I began substituting six months after Camila died. My first day, I entered the classroom with her memory bracelet on my wrist, which had become a standard part of my wardrobe. “All you need is love” is printed in block letters next to her name. Like other such bracelets, it acts as an acknowledgement and a reminder of her life and our loss.
I was about two hours into my day when a student asked, “What does that mean?” pointing to my wrist. I responded, “It’s a memory bracelet for my daughter. She died six months ago.” My response was rote. I thought of Camila all the time and I always answered questions directly. Taken together, it was natural for me to respond to this young man in the same way.
I realized my mistake 30 minutes later when he chose to distract his table group rather than participate in the writing assignment. I heard him from across the room, “Oh, her daughter died. Her daughter died.” His voice was sing-song, the stuff of mockery, and it reached into my heart with an edge.
It took me two seconds to cross the room. It took the classroom aide two seconds more to escort him out of the classroom and toward the office.
As first days go, it was rough.
The next time I substituted, I didn’t wear my bracelet.
A year after Camila died, I had my first interview for a teaching job. The day had gone well. I had established rapport with the Dean of Students, the Chair of the English department, colleagues, and the Dean of Academics. My last stop was the Principal. At one point in our conversation, he said with a smile in his voice, “Either you’ve been carefully coached or you’re reading my mind, because you are saying just what I want to hear.” Everything was pointing to a great day and a good fit. Then he asked why I had left my previous school, where I was so clearly valued.
I was ready for the question – and I knew the rules, or the law, in this case. Employers could not ask why someone took personal leave. However, I wanted to appear open and, as the day had gone so well and the feedback had been so universally positive, I assumed I was speaking to a probable employer. I therefore wanted him to know this much about my life, and so I explained: I left school to care for my daughter, who had been diagnosed with cancer. I told him in brief terms that she had died, that her cancer had been very aggressive. I didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t really invite questions.
He then said, “I’m glad you brought that up. I had heard something about that.” Then: “Are you ready to come back to the classroom?”
A fair question, and one I answered honestly and directly, without artifice. Yes, I said. I missed my students, and I was ready. I explained that teaching had always been a meaningful part of my life, was a part of my identity, and that I had missed the energy, the focus and discovery that was part of teaching and interacting with students. I was enthusiastic, articulate, fully present. I was ready to reclaim my vocation, and I was excited by the prospect of teaching at this school.
Then it got personal.
The Principal asked, “Are you sure you’re ready?” Then: “My aunt lost a child, and she never recovered.”
And there it was: His experience, his expectations. Delivered like a fait accompli.
It is natural to assume that some human experiences are universal. At the moment of my final interview, I assumed he was being kind more so than judgmental.
But by the next day, I struggled to identify his intentions.
I didn’t get the job, but I learned an important lesson. I recognized that there are no absolutes, no behavioral patterns associated with the loss of a child. In that man’s mind, his experience constituted a universal truth. He lost a family member, and he saw the fallout. This was his experience, the very experience into which he placed my own: his context substituted for mine. But what he doesn’t know and what I’m realizing is that there are few norms following this kind of loss.
Even though the employer had an experienced, successful teacher sitting in front of him, he only saw what he expected to see: a broken person who would “never recover.” Of what use, then, could I possibly be to his students? His personal experience informed his point of view, and he trusted his judgment.
So where did that leave me, I wondered. If he saw me as broken, at what point might I be considered well or “recovered” again? When would I be deemed fit for meaningful labor? And who, if not myself, gets to decide?
Later, a friend from the circle shared similar experiences – through job interviews #1, #2, and #3. By interview #4, she had learned to keep her loss to herself.
I had my second interview two weeks ago at a different school, in a different town. These were busy professors who were looking for experience and professionalism. I had spent some time deciding how I would answer the “Why did you take personal leave” question if it was ever mentioned or otherwise implied.
To their credit, the question never came up. They didn’t ask. They took me at face value. The teaching demonstration went very well, the discussion was rich and varied, there was some laughter, some shared experience – and I was hired.
But the lesson of my first interview still haunts me. I feel Camila’s loss deeply, intimately. It is something I carry every day.
I know what I have lost.
I also know what I have been able to keep. I have kept my deep and abiding love for family and friends, my unbroken optimism, and while I admit to feeling perhaps a thinner sense of joy, my belief in myself, in my value and strength, is intact. I am surviving this loss – and that is sometimes hard to admit, too.
But I don’t know everything. I have yet to learn when it’s okay to be open and when it’s better to be private. I am new to this world of loss, and the rules are elusive, unwritten. Just as there is no word in our language for the parent who loses a child, no standard identifier, the loss itself often remains unspoken, unrecognized, and the bereaved parent lives in a nether-world, a quiet world in which they quietly seek their kind, those in the circle who can help them understand the struggles, the forfeits, the losses – and the lessons.
I have sublimated this lesson. I now wear a tattoo on my wrist in place of my bracelet. It is my private song of loss, music only I hear.