I was sitting at my writing desk when I received a dreadful text from a student, “Have you heard?” I have a few students who somehow know and remember and care that I am not on Facebook. When important news travels through this medium, they take a moment to reach out to me and make sure I am welcomed into the circle of knowing. It’s rarely good news, and this time was no exception. One of my beloved former students died accidentally and unexpectedly at age twenty-one. A second student emailed, a third called, “Have you heard?”
A parent losing a child is a great tragedy. It does not match the order of things. As a teacher, I have lost too many students. It is shocking beyond words. I struggle with how to properly grieve such a loss. I do not see her regularly anymore, but I spent four years watching her grow. I advised her and we learned together. She was lovely, a fierce change agent with progressive environmental views and a huge brain. My thoughts wander from memories of her to her parents and siblings.
A few days after receiving the news, a woman leading devotions at a separate community gave me the gift of reading Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes.” After describing death a “hungry bear in autumn” and “an ice burg between the shoulder blades” she says that when death comes:
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
I imagine this young woman walking through the door of death with curiosity. I remember how she looked at the Earth and her friends as a sisterhood. I see her as a singular flower in a wild field. She did live her life. I watched her. As a student, a musician, an environmentalist– I saw her married to amazement all the time. She died too soon. She did. The poem does not take away the pain and the loss we feel. Nothing will. As the years pass, we will never get over the fact that she should still be here with us, pushing us to take the world into our arms, too. But her life was real and particular. She was far from a visitor. So I’ve been reading a lot of Mary Oliver lately, committed to amazement and courage and preciousness.