When I was barely fourteen, my science teacher, Adam Pate, died six weeks after his wedding day. He and a group of other cheerleaders (men and women) were traveling in a 15-passenger van to a camp to teach cheer. The van blew a tire and flipped in the middle of the night. Several people were sleeping on floors, several on seats. Not everyone made it. Adam was one of those people. He was thrown from the vehicle and died on impact. His wife, however, miraculously survived. Badly eaten up by road rash and traumatized with other serious injuries, she was still breathing.
My mom, sister and I were driving to Florida that night to hopefully see them and other friends. We were in the process of moving to North Carolina, but frequent roadtrips in FL had become the summertime norm, which I appreciated. Adam taught at the same school where my mom taught kindergarten and our family had grown close to him. He was also on the side of my favorite teachers – I hated science and he made me hate it less, which was almost impossible to do.
But that July 20 changed everything for me. One of my mom’s friends called her to break the news. I was in the backseat. I have a very vivid memory of playing a really old game of snake on one of the very first Verizon cell phones when I heard Mom start to panic on her phone. I cried so terribly that my mother had to pull into a gas station until I settled down enough for us to continue driving. She also had to explain to the attendant that she had not physically harmed me, I was just emotional distraught over a sudden loss. I don’t know if I’ve ever cried so hard as I did that night. I think I’ve come close a couple of times since, but your first brush with the death, the first time you wrap your head around the fact that someone young can actually die and when they’re gone, they’re gone from this world for forever, it’s traumatizing. It’s unreal. You think you understand what death is and then you realize, you understand nothing.
Adam was twenty-four, the same age as I am right now, which is strange for me to think about. I don’t get into my car thinking it might be my last trip. I don’t feel like at any moment I might die. I feel like I have my whole life to live, and I’m sure, so did he. But for some reason, which I have yet to understand, it was his time to go. I couldn’t sleep the night I found out. I cried until I didn’t know if I was crying out of shock or sadness. I’d been at his wedding six weeks earlier, sneaking leftover candy off the reception tables. I’d seen the wedding photos. He wished me luck in North Carolina. I hugged him and his new wife. I could still smell her perfume. But now suddenly that was gone. That was all gone.
No one had prepared me for how to really cope with death and so I taught myself. Around 2AM that night (or morning, by that point), I got on the computer (one of those archaic ones with the beige modem tower), opened Word and started to write. I didn’t know what I was writing, I just wanted to remember, because suddenly, the only thing anyone had left of him were the memories. “You can’t forget,” I thought to myself. “You can’t forget. You can’t forget. No one can forget.”
So I wrote it all down. How he’d influenced my life, how I respected him, how that one time for Christmas our whole class chipped in and bought him PlayStation (which we managed to set up before he came to class), how when his wife passed her college calc class she called him on his cell IN THE MIDDLE OF CLASS to celebrate, and about how when I wore a sweatshirt out of dresscode (it had a hood and wasn’t issued by the school) instead of writing me up, he pulled the hood up over my head, calling him “trouble” as he walked by. I wrote about how I thought he was a good man and a good role model, about how he loved others and looked out for the unpopular underdogs (like me). Once, when a particularly teased student was absent, he took the class to talk to us about being kind to each other. He explained the simple truth of how important it was not to bully and how much everyone needed to be accepted – that being popular was a definition we could control (which is something difficult for middle schoolers to grasp). He finally said how much this student needed a good friend and would be one back if we would just let him. We never even cracked a textbook that day. All those things stuck to the corners of my brain and I hoarded them for dear life. These memories, these could not die.
At some point, my mom walked in and realized I was sitting at the computer, bawling my eyes out. When I calmed down, she asked me what I was doing. Did I know how late it was? (No, I didn’t. Were people still sleeping?) Could she read what I was writing? (I guess.)
I printed it out, eight pages in all. She read through it and looked up at me in disbelief. She wanted to know why I wrote it and who I wrote it for. But I didn’t know. I wrote it for me. I wrote it hoping that it would make me feel better, that it would make me feel something other than the misery I currently felt.
“Do you mind if I edit it?” she asked.
I didn’t care.
So she did. She cleaned up the grammar mistakes, made sure the words were spelled correctly and checked to make sure my word choices were all accurate. Then she came back. “Can I show this to the pastor?” (I went to a Christian school, the same one where Adam and my mother taught.)
I said that was fine.
Then the pastor’s wife AND my mother came back to me. “Can we give a copy to Adam’s mother?” I didn’t know what a student’s rambling account of her time spent in eighth grade would mean to his mother. Probably nothing, I thought. I wasn’t anyone important. I wasn’t the cool girl on campus. I wasn’t on the cheer team. I didn’t even get an A in his class. I was nobody really. I almost wondered if before they gave it to her if I should rewrite it with her in mind. But no, they wanted to give her exactly what I’d written, the original eight pages.
I don’t remember how I got her response, it was still in the days before smart phones and instant communication. That funeral week was such a blur, she may have very well told me herself and I can’t remember. (I only have three solid memories from that week: his widow – bald, in a wig and on crutches – walking into the church; standing in the parking lot waiting in the sunshine to go to the cemetery; and singing “Better Is One Day” during the service, during which I broke down – to this day, I can’t stomach that song.) But somewhere, somehow, someone let me know that his mother wanted to thank me. She was overwhelmed by what I’d written about her son. She hadn’t expected someone to reach out to her quite like that and that she treasured hearing from one of his students, someone who saw him everyday, someone who remembered his legacy. It was comforting. It was good.
And I finally felt…better. Not happy. Not pleased. Not proud. Just a little better. I felt connected in my grief, maybe. What I’d written, what I’d said, it was valid. It was true of him. His mother confirmed it for me, just as I had confirmed her son’s legacy for her.
So often, we use our words to hurt, to criticize, to complain and we forget how easily words can heal. It’s like a superpower almost, using your words for good.
The same can be said for the writing process. I think the act of writing itself heals and, sometimes, I wonder if that’s driving reason behind why I do it at all.