As the Days Darken

The leaves are showing their best colors this week, and falling rapidly to the ground. Such a short moment of splendor for them. Their cycle will be met: the leaves will fall. Some leaves will be allowed to stay and nurture the soil beneath their trees of origin. Others will be swept away by the wind, or by the man, only to be replaced in the spring with fertilizers in an attempt to feed those hungry lawns.

This season of shedding has seemed empty for me … no classroom, no students, no schedule, no need for me at school. Like the trees, my moment of splendor … thirty years of teaching every grade, every subject to every age and profile of students has fallen away- those years were no more than a blink in the millennium of education. I continue to sort and divide old school papers and books, emptying boxes one by one, and sorting things into two piles: one that I must keep forever, and the other that no one else would ever want. The discard pile is finally beginning to outsize the must keep forever. How can I dispose of construction paper greeting cards made by students, signed with love, and decorated with hearts and glitter? What will I do with old five and a half inch floppy data disks that run only on now-obsolete school computers but holding inaccessible treasures such as student compositions, grade book records, and meeting agenda and notes? Will they biodegrade in a landfill? Will they break my shredder, or break my heart?

As I read through the decades-old notes and letters from parents of my students, some thanking me, some praising me, and some simply acknowledging me, I find it easier to add to the discard pile. The schedules and agendas of meetings past bring a flicker of memory, a hint of urgency, of deadlines, of accountability. Those are quickly placed lightly on the growing pile. The grade spreadsheets are taken in to the shredder’s pile, destined to die an infamous death, keeping confidential all of the tardy marks, the retake grades, and the missing scores. Of course all of the As and A+s are also shredded, and distributed in their small fragments equally among the names of all of the students, rich and poor, short and tall, thin and round. The landfill will not measure anyone, nor label anyone. There is a sense of satisfaction in feeding the grades to the shredder.

Rick and I sat with the psychiatrist again today, and I began the conversation. I told him that I’d been successfully wearing a positive mask this past week. I said that it was unusual for me to come into a session without having talked it through with Rick, but that this session would be unusual. I owned up to the feelings that are surfacing this season … the sense of not being useful, or needed … the sense of needing more than I might expect to receive from others. I’m not at the head of the classroom anymore – I don’t have the attention of the students. I’m not held accountable for others’ success or failure, which is in itself a relief, but I’m also not able to feel the satisfaction of teaching a new skill, or sharing a piece of history, or a lesson of life. I’m waking up, eating, reading, typing responses to others’ books, posting those reviews in the vacuum of cyberspace, eating again, and sleeping. There is not a lot of difference from one day to the next, except that on occasion I am able to attack those piles of sorting. It is not a pleasant diversion, other than those brief moments that I spend re-reading notes written by young students, or the moments that Rick and I spend talking with each other while driving to a doctor’s appointment, his or mine.

I told the doctor that I know that Rick needs me, and I need him, and that together we are complete, and happy. Yet this sense of emptiness is within me. I had reason recently to visit a relative who had been hospitalized for a few days. We visited him again when he went home. It was a long ride, but one that had a purpose, and value. In the following weeks his life returned to normal, as did ours. I sent him a card to continue wishing him health. I sent another card to another relative who had had surgery this month. I sent a birthday card to a friend, and another letter to thank a sister who had kept me in the loop regarding my relatives’ illnesses. And I sent a longer letter to a friend from school with whom I exchange notes now and then. I thought about those contacts, that little flurry of reaching out to appreciate others, like a flurry of leaves swirling across a busy sidewalk, only to find rest on another spot, separated again. That one leaf might cover another for awhile doesn’t change their paths. That another might sit alone and unprotected from the wind won’t change the wind, nor the other leaves. They have separated from the tree. They are collectively alone.

The doctor and I agreed that this feeling, this sense of oneness, was a continuing breakthrough of sadness, and that this would not be the time to reduce the medication but instead to increase the dosage once more. I asked him whether I would at some point decrease this medication, and his response enlightened me. He told me that my former level of medication that had ‘maintained’ my coping skills had, after time, proven itself insufficient to maintain a remission of depression … and that the new dosage begun six weeks ago had not prevented that breakthrough of sadness, and so we would increase it to give it another chance at the higher level … but if it did not help me to return to my typical coping level, we would look for something different. I understood why, and I agreed.  He talked with me about ‘the chicken or the egg,’ which answered my question: was I depressed because I wasn’t coping with sadness and emptiness, or was I sad and empty because I was depressed. Whichever it is, whether it is the shortening of days, an external trigger, or a continuation of altered coping levels, an internal trigger, we would pursue the chemical balance that would help me to re-establish my sense of who I am, who I can be, or who I will be. We will pursue a new maintenance level, or a new path.

The trees will eventually lose all of their leaves. Their conifer relatives will not lose their needles in this same way. They will maintain the color in their lives by continual replacement of their needles. The leaf-less winter deciduous trees will not die because of the loss of color; instead, they will hunker down, conserve their energy, and with the winter’s rest, be ready in the spring to create new growth, and repeat the cycle. They will not envy those who retain their color year round. They are not the same, after all. But they are all trees. They all have a cycle. And each of their leaves contributes to the trees’ existence if only for that brief moment of splendor.  Like the leaf, I have contributed to this world of education, if only in a small way. It seems large, to me, up close and personal. But in the larger picture, it was no more than one solitary leaf.

Sometimes I want to be alone. Alone does not necessarily mean forgotten. Alone can be peaceful. Alone can be quiet. I can be alone. I can be with Rick, even when he is outside making beautiful things of wood, and I am inside writing things that may make others happy.  He and I are two leaves of the same tree. We can both be alone, together, and find peace wherever we may land.

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8 Comments

  1. Hang in there, Terry. You’re very encouraging to others. Now you need to turn some of that toward yourself. Writers by nature are pretty much loners, but we’re fortunate now to be able to make friendships online.
    Yes, every birthday gets more depressing, but also teaches us to look around and appreciate what we have.
    Oh, and some of those cards,etc, you could take pictures and save them online so you don’t lose all of them.
    Take care, my friend,

    • Thanks, Morgan, for stopping by and responding here. I appreciate your words.

  2. Try to remember those leaves as they change color provide a splendor unmatched in my eyes by any spring flowers. Their color is like natures grand finale in natures lifeworks (fireworks seems wrong term).

    Let those students letters, the artwork, your notes etc. bring out the memories. Look back proud and know even if your work is but a leaf falling from a tree, it is beautiful now, and it provides the base needed for the next season’s leaves. Your work fertilized the environment for a generation of minds to better experience and express the next season…

    But for now, you’re not done. You may no longer be connected to the tree providing energy from the sun to the tree through your teaching job, but remember the job of the leaf in the fall. Provide some of the splendor you taught others to recognize.

    Write.

    Appreciate.

    There are many ways to teach others. Don’t think you are done yet. I read your postings and know you are not done.

    • Hi Geof, and thanks for coming by. I will continue writing, at least here if no where else. Thoughts flow more easily here, and responses like yours feed the current. I love that you extended the metaphor throughout your response!

  3. “We will pursue a new maintenance level, or a new path.”
    I understand these words on a very deep and personal level. I understand all that this encompasses. I understand the pain of grief for a life lived, loved and lost. I understand the giving up and the accepting that turns that mourning into our new form of dancing, you and I. It is not easy work, pursuing a new maintenance level when you just worked so hard to accept the one before. I shake my fist, sometimes, at this illness that just keeps taking and taking and taking…
    But it’s worth it. As long as there is breath in my lungs and a beating heart, this life…THIS life, is worth it. We ARE pieces of a much bigger picture. A beautiful gift each and every moment – waiting to be discovered. It may seem nothing like the last, but what it has to offer me is none the less.
    I am so happy to know that you have this love to drift to each new place with. I do too. So I understand those words as well. I can’t imagine life without him. One of the many, many things I have to be thankful for.
    Thank you for such a beautiful piece. Every word resonated deeply, and that is so very comforting.
    Peace,
    Theresa

  4. Hello Theresa,
    Yes, we are blessed to live where we are, when we are, and to share that where and when with the love of our life. Thank you for reading my piece, and for identifying with me once again. It is for readers like you and those above whom I write for.

  5. Pat

    Thinking of you and wishing sometimes that my life would slow down. Funny how we always want it to slow down, but when it does, it is not always what we dreamed it to be. . We may not talk as often as we used to, or would like to, but you are always in my thoughts.

    • Thanks, Pat. You and yours are always in our thoughts, also. I appreciate the full hours you dedicate to your students, and know the toll that takes on your energy, both in school and out, planning, teaching, assigning and assessing. Always remember that the teaching is the part that will be remembered years later … the part that matters most. Be well. Love, Terry

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