The end of a semester is usually something of a relief - an end, a brief pause to gather the breath, and then a new beginning charged with possibility. But this time it is different. I have insisted to myself and to other people that I am ready for it to be over, to be finished, to be done with 2014 all the way around. But the end, this time, is also marked with sorrow.
I had an exceptional class, yes, so that is part of it. The students in it and the content cannot be recreated. During the darkest days of mourning, when I could barely stand to be in my own skin, I found an unexpected oasis of somewhat forgetting when I was talking with my students about how doing the craft of history kept transforming, how studying the past could clarify a life, and what it all might mean. These students were patient with me, and came to me with sharp minds, penetrating questions, and their own losses and struggles.
And now, in the same building where I taught, my friend’s office stands emptied of whatever vestiges may have been floating amongst his books and his belongings. The space stands still and silent, waiting to be filled with something new. And it has to be so; it was time. But it is the end of an era. And endings can be so very bitter, without much sweet.
Death is an odd thing; it is ever with us yet somehow we only see it slant until it intrudes itself in a rude and obnoxious way, bullying into our expectations of tomorrow, destroying the fragile web of predictability we knit around ourselves. It comes violently and mercilessly, and changes the shape of the world.
You know death is there, hovering on the edges of our existence, ready to swoop down. You have watched the news and shuddered at someone else’s loss. When it happens to you, it is so wrenching you cease to function in the same way, and all the platitudes leave you angry and empty. It takes time for the new reality to assert itself, for the swirling reorientation of the stars to slow down. Life is persistent.
As this new reality is firming, I have been able to turn towards the treasure of how my lost friend changed me, made me better, and challenged me. The impact of his life oscillates within me in ways both painful and comforting. There are things that death cannot eradicate, and they exist within the living.
Don’t get me wrong - I still hate to read things like the dead are never really gone as long as you remember. That is simply not true. My memory of my father, or my friend, or my sister is not the person. It is my reconstruction, based upon my experience and my need, and surely faulty. No new conversation can ever be had; no one really knows what the dead would want. We haunt ourselves with our imaginings.
But it is in the arena of memory – of history – that the dead and the living construct and populate our inner landscapes. We go forward from interactions with other human beings changed, in ways that often take spools of time unraveling to decipher, if they ever become legible. I have been fortunate – shall I say blessed - to have exceptional human beings in my life. And I am honored to be an educator, a dangerous and precarious occupation.
Old friends move on to new places, people we love die, relationships shift, job descriptions change and legacies transform. We are ceaselessly moving, and not into the past. We carry the past with us, within us, in front of us as we go. Acknowledging the contingency of life is one thing, reconciling ourselves with it is another.