When the text comes, I am in Mexico City traveling with my sisters. A former student now an adult, married and in graduate school for creative writing, lets me know that another of my students has lost her father after a long illness. His text says, “It seems like something you’d like to be informed of.” The word choice “like to” is unfortunate. No one wants to learn about this kind of loss, especially from 3000 miles away, but he’s right. I do want to know when someone I love is suffering even if there is so very little I can do.
When I return home I search my Drive, knowing that this special young woman, a gifted writer in my class as a seventh and eighth grader, left a trail of powerful words for me to follow, words that will help guide me in what to say. As an aspiring high school senior, she shared a copy of her college admission essay with me. In it she recounted the moment when she, her mother, father and brothers received her dad’s diagnosis: Frontotemporal lobe dementia.
In the piece, she uses a sailing metaphor, rough weather, the need to cling together in order to survive. She tells what she has discovered: patience, understanding, and the reserves that surface in crisis. She asks the question: “After all, what is a person without knowledge? Without memories?”
I offered her her own words as comfort: “And so we caught our breaths, held them close as we did each other, and learned to swim in unison with the tide.”
In the best and worst of times, words remain. We can consider them, weigh them, even bemoan them as markers of a naiveté we visited once but now have left behind. As someone who was struggling with what path to travel, I can only be grateful for the writer inside the grief.