Today marks the 19th anniversary of my brother’s death. November 7th, 1999 was the day my world was shaken and burned.
Our house caught fire for a reason they were never able to discover and my brother didn’t make it out alive. I was ten years old, Kasey was 12, and my oldest brother Kris was 18.
When my mom woke me up in a panic and told me we had to “get out now!” I ran back to try and grab my favorite blanket but she pulled me the opposite way. We ran around the outside of the house to discover it was engulfed in massive flames. She immediately broke Kris’ window in the basement and put up a ladder to break Kasey’s window as well. She told me to run down the lane and get help.
She was yelling their names repeatedly and neither one were responding. Finally, after what seemed like forever, Kris came out and I was off running. I ran in the dark down the driveway (we lived in the country so it wasn’t a short driveway) to our neighbor’s house and banged on his door. I told him our house was on fire and my brother was inside. He ran over to grab his phone and called 911. I recited his address because he was fumbling and then jaunted out the door to head to my aunt and uncle’s house. I banged on their door and my uncle answered. I just pointed and yelled, “Kasey is in there!”
I felt my stomach knot up and I began to cry anticipating the news I somehow knew I’d hear despite what my cousins were trying to tell me. They wanted to comfort me. They said it would be okay.
My uncle came in, paused, and gave us the news as we all sat huddled together; “He didn’t make it.”
We lived in a very close-knit community that I still claim as home because a lot of my heart is left there. A couple of very close family friends of ours are the ones who pulled him out of our house. One of them passed away a couple weeks ago and he said right before that he’s still so glad they went in to get him despite being told not to.
The days following that were a mixture of utter shock and extreme despair. The guilt that plagues me is strong. You see, my brother and I were fighting as siblings do- and I told him I hated him. Those were the last words I ever spoke to him. Your words matter. Remember that.
I never wanted to join the “I have lost a family member” club and since then I’ve known many more to join this horrific club.
On that night we lost everything. Along with all of our household belongings, our two dogs were inside as well. A wiener dog named Skippy and a Dalmatian named Diamond.
Our community poured around us in a way I’m not sure any other community does. I was given new toys, taken shopping, and we were given food for months. I was uplifted and hugged and told some comforting words and the occasional “this was God’s plan” words to which I have come to realize that people just don’t know what they’re saying- they’re trying to help. I know that THIS was not God’s plan. God’s plan is for there to be no hurt.
We arrived at around 3:00 AM at my Grandma’s house. When I started to get out of the car, someone came, picked me up and carried me inside my Grandma’s house. That person was my 5th-grade teacher- Mrs. Lang.
She was all that a teacher should be for a kid who just lost their brother and more. She’s the reason I’m a teacher. I hoped that I could be for ONE kid what she was for me. The next day was Monday and I went to school. I was craving normalcy. The hallway looked the same, the pictures on the windows were the same ones that were there on Friday went I left school. Everything at school was the same so that’s where I wanted to be. Mrs. Lang baked bread and let us lounge on the couches that day. We got to talk about Kasey, or not, and when the unit on death came, she let me go to Mrs. Beck’s office instead. She was sensitive to me, and she showed up when I needed her. She made it so I got through school that year and I’m lucky to grow up where I did.
The years go by, you grow, and unfortunately, the world doesn’t stop when you think it should. Each year, for the past 19 years, I never know how I’ll feel on this day. But as a teacher, it’s hard to teach when you aren’t “on.” It’s hard to teach when your heart hurts.
But the truth is. Teachers have feelings too. Secretaries, Doctors, and stay at home moms all have feelings too. Even as adults we feel things, and we can.
Sometimes we are so tired that we can’t imagine putting on a show for students. Sometimes the anniversary of our family member’s death is more than we can bear. Sometimes we’re pregnant and the nausea makes it hard to be sympathetic to the paper cuts or the “she cut me” complaints.
We are humans. We are allowed to feel our feelings.
Each November 7 was different in my classroom. There were a few years when I brought pictures of my brother and showed my class. I’d talk about the fact that we have hope that God is coming again and that I’d see him again. There was one year when I woke up from a night full of nightmares and I took the day off to stay in bed and cry. There was a year when my class was hard, I didn’t feel like they cared and I didn’t share one thing about how I was feeling that day. I simply got through that day, and that’s okay too.
We forget to take care of ourselves. As teachers, we push ourselves aside for the sake of the classroom, and sometimes that’s exactly what we SHOULD do. But not on days like this. Let them in on your pain if you want to, don’t let them in if you don’t, but always remember you can feel too.