My Message (5 Months)
by Heather Carnaghan
I had the opportunity to share my “message as an educator” to an impressive panel of folks today. When I first learned that I would have this platform, I was stumped. What was my message anyway? I knew my beliefs as an educator. I believe in the power of inquiry to inspire lifelong learners. I believe that all students deserve a stellar education in a safe, engaging environment. I believe that teachers have the ability to instill confidence and purpose along with skills. But...my message? I wasn’t certain how to articulate that. How do I encapsulate all that I am and hope for when that changed so radically five months ago? I’m still taking baby steps in this new normal. My message was as jumbled as one of my three year old’s stories. I decided to let it marinate for a while.
Two days ago, I woke up at 3am, like I always do on an anniversary of her death. It was the five month mark after losing Charlotte and I realized that my message wasn’t complete without her in it. I wrote, erased, and cried, then wrote some more. As I poured out my augmented soul onto paper, a message began to float to the surface. I quickly printed it before I could change my mind and stuck it deep into my school bag. It crumpled as it wedged between a thick file of papers to grade and a to-do list that is so long that it has its own notebook.
At 11:35 this morning, I stood in front of the panel, fished out my ragged paper, and read.
I read how I teach a unique class that links curriculum across the subjects and that those connections matter. I read that my current class of eighth graders was particularly special to me because we have spent two whole years innovating together. They were eagerly counting down to Charlotte's appearance from the moment they first noticed my baby bump as seventh graders to her final weeks in October when we laughed at her kicks, clearly visible through my shirt. I read that we laughed together a lot, and those connections matter.
I paused, taking in a sharp breath and preparing myself for the next words on the page, then told them that my daughter was stillborn two weeks before her due date. My voice cracked as I continued. I told them that despite my experience and degrees and past, grief made me feel that I had nothing left to offer my school. I told the panel how my amazing school community offered me a new beginning in the form of handwritten notes and homemade meals. Coworkers donated their wedding dresses to the Wrapped in Love Project (which repurposes wedding dresses into burial gowns for stillborn babies) and a grief resources website called Charlotte’s Purpose, both of which I started in an effort to heal. My students wrote letters with powerful words like "I love you, Ms.C", and "You’ve greeted me at this door for two years and that made me happy for two years. Now let us make you happy for two minutes." Those connections matter.
My mouth was dry, but I went on. I told the story of a fifth grade aspiring writer who made me realize how important teachers can be in a child's life. Long after we shared a classroom, he invited me to his Eagle Scout Ceremony with thirty of the people he felt most cherished and inspired by. I was one of his thirty! Those connections matter.
The panel stared at me for a pregnant moment. Some let the hint of a smile or a subtle nod escape past their stoney exteriors. I sat up a little taller and swallowed down the anxiety that had made my mouth cottony and my voice waver. Charlotte taught me so many things in her short time with us, but the most important is that every connection we make is one that matters. Whether a family member, friend, student, fellow loss-mom, or stranger on the street, we all deserve kindness and opportunity. We all have the ability to be "one of the thirty" for someone else. I am so very lucky to have had a baby girl who made that message crystal clear to me.
"My Message" is published on the Anne Arundel County Public Schools' website through a project called "Faces of AACPS" You can read it here.
Grief is messy
By Heather Carnaghan
I was washing dishes this morning. I took on this insurmountable task because I had no other options. Every dish in our house had been used and strewn into the already full sink, forgotten on dresser tops, balanced in towers on tables, or lost in the black hole of our playroom. This might be surprising to people who know me well. Before hurtling into this grief journey, I was deeply bothered by messes and clutter. Pans were stacked neatly in their cupboards and all my tupperware had lids. The same four sets of dishes were in rotation over and over. Use. Clean. Put away. Repeat.
Dishes were the first chore to evade me when we our daughter was stillborn. The piles started slowly, living outside of the periphery of our concerns. In those earliest days, we barely ate. Food was brought to us in ready-to-trash containers. No cleaning necessary. When the boys were hungry, we served them donated meals on paper plates and fast food right from the boxes. As time passed, we began to use our dishes again. The mugs made an appearance for tea and coffee first. The silverware shyly began to mingle with our fast food plastic and cardboard. Then one night, I made dinner, a real dinner. It had been two and a half months since we’d abandoned our kitchen, relying on friends and Chipotle for meals. I looked through cupboards that I had forgotten existed. My Kitchen Aid, whose edges were still crusted with the cookie dough I had mixed the day before losing Charlotte, stared on, lonely and neglected. For two hours I struggled to read directions, add simple fractions (½ + ¼ is a doozy when you’re grieving), and keep from crying long enough to finish the dish. We ate on real plates that night. Those plates and pots, cups and cutlery all got thrown into the sink. Meal after meal, the cooking was as much energy as I had in me to expend, so the dish tower grew. And grew.
This morning I had searched high and low for a plate to put Sam’s breakfast on. When all of the usual places proved fruitless, I snatched a Curious George emblazoned toy plate from the kids’ kitchen. Sam was delighted. I was confused. Where had all my plates gone? I moved a handful of dishes from the sink so I could get to the faucet to pour myself some water. Oh.
I started scrubbing. Thirty dishes deep, I picked up a well-worn measuring cup. It was a glass Pyrex with red markings down the side. It was the smallest in a set of five. They all stack inside of one another neatly (a remnant from my tidier days). I washed and rinsed it, then set it in the drying rack...only it didn’t stay there. The measuring cup slid out of my soapy hands and crashed to the floor, scattering shards across the kitchen tiles. In another life I might have chastised myself for being a clutz before sweeping the bits into a dustpan, but today I cried. My body collapsed to the floor and my eyes welled up with big, sloppy tears that made it hard to see. I sobbed over this measuring cup, this tiniest-of-five, fragile little thing that was so necessary to my kitchen and now was gone in the blink of an eye.
Grief is messy and mean for loss parents. There’s always something to clean up, whether it is dishes or another heartbreak. Showers become judgement-free cry sessions and our cars confessionals where no one hears us scream. Walls and pillows take blows from our angry fists and unused baby blankets catch plummeting tears. There are leaky noses, drippy mascara, and dishes in the sink. There are always dishes in the sink. Sometimes the small pains- the baby announcements we face with a forced smile, the strangers who ask “how many kids do you have?”, the call to support a new loss parent- add up until they are overwhelming. Just like the loss itself, we don’t always see these moments coming. They throw us backwards by miles when each step forward is miniscule and hard fought. It is at these moments that a measuring cup isn’t just a measuring cup. It’s my measuring cup, and now the stacking set makes no sense and I’m stuck measuring ⅛ cup of flour with a 2 quart goliath cup.
I’ll survive it, but it takes SO much more effort to do so.
Eventually, I did sweep up the glass shards. I wiped my face , finished washing every table setting we own, and for two glorious hours before lunch time there were no dishes in my sink, nor tears in my eyes.
I don't usually update my blog postings, but something happened today that made my story feel "unfinished". A package arrived in the mail, small and unassuming, with a big message of hope. "I can't really mend your heart, but I can maybe make your next baking project a little easier. Wish I could do more! -The Twedts" Tucked behind this kind sentiment was a tiny glass measuring cup with little red markings down the side. It looks a little different than the one that shattered, but it brought a big smile to my face. Grief is complicated. Sometimes a measuring cup can break you, and sometimes it reminds you that you've got some pretty great company on this rocky uphill trek.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some chocolate chip cookies that need to be taken out of the oven.
Heather is an educator, writer, artist, and most of all, mother of four. Her three boys inspire joy in her life and writing. Heather's eagerly awaited daughter was stillborn in October of 2017, which focused her creative energy on grief and healing. She created and maintains CharlottesPurpose.com, a website dedicated to dealing with grief positively.