“Death ends life, not a relationship.”
– Robert Benchley
A beautiful and brilliant man once asked me if I knew what the poet Robert Frost said about life. Embarrassed, I had to admit that no, I did not. He told me that Robert Frost said that it goes on; life goes on. I could only agree because it is a fact and who am I to argue with Robert Frost? The conversation continued as both he and I commiserated about those minor tragedies and somewhat larger frustrations that so often plague humans as time passes and as life goes on. I did not give his words much thought.
A year ago today, I wrote a blog post which was viewed over 1,000 times, which seems impressive when one considers my average views rarely top 20. However, that statistic becomes decidedly less impressive when one realizes the views came from mourners and I did nothing creative or noble or bold or entertaining. I lamented the loss of a wonderful woman and inspiring colleague. I am glad, and I supposed I could even say proud, that those words offered comfort and empathy to those who were suffering the pangs of such a shocking and brutal kind of grief. But time steadily marched on, as it always has and always will, and the post, those words were forgotten as acceptance and healing and coping began. I thought about the absence of my colleague nearly every day since then, rubbing the charm on the Alex & Ani bracelets we purchased in memory of her, but the post and what I had written never really crossed my mind.
And that realization particularly strikes me because since her passing, I have been able to understand her in ways I never thought I would, or even could. I now teach in her classroom, two sections of the Honors program she built and perfected. The task is daunting and I constantly worry that I’ll disappoint. There’s always a special kind of pressure for an alumna who returns to her alma mater to teach, and that is excruciatingly increased when that same teacher is asked to fill the shoes of a beloved, intelligent teacher who passed suddenly. On the bad days, when the lesson plan goes awry and I feel stupid and small and incompetent, I sometimes silently curse her because I childishly wish she were still here for the selfish, awful reason of relieving me of a burden. Luckily, those selfish, bad days that I am greatly ashamed of are few and far between.
More often than not, I raise my eyes to the sky and send her a prayer of thanks. This woman, who is no longer with us, is continuing to make her presence felt – is continuing to teach and inspire. This year, I am taxed with teaching works I have not read nor studied, the first of which was Hard Times by Charles Dickens. I should tell you that Charles Dickens was never a favorite of mine. I considered him overrated, tediously verbose and a generally uninspired writer. I shared in my students’ misery as we began to read and analyze the prose together, but then something wonderful happened. We all grew to love the work; our seminars were intellectual and passionate. The students became more cultured with such a staggering work under their belts, and I became a better teacher – I discovered that I could be an example for my students and that I could not groan nor complain when faced with an unfamiliar work, but had to persevere and connect with it to entice myself to analyze and interpret all it had to offer. And I only learned this because my dearly departed colleague added the novel to the curriculum. In true teacher fashion, she challenged a student to rise to the occasion.
Being in her room and sharing some of her experiences, I am seeing life in a new way and for the most part, doing so has made me extremely happy, has made me extremely appreciative and grateful for the opportunity to work in a field which I treasure, and to do so with people who are kind and generous and patient and enjoyable. I am finally beginning to feel more like a woman instead of an insecure teenager who would much rather run into her bedroom and cry into her pillow while blasting melodramatic music when things get rough and the road gets rocky. All of this I owe to Tara Gardner, and so this is not a weepy, “in memorial” piece. This is a thank you letter to a woman who passed a year ago, but whose life was so full and vibrant and inspiring that her legacy is very much alive and those who care to will absolutely benefit from it.
I think back to the beautiful, brilliant man and what he told me. And I suppose that yes, life does go on. But I don’t think it does so thoughtlessly, marching like a cold solider across a barren burning field of battle. Life goes on because it has to, because there are things to be learned, experiences to be valued, love to be lost and won and shared and forgotten, people to hold and scold and remember fondly. And, I think, because those we have loved and lost wouldn’t have it any other way.
Thank you, Tara Gardner. You are loved and missed, but please know that you are still teaching and that you are still doing so with amazing skill.