This evening, I sat cross-legged on the tiled floor of our university’s art gallery amidst my writing colleagues and students. I listened as many of the students from my classes this year read their work that was published in the most recent issue of Vortex.
I stared at the ground as I listened to smart creative non-fiction, hilarious vampire romance fiction, and sharp yet dreamy poetry. I thought of my senior reading, standing at a podium in front of my peers my last week of college. My whole body trembled as I made eye contact with my mom’s childhood friend who was there to drive me back to West Virginia. My mom went into a coma (her last) during my finals week, and I had made it to the last piece: the senior reading.
I unfolded my paper and read.
My Last Christmas
A smattering of white powder stars
float, stick on whisping arches of brows,
collect in purple crescents below her eyes.
Her thin lips part as she breathes
the cool scent of December snow.
My arm linked with hers, we walk
toward the red and gray brick building,
through frosted glass doors to a room
where we have waited so long already,
pressed between bodies that cough,
sneeze, cover mouths with masks.
Bodies that make eye contact with tile,
black and white diamonds
weaving their way beneath the shoes
of patients, nurses, doctors who diagnose
bodies with unaffordable diseases.
She squeezes my fingers as the nurse
calls her name. Her face radiates,
ready for the aberrant mass of cells
to dissipate into a dissolving womb,
a hidden hallway closet where time is lost,
tucked away like shining Christmas bulbs,
grinning gingerbread men in sugar homes.
This is God’s gift to you.
My fingers swollen and chapped with cold
clench the steering wheel
of my salt-coated Toyota with seats
that are too stiff for her to sit properly.
“You know what?” my mother asks,
turning her reclined body toward me.
Neck inclined, her brown-black eyes stare
at a spot just past my face—
toward the leafless wintery trees,
brown skeletons that blur together,
inflatable elves and Santa Clauses
that wave and smile as we pass.
“This is my last Christmas,” she says.
Moving her head away from me,
her yellowed face rests on a balled hand,
temple pressed against a foggy window.
Tears drop down drooping cheeks,
splash onto faded black sweatpants.
I think the car is too hot for me to breathe,
teeth making my mouth too sour to swallow;
I think of the groceries arranged in the trunk,
her body shaking as we navigated the store;
I think of how we are trapped within the car,
stuck in motion as we race past moaning trees.
After I read, we drove two hours through dark mountains and straight to the hospice. My mom said my name when I got there. I considered staying the night but went home instead. She died the next morning.
Every spring, I relive the spring of my senior year of college. I think of how understanding my professors were, how kind my peers were, how truly awful everything was.
This semester, I’ve noticed my students struggle more than I’ve seen students struggle. The end of the semester is always hard, but it’s harder when you’re chronically depressed, when your family loses your house, when you’re in and out of the hospital for seizures and ulcers, when you get that text from your dad that your gramma is in the hospital again.
My gramma is in the hospital again.
The week before finals week, I am not thinking about my students’ brilliant projects but instead about whether or not I will see my gramma before she dies.
I’m thinking about attending my first graduation as a faculty member next week. At my college graduation, I sat in a metal chair on the front quad and cried as a light rain fell. I hugged my Spanish professors and my favorite English professor who cried out after I told her my mom had died the week before.
Yesterday, I listened as a colleague calmed a student who was admittedly “about to freak the fuck out.” My colleague offered solace to this student who could barely breathe he was so anxious.
The end of the semester is difficult without all the added stresses that life brings with it. It’s difficult as a student. It’s difficult as a professor.
I always feel awkward on the last day of class because I don’t know what to say to sum up the semester that won’t sound cheesy or trite or insincere. We usually spend time sharing final projects or writing final reflections. At the very end, I remind everyone of final due dates, to please complete the course evaluations, and to take care:
Take time to eat. Sleep. Bathe…or at least put on deodorant. Stay hydrated. Take care of yourselves.
Sometimes, you need basic reminders to take care of yourself because you convince yourself that you don’t have time to take care of yourself or that you don’t deserve to take care of yourself.
As my mom’s best friend told me yesterday, You are worthy of self-care. I can’t think of a more fitting end-of-the-semester mantra.