I walk into the wrong chapel, and am told by a gentle soul that there are four services taking place simultaneously, and that the one for Eric is on the second floor. I fumble up the stairs with the coat I have already taken off, and the flowers I picked up at the grocery store across the street from the funeral home.
I’ve been to many in the South Bronx. Too many to have been able to recall the number when asked just the other night by a friend whom I was telling that I have been to the wakes and funerals of more children than adults. I’ve seen too many brown children in coffins, held too many brown mothers’ hands in that most awkward, futile attempt to comfort.
I am not a nurse or a doctor. I don’t work in a hospice. There is no war on the streets of my city. The boys in the coffins are my students. They’re kids whom I could once identify by the handwriting and phrasing of their poems and essays.
Eric was my student nine years ago. I hadn’t seen him or heard from him since then. Why go to his wake, then? Because I wanted his mother to know that her son had mattered to me, that his loss matters to me. Because I didn’t save Eric, didn’t know how to save him, didn’t know then the things I know now, (the futility of the knowledge I’ve since acquired notwithstanding).
I know I have arrived at the right place when I begin to recognize familiar faces among mourning strangers. We greet each other with embraces, long, steady, firm. Only two of my former students I can name; the others are faces that belong to children I had once loved. They are adults now, I tell myself. But, as always, reminding myself of the hundreds of children who have come and gone from my life doesn’t at all alleviate the guilt I feel each time I see a student whom my heart recognizes but my mind can no longer name. Can I claim to have loved them, if I have forgotten their names seven years after they left my life?
I ask a teacher who speaks Spanish to accompany me to the front. We approach the mother, and she throws her arms up in our direction, her body limp, and exclaims, “La maestra de Eric! La profesora de ingles de Eric!” And I kneel before her, as I’ve knelt before too many grieving mothers, and tell her I am sorry. She clasps my hands, and I kiss hers, and we weep together. We are taken apart by the arrival of the singers and pastor.
The songs are moving. Many people join in. The pastor is impassioned. I have never taken a Spanish class or had a Spanish tutor, so hope to be forgiven if I misunderstood. (All the Spanish I do know I have learned from my students, in the time we’ve shared in the classroom.) The pastor says there are many appointments and meetings we can cancel in life. We can reschedule a doctor’s appointment, postpone a tryst. But there is one meeting which awaits us all–“Inevitably!” he shouts–the date of which we are never given, and which we can never postpone. He tells the mourners that the Holy Book says that even sweeter than one’s arrival into life is one’s departure from it. “How? How can this be?” he shouts. “When the greatest joy is a mother’s welcome of her child into the world, and her greatest, most unbearable suffering is the loss of her child.” He tells us this is a sweeter day because it is the day we meet the Creator. I cry, again, this time because there is no comfort in this message for me.
Many teachers lose students–to car accidents, school shootings, cancer, asthma. We mourn them. For most teachers, a student’s death is an anomaly. It is an unparalleled and unprecedented tragedy. But there are some of us for whom students’ wakes and funerals are part of our job description, an event we expect to reoccur.
I don’t have anything to say about this at the moment. I have no plan, no cure, no solution in my mind. Nor much hope. All I have in this moment is my hand on Eric’s, no longer warm, but still flesh, and his mother’s hands clasping mine, as if holding onto her son’s high school teacher reminds her of all the hope she had harbored for her son when they had left their birthplace for opportunity.
I’ve seen too many brown boys in coffins. Tonight, that’s all I know.