We’ll Never Understand

As a teacher, I cannot sit back taking in all of the news out of Connecticut without posting my thoughts.  Those thoughts are constantly drawn to the families, teachers, students, and faculty who have been so brutally subjected to the worst this world has to offer.  I spent Friday and Saturday battling tears as more details were available.  I know no one involved, but how can any teacher, parent, or compassionate human not feel deeply when he sees pictures of innocent children whose lives were ended abruptly, and at a place that is supposed to be safe?  How can we not be impacted when we have such blatant evidence that evil exists?

I went for a run Friday afternoon with a friend, and she asked what, as a teacher, I would do in that situation.  I have asked myself that same question countless times in the past three days.  I don’t think any of us can say with any certainty, but I believe my ‘mommy adrenaline’ would kick in, and I know, without a doubt, I would do everything in my power to protect my students.  As the stories of the teachers’ bravery come out, many seem surprised that teachers would go to such extremes to protect the children.  Let me tell you, I do not know of any adult with whom I work who would not do the same thing.  You see, we love your children.  You might complain that I kept your child in for recess when you didn’t think it was necessary, or I give too much homework, or not enough, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty of teaching, what is important is that I care deeply.  Teachers and parents might not always agree on the best way to handle children, but I hope parents know that we would all fight like hell for your kids.

I kept picturing my students’ faces this weekend, and I know the faith they have in me.  That’s big.  I truly couldn’t wait to see them this morning.  I just wanted them to know that I love them.  Really.  I cannot imagine how the teachers in Connecticut will cope when they go back, nor can I imagine how scary it will be for the kids.  How unfair.  And then my thoughts go to the parents.  No parent should have to bury a child, and when that child’s life ends so senselessly, it is that much worse.  I think of the wrapped presents beneath their trees that will go unopened.  The Christmas outfits that will go unworn.  The stocking that will be left hanging.  And I am sad.

We can argue gun control and mental health, but that gets us nowhere.  On the news earlier, they had a story about a woman who had a card with money inside on her car when she returned to the parking lot after shopping.  It said something about being in memory of a child who died in the school shooting, and that the only way to fight evil was with kindness.  It said the giver had decided to do random acts of kindness in memory of those who had died, and asked the the receipient pay it forward.  The woman was so touched that she decided to pass it on.  That’s what we should do.  Don’t argue about gun control or make this tragedy political.  We all have different opinions; who cares.  Let’s all become better human beings and reflections of goodness.  Let’s make someone’s day a little brighter.  If, through this horrific crime, we all become a little more compassionate, a little more accepting, just maybe evil will be defeated.

May God bless all those who lost loved ones, the children who saw things they should never have to see, and the faculty who will be going back to school ready to love those kids, and the community that will never quite be the same.

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In Memory of Stephen

One year ago this week, my young nephew, Stephen, died.  As we journey through this week, our thoughts go back to this last year, when amidst back-to-school preparations and our town’s annual Schweizer Fest, our family was planning a funeral for a 26 year old young man.  The following is a story I wrote about Stephen’s death with the goal of informing other young people about the dangers that lurk at parties. 

In Memory of

Stephen Paul Fordyce

I can’t erase her voice from my mind.  Sometimes her words come back to me at random times.  As I am walking up the stairs with a load of laundry it comes to me, “Stephen died.”    I remember how weak my sister’s voice sounded on the phone as she, still in shock, told me of my nephew’s death.   She sounded like a lost child, a wounded soul.

That morning was August 8.  It was the week before school was to begin, and I was in my third grade classroom preparing for opening day.   At nine o’clock my cell phone rang.  It was one of those calls I will never forget.  At first I couldn’t comprehend what my sister, Bobbi, was saying.  How could he possibly be gone?  Stephen was 26 and had just begun to live life.  He was healthy; actually he was more healthy than had had been in previous years after starting a workout routine and improving his eating habits.

I dropped what I was doing and stopped in the office to let them know what had happened, and that I wouldn’t be in for several days.  As the words came, so did the tears.  I couldn’t believe what was coming from my mouth.  My nephew was dead.   I have lost many family members, including my father when I was seven, but this?  This was incomprehensible.  What happened?  On the drive to my sister’s house, I just kept wondering what to do.  I don’t know what I am supposed to do.  What do I do?  Whom do I call?

Shortly after arriving at my sister’s house, I watched as her co-workers walked her in from the car.  What could I possibly say to her?  All of my life I have wanted to fix others’ problems.   I could not fix this.  As she began to explain what she knew, the story only became more difficult to swallow.  First of all, it was Monday, and Stephen had died on Sunday.  Stephen lived in a city about an hour from us, and the coroner’s office had failed to notify my sister that her son had died.  How is that even possible?  His friends knew of his death before his own mother.  There are no words to describe the pain that caused.

When the coroner first informed Bobbi, the only explanation for Stephen’s death he gave was that there had been a party at his house the night before, and that one of Stephen’s friends said there might have been prescription drugs involved.   As you may or may not know, grief comes with a wide array of emotions, including anger.  While I was extremely sad about the loss of my nephew, as I pondered his own responsibility in his death, the anger occasionally seeped in.  How could this intelligent young man make such a stupid – and ultimately deadly – decision?

While we awaited the final autopsy report, there we arrangements to be made, and phone calls to make.  Every step we took was wrought with devastation.  Watching a mother make funeral arrangements for her child is heartbreaking.  Because that mother was also my sister, it was nearly unbearable, yet I needed to be there to help carry her through.  As we spoke with the funeral directors, they tried to gently give us more troubling news.  While Stephen was passed out at his party, his friends (please remember these weren’t teenagers; they were all in their twenties) thought it would be funny to write on his face with a permanent marker.  The funeral directors knew we wanted an open casket, but were not certain they could remove the black marks.  Fortunately, a couple of days later, they called to report that they were able to clean the marker off; my sister would be able to see her son’s beautiful face one last time.

Any time a young person dies, there is a large turn-out at the visitation in our small town.  Stephen’s day was no different.  It was comforting to our family to see how many friends Stephen had, and how many lives he had touched.  At the same time I wanted to scream at his friends to remember their friend lying in that casket the next time they thought it would be cool to try drugs.  Though they were clearly upset by the loss of their friend, did they really understand the implications of his choices?  Would they remember that day the next time they were at a party?

We made it through the first week, but this was by no means the end of our grief.  We had a house to clean out, financial arrangements to be made, and visits to a lawyer to make sure the legalities were handled correctly.

After a few weeks, we received the autopsy report.  Stephen’s death was caused by mixing Xanax and Oxycontin.  There was no alcohol in his system.  According to the coroner, this is becoming a common practice at parties.  Supposedly, mixing the two gives quite the euphoric feeling.  Or it kills you.  As I began to research the effects of mixing these two prescription drugs, I found that it slows one’s heart rate and blood pressure.  If it slows them too much, death is inevitable.  While a party-goer might be able to mix the two one time with no ill-effects, the next time could end in death.

According to his friends, Stephen was intoxicated at the party, but they noticed nothing out of the ordinary.  He even woke up the next morning to see his girlfriend off to work.  After she left, he returned to bed to ‘sleep it off’, and that was the end.  His life was over.  He had a great job as a heating and air conditioning technician; he owned his own home; and he had a wonderful girlfriend who cared about him very much.  In an instant, none of that mattered.

My nephew was not a drug addict.  The coroner stated that the results of the autopsy showed that he did not make of habit of taking these drugs.  He was having a good time with his friends, and he made a mistake.  That mistake cost him his life.  That mistake left a mother without her son, an aunt and uncle without their nephew, his sisters without their brother, grandparents without their grandson, and cousins missing one of their own.

Life is about making decisions, and every single decision we make has a consequence.  We all make poor choices at some point in our lives.  When I was young I took unnecessary risks, partied when I shouldn’t have, and made my share of mistakes.  By the grace of God, I was never arrested and I lived to tell about it.  Teenagers and twenty-somethings:  You are on the brink of living life as an adult.  You can be whoever you choose to be.  You have countless opportunities before you.  Take advantage of all the great adventures this life has to offer.  Enjoy life, but make smart choices.

Many young people seem to be under the misconception that since drugs such as Xanax and Oxycontin are prescription medications, they are safer than street drugs or alcohol.  They are safe only if taken by the person for whom they are prescribed, not mixed with other medications, and taken as directed.  Otherwise, you are literally risking your life.  One night of partying is not worth the chances you take.  The wrong mix of drugs and/or alcohol can cause irreversible damage, not just to you, but to your family.  Our entire family has been affected by Stephen’s decision.  His mother lives every day with the knowledge that her son’s death could have been avoided so easily.  Let his death not be in vain.  Learn from his mistake, and share that knowledge with your friends.  Consider the consequences before making a decision.  If it would help, buddy up with a friend, let him or her know your intentions before you attend a party, and ask her to make sure that under no circumstances do you go off path.  You have to look out for one another, even when it’s difficult.

Please share this story with everyone.  Share it through your own blog, email, or your Facebook page.  If by sharing our story we save one young life, perhaps we can begin to make sense of our loss.

For My Father

My father is the handsome man on the left in the second row. The handsome man in the front is my Uncle Dave, who also died much too young. My mother is partially hidden, the woman on the far right in the back row.

On this Father’s Day, I cannot help but think of loss.  My father, Rex Greenland, died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 42; I was seven.  Though I was young and have few memories of my dad, I have many memories of the day he died.  The night before, my sister, Bobbi, had graduated from high school.   After the ceremony, I went to spend the night with my grandmother because we were moving the next day, and I would only be in the way.  We were moving from Hammond, Indiana to Hobart, Indiana, which is about 30 minutes away.  My father owned a company in Hobart, The R.W. Greenland Co; the business made rock that goes in the bottom of aquariums.

On Saturday morning, the phone rang at Grandma’s house.  I followed her to the phone, and could tell that something was wrong.  Really wrong.  Upon replacing the phone, Grandma said, “Honey, lay across the bed and cry.  Your daddy just died.”  The rest of the day was a whirlwind of activity.  Our neighbors and people from our church jumped in and helped us finish moving as we tried to process what had happened.  That day would change the course of our lives.

As an adult, I still miss my father terribly.  I miss having a father.  When I see daughters with their dads, I feel that pang of jealousy.  At times, I have had to leave the room when television shows or movies depicting a father’s death are on.

I often wonder what our lives would be like had he lived.  What career would I have chosen?  Would his business have grown and been successful?  At every meaningful event in my life, I wish my dad were there to share the moment with me.  Would he be proud of me?  When I have made poor choices or failed at something, I wonder if he would be disappointed, or supportive and encouraging.  What kind of grandfather would he be?

I have had so many questions for my dad over the years, and have yearned for his advice.  When my friend and I opened a business several years ago, I grieved at not having my dad to go to for business advice.  I have spent a lot of time wondering what about me is like my father.  Do I get my ambition from him?  Do I get my work ethic from him?  Am I somehow carrying on his legacy?

I know, without a doubt, that my father is present in my life.  He was a wonderful musician, even composing his own music.  My youngest daughter, Addison, inherited his musical ability.  She has taught herself to play the piano, and as I hear her play, I know my father, without ever having known her, has touched her.   It is such a blessing to hear her working to play songs written by my father; I know he is proud as his music is played by his granddaughter all these years later.

I turned 42 three years ago.  The year prior to that particular birthday, I was filled with dread.  Almost my entire life, all I had associated with the number 42 was my dad’s death.  I was quickly becoming depressed, and knew that I needed to find a better way to handle turning 42.  My husband and I had been talking about exercising, and several of my friends had begun to run.  I hated running.  Even when I was a kid I hated running.  I envied runners as I passed them on the road, but I knew I could never be one of them.  Then my husband, who has an artificial knee and is 16 years my senior, began to run.  Crap.  What excuse did I have?  For my 42nd birthday, I began to run.  It was slow going at first.  I would run 1/4 mile, and then walk.  Gradually I worked my way up to running a mile without stopping; that was a huge accomplishment for this anti-exercise-junk-food-eating mom.  As the months went on, rather than focus on my loss, I focused on keeping my own heart healthy (my dad’s brothers also died very young of heart-related problems), and on living life to its fullest.  We began running 5k races, and we were hooked.

I am so blessed that through prayer, the support of my husband, and the advice of friends, I chose to honor my father’s memory by improving my health – both mental and physical.  I think my dad is probably pretty proud of the progress I have made over the past three years.  I have run many 5Ks, a couple of 10Ks, and three half marathons – and it all started with 1/4 mile on the treadmill.

I also wanted to use my story to help children deal with grief, so a year ago, my first children’s book, Dear Daddy:  When a Parent Dies, was published.  It is based upon my experience, and written in the form of letters to my dad.  If I can help one child through his or her grief, my book has served its purpose.

Through my faith and directing my energy into exercise rather than self-pity, I have been able to cope, and truly believe this was the path God intended for me.  Had my father not died, our family would not have moved to Southern Indiana (my mother remarried a man from this area), therefore I would not have my daughters, nor would I be married to my incredible husband.  I have a good life, and for that I am thankful.  I will continue to run and to step outside my comfort zone so that I can experience this life to its fullest.  We have one shot at living, and it can be taken away without warning.  I strive to make the most of each day.  So along with thinking about my loss today, I am also thinking about my blessings.  I have lost some amazing people over the years, and I miss each of them, but I am so blessed to have known them.

Have a wonderful Father’s Day, Friends!  And be certain to tell those you cherish that you love them!