My husband cries and I sob every year when the first day of school rolls around, but it isn’t what you think. I get that huge pit in my tummy. That feeling of deep loss. It has happened for the past five years, and I always feel so very guilty for my feelings. I feel selfish and shallow to admit that my feelings of loss parallel grief that I have felt when loved ones die. I feel over dramatic to even indulge in my feelings, but as I pour my heart onto this paper, I have committed to not apologize for my feelings (there will be a lot of backspacing, since apologizing for my feelings is a habit). I usually push these pitiful feelings away and fill my day with activities as to never speak of them.
On the first day of school new outfits, lunchboxes, hair styles, smiling kiddos, new teachers become our focus until they are not, and then it happens. It hits him and me, and we cry. Today it happened when we got to the restaurant to have breakfast alone. The waitress walked by and started to say something and noticed our tears and quickly passed us by. We don’t have to say much. We just feel the loss together. It is real and deep.
I sincerely cringe to write this, but a few sentences ago, I committed to not apologize. I am heartbroken, unable to move, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. I become irrationally introverted to the point that I get upset that others are at the store that I need to go to. I don’t want to talk to anyone. Even though I am in a public place, I can feel my skin hurt as I see someone getting close to making eye contact. Please just leave me alone. Don’t ask me how I am doing.
Until five years ago, my husband had a first day of school every year. Like everyone else he went to grade school and secondary school and college, but it didn’t end there for him. He went on to become a teacher and continued his own post grad work and became a Jr. High School principal. I was always very proud of him, and not just because he was so awesome, but also because I invested in his profession and calling too. We moved across the state, we saved money, we planned our children (the ones that we planned) around his schooling and career plans. We justified never going on a honeymoon because of our plans to retire and honeymoon when the kiddos left. We justified me not pursuing further education because of investing in his.
For the first 20 years of our marriage, we were in education. That is what we were-who we were. We enjoyed shopping for school supplies and setting up classrooms and every night was filled with stories of students. We spent weeks preparing for the first day of school. Sure, there was the common dread of summer coming to an end, but school was our thing. Our kids identified their dad as “a teacher”. I was so very proud (I know I have said that a lot) to be married to a man who cared about students and could work so well with middle school aged kiddos. I was also very proud of him for just being so dang smart. As wrong as it may have been, his intellect became part of my identity, as well. It was okay that I didn’t have a profession; I was married to a really smart amazing educator.
I am no longer married to a really smart amazing educator. My husband no longer works and his cognitive abilities are declining. Our dreams of him retiring from teaching won’t happen. He doesn’t have the luxury of a well-defined role in our marriage/family, and neither do I. His career ended with no hope for any other career. It isn’t the end of his career that brings us to our knees but the end of hope for another one, or hope in our well thought out dreams.
But all of that pales in comparison to the loss my husband feels within his own heart. On the rare occasions when he isn’t avoiding his feelings, when he is completely lucid, he feels it. It is ugly. As he sees it (and a large part of our culture sees it), his purpose in life was to provide for his family. What defined him as a man was his intellect. Building relationships with seemingly unlovable junior high students and sharing his knowledge was how he bettered the world. Caring for his children and leading our family was his God given purpose. He read all of the books. He took all of the classes. He even taught some of those classes. A man has an important role in a family. He knows that kiddos without strong male role models as fathers need to seek those role models in other places. At times, these thoughts are what take him to that horrible dark place of thinking that the kids and I would be better off without him. If he were all of the way gone, we could feel free to replace him with other male role models. We could stop worrying about him. We wouldn’t have to fix the problems he creates. Instead he is here but he feels he is only partially here with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. He is told it is a terminal illness and an illness that is defined by taking away cognitive ability and eventually kills by taking away the cognitive part of the brain that tells his vital organs to work. According to his doctors, there is no way to know what part of his brain the disease will attack next. He knows that he can’t lead a classroom as he admits he can barely take care of himself. He has nothing left except positivity but that often hides his heartbreak that he feels because he can no longer work or lead our family. He fears that others will see him as stupid but also fears that others will see him as lazy because his disease is literally in his head. I see things so very differently than he does, and I need him as much now as I ever did. But my empathy for his feelings cuts me to the core, especially on the first day of school every year.
We live very happy lives for the most part. Compared to so many others, we have very little to complain about and are so incredibly thankful. We enjoy being together as a family. My husband laughs and celebrates births and milestones. We joke and socialize, so much so that his disease and our pain is often very well hidden. We are getting used to the new normal even as it continues to change with his disease. We are blessed beyond belief in so many ways especially by amazing friends and family. We see things differently now. We have a different kind of hope, but not really on the first day of school.
No other day of the year reminds us of the loss of our future plans, like the first day of school. The first day of school continues to feel like a punch in the gut to both of us.