A Thousand Words

You came to me in the hallway of a school that I had mixed feelings about on a night in mid-December that I had mixed feelings about (I’m a teacher, and I was annoyed about the timing), and your tone was a little bit too grateful.

Is it possible to be too grateful?

That mid-December night was before the pandemic, before the isolation, before I even knew your name. And you put your hands on my hands and your eyes on my eyes and said to me: “I just wanted to thank you. Because your daughter saved my daughter’s life.”

They were in seventh grade (one of the worst grades). And I knew you meant it, though my shy child hadn’t even mentioned your daughter’s name at the dinner table.

Yet.

I want to tell you now, on your fiftieth birthday, that I can’t buy a decent gift other than this silly gag gift for your stock-tank “pool” and soon-to-be six-person hot tub. I can’t photograph “The Lovers” or paint “The Fly That Looks Like a Bird in the Sunset Scene” with acrylics and talent like you can.

But I can write a thousand words.

And I’ll try to make them worth as much as a picture.

The picture of you with your hands on my hands. Of you sitting in my backyard for a thrown-together fall party around the Solo Stove, then going home and buying one and giving ME credit for the idea. Of you trying to hide behind this tree, because you don’t want your dreadlocks, your beautiful dreadlocks, to outshine the flowers.

(This far along, I don’t know if I can limit this picture to a thousand words.)

Of you in that bar/laundry-drying front room with the original-owners’ Nebraska-farm barnwood walls bearing down on us, when you poured out your whole soul with a sip of bourbon, with a sip of trust, and trusted.

Me.

And I listened and tried my best not to take sides. And my husband said, “But why would she choose you? You’re barely friends.”

But you chose me, in that December hallway, in that barnwood barroom, in that part of yourself, to be your friend.

I want to capture a picture of how much it means to me to be your friend.

Of you, who I can text-rant, text-cry, text-breakdown until the ultimate five minutes of three dots and a, “You want to come over?” invitation when I’m already in my pajamas, leather moccasins and all, and there’s no question that Rosie is going to sit in my lap and your daughter is going to make me dinner and your son is going to praise the concoction of meats and cheese he created and Guy is going to entertain us all with his stories.

On a Monday night.

Of you with your hands on my hands, your eyes on my eyes, your heart on my heart, telling me not to cut the strawberry stems, warning me about the upcoming winter storm, teaching me and all your second-graders how to garden. All your COVID-traumatized second-graders who you did nothing but publicly praise and nothing but quietly worry over and save.

A picture isn’t enough. A thousand words isn’t enough.

Because you–I–can’t encapsulate, in a blog post or a birthday card or a gag gift, how much you mean to me.

You once sent Lilly on a trip with me in the middle of a lockdown. You praised me on social media because my packing list required three masks. I drove the five kids–Lilly, Rio, Mythili, Naomi, and Fabian–to three campsites in as many states, took them on a pontoon, on a series of bikes up the Sun Road in Glacier National Park, on a reservoir along the Snake River, into the depths of Wyoming gun country, into the depths of Montana right-wing ignorance, and you?

You were nothing but grateful.

To thank someone whose ideas are crazier than hers? To hear that voice that you’ve heard in your head your whole life but now has vocal chords and that beautiful face?

I can’t tell you what it means to me.

It means more than that moment when you told me that my daughter saved your daughter from the bullies that epitomize seventh grade.

Because we are fully-grown adults now, and those bullies still bully on the other side of those barnwood walls.

Yet.

You are too grateful to be bullied. As is she.

And you put that light in her and that light in my youngest and that light in the world, and I wish I could paint it. I wish I could pick up the brush and choose just the right texture, the correct mixture of pale blue, soft white, maybe a shade of gray, and be that painting that belongs on an easel first and a living room wall later.

Because a picture is worth a thousand words.

And there will never be enough words, colors, hands, or hearts to describe how much you mean to me.

Happy birthday, Tonja. Thank you for taking your hands into my hands, my baby into your home, and my heart into your heart.

My Last Letter to You

Dear Fabian,

I wish I had something to say to you to encapsulate how I feel right now. But the main thing I want to say is that you came into our lives at one of the most difficult times of our life, and because of that, I don’t feel that I could give you what you needed. My three daughters, but especially the older two, have been experiencing major mental health issues, and it has been very difficult for me to witness and alleviate. It has been a major strain on my own mental health.

The pandemic truly exacerbated all of this and made my job more challenging and stressful than ever before. With Izzy moving away to college, I feel a great sense of loss. And Mythili is so depressed that she doesn’t even want to consider college or find joy in anything anymore, which also weighs heavily on my soul.

I wish that you had come into my life at a different time and that I could have helped you more. But I feel so strained with my mental capacity, and I became so frustrated with your lack of motivation and adamancy against learning English and focusing on school that I couldn’t focus on anything else.

I still believe that you truly have the potential to be much more than what you give yourself credit for. You had the tenacity and courage to leave your entire family and homeland at a young age to seek an opportunity, and I hope that one day you will truly take advantage of it. If you don’t finish your education now, I hope that you will in the future after a few years of working tirelessly. I hope that you will one day have a family of your own and give them all the things you couldn’t have when you were growing up.

Mostly, I hope that you will look back at your time with us as a lesson. Not a perfect lesson, not a painless lesson, but a lesson. Everything happens for a reason. Someone left their job as the Newcomer teacher, and I took the job, and that same year, my first year, you came into my classroom and told me your story, and I wanted to help you, and I tried my best. I’m sorry that my best wasn’t good enough, but I hope that one day if someone stands before you and offers you all that we have offered you, you will work one hundred times harder to show how much you want it.

Speak the words, one at a time. Study the lessons, one at a time. Make small goals, one at a time.

Love yourself, bit by bit. You must start with that. Just take everything one day, one hour, one moment at a time, and you will find yourself a brighter future.

I will always love you and hold you in my heart, and I am sorry that it must end this way. I wish nothing but the best for you, and I hope that you don’t completely cut me out of your life. I want to hear about your successes, your failures, your loves and losses… your life. Because I want you to have a good life.

Love,

The Mama You Didn’t Want (But Needed)

Six Years Back

Six years ago, to the day, we had a snow day just like today. I got out the art supplies and all three girls colored all morning. All three girls put on their snow gear and built a snowwoman. All three girls giggled. Mythili finished a book she’d started three days prior. Riona helped me shovel. Mythili walked over to the local cafe and ordered tea, just like me.

Six years ago, they were still children. So happy to have a moment to themselves. To enjoy. To laugh.

And now what?

Before the day even began, I was crying. I cried myself to sleep, and now my eyes are so red I can’t even see straight. My husband tried to love me so hard last night, my perfect husband, but the pot smell seeped into the room, the door shut, the Camry reeked, and my worst nightmare crept under every crack.

It’s been two weeks and three voicemails to a non-responsive therapist since Mythili lost one of her closest friends to an overdose. And the last thing I want to smell is pot coming from out of her room. Pot she’s smoking alone. Because she’s lonely. Because she’s alone.

She was one of her closest friends whom she’d cut ties with months ago, months when her therapist deemed her better and stopped seeing her every week… every two weeks… every month… to not at all.

Not at all.

As if my girl, my child, was cured. As if all the phone calls I made to various medical and psychiatric doctors, begging to get her medicated, to no avail, were just washed down with every other aspect of this dark pandemic, a pill too solid to be swallowed. As if, after six months of therapy, her mind could go back to the mind of the girl in these pictures, from our snow day six years back:

I want to go back. I want to go back to that smiling child. I want her to tell me what I did. What someone did. I want a reason for the pain that torments her soul.

In two days, I have a four-day weekend planned. Booked months back with the hope that, with an outdoor heated pool, a cool town with tons of shops, and a hot springs right downtown, she’d want to come with us.

She used to love swimming. Skiing. Snowshoeing. Hiking. Camping. Traveling. Drawing. Doing puzzles. Riding her bike. Talking to me. Walking. Eating. Cooking. Baking. Reading.

All the things, all the things that I love, she loved.

And now she hates all of them. She hates everything. Even a snow day.

And do you know the weight of this? Do you know how much it hurts to see her hurt?

I’m not even at noon yet. I’m not even halfway through this hellfire snow day. When I went cross-country skiing to and around the park, trying to find peace after another night of four hours of sleep, I didn’t find anything but loneliness. I haven’t slept in days, weeks, months. Is it her? Is it Fabian who we’ve asked to leave, whose program sent the email today confirming that it will be within two weeks, that there’s another big meeting on Friday, the day we leave for Steamboat Springs, the day I begged, fought to have off, the day I requested as a personal day (along with Monday), putting in for my reason, “Mental Health Weekend,” and my principal’s secretary responded with, “Due to class coverage concerns, the principal is asking if you could just take one mental health day?”

One mental health day? I didn’t have a planning period for nearly three weeks because I was either covering classes or proctoring an English-proficiency test. Then my co-teacher got COVID and I had to fully run her class, too. Then my principal got COVID and couldn’t meet with me to discuss my request. And then I just gave up and changed my personal days to sick days. And this is the world we are living in, where we can’t take two days off, where the person who has to quarantine with their under-five set of kids for a week has priority over the mental breakdown of this mama of teens.

Before I went skiing today, before Mythili reluctantly agreed to go grocery shopping with me, this is what she told me:

“None of my friends want to listen to my problems. None of them care. I don’t want to talk to another therapist. I’m tired of talking to so many people. I just want to talk to her. I want to be home alone all weekend. I don’t want to be around anyone because nobody understands. Nobody understands how I just go through each day. I just go through each day, going through the motions, and I can’t find joy in anything, and I have no reason for it, and I don’t understand it, and it’s like something is just wrong with my brain, and I AM SO TIRED OF IT, I’M SO EXHAUSTED.”

And the tears took over. Hers and mine.

And what have I done through my tears today? I have been working on a puzzle and telling my son that he’s moving out next week because I failed him and texting my husband, to which I knew he would say yes, “Can you, for the second year, stay home with Mythili this weekend instead of having this amazing weekend together?”

Because there is nothing amazing about wanting to take two days off in the middle of winter, in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a mental health crisis. There is no new snow in Steamboat, no leniency for teachers, no grace for a mama whose heart is as broken as her child’s.

And the boy who is leaving my house next week? Am I supposed to feel good about it? Relief? Gratitude?

There is nothing, nothing but remorse.

Because he’s probably feeling much like Mythili, and I couldn’t help him.

Because I’m feeling much like Mythili, and I can’t even have a long weekend. I can’t ski the pain away, drink the pain away, pretend that the pandemic, my job, my family, don’t exist.

We exist.

And we all hurt so fucking much right now that we cry ourselves through a snow day.

A snow day–the best day ever. Six years back.

Dear Fabian

I just want you to know that I tried my best. I loved you the best way I know how. I tried to show you the world–Glacier National Park, the Grand Canyon, Kentucky… Skiing in beautiful places. Camping under the stars.

I tried to make you a part of my family.

I tried to show you that structure and discipline are the way to a successful life.

I tried to save your money so you could have a future. You would have had $13,000 to start your life. Out of the $9000 I gave you, I likely spent $5000 trying to include you. To show you these beautiful things, places, and experiences. To send money, thousands of dollars, home to your family in Honduras. To love you. To offer you a safe home and stability.

I barely knew you, and I took you into my home.

And you lit a match and burned it all.

I hope to God you learn from this and treat the people in your future better.

I hope to God the next time someone changes their entire life to accommodate you, you show more respect. You WORK YOUR ASS OFF to use your intelligence for your future. You shut down your stubborn ass, ask for help, and apply yourself one hundred percent to work, education, and discretion.

I hope that one day, if you ever go back, you look at the Grand Canyon and say, in utter amazement and gratitude, “Thank you for taking me to this ever-stretching, carved-over-thousands-of-years glory, and sharing its beauty with me.”

I hope you learn from your mistakes and make something out of your life.

Nothing and no one is stopping you.

It’s all on you.

And don’t burn your bridges next time.

You and Me at Twenty

Now I am a hypocrite to myself. As a Taurean, this hurts more than you will ever know. Because I said I would never, and now I have.

I have asked you to leave.

When I was twenty, the age you are now, I married my husband. We were already living together. We scraped together enough money between his pitiful Airman’s salary and my two part-time nanny jobs to pay our bills and put on a small wedding. He was already fully an adult, calling the bank daily to be assured of his balance, setting up online payments before the rest of the world knew how to do so.

I know he isn’t you and I am not you, and that he and I had a calm childhood, raised as regular kids by two parents in middle-class America, and not as feral cats in gang-ridden Honduras, and that you have a million excuses and valid reasons for your childish behavior.

I know that, and I’ve been using your background as justification for your behavior for the past two years. Justification to keep you here after stealing our car. Refusing to clean your room for so many months that it looked and smelled like a homeless encampment. Ignoring our house rules by staying up all hours of the night talking on the phone and preparing food. Not taking school seriously. Shirking tutoring. Refusing to speak even one word of English. Taking all the money we’ve carefully saved for your future and burning through it faster than we can count it.

And in a year, when you turn twenty-one, will you magically change? Will you mature? Between now and then, would you speak English? Sit with me and set up a spreadsheet to count and organize your spending habits? Regularly attend classes and study for the exam that would give you a diploma? Set an alarm so as not to miss extremely important immigration appointments?

Learned behavior. I know. Learned from a childhood of chaos, never going to school regularly, searching the garbage for food for you and your sisters because your mother could never keep or find consistent work. Playing in the streets till all hours of the night. Trying to avoid gang initiation. Trying to get by.

You learned so many things in your childhood. Most of all, you learned how much you wanted to have a better life, and that is why you came here.

And I tried to give you a better life.

I tried to teach you English, but you prefer to speak to me in Spanish. I tried to take you to beautiful places, but you complained about long drives and boring views. I tried to include you in my family, but you called them cold and never used an English word with them. I tried to emphasize the importance of education over all else, but you goofed off in class and played on your phone. I tried to save your money, but you got your hands on it and lit it on fire.

I know, I know. I’m not being asset-based. I’m looking at your deficits.

Let’s take a look at your assets.

You can learn. You are intelligent and capable. You eat any food we prepare without complaint. You exercise regularly. You maintain many friendships. You can repair your own bike. You learned how to ski after just one day. You have a beautiful smile. You help me with heavy things because you are stronger than anyone in the house. You can sing. And you can read and write despite being brought up by illiterate parents and never consistently attending school. You care deeply about your family back home and plan to take care of them forever.

But I can’t take care of you forever.

What was my breaking point? The money or the mama comment or the night in the midst of a hellish week when you woke me yet again?

It was all of these things and more. Mostly, it was just one thing: you just won’t try.

And I have failed in many ways, and I have lived in situations I have hated, and I have been in toxic relationships, and I have something inside me that makes me want to get out of that, to work harder, to find a better place, to end the toxicity.

But you won’t.

So I will.

I’m sorry that I lied to both you and myself, that you didn’t want another mother, and that you couldn’t just grab hold of the opportunities in front of you and see your one-in-a-million chance.

I hope that you will grab hold of the next one, fully sink your teeth into it, and live the dream you imagined when you took all those trains and crossed that river and came to this country.

I really hope you will.

My Classroom at Lunch

My classroom at lunch is typically a cacophony of teenage sounds. Shrieks about hangman clues, laughter that spills into the hallways, bitter rants about schedules or rules, quiet giggles over Instagram reels, outspoken conversations about everything ranging from trans rights to how much COVID has forever virally impacted us.

Over the years, so many students have spilled in and out of my classroom at lunch. Those introverted immigrants too afraid to try English, hiding in the back corner of my room with their Chromebooks watching YouTube clips of soap operas or music videos from back home. Those outgoing misfit groups who just want a place to do handstands or speak their own languages at the tops of their lungs. Those kids, always those kids who need a place to eat lunch, crying and laughing and singing and just.

Living.

My classroom at lunch was just a shadow of its former self today. Rio, my baby, sat in her usual spot in the back of the room, no friends surrounding her as she popped in her headphones and watched her videos. My colleague did the same at the desk she shared with me. Mythili had already gone home, too distraught and exhausted to even speak to her friends.

Instead, a string of teary-eyed bodies entered and exited, their voices caught in their throats, their arms open for sobbing, open-hearted embraces that lasted seconds, minutes…

“I guess it’s better to be here than at home because my mom couldn’t stop crying this morning.”

“I’ve never really dealt with death, so I don’t even know how I’m supposed to react or feel right now.”

“Remember that time when she…”

“When was the last time you saw her?”

“If we ditch class, I just need to call my mom, and we have to be back for rehearsal. I’m glad we’re just reading lines today and I don’t have to act out a scene with Percy Jackson with tears streaming down my face.”

The hugs continue, the voices whisper, the tears disappear, and lunch comes to its usual end with the clock and the bell. No one smiles. No one looks back. No one in the hallway knows as that shuffling-to-class cacophony fills our ears and our broken hearts with the unwelcoming sounds of blissful ignorance.

And me? I still have three classes to teach to my Newcomers after a morning of running around testing various students on their national English proficiency exam, meanwhile making adaptations to lessons for my co-teachers, planning for my own classes, and responding to the string of emails about finding a new home for this boy who has lived with us for the past two years.

The weight of the words, the weight of the lack of words, from my classroom at lunch sits with me all afternoon as we learn about our favorite weather and I try, in the simplest English possible, to explain to my Arabic-speaking Sudanese and Yemeni immigrants the history of Martin Luther King, slavery, and the horrors of America. (Always a combination of cultural understanding and functional English, teaching Newcomers).

When I come home, Mythili won’t even look at me or talk to me. She hasn’t called her therapist as I asked her to do. She’s ready to go to her Noodles and Company job and screams at me to get out of her room and I just walk out and let her go to work without saying goodbye because what if I were to retaliate and when I wake up in the morning and go into her room, I find her dead, just like her friend’s mother did yesterday?

The friend in this picture, the truly lost soul.

My classroom at lunch was too quiet today.

Quiet doesn’t capture it. Quiet doesn’t capture the months between this photo and now when Mythili and her friends begged her to get help. To go to therapy. To rehab. When time and time again, she refused.

When her mother told me, “Everything about this stage in her life is ugly. Her clothes are ugly. Her attitude is ugly. Her grades are ugly. It’s just ugly.” And I wanted to shake her and tell her to shut up and to stop thinking of her kid that way. But I didn’t know her, and I didn’t. I didn’t do a thing, a goddamn thing.

When, a few months back, Mythili and her friends tried to set boundaries, telling her that she couldn’t use only her friends for therapy, she took too many drugs, ended up in the hospital, and her first reaction after her release was to explicitly threaten Mythili, promising to track her down and tear her from limb to limb.

Silence in all these months, Mythili doing the only things she could do–blocking her from her social media, filing an unfulfilled protective order against her, removing her from her contacts.

But you can’t block your memories. You can’t block out all those nights Mythili spent at her house, trying to console her, trying to convince her not to take any more drugs, trying to be all the love in the world that she felt she never had.

You can’t block that cacophony of heartbreak that will come into your classroom at lunch.

All these fragile and broken souls and all that they carry with them and all that they will see and do and witness in this awful world we’ve thrown at them.

You can’t bring her back. You can’t bring back the words. The friendship. The torment.

You can only hope to see that smile on your daughter’s face again. That childlike smile of pure joy that was lost for so long. You can only hope for peace in her heart, for friendships that will build her up instead of breaking her down, for the happy, jubilant voices of hope that fill a room.

That once filled my classroom at lunch.