Life and Death and How to Keep Living
On my first day of school I wasn’t too excited, not like kids today who are prepared and told that school is a fun thing about discovery and a new phase in their lives.
I went into the classroom, heard the female teacher barking orders across the room, “find a name tag and sit down at the desk without speaking.”, there was a lot of shuffling and mumbling, finally we little ones were all sat down, hands straight on the desks and staring at our new teacher.
She noticed that we had all draped our coats across the back of our small chairs. She looked irritated, stood up, raised her hands to her face and pressed them tightly against her cheeks. Then she said, “look to your right, you will see a row of pegs. All of you stand up, go to the pegs find your name and hang your coat up,” We stood up, she stopped us with another shout, “ I know that today is your first day of school, your mothers are not here, and you feel frightened, but please, please,” She pleaded now, “Do not start to cry. If you cry, I won’t be able to stand it…” she was wringing her hands , and then rubbing her face. I could see that she was anxious. I heard a whimper and turned to see a child behind me begin to cry, the child next to her joined in and then the whole class was a mess of children’s tears.
The teacher began to shout and banged the desk. I could hear her voice pleading for the children to stop crying. Her voice hoarse. I looked around the room, then back at the teacher who was now sitting slumped at her desk, her face in her hands. She groaned and sobbed. I could feel her anguish but I had no idea what it was about. I wanted to hold her hand.
She became louder with crying, the children around me sobbed and snotted themselves. The teacher ignored all of us because of the deep pain that she felt, her inability to cope with the first day of a new term, new children, same small tears, and a routine that she couldn’t go through again.
Today, I know that she had lost interest in living.
A few minutes later the classroom door burst open and three teachers entered, the shock on their faces told us kids that this wasn’t a normal day at school. They led the young female teacher away from the classroom and told us all to sit quietly, we could talk if we wished.
At the end of the day, kids were talking about the bellowing and crying coming from our classroom that morning. The teacher, who I believe was a student teacher, maybe 21 years old, new to the job, had been sent home. No accompaniment, nobody to collect her, and in those days, nobody felt the need to get involved in her personal anguish.
We giggled and chatted as we left our new school, making bravado like jokes about surviving the chaos and noise of our first day.
Next day, first thing in the morning, the mood had changed and the gossip had begun. Miss Davis, our new teacher hadn’t gone straight home, she’d gone straight to the pharmacy and then on to the local woodlands, there she’d swallowed a 100 tablet bottle of strong painkillers and died. That is what she wanted at that time. It seems that life had become too much.
I don’t know why she did it, I only imagine that something happened that summer. Maybe her heart was broken, or someone who she loved had died. It pains me not to know why this beautiful young woman took her life.
Since those days. The death of friends and relatives has always reminded me of that first day of school. An anguished person, tormented by something inside, then that something inside, like a demon, took her from this world.
It was a mystery to me, a lesson of life that I learned very early. But it never prepared me for the loss of any friends that I have since lost.
In my teen years my friends and I were a wild bunch, we learned to fist fight, tune cars and drive as well ( or bad) as The Dukes of Hazzard — and we learned to drink heavily.
The big thing was buying cheap broken down cars for a pittance, then fixing them up and selling them for double the price. It was good money and we learned a lot about motors.
Being around cars all of the time gave us ideas, we tested each other’s ingenuity by challenging each other to figure out an engine problem in ten minutes flat, and have the car running sweetly along the street a minute later.
One little game was figuring out how to start the car without keys, back in those days of basic Ford motors, it was easy to “short” the cable and jump the spark to fire up an engine. But it looked like a cool thing to do when our girlfriends were around, “wow, how did you do that?”, always sounded a little like, “ Wow, you’re my absolute hero!”.
One my friends had an idea that short wiring cars was a useful thing to know after he’d been out drinking. Why walk home, when you can take a car and drive?
He started to steal cars late at night after drinking, then he started to steal cars instead of drinking. It seemed he’d found a hobby that none of us were interested in, that was too risky for us.
One night he left the pub without saying anything to us, he just slipped away into the darkness and that was that.
A few days later we were looking for him, asking around for him. Then we were told about what had happened. He had slipped out of the pub, hot wired a car in the nearby street. I remember it was Hillman Hunter, 1.6 litre, in those days they were considered the poor man’s fast car.
He didn’t get far. A few blocks along the street, not many people around and quite dark, the motor burst into flames. Witnesses said it was fast, the flames engulfed the vehicle and our friend, who’s name I have forgotten, was caught in the sweeping fire that raced through the upholstery and then turned his body to ashes. The police and fire services said it was a strange accident, nobody could have known it would happen.
I thought a lot about my first teacher after the car fire. I wondered why the car had burst into flames, and why she had committed suicide. Such shocking events must be connected somehow.
At times of sudden death, you think a lot about reality. ‘Does God really exist?’, ‘Why do people stop wanting to live?’, all types of questions but never an answer to close with.
As time goes by in life, we all have to lose our friends and loved ones, and at some point they will lose us. Each passing of a soul is engraved in our memories, like a book, their lives stay intact and ready to read again anytime we have a moment to flip through the pages of who they were.
The memories and the questions of lost loved ones, why they went early in life, why they were taken with pain to push them through. These questions are never answered. The mystery that a suicide leaves behind, the death of a 17 year old in a stolen car, and the suicide of a lover, leave us with questions about life as much as about death.
I have many books in my heart, each one a different autobiography that was gifted to me by them.
Each one a mystery worth riddling over, reading, checking, and sometimes I find a page that I think I must have skipped first time round. I feel it and read it deeply, without fear or morbidity, life and death belong together as one thought that holds a few answers about the other.
If the dead gave us answers to all our gravest questions, then maybe we would never have to learn by living.