Category Archives: death

Six-Word Saturday: Sudden Death


Sudden death strikes at my school.

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A Matter of Safety

“You know that student you asked me about this morning?” Ms. J said, as she stuck her head through my door after the last bell Thursday. “Her family has experienced a terrible tragedy. Her father was killed.”

“Oh, that’s horrible!” I said. “Killed. As in murdered?”

“Yes,” Ms. J said.

I couldn’t imagine who would do such a thing, but Ms. J had no more information. The only thing I knew for certain was that 12-year-old N-Girl had been plunged into grief and that somehow she would have to come to terms with her father’s sudden and unexpected death.

Late this afternoon, I learned from the school counselor that an arrest had been made: N-Girl’s older (by one year) brother had been charged with his father’s murder.

I teach in a school in a low-income area. Alcoholism, drug abuse and gang activity are rampant. Many of my students know the painful facts about domestic violence—not by reading statistics, but by watching their drunken father beat their mother and then turn on his children. Murder is not uncommon. Last year one of my students was both relieved and horrified when the body of her older sister, who had been missing for two years, was finally discovered. The sister was a homicide victim.

I think I now understand why so many of my students have signed up for summer school, even though they are not failing and are in no danger of being retained. They may not do well in school, they may even profess to dislike school, but they know they can count on their teachers to provide a consistent daily routine in contrast to the chaos of their unpredictable home lives. For these kids, school is the safest place in the community—and they want as much of it as they can get.

The academic year ends Tuesday, and I’m sure N-Girl won’t be with us for the last-day-of school festivities. But I won’t be surprised if she shows up for summer school the day after Memorial Day.

It’s a matter of safety.

A Good Death: Robert B. Parker

After school, I walked about a mile to our tiny local public library to return some books. While I was there, I scanned the shelves quickly for some fresh reading material. I left with three books under my arm, one of them The Professional by Robert B. Parker.

As soon as I returned to my domicile, I switched on my radio to our local NPR station. (I like to listen to “All Things Considered” as I take my evening repast.) I was dismayed to learn that Robert B. Parker had died. No more Spenser novels was my first thought. (Not true, I found out later. At least two more novels are slated for publication in 2010.)

Parker, 77, apparently died at his desk Monday, doing what he loved: writing. A little research turned up several surprising facts about this author with whose work I had become acquainted only during the past decade. First, he had a Ph.D. in English (his thesis was detective fiction). Second, at one time he had been a teacher of college English. And third, he cranked out about three novels per year, writing five to ten pages per day.

I don’t remember the first book of Parker’s I read. I do remember being impressed by his laconic style of writing; he wasted not a word. And unlike Elizabeth George (whose work I deeply admire), I never had to reach for a dictionary while reading one of Parker’s novels. He used ordinary words to tell rather extraordinary—and thrilling—tales.

However, a Los Angeles Times reader cautions: Parker’s novels are not “detective stories.” They are existential inquiries into the shallowness and uncertainty of life. Boston is the stage. He concludes that there are only two, real certainties: Love (Susan) and Friendship (Hawk).

There’s one other certainty: death.

I like to think that I’ll be following Robert B. Parker’s lead, still doing what I love, when I take my last breath.

Like a Great Tree Felled

Like a great tree felled
you crashed to the floor, broken
and forever stilled.

© 2009 by Magical Mystical Teacher

An Open Letter to My Brother

Dear J,

The deputy coroner told me that your neighbor had borrowed a toaster from you, and wanted to return it. He assumed you were home because your car was in the driveway. When you didn’t respond to his repeated knocking, he called law enforcement. Sheriff’s deputies arrived to perform a welfare check. When you did not answer the door, they forcibly entered your house and found you fully clothed, facedown on the living room floor. You had been dead for some time.

I remember your being facedown on another floor many years ago. It was in the spare bedroom of our grandparents’ house on the prairie. I was 4, you were 2, and our sister hadn’t been born yet.

It was a cloudy, sultry afternoon, the kind of weather that precedes a thunderstorm. Distant lightning flickered in the sky as Mom tucked us in bed for a nap. We hadn’t been lying there long, when the heavens opened up and a deluge of biblical proportions poured from the heavens. Lightning that had been miles away only minutes before, now flashed directly overhead. Thunder shook the little white clapboard house like a terrier shaking a rat.

You jumped from the bed, terrified, and started screaming, “Mommy! Mommy!” But rain and hail slammed against the little house and thunder roared so ferociously that she couldn’t hear you. You tried to crawl under the bed, but there wasn’t enough room, so you lay facedown on the bare wood floor, sobbing and crying out, “Mommy! Mommy!”

Protectively, I laid myself down on top of you and whispered in your ear, “It’s all right, it’s all right”—but I doubt you heard me over the roar of the rain and hail pummeling the tin roof. I stayed on top of you until the storm subsided, and I was sure that you were safe.

This morning I read these words from an ancient Hebrew poem: “For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 90:11, RSV). Is it too outlandish to imagine an angel spread protectively over you in your final moments as you lay facedown on the floor? Perhaps you even heard a gentle whisper: “It’s all right, it’s all right.”


Your brother

The Classroom of Bereavement

I’m in a different sort of classroom this week, the classroom of bereavement. There are no rules here. Anything goes. The student may do pretty much as he or she pleases, so it pleases me to write about my brother’s death, and to try to make some sense out of what appears to have been a completely senseless act.

My sister was the first to break the news to me. She said that her son had received a phone call from one of his cousins, saying that her father was dead; my nephew then passed the news along to his mother. When she told me, I said, “What if it wasn’t J? What if it was some homeless person and J paid the coroner to keep quiet? What if this is all a scam so he can assume a new identity?”

If you knew our brother, you’d know that the scenario I imagined was not at all farfetched. Indeed, when I talked to the deputy coroner this morning, he told me that a number of people had called his office, concerned that J had faked his death.

But as I listened to the deputy coroner’s story unfold, I became more convinced that it was the truth—especially when I heard that J’s body had been positively identified by his ex-wife’s current husband, a law-enforcement officer.

There is so much more that I want to know, so many questions that I’d like to ask my brother: Did you really kill yourself, as the coroner has ruled, or did you underestimate the power of the two drugs you took at the same time, one an anti-depressant, the other an antihistamine? You tried, dramatically and unsuccessfully, to kill yourself on two separate occasions many years ago, once by slitting your wrists, and once by cutting your throat, so why “go gentle into that good night” with a mere overdose of drugs?

My brother will never answer my questions, of course. But as every good teacher knows, asking questions does not necessarily presuppose that there are easy (or any) answers. Teachers pose questions to stimulate thought. In fact, when my students don’t know the answer to a question I’ve asked, I don’t permit them to shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t know.” Instead, I invite them to probe deeper by saying, “I’m not sure, but I think….”

I’m not sure about so many issues surrounding my brother’s death, but I think that if I keep listening to the Spirit of truth, one day I will see some good come out of this tragedy.

My Brother Is Dead

My brother J is dead.

He took his own life two weeks ago.

Inexplicably, his daughters chose not to tell any of the rest of our family until a few hours ago.

I have been estranged from my brother for many years. He was a chronic liar and could be incredibly cruel to anyone—including family—he believed had crossed him.

Still, he was my brother, and I have spent a nearly sleepless night, haunted by memories of our carefree and innocent boyhood together.

What happened? How did the little boy who adored me, and even said as much in a letter he wrote to me last year, turn into such a bitter, spiteful person?

Two months ago I discovered that he had committed identity theft against me by opening a credit card in my name and using it. Still, I cherished the hope that one day—maybe 10 or 20 years from now—he and I would be reconciled.

Now that will never happen.

My brother J is dead.