Coming Back

Rosy and relaxed, I pushed the bedroom door open after my bath. There, sprawled on the floor, fast asleep, was Greta the dog.

Over six months ago, the dog abruptly stopped sleeping in our room after fourteen years of habit. Suddenly, she would come upstairs with me, circle around, sniff at the doors of the closets, angle her sad eyes my way, and then sigh deeply. With great effort, she would heave herself forward and head downstairs, where she’d fall soundly asleep on the couch.

Then I would wake to her wet nose snuffling at my face in the deepest hours of the night.

She’d be hungry.

She’d need to go out.

She would want her meds.

Sometimes I would get up; sometimes Mark would. Seldom would Greta sleep throughout the night…and so, of course, our sleep was constantly broken, too.

We took her to the vet.  We talked about sudden changes in habit and what that could mean. We talked about humans’ broken sleep and irritability.

The vet checked the dog for any signs of physical ailments and found none. That was good news, sort of, but it also meant that Greta’s issues were probably cognitive. At 14 human years of age, she was no doubt developing some kind of doggy dementia. We started her on meds, and slowly we increased them, adding a sedative. That reduced, but did not eliminate, the nocturnal wakings.

And then last night, there she was, in her once-accustomed place on the bedroom rug. I tiptoed around her, read in bed for thirty minutes, watched to see if she would wake when I turned off my lamp. Like there had been no interim, she slept for a full, uninterrupted, six hours.

And I slept, too, only realizing then that I had been on high alert every night, listening, even asleep, for the click click of her nails on the hardwood floors downstairs, ready (even if reluctant) to get out of bed when needed.

I got up early this morning, and Greta followed me downstairs; we went outside together in the gray light, came back in, both had breakfast. I felt as if something had clicked back into place. The dog, too, seemed strangely content.

Greta is still old. Her eyes are still cloudy, her focus still slipping. She may never sleep upstairs again.

Or she might. I’ll call her tonight when bath time looms, beckon her up behind me, see if the strange interim of spending the deep nights downstairs has come to an end.

**************

I drop Jim off at the side door of Elson Hall, in the 15-minute parking space. He gathers his back pack and laptop bag from the back on the car, waves casually, and heads into the university, where he is taking a first-term philosophy class this summer.

He loves it. He respects and likes his teacher, a bright, engaging woman with a British accent who shares his love for Monty Python. (They can both recite the lyrics to “The Philosophers’ Song.”) She shows interesting video clips, such as one of George Carlin busting on the concept of God: Jim is particularly fascinated by the arguments for and against God’s existence.

He reads his textbook at home, does his homework, and downloads the lecture notes from Blackboard. He asks us our opinions on different philosophical constructs, wonders aloud about logical fallacies. He emails his advisor, his instructor, the financial aid director. He likes to go to campus an hour before class start—just to hang out and get ready, he says.

In the second summer term, Jim will take a health class. Then, in the fall, he’ll have a more robust part-time schedule.

It has been several years since Jim gave up on taking college classes, said, “No more,” after accumulating almost enough credits for an associate degree. He felt, he said, like he was spinning his wheels. He believed he would never be able to master the math needed. He wanted, he decided, to just get a job and work.

The job search was not fruitful, but two or three years ago, Jim did begin a small home business,–a business that helped him learn about responsibility and accountability, how to talk with and communicate with clients, and how to schedule work to get done in a timely way. And then, after the New Year, Jim mentioned that he’d like to explore going to college.

He connected immediately with a wonderful advisor, warmed to the director of disability services, felt comfortable finding classrooms and dealing with unexpected class changes and the vagaries of financial aid. And then the thing that had eluded him for years—a job—fell squarely into the deal. The disabilities director put him in touch with an opening for a student worker; James starts his job on Tuesday.

Classes that challenge him. A student job in the very field he hopes to pursue. James is back in school after a long, dry spell, excited and hopeful.

************

I trim the front hedge with the clippers, not trying for strict symmetry, but for neatness. Mark surveys. The hedge, he opines, kind of looks like a caterpillar.

A caterpillar, I think. That reminds me, somehow, of the bricks painted like books that I’ve seen on Facebook. I think of Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I say that, if you got a copy of that book, you could make eyes and antennae for the bushes. I say you could paint a paver to look like the book itself.

You could make, Mark says slowly, a kind of readers’ garden, and the idea takes hold.

I request the Carle book on line and get a call the next day that it is in. James and I drive over to the library and pick it up.

At home, I study the cover. I find a thin piece of plexiglass and cut it in half, and search in the basement for paints. I draw eye shapes on the clear plastic and fill them in green and yellow paints. I like the way they turn out.

Mark finds me a plastic lid; we cut it to make the caterpillar’s nose.

And I go outside and heave up a big cement paver, a paver that mimics the shape of the The Very Hungry Caterpillar book. I wash it off. I brush a thick coat of white paint onto it and leave it to dry overnight.

The next afternoon, decks cleared, I gather things together—little pots of latex enamels from the basement, a thick package of art brushes that I have had forever and never opened. Pencils and Sharpies and a cup for water. Rags and a paint stir-stick. A screwdriver to lift the glued-on lids from the jars.

I do a quick sketch of the book cover, and yes, it seems like it can be done. I grab an old plastic bowl for the mixing of paint, and I head out to the patio to paint a paver.

And just like that, I am painting, after years of not.

I like the result. It is far from perfect. The colors are wonky. I have lettered the text with a black Sharpie, and the porous, bubbly surface of the cement has played havoc with my printing. But there is no doubt of what I am trying to suggest; the paver actually looks like the cover of Eric Carle’s book.

I let it dry and coat it with clear enamel.

Caterpaver

This weekend we will wire the eyes, nose, and antennae onto the hedges. I dig out five pairs of old sneakers and set them aside to paint brown; they will be the caterpillar feet. We’ll take the very hungry cater-paver and prop it up in front. We’ll hope that passing children will be surprised into smiles—that moms and dads and grandmas and grandmas will remember warm cuddles with a special book.

We talk about garden books.

We could do, Mark suggests, an Iris Murdoch cover on a brick, put it by the irises. I find a book called A Fall of Marigolds, and I put a base coat of blue on a brick…I’ll paint the flowers in tomorrow.

We’ll make an herb garden and paint bricks to look like Harry Potter volumes—herbology, you know. What about a cover for a Wordsworth tome in a bed of daffodils? What about a paver that looks like the children’s book Chrysanthemum tucked into the flower bed?

Could I recreate the cover of Charlotte’s Web to sit next to our statue of Babe the Pig?

I sort and stack paint, gather supplies, make sketches. This is fun. Why has it been so long since I’ve done this kind of project?

******************

Transitions happen. Habits break. Dreams defer. Pleasures get back-burnered.

There isn’t room for everything. Sometimes, the jettison is a necessary thing. Sometimes, it’s necessary that the ending be permanent.

But sometimes, a dog creeps back into a favored spot and settles into a satisfying sleep. A young person takes a leap of faith and discovers needed skills to navigate the new path. Or a hand picks up a brush and joy re-awakens.

Some doors close forever, mourned, perhaps, but set aside. But sometimes, even if only for an interlude, that lost thing can be recaptured. There’s a special joy at times like that, I’m learning,–at times when things come back.

 

 

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Let Go, Let Go, Let Go

 

 

I open the back door of the Escort, and Ella peers at me from her car seat.  Her eyes well tears; her bottom lip quivers.

“Come on, baby,” I say.  “Let’s go meet the other kids!”

“No, Mama,” she whispers.  I unbuckle the belts and lift her from the car seat.  She clings to me, clamped on, across the crowded parking lot.

Inside, the hallways gleam with back to school brilliance.  Ella’s preschool starts at 9:15, an hour and fifteen minutes after the big kids start regular school, so there is a buzz, a hum, an underlying energy that vibrates in the very floor as we walk down to the preschool classroom.

We are early, but other children are already there.  The smiling teachers, Miss Claire and Miss Betsy, have a tempting array of toys spread enticingly throughout the room.  There are crayons and fresh sheets of drawing paper and books  on each of the small round tables.

“Look, Ella,” I whisper, “there’s Clifford and Emily!”

“No,” she says into my neck.  A brown-haired, bowl-cutted, boy, rubbing his red crayon back and forth on a yellow sheet of paper, looks up briefly and shrugs.

Miss Betsy comes over.  “Good morning, Ella!” she says, and she peels my three year old off my body. “This is going to be a great day,” Betsy tells Ella, “and you will make new friends.”

“NO,” says Ella with great finality as Betsy lowers her to the ground. With startling quickness, Ella is wrapped around my right leg, and she is into full tantrum warm up.  “No mama no mama NO MAMA NO! NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and she is off and wailing.

Betsy looks at me sympathetically and mouths, “Go quickly.” She removes Ella with seasoned dexterity.

“Goodbye, Ella!” I say.  “I will see you at 11!”

I flee, tears starting in my own eyes, rushing out the door on a tidal roar of, “NOOOOOO, MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

I stand in the hallway for 30 minutes listening to my child wail, and then I go out to the car and cry for half an hour myself.

***************
I pull the Vibe into the parking lot of the middle school and ruffle Ella’s newly cut hair. She turns to look at me; her twelve year old eyes are bottomless.

“I don’t know, Mom,” she says.  She eyes a couple of other girls meandering up the walkway to the big old brick building.  I know she is checking out their clothes–Did I pick right? she is asking herself.

Her little plaid skirt and long sleeved black top will do.  The other girls have very similar outfits.

“We walked this out,” I remind her.  We had come to the open school two days running and followed her schedule–from home room to math class to English to Gym. She knows how to get to the cafeteria. Her afternoon classes are next door to each other.

We have arrived early so she can get to her locker through hallways that are not tumultuous with first day mayhem.

Her hand is on the door handle, her body tensed.

“You can do it,” I whisper.  “You’ll be great.”

She leans over and gives me a quick, self conscious peck; she grabs her not-yet-full backpack, and she bolts out the door.  Head down, she scurries up the walk.  At the big shiny red door she pauses, hand on the heavy metal handle.  She turns to look at me pleadingly.

She looks suddenly tiny next to the massive door, which must be eight feet high, my big girl shrunken and frightened by this new challenge.  She is all long legs, knobby knees, and tension.

“You can do it,” I mouth, and she shakes her head, almost angrily.  Then she pulls herself up, yanks on the door, and disappears.

I sit there for  moment, leaving my twelve-year-old Ella in a nest of strangers.  She’ll be great, I think.  I pull myself up, an echo from a moment ago, and restart the car.

****************

As we are pulling the crisp new blue sheets over the mattress of the bed on the right-hand side of the room–a predetermined arrangement–Abby and her mom Mary come in.  There is hugging and squealing, and the girls dig treasures out of their bags, laughing.

A coffee maker;  I’m learning to drink it!

Oh, very cool–a bagel slicer; we can go to the bakery over on Downing Street on weekends. 

They unpack their clothes neatly, folded things in dressers, hanging things behind the closets’ louvered doors.

They put toothbrushes and soaps, hang towels and washcloths, in the bathroom.

Mary and I hang the curtains we’ve collaborated on, smooth matching duvets, plump up new pillows. We fold afghans over the foot of each bed. The girls flit around, putting books on shelves, supplies on desks, saying tentative hellos to neighbors who poke their heads in to meet them.

This is 210 McHenry Hall: Ella’s new home for the next academic year.  She is 18, still leggy, but the knobby colt-like quality is gone; this is the classy legginess of a young woman.  And this is her dream school; this is where she’ll decide between the physics degree and the writing degree.  She will take her intro physics course, her calculus, her two English classes, and begin determining: Do I want to be a scientist? Or a writer?  Can I do both???

She and Abby, another bright, ambitious, over-achiever, have met twice, corresponded and emailed all summer; she is ready.

But–as Mary and I look around the room, knowing it’s all set, knowing it’s time to go, both girls begin to shimmer just slightly.  I feel Mary doing what just I am doing, girding for goodbye.

We hug our girls hard, we demand that they call that very night.  They roll their eyes,–eyes that threaten to leak.

I pause in the parking lot  as I dig out my keys to the Scion, and look up.  Her face is pressed to the second floor window, a hand flattened on either side.

You can do it, I mouth.  She gives me a thumbs up, peels herself from the window, and I climb into my car and start the ignition.

*****************

I love Andy; he loves Ella.  He is kind and good and smart and hard-working.  She glows when she looks at him.

She has lived in the city for three years; she is independent and savvy.  But when she emerges, changed from her tulle and lace extravaganza into a beautiful flowy top and tight and trendy jeans for the start of the honeymoon, her eyes are the frightened, sorrowful eyes of my little girl.

I hug her hard, rock her back and forth, make her giggle.

She and Andy open their Jeep doors–my liberated baby is driving; she looks at me long and hard over the roof of the car.

It’ll be great, I mouth, and I see that little shimmer; then she grins and slides inside, and they’re off to begin a marriage.

*********************
They call me when they’re ready to go, and I meet them at the hospital.  Her contractions are three minutes apart; she’s in her fuzzy robe, her long legs hunkered up in the wheel chair, her hands on either side of her big belly.

She breathes like they taught her: Huff.  Huff. Huff.

Andy signs papers and answers questions and a cheerful, motherly nurse pads out in pink and blue patterned scrubs.  The woman at the desk smiles at me and shows me where to sit; the motherly nurse rounds up Andy, deftly turns the wheelchair around, and starts to roll my Ella away.

She cranes her head around, looking for me.  There is panic.  I don’t think I can do this, she telegraphs.

You’ll be GREAT, I telepath back, and she disappears to birth my beautiful granddaughter, mysteriously named Devon after an English river neither Andy nor Ella has ever seen.

****************************

Ella arrives at my door; she has just taken Devon to her first day of preschool.

“Oh, my God,” she says.  “How did you ever do this?” and she tells me about the teacher peeling her four year old from her leg and shooing her, (Goodby, Mom! We’ll be fine!) out the door, and about standing in the hallway listening to her baby cry for her.

I do all the right things: I smooth her hair, I cradle her cheeks for an instant; I plant a firm kiss on her tensed up brow, and I take her out for coffee.  I tell her stories about her own stubborn little self until she is laughing shakily.

“Does it get easier?” she asks, and I tell her that it does, little by little.  And that Devon is great, so smart, so ready; she’ll do really well.

I don’t tell her everything, though, as I look fondly at my daughter, a mature woman, a wonderful mother, who is right now surreptitiously stealing half of my warm and oozey chocolate chip cookie.

I don’t tell her that I’ve decided each leaving is like having a stitch removed. If the skin is healthy–if the child is ready–it hurts just when  the stitch is pulled.  Sometimes, in fact, it stings like hell, the sudden pain vibrating up and down my body.  But then under the pain, as what was stitched together starts to separate a little bit, I discovered, there is a tiny glowing orb,  a little pearl-like nugget–a little jot of freedom.

I don’t tell her that in a month, Devon will be bolting out of the car, anxious to see her friends, forgetful of the mama dragging in behind her with a Hello Kitty backpack, a Scholastic book order form, and a signed promise to send in two dozen cupcakes for the UnBirthday Party the following week. Or that she will say goodbye and drive off and feel a rush of joy at having two hours to herself,–two hours in which she can take her tablet to the coffee shop and pound the keys in blissful quiet, or–what luxury–when she can take a deep, sucking-in- sleep-like-a-parched-runner-downs-water, nap.

I don’t tell her that each leaving signals a growth in her daughter…and a little more freedom for her, the mama.  She will savor that freedom, feeling a guilty pang for doing so, and she will help her daughter reach and grow and get sturdy and strong.  And each time they say goodbye, she’ll know: Devon is ready for this. She’ll be great.

If I told her this, she’d be brought up short; she’d think, Mom!  You were GLAD when I was gone???

I’ll let her discover the flip side of the leaving on her own.  Right now, I grab her hand, studded with dots of melted chocolate, and we laugh.  It’s these moments, I tell her, the moments between the leavings, that we savor.

In Prose and Thanksgiving

Mark on the River

 

This morning I talked with my colleague Pete
About a sobbing student, who said
She didn’t know you needed Internet to go to college.
Life was a whole lot easier, she told me, in prison.
That was not a metaphor.

I know, I know, said Pete;

my friend…
Hometown boy, in for twelve years:
Now all he wants to do is go back.
It’s sad, so very sad, we both agreed,
And thought about the little we could do.
But you never know what rocks, said Pete,
Hope might push up under,
might twine around.

And my colleague Roy, this morning,
showed me how to share folders
In the cloud. Simple. Elegant. Almost magic.
There’s always a new wonder to explore.

I sat with Cris this morning,
Packing brown paper bags—
“Survival kits” for adjuncts.
It’s the last Wednesday Cris will work
After 42 years—
Next week she retires, and her Wednesdays are her own.

Tiffany, an adjunct, poked her head in the door,
And wound up staying
To stuff pens and pencils
And 8 gig flashdrives
And Life Savers,–of course!–
Into survival kits.

We listened to Cris tell stories of grandkids and gardens,
Of the College long ago,
We watched as she continues to loosen, fondly and gently,
42 years’ worth of ties.
We packed the bags, we shredded twine
And threaded it through gift tags–
A communion of colleagues
At different points on the continuum.

I took the afternoon off and had lunch with my son James
Whose autism gives him fierce focus:
He told me facts about the author Stephen King,
Things I would never otherwise have known.
On this hot day, Amy, the waitress, unasked,
Brought us each a travel cup of our chosen drink-
Cool you off in the car, she said.
(And that worked very well.)

I changed into grubbies to mow the backyard
Steering the mower carefully around the cleome patch
Springing up, volunteers, in front of the garage window.
The deer eat my roses, and the cleomes rebound.

And Mark came home early so we could ride the Lorena,
The paddlewheeler,
Down the Muskingum River on a warm July night;
Eating prime rib and sipping iced tea on the top deck,
Digging into peanut butter pie,
Talking with Dorothy, who shared 26 years of healthy retirement
With her husband, before he died.
She told of offspring in the city and by the sea
Of grandkids leading international lives.
Children on the banks of the Muskingum waited to wave
Although they must have seen this paddlewheeler churn past
Tens of times before.

Different view of life, trolling down the river:
We put our phones away; stopped taking pictures,
Used our eyes, felt the breezes,
Breathed in the warm and muddy scent of water.

I must say thanks to Whomever made this day
And ask,
When tomorrow brings crisis, confusion, chaos,
That S/He help me reach inside and find the vessel
Where this day’s pure, calm, jubilant
joy
Is stored.

In Story Land

 

I’m reading Pat Conroy’s My Losing Season, and I’m asking myself this question, “Is Conroy a reliable narrator?”

It’s a question I’ve pondered a thousand times, I bet, from Mr. Durkin’s satire class in my senior year at Dunkirk High School to discussions with Dr. Bob Deming, almost twenty years later, as I pieced together my master’s thesis, to my own reading, forever tinted, and maybe tainted, by English classes.  We were analyzing [some would say over-analyzing; I had a class once that developed an exciting theory about the back story in a book.  Since the author was still alive, we sent off the theory and begged her for a comment.  Her comment was: “You English teachers always over-analyze everything.”] the story and asking ourselves, “Can we trust this narrator?”

Conroy uses his senior year at the Citadel as the framework for this memoir, which is the story of how important basketball has been in his life.  He was a scrappy, smart point guard, but one of the things he tells us in the book is that he was never more than a mediocre player.  Conroy might believe that; his strongest male influences, his father and his coach, were both odd, abusive men who seemed to have absolutely no interest in developing the young people in their charges. They certainly never told him to think highly of himself.  In fact, the mantra Conroy remembers Coach Thompson yelling at him, over and over, every game he played, was, “Don’t shoot, Conroy!”

So one of the tenets of this story is that Pat Conroy loved basketball, ate it, drank it, and slept with it all through college, but that, as a player, he never rose above the ranks of just so-so.

I don’t buy it.  The stories Conroy tells about the games he played, the quotes he includes from sports writers, the fact that his coach, that strange and turbulent man, once reamed out the team but excused the author from the rant–i.e., “You’re all losers and scum–except Pat Conroy,” suggest a very different story.

I believe Pat Conroy was a helluva basketball player.  But I believe, too, that he is convinced otherwise, that he would argue with anyone who suggested his excellence.  “I was a mediocre basketball player,” is one of the key beliefs his book is built upon.

I bet we all have things like that.  So much of our lives is built upon the stories we tell ourselves and others. We are a people of story.

There are stories we believe about ourselves, and a lot of time our first teachers are the ones who impart these tales.  Those can be positive or negative, delivered harshly or lovingly.  So a child whose mother says, “I love that picture!” will begin to believe herself talented, artistically.  The same child, when her mother, surveying her cluttered bedroom,  ruffles her hair and says fondly, “You’re such a little messypants!” starts to think, “I’m kind of a slob.” One telling won’t usually be enough to implant a belief so strong it defines the story, but, told over and over again, we begin to believe and internalize what we hear.

The telling can have enormous–and tragic–consequences.  I think back to when we lived in Ada, and I was going to a library book club.  We read a memoir by a man who had gone from abject poverty to being the Dean of a prestigious law school.  At the same time, a young man was pleading for his life in sentencing hearings at the court where my husband interned.  This young man had lined up seven people and shot them, gangland style; included among the people he shot were a two year old and a young teenaged girl, who both died.  The miracle, I guess, was that the others lived and told the tale.

That young man, too, grew up in abject poverty; in fact, as I read the book and read the testimonies of people who knew the defendant growing up, I was struck, over and over, by how similar they were.  It was eerie.  What was different in the way the men turned out?

In his memoir, the law school dean noted that his father was one of his main tormentors, neglecters, abusers–an addicted, seldom rational man.  But, every day his father told him:  You’re smart.  You can get out of here.  You’re going to college.

Did the other young man have a voice like that in his life?  I doubt it.  In fact, one of the people who testified about the cruelty and despair of his childhood said something like this, “We knew he was gonna turn out no good.”

Simplistic, yes, but still–Those were the childhood stories those men heard; those were the adult stories they lived out.

At my godchild Shayne’s house in Florida, I saw a picture of Shayne’s lovely niece, a beautiful young girl of Nicaraguan lineage, with a tiara on her head, a lovely gown–and my grand-niece Madelyn, with a tiny tiara of her own, happily ensconced on her cousin’s lap.  Shayne explained that the photo was taken at her niece’s quinceanera, a tradition in cultures with Hispanic roots.

I had never heard of the quinceanera, so when I returned home and found a copy of Julia Alvarez’s Once Upon a Quinceanera at a library book sale, I bought it and took it home to read. Alvarez, who grew up in the turbulent sixties and seventies, and never had or considered a quinceanera, became fascinated by the custom as an adult, and so she traveled around the country researching it.  She visited families of great wealth, who had celebrities and over the top celebrations– and families of great poverty, who provided parties that were just as lavish and financially disastrous by their standards.  There is a quinceanera industry, Alvarez reports, sellers of dresses and tiaras, party planners and caterers, who make their livings on quinceanera customers.  It’s a big deal.

Alvarez explores the roots of the custom and its meaning, and she tells us it’s all tied up with the stories we’re telling our daughters. What does this particular quinceanera say to the young woman–is it, “You are now a beautiful sexual being, ready for marriage and motherhood”?  Is it, “Look at you: beautiful, powerful, vibrant! You can do anything you put your mind to”?  Or is there another story behind the glitz and ruffles?

Alvarez writes, “…there are stories in our head about who we must be and what we can do, and these stories drive our lives.”

Do the stories doom us?  I have to think otherwise.  I have to think that there are moments in our lives when the stories we have accepted rise to the surface of our consciousness and we are forced to choose.  Do we accept the belief that we will never amount to anything? Or–do we start the course that will prove those storytellers wrong?  And what can we do to realize what stories are driving us, what beliefs we have internalized that define our choices?

Pat Conroy’s belief is an appealing, humble one, “I was not a very good basketball player…” Conroy obviously has gone on to a dynamic and successful career; he’s a well-known writer.  Heck, he’s a person who worked out his private story on a very public stage.  Would he have been a different person if his belief had been, “I was an outstanding leader on the basketball court?”

I don’t know, but isn’t it interesting to ponder?  And isn’t it fascinating to ask ourselves what stories we play out every day?  How do we bring those stories to awareness, to where we can accept them or reject them mindfully?

That, I think, is the climax of our rising narratives—the point and the path that will determine how our own individual plots play out.  I hope my narrator’s been reliable.

 

Sacrifice and Celebration–different definitions

The sun is pouring through my dining room window as I write this in the early morning of Easter 2014–a glorious sun, like a metaphor, like a proof.  The season of sacrifice is over, and the day of celebration has arrived.

I made my pig-picking cake this morning, and we feasted on that for breakfast; there is Anthony-Thomas chocolate waiting on the counter. In an hour or two, we’ll get in the car and drive for five hours to the home of Mark’s parents, and we’ll feast again, on traditional Easter noshes provided by Mark’s brother and sister-in-law, Thomas and Susan.

Lent is over; the season of sacrifice is over.  But I keep thinking about some young men I met recently.  Their time of sacrifice seems to roll on and on.

We were putting together, at the College where I work, a workshop called ‘Dealing with Challenging Classroom Situations,’ and planning what topics to cover: What to do when a student is hostile, or helpless, or rude or distracted.  How to proceed when a student stops coming to class or shares dire information about a family situation.  What actions to take when a student really seems to need accommodations but refuses to seek them, or conversely, says s/he needs them, but doesn’t have the paperwork to support the claim.

We were talking about which campus experts could best cover which topic when my young colleague Heather made a suggestion.

“Why,” she said, “don’t you talk about about returning veterans in the classroom?”

So that’s exactly what we did.  Heather, who is one of our outstanding veterans’ support officers, gave us some scenarios, dug up grant money for refreshments and door prizes, and found three student veterans, all young men, to serve as resource people.

We set up the panel discussion in a ‘speed-dating’ format, so the participants, in small groups, spent fifteen minutes talking to each of five sets of ‘experts’.  When the whistle blew (or in this case, when the screaming monkey doll flew to the center of the floor), each group moved to the table to their left, and a new discussion.

There was great information being shared from the Advising Center, from Disability Services, from the Student Success personnel who help track down the absentee student.  But what the student veterans had to say impressed people the most. They didn’t talk about their service, except to tell us where they’d served–one in Kuwait, one in Afghanistan, one in Iraq.

“How was it?” someone asked, clumsily.

There was a pause, and then–I’m making up these names–Kurt said, “It was hot.”

Steve added, “It was really hot.”

And Bill agreed.  “You’ve never seen hot like that hot.”

And that was the extent of their comments on active duty.

(It reminded me of the only time I’d ever seen my father get truly, white-edged angry. We were at a family-style picnic and an acquaintance of my dad’s was holding forth on World War II.

“I saw my buddies die on either side of me,” the man said.  “I’ll never forget how it sounded. I’ll never forget the smell of battle.”

Not long after the man started expounding, my parents bundled us into the old Buick, and we headed home.  But before he started the car, Dad–who never got mad, and very seldom used any kind of vulgar language–said, “That horse’s ass was a typewriter jockey.  He never left the States.”

He added, “If you’ve been there, you don’t talk about it.”)

What the student veterans did tell us, though, was about the difficulties they encounter transitioning from active duty into the classroom. They don’t like to sit with their backs to a room’s only entry.  They are there to learn, and they are really bothered when other students goof off, are rude, or disrespect an instructor.

Kurt told a story about a classmate who, asked to pull something up on a computer screen, displayed a vulgar and distasteful picture.

“The instructor turned beet-red, but tried to play it down,” he said.  “She said, ‘Oh, I think you got one of those annoying pop-ups.’  I wish she would have told her, though.  I wish she would have kicked her out.”

They talked about the conditions they brought back from war matter-of-factly.

“I let all my instructors know that I might have to leave the classroom when my PTSD kicks in,” said Steve.  “They’ve been good.”

They talked about wounds to limbs and wounds to brains.  Traumatic Brain Injury was a common enough circumstance to warrant its own acronym–TBI.

And they talked about their struggles in the classroom.  Most times, they said, a vet won’t complain.  He or she will just cope, or if that doesn’t work, drop the class.

Should we ask veterans to identify themselves in the classroom? an instructor asked.

The young men looked at each other.

If it’s relevant, they agreed.  If the class is talking about war, or the military, or a Middle Eastern country, of course, ask if anyone’s been there and done that.

But to recognize vets and say thank you?  Not so much, they said.

They just want to get their degrees, move on, and get jobs.  They’re not looking for praise or gratitude or recognition.  Just make it possible for us, they told us, to get this job done.

After the workshop, a participant said, “Boy, give me twenty four students like THAT in my classroom.”

Amazing, we all agreed. But it was a perilous and overly costly course for these young men to reach their points of extreme maturity.

Much of what the young vets said–and one looked young enough to be a high school senior–nagged at me.  I went home and did some research, and what I found isn’t very ‘feel-good’ information.

An article in the Huffington Post (3/19/13), tells me the transition back to civilian life is fraught with hardship.  Unemployment for post-9/11 vets is higher than the national average.  Medicine, the article said, is making it possible for veterans to survive with catastrophic injuries–or, to be blunt, wounds that not so long ago would have killed the veteran are being treated successfully, and people are returning to civilization a different form of themselves–missing limbs, brains irreparably damaged or changed,–and they are expected to get back to normal life.

In 2010, the article stated, 22 returning vets committed suicide EACH DAY, and 228,875 vets who served in the Middle East conflicts had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Homelessness among returning vets, according to the Huffington Post, was still way high, but getting a little better.  At the same time, veterans’ education benefits were being suspended by several branches of the military.

I got on the Wounded Warrior website and reviewed the results of their survey of the veterans who, returning with one of those catastrophic injuries and looking to the program for help, had offered their insights. Depression and PTSD hover around 75 per cent for this group; they have sleep issues, and their energy is low, and many state that they require the assistance of another person or program to get through the day. It’s an eye-opening report; if time allows, you may want to look it up.

What can we do?  The best I’ve been able to come up with is to create a place where we can comfortably talk. In a kind of accidental serendipity, and because of Heather’s outreach, the workshop provided that.  It opened my eyes, and the eyes of my colleagues. I’m proud to work at a College with an official “Veteran Friendly” designation, proud of my colleague Heather and the wonderful work her office does.

This Easter morning unfolds, and my silly little sacrifices–no chocolate, no soda pop, no noshing after dinner–come to an end. There ought to be a different word for that kind of giving up, a smaller, less consequential word, than the one used to describe what the young veterans we talked to gave up in their active duty tours.

I hope, on this day of celebrating new life, that each of them can find that, can move beyond the nightmares of the memories they’ll never share to a future that is rich in achievement and joy.

So here’s my prayer this Easter season: Lord, help returning veterans find a place where life holds joy and promise again. And help us end this fighting, in a swift, just, and compassionate way, so no more young people have to make this transition.  Amen.