One year

I wish I had coherent thoughts to share on the awful anniversary of losing A.

This is a thing that reshapes the calendar. Instead of the arbitrary end of year that we define, now there’s this very definite thing, and here’s one month since this thing, six months since this thing, one year since this thing that totally upended our lives.

I hope you’ll allow me to just share some notes, observations on the year gone by and the realities that have come with it.

What you will never be ready for is the waves.

There was an analogy for grief that I was familiar with even before December 4, 2021. It compared grief to wandering around in a box. Every time you touched the walls of the box, there was searing, unrelenting pain. When the loss first happens, the box is very small, and you can’t help but run into one of the walls. As you get further and further away from the loss, the box expands. The pain is no worse when you run into the wall, but the walls get further and further away, and you have more room to get around without the pain.

The analogy is fair, and it describes life well – except nothing can prepare you for what that pain is like.

The sadness from losing a child is unlike anything you could possibly ever know. It’s unfair even to call it sadness, or melancholy, or any other word. It is this gaping, painful hole, and there is nothing you can do to ever fill it. You can get through some of life without triggering the pain, but there will always be something to trigger it.

Maybe it’s a song that A. loved. Maybe it’s the realization that I haven’t played a game in a year because that was the game A. and I played. Maybe it’s a candy that A. made.

And maybe it’s just the stars at night.

The last night A. was with Kristin, the stars were exceptionally bright. They lingered under the stars, marveled at the beauty of the night sky. It is so odd – I’m the physicist of the family, but I’ve never been able to appreciate the night sky anywhere near like how A. was able to. I lament the experiences we could have shared, and did share in fleeting moments, and never will again.

Any of those experiences, and any of many others, starts the pain.

And when the pain comes, it comes in waves. It’s not one moment of pain, and then it’s gone. It’s surging pain, rising and falling many times in succession, each that follows worse than the last. You can’t bear to stand under the weight. You can simply sit or lie, and lament.

What we miss.

What we have lost, never to return.

What could have been, and never will be.

Sometimes you are able to feel the waves fade while you’re awake, and you can feel other things again. But sometimes the waves just crash and crash and crash, and you just have to be swallowed by them, hope that sleep relieves the pain somehow.

What is at once relieving and frustrating is how little outwardly I’m able to show the signs of this. Depression has been a theme of my life, and I’ve put together tactics to manage the physical symptoms of depression. Those tactics reached the point of second nature in the months before A.‘s death. These have been new sensations, but the time-developed tactics for managing them have worked. I was able to resume functioning in the day-to-day relatively quickly.

But managing isn’t the same as going without feeling. When the waves hit, the pain is no less severe. And there are times when the response is simply the need to stop.

And there is damage that’s been done, in ways that I am only starting to account for. But taking stock of that damage is probably for another time.

One of the ways I have recognized that I manage the pain that comes with grief and depression is simply to continue doing, no matter how difficult that doing feels.

There is always academic work that needs to be done. I was a year into my appointment as department chair when this reality took hold. We’ve moved through this year as positively as we could. I can’t express enough gratitude to my department, my fellow chairs in Science, Technology and Mathematics, and to my academic administration for the support they’ve given me as this year has moved forward.

I’ve been the best professor I could be while dealing with the weight. I always have my own standards for my work in the classroom and in the lab, and what actually winds up happening as the term goes forward is never good enough compared to those standards. Somehow I wind up building connection with students anyway, and I’m able to have some positive influence in their lives. I’m grateful to those students.

But, inevitably, I find other things to stuff my days full with. And that’s where the conversation turns to quizbowl.

With the easing of the pandemic conditions, as we’ve moved into the fall, we’ve been in position to restart face-to-face competition in the places I care about the most. I can’t talk about quizbowl without talking about the faithfulness of friends in East Tennessee, including Dren Rollins, who was literally at my side the instant I heard the news about A. Many of us who care about academic competition in East Tennessee have been working to rebuild a competitive circuit almost from scratch, and we’ve run a couple of tournaments in the fall and look to run a regional championship as a prototype come the spring. I look forward to the fruition of the quizbowl game in the place I call home.

But I dove most heavily into high school quizbowl when I started at Virginia Intermont, and the schools of Southwest Virginia still hold my heart.

This fall’s restart of the Southwest Virginia Academic Team Alliance (SWATA) circuit is the quizbowl outreach work I’m proudest of. With those schools, the coaches had a clear vision of what kind of competitive structure they needed, and they were able to communicate that to me; I’ve spent much of my time this fall implementing their vision and rebuilding with them the competition we had before the pandemic hit.

There were online competitions in the state scholastic bowl format that ran during the pandemic – one of our SWATA schools won a state championship online, even – but online competition has a very real disconnection, and we lose the community that is generated when our small, rural schools can come together in one place and celebrate the excellence in learning they’ve achieved.

I’ve found that I’ve missed that community throughout the pandemic, and I’ve needed that community now more than ever.

The day before this one year anniversary, I spent in Castlewood, VA helping their small high school run their first ever Saturday tournament. I spent it with the high school teachers, students, and families that I care about most in this region, taking the next steps in establishing and developing this community. I spent it getting very real support, in ways visible and invisible, possibly in ways that the people feeding into me weren’t even aware of.

I can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am to SWATA for letting me support them in building their competitive community, and how much I’ve needed them caring for me this fall. They have honestly become my church family, in all the ways I need a church family. I can’t list all the people who deserve thanks for their consistent fellowship.

All the support of all the people who have fed me the good things in this year can’t fill the hole, and can’t keep the pain from showing up when it is expected and when it is least expected.

The magnitude of the loss in our family can’t be overstated. I’ve mentioned before that A. was our stabilizing force. At times when others were hard to talk to, A. was always very easy to talk to, and the snark that inevitably turned up was forever good-natured and made the conversations inevitably funny. The image that will stick with me from the last days of A.’s life will be the child and their mother seated on the loveseat, trading library stories and commiserating on the difficulty that comes with working with the public. We miss those conversations more than we can bear.

A. had her own means of support – with cooking, with decorating, with all kinds of little actions that made a holiday even more alive. I will confess to not sharing A.’s affinity for Halloween, and taking the joy from the spooky. But A. found ways to bring joy to every holiday. It was very easy to decorate a Christmas tree with A. around. It’s obviously not the same now.

There are very few traditions in our family that are meaningful now; without A. around, the weight of the missing person dwarfs any benefit that we might get from continuing the same thing. I never really understood why the holidays were so difficult for the grieving before going through this. But the holidays can bring reminders everywhere, and the waves begin to crash anew.

Today, as much as any day this year, I really felt an obligation to write through the waves. I’m grateful for A.’s life, and I’m grateful for all that A. created in this world. But as I find a way to navigate a world without A. – as surreal a thought as that still remains, one year on – I’m finding gratitude for all the family, friends, and loved ones who help me navigate.

Gratitude doesn’t change how much I despise navigating this path.


2 thoughts on “One year”

  1. This day is marked on my calendar, and I think of y’all and pray for you both so often … I’ve had my heart ripped open and torn apart so many times, but can’t imagine, I just can’t imagine. I bring you a song by The Rolling Stones, from Goatshead Soup – “Winter”. I just want to wrap my coat around you and bring some sort of solace. Love you always, Cyndy L from Chapel Hill

  2. […] For six and a half years I have been supported in ways large and small by this campus community, by people who have since moved on, by people who have come onto campus, and by people who have stayed. That support has been doubled and redoubled over the course of this brutally difficult year, where professional successes have been wedded with the worst heartache. […]

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