What I Want You to Know About Back to School Night

I stand outside the door to your classroom, peeking around the other parents lined up ahead of me to sign in, as if this is a new ride at Disneyland. I am just excited to see where it is you’ve been spending your days after I drop you off, to get a sense of that ever-growing part of your life I don’t get to witness firsthand. Immediately I notice there are pictures hanging above the desks of faces you and your classmates have drawn. I start to search for one that resembles you but I can’t find it from this distance. I start taking in the arrangement of the desks, the layout of the room, the Disney decorations lining the walls. I am seeing how everything fits together.

And then it just hits me that your mom is missing.

Maybe it’s the multiple Dixie cups of Chardonnay from the reception that has made me vulnerable to this reopening of grief. Maybe it’s being back here, around other parents, remembering (without even knowing that I was remembering) the time not that long ago that your mom and I were sitting in this same courtyard, wondering whether to enroll you here. Or maybe it’s seeing many of the other parents arriving in pairs, holding hands or pointing out to one another objects in the classroom that their child has made. Maybe it’s simply the nostalgic feeling an adult has in an elementary school, any elementary school, calling to mind the days when life was simpler, more carefree. Supposed to be, anyway. Whatever it is, I am struck for the thousandth time with the awful reality of her absence from our lives.

I take another sip from the plastic cup and then it is my turn to sign in. I write your name and then put my own in the spot next to it. There is space for a second parent’s name that I leave blank.

I step into the room and begin searching for the desk bearing your name and the projects you have made among the decorations on the walls. I find your desk and stand there, uncertain, wishing your mom was here so I could tell someone, “I found it!”

There’s a line from one of my favorite books, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, that has been kicking around in my brain since your mom died. The narrator, who, like you, lost his mother tragically at a young age, describes loss in this way:

“When someone you love dies, and you’re not expecting it, you don’t lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time—the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes—when there’s a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she’s gone, forever—there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.”

That quote comes to mind anytime I feel the weight of losing your mom hit me again like a sucker punch to the gut. Whenever I notice “a missing part” it feels like I am back to the day she died, like I am taking all of the loss on again for the first time. I think another way of getting at what John Irving was saying—or maybe it’s a slightly different truth about grief—is that when you lost some you love, you lose her completely, again and again.

In any case, that’s how I’m feeling as I stand there beside your desk listening to your teacher tell us all about her teaching philosophy and her plans for the year. I imagine how your mom would be taking this in, her pride in you apparent on her face, coupled with her subtle but palpable annoyance when one of the other parents asks to see the teacher’s lesson plans each week in advance.

I’m feeling something more than the usual ache of missing her here. As if for the first time, I’m overwhelmed with the feeling that she’s gone, forever. That I have lost her completely. Again.

The teacher finishes her presentation and the parents begin wandering around the room. I finally find the picture you have drawn of yourself hanging with the others. It’s a sweet, idyllic scene. A bright yellow fish swims in a clear mountain lake behind you, waiting for you to cast it a fly. A crimson-colored bird soars overhead, so close you could reach up and grab it. You seem happy, looking up to your left and smiling.

And then I notice something. Yours is the only picture done in profile. I double check and, sure enough, each of your classmates’ drawings have a frontal view: both eyes looking at the viewer, face straight on.

Did you mess up the assignment, or were you given free rein and you were the only one who chose to draw yourself this way? Either way, lined up next to all the front-facing pictures, it seems as if someone just outside the frame of yours has caught your attention at the very moment the photographer snapped the picture. It must be someone you love whose presence causes you to smile. Someone slightly bigger than you so that you must look up a little to see her.

I’m reading too much into this, I know I am, but I’m standing there thinking about how you, much more than your classmates, are acutely aware of what is missing. You maybe ought to be focused on the task at hand, but a person you love keeps calling your attention. Others do not see her, but you do.

Finally, I snap out of my reverie. I leave the classroom and head back into the courtyard, where I talk to some of the other parents about the start of the new school year, the Covid-19 protocols, the way we all worry about the hardships your generation must endure. I keep thinking about how strange it is for your mom not to be here. And as I struggle to accept that loss, again, I’m thinking that I know just how the boy in your picture feels.

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