Grief is a funny thing, not “Ha-Ha!” funny, but funny as in peculiar. It’s like a distant relative or an old college buddy who shows up uninvited and at the worst times. To my dismay, Grief has taken a keen liking to me of late. In the past twelve months, I have lost a remarkable first cousin, who was my same age; two of my favorite uncles/role models; my larger-than-life father-in-law; and my own inimitable dad. Because I descend from a long line of stoics, I’ve faced these passings with a Victorian stiff upper lip. Strangely, I’m very comfortable with others’ tears, just not my own. To be honest, I really haven’t spent much time dwelling on their deaths. Most days, I just press on. What else is there to do? After all, life is for the living. But today, I found myself unexpectedly paralyzed by grief and weeping.
Due to some road work, I was forced to take a detour to school today and to drive past the empty green space in the middle of Port Clinton over which the Port Clinton Middle School once lorded before being demolished. It was a fairly typical school building of its era, built for function not aesthetics. Like any structure, what made her special wasn’t the bricks and mortar of which she was comprised but the students, staff, and faculty that peopled her. In all of her long history, one of her most cherished tenants was an English teacher named Julie Quayle. Julie died last month.
Julie Quayle was the personification of refinement. It were as if the Three Graces of Greek mythology (Charm, Beauty, and Creativity) took up residence in her form. She was that rarest of thinkers whose mind struck an honest balance between reason and faith. Julie studied French at the Sorbonne and was an accomplished pianist. Her talents and intellectuality were such that it left one wondering, “Why is she not teaching at a university?” In fact, she once was. For a brief time, Julie taught English at Utah State University, but she followed her husband Bill’s career moves and eventually landed at Port Clinton Middle School, where she became one of its most beloved teachers. As if all of the above isn’t enough to feed one’s sense of inadequacy, perhaps, Julie’s greatest achievements were as a wife to Bill and a mother to (Doug and Matt).
I had the honor of being mentored by Julie at the Port Clinton Middle School after I’d made the rather drastic switch from teaching senior level English in a small, Catholic school to teaching seventh grade language arts in a public school. Without Julie and our shared good friend and fellow English teacher Geoff (Michigan fans all three), I may have run screaming back into the sheltering arms of Saint Mary. With Julie’s patience, wisdom, and guidance, however, I survived and remained, and as Frost writes at the conclusion of “The Road Not Taken,” “And that has made all the difference.” As I moved to the high school and on with my life, I did not remain particularly close with Julie; actually, we rarely spoke in the eighteen years since we were colleagues.
This morning, driving past the school that was no longer there led me to think of Julie no longer here, which brought me back to the empty spaces left in my heart and life by my lost cousin, uncles, and fathers. Empty spaces I’ve been navigating around all these months and pretending they didn’t exist by burying myself in routine and in the stuff of living. That empty lot spoke to me of regret – regret that I had not stayed close with Julie and regret that I had far from fully appreciated her friendship or my family members when I had the opportunity, and now it is too late. Like that grand old school building, they are all gone forever.
So, this morning, I sat in my car with my head down and wept. Grief is a funny thing. It never dies. It never goes completely away. I expect it will return with unpredictable regularity at the most random times for the rest of my days. It’ll ram its foot in the door, shoulder its way inside, and stay as long as it damn well pleases.
For what it’s worth, I miss you Julie, Brad, Uncle Bill, Uncle Bud, Mr. Guerra, Dad. I should’ve done better. We all should do better.
Ty is the author of SO SHELLY and GOODNESS FALLS.