In the barely contained chaos that is the end of a school day this time of year I reminded the kids to be nice to their moms this weekend. Even though it was a testing week, and a getting-ready-for-more-testing week, I had found some time for them to make Mother's Day cards. Many kids were still tucking away the construction paper, glitter and glue confections into backpacks when someone asked over the general hubbub, "Are you a mom, Mrs. Shucka?"
It was one of those rare times when, despite the noise, everyone heard the question. A small chorus of voices piped in: Are you? You never talk about kids. Are you a grandma? You don't have pictures like the other teachers do.
It's funny to me, but not surprising, that we're five weeks away from the end of the year, and this was the first time the subject came up. Kids accept what is offered of a teacher. In my case it's stories about my brothers and Walt and Toby and Bunkie, and that gives them enough to feel like they know me. Every year, though, someone asks about motherhood. Every year I tell a version of the truth. Every year I wish I had a different story to tell.
I always say, "Yes, I'm a mom." Sometimes that's all the kids want to know. This year they wanted more. So I said, as I always do at this point, "I had a daughter." A weird thing happens here. More often than not, the kids hear "have" and not "had." At which point they'll ask if I have grandkids, I'll say yes, and their attention spans reach the limit which sends them somewhere else.
This year this class heard the "had" part of my response. They wanted to know what that meant. We were talking at the end of the day on a Friday, and pictures ran through my head of kids going home telling their parents on Mother's Day weekend that their teacher had told them a story of her dead daughter. How was I going to give them a story that would satisfy their curiosity without causing pain?
I love these kids. I love all my kids, especially at this time of year, but I love these kids especially. I think it has more to do with who I am in my sixties than who they are, but regardless of the reason, I love them. It could be because as a group their childhoods most resemble mine. This is a class full of kids who know pain that no one should know until much later in life, if ever. Their collective story is heartbreaking: Abuse. Weird physical illnesses. Homelessness. Mental illness - both kids and parents. Deaths of parents, uncles, grandparents, beloved pets. Drug and alcohol abuse. They are highly sensitive to adult energy, and to what's true or not.
So maybe it's not a surprise they connected to the past tense of my motherhood. But still, to send them away on a Friday with that new information - I'm never certain how much truth is fair to give a child. So I said, "My daughter died. It's a sad story, and not one I want to send you away with. If you still want to know next week, we can talk then."
Most were satisfied, and eager to get out into the air and weekend freedoms. One boy raised his hand despite the fact that at that point everyone was talking at once. When I called on him he looked me right in the eyes and said, "I'm sorry for your loss."
A couple of girls came up after I dismissed the class, clearly wanting more information. And just as clearly having missed what I'd said. They wanted to know if I'd miscarried or had to give her away. I repeated that my daughter had died, and added that she'd been an adult. They somehow seemed relieved, gave me hugs, and bounded out of the room like puppies through an open gate. I wondered, and still wonder, how they came to a place that they could ask those questions of their teacher without batting an eye. Even more, how they, at eleven, know a world in which those things exist as normal.
Tomorrow they will come full of weekend stories, wanting to hear my latest Bunkie story, and overflowing with their lives. If they want to know more, I'll tell them, as I have told kids in the past, that Kathleen was ill. It's a truth. Enough of a truth to feel honest.
Just like saying I am a mom is a truth. Enough of a truth to feel honest. A truth that breaks my heart every time I remember all the stories that spin out of that one small fact. Stories that I wish had different endings. Even so, I'm grateful I can say yes, I am a mom. I'm grateful to be creating stories with kids that allow my mother-heart to continue to grow. I'm grateful that, even if I couldn't save her, the story Kathleen and I wrote together was one of love.