Two weeks ago, I returned to work for the first time since September. Typically, I hardly ever miss more than one or two days of work at a time. As a teacher, I find that the planning required for calling out is often more work than just going in.
It was so strange to walk into my classroom after such a long absence. It felt like returning home to find that someone else had been living in my house for six months...rearranging the food in the cabinets and eating at my kitchen table. I don't mean this as a negative statement. Having been a long term substitute at the beginning of my career, I fully understand the balancing act required when you are filling in for another person. My substitute did an excellent job of respecting my space while also running the classroom in a way that worked for her. It wasn't bad...it was just different. It was a familiar place that felt unfamiliar.
So many things were different and some things were exactly the same. My reusable lunch bag was still sitting in my little refrigerator behind my desk (thankfully, my sub threw out the perishable food!). My picture frames were still sitting on the window sill. The little slips of paper found in fortune cookies years ago were still taped above my computer screen. My sub plans for the morning of September 22nd were still saved on my computer's desktop.
I left school that Thursday morning for an ultrasound, planning to return by lunch. An hour later, we found out our son was going to die and that my own health was at risk, too. I didn't step foot in my classroom again for almost six months.
My school has been tremendously supportive to me during the time of my absence and during my transition back to work. My husband, family, and friends encouraged me and prayed for me as I struggled through the first few days. Bit by bit, I got used to being back in the school environment and taking on the responsibilities my job requires. Overall, it's been a fairly successful two weeks.
But each time I add something "normal" back into my life, I feel as though I'm being divided into pieces. Whether it's something small like buying food at the store, or something big like returning to work...I feel like I'm living two lives at one time.
In the one life, I function in a way that is familiar...I smile at coworkers in the hallway and casually converse while waiting for the photocopier. I help my seven year old students talk out their disagreements over who is "it" during tag at recess. I read them stories and plan lessons for them. I chuckle at the cute things they say. I come home and empty the dishwasher and fold clothes. I joke around with my husband and get angry when people don't use their turn signal.
But then there is this other life I'm forced to live. The life where my baby died. The life where William's absence scratches at my heart every minute, leaving me raw and exhausted at the end of each day. In this life, I plan what I will place at his grave the next time we visit the cemetery. I send a picture to CHOP to include in the memorial service they have for children who have died. I get on the scale and mentally tally how much weight I've lost since having my baby. My baby who doesn't live with me. My baby who I don't get to watch grow up.
And even though I've had so many moments where I feel successful in the one life, the other life is always there. When I teach a great lesson to my students...William is still gone. When I fold three loads of laundry and tidy up the house...William is still missing. The moments of normalcy and functioning in the one life fail to undo the pain and grief in the other.
I can imagine it's common for the bereaved to feel fragmented...to function in the different roles they fulfill while wondering if they will ever feel like a whole person again. I find myself looking at strangers in stores and restaurants, wondering if they also have pain scratching at their hearts while they order their lunch or pick out their produce.
As people so often say, I will keep putting one foot in front of the other. I will grade papers. I will laugh with my husband. I will miss my son.
And I will have faith that God is holding every fragment of my life and my heart in His hands...staying by my side as I adjust to my new "normal".