger and closed my eyes.
I saw myself rocking in a chair with a feisty five year old boy, his black bangs sweaty against his forehead. Sweaty from struggling and wrestling his way out of my grasp. He was extremely agitated, chewing the graphite at the end of the pencil gripped tightly in his left hand, while slapping at my arm with his right.
I placed one arm around his waist to keep him on my lap as we rocked. I didn't know then what I know now about autism, but it would not have helped to have a technical diagnostic label. Not in that moment. In the moment we were in, rocking felt right. Simple. Back and forth. Repetitive. Soothing. A steady rocking in a safe firm embrace, his ankles still as I wrapped my own gently around his legs.
I whispered his name. Josh, Josh, Josh over and over and over in his ear. Softer and softer each time. Rock with me. Rock with me. Rock with me.
I knew to do this because I was a young and inexperienced teacher of the deaf, job sharing with a very experienced older teacher, my mentor, Marese. Sitting a few feet away, teaching the rest of the class and teaching me at the same time by example, as she rocked lightly back and forth in her chair, smiling all the while. I knew Josh could not hear the sound of his name, but he could feel my breath on his cheek, and see my fingers underneath his chin, fingerspelling to him, J-O-S-H, J-O-S-H, J-O-S-H.
Marese taught me everything about teaching. Simple things, soothing things, to over-prepare, to be flexible, to know when a lesson is lousy and to leave it, when the weather outside the window can teach more about Science in ten minutes than a textbook in a musty classroom can in days and days.
Learning by doing. Praise only when praiseworthy. No favorite students. Each a favorite for unique qualities and quirks. Rituals and rhythms and responsibilities. Sharing. Taking turns and lining up. Table etiquette. Kindness. Math in Nature. Reading lips, facial expressions and body language for visual clues so easily missed when busy trying to make a point. Poetry in motion.
Marese was tiny and quiet and calm. I stood next to her, tall and dramatic and loud. She was ready to retire. I was ready to return. I retired for nine years to raise my two boys. We met on her way out and my way back in. A very unlikely pair. A mismatched duo.
An imperfect perfect fit.
Marese was like me, a mother, a wfie, a teacher. She knew love and heartache, deceit and truth, and how to make me laugh until I thought I'd pee. She taught mornings. I taught afternoons. We were supposed to meet at noon for fifteen minutes to exchange our half day adventures. Eventually, I would come earlier and she would stay later. She had much to teach and I had much to learn. Our time was short. We made the most of it. Often ending up in her kitchen after school, like the just-one-more-chapter-before-lights-out book you are not ready to put down.
Then she got sick. Parkinson's. It hit her hard and it hit her fast. From mild tremors to shaking her body out of her chair and onto the floor. Some of our best and most memorable conversations ended up on the carpet in her living room as she undulated unwillingly from one corner to another, once wedging herself underneath the coffee table. I couldn't fix this with a rocking chair. A safe secure embrace. So I just scooted beside her, stayed close, within reach, saying her name. Smiling her name. Listening for mine.
And when the liars tell you that life cannot get worse, know this for sure, it can. And does. Marese needed open heart surgery. In order to survive the surgery, she had to stop her medication. Her body froze up like an icicle and when she finally thawed, she slowly slipped away.
When I saw her last, in her hospital room, I told her family I had come to say good-bye. They asked me to tell her unconscious self, that it was okay to stop fighting, to lie down and let go.
I did as I was asked out of the respect she taught me well.
When the family left me alone for a private good-bye, I leaned down close to her ear, took her hand in mine, and said...
Marese. I was lying.
Don't go. I don't want you to leave. I didn't mean any of it.
I can't imagine the world without you.
She squeezed my hand.
Always the last word.
Always the right answer.
Her leaving was none of my business.
My business was waiting for me at home, back in the classroom, out again in the world, where she taught me to be.
So I simply stood by the side of her bed and in my heart, I scooped her up in my arms, and rocked her to sleep.
Exactly what she would have done for me.
Said my name in hello, and followed with a hug.
You have people like this in your life.
You know you do.
The ones who teach not by what they say, but by what they do.
Take a moment to remember them.
Embrace the memory and wrap it around you like a hug.
You will be missed.
...because I am the one with the tears in my eyes...