I watched her walk across the field and away from the school. The grass beneath her feet was dying and the sky, which had produced rain all day, was getting dark. Despite her considerable height, she looked so vulnerable, lonely, and small — so exposed to the harsher elements of the world. Her back was to me, but her steps betrayed her sadness. And I could tell that she was cold. She walked as though she carried not just a bag filled with papers to grade, but a heavy heart and the weight of the world. She looked like a child lost in a busy mall — walking with uncertainty and just about to cry for her mother. I wanted to run to her, scoop her up in my arms, and embrace her with the promise that everything would be okay. I wanted to fix her world. I wanted to offer her more than knowing looks and sympathetic words.
She was almost halfway across the field now. If I dropped everything and sprinted I could catch up to her. But we had never been close. I had heard her story, as I’m sure she’d once heard mine, in bits and pieces and whispers. What a tragedy. Such a shame. The husband and both of the children. It’s a miracle she survived. Do you think she’ll sell the house? I know I couldn’t live there anymore.
I knew the sharp and cutting pieces her world had shattered into — her loss an abstract reflection of my own. Her loved ones taken in a robbery turned violent, mine by a dark night and an icy road. We were both survivors trying to live in homes that were now too big for us — homes full of doors we dared not open and a silence that was way too loud. It would take a while for life to feel worth living again. Even happiness would be impossible to enjoy. Every smile and outburst of laughter would feel like a betrayal. Every iteration of sadness would draw from the same bottomless well. Reality would seem muted and hazy, like everything else in the world was on the other side of frosted glass.
A woman whose husband dies is a widow. A child whose parents die is an orphan. But what do you call someone who has lost both their children and spouse — save gravely unfortunate? That’s what we were. Two women shrouded in survivor’s guilt and covered with scars.
I finished tidying up my classroom and turned off the lights. The hallways of the school were dim and empty, but the building was abuzz with life. I could hear the whistles and cheers coming from the gymnasium — a basketball game against our rivals. I knew I should stop in and show my support, but large groups of happy people still made me feel like an imposter sometimes.
I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to drive. She lived close enough to the school, so I decided to walk by. Hers was the only house on the block not gratuitously adorned with Christmas lights. It was easy to find. I slowed my gait and tried to look inside. The house was dark. I saw no signs of her being inside.
I knocked. I rang the bell. I waited for the sound of approaching footsteps, but all was silent and still. I felt the dread start to rise from my stomach to my throat, but I denied it. She’s probably out running errands, buying groceries, or getting an oil change.
It was hard to turn my back on that house, walk back to the school, get into my car, and drive home. It was hard to eat dinner alone, sitting on a couch built to hold more than just one, looking at the television, but not really watching what was on. Should I go back? Should I call someone? What would I say? Is a bad feeling enough for 911?
I knew the weight she was carrying — a weight that pressed her firmly into bed each morning so that getting up required all of her energy and strength. I knew the pain she was enduring —a pain that made her feel like she could drown while breathing in oxygen. I knew the questions that were filling her mind — the dark thoughts that could bleed the goodness out of life. So when she didn’t show up for work the next day, or the day after that, I was saddened, but not surprised.
A version of this piece originally appeared on the blog Write Away.