In Praise of Inadequate Gifts

Tarn Wilson

when i was in the eighth grade, my classmate Patty walked home after school—a sunny Denver, October afternoon—and found her mother in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor, the victim of a random household robbery gone wrong.

Before that day, Patty had been an ordinary junior high school girl. She sat at the far end of the table in my art class and—from what I could see—had average artistic talent. And she was smack in the middle of the popularity ladder: a few close girl friends, but otherwise as invisible as the rest of us, certainly beyond the vision of the glamorous girls and the popular boys who loped after them. I didn't know her well, but occasionally we exchanged words, shy girl to shy girl, as we helped each other with the complicated instructions for our batik wall-hangings of exotic birds.

When the news of Patty's loss hit the front page of the papers, she was no longer invisible. She became That Girl Whose Mother Was Murdered, an instant and unprepared celebrity.

Someone thought to buy her a card, to pass it around the school. Students, popular and unpopular, wrote: If you need anyone . . . I'm here for you . . . I want to be your friend. Boys in their scratchy hieroglyphics. Girls in their bubbly writing, with hearts or circles dotting their i's and j's. I felt a raw and helpless ache, but couldn't find the words to comfort her. I don't remember exactly what I wrote when the card circled around to me, but I do remember feeling my words were as bland and clichéd as the rest.

The day she received the card, Patty hunched at the end of my art table, ignoring her crumpled, wax-flaking batik in front of her. She was silent. Seething. The air smelled like melted crayons. Finally, she blurted out: "Now everyone wants to be my friend. Where were they before?"

Just a few bitter words—said to no one, really—but my emotional response was enormous and tangled. I was surprised that in the aftermath of such a catastrophic loss, she was still angry about the social dynamics of our junior high, that even murder hadn't obliterated the pain of being thirteen and exiled from the in crowd. It was my first lesson in the complexities of grief and trauma.

Later, I would come to understand that the small and ordinary deaths of exclusion and neglect are a form of trauma in themselves. And, more importantly, that shock takes time to integrate. In the beginning, our brains can hold our new realities only a few consecutive moments before returning to familiar terrain—in Patty's case, her resentment at the popular girls. Where could she throw her anger at such a cosmic injustice, but at whomever was nearest?

In retrospect, I also understand that those who cozy up to victims are not always motivated by tenderness. Sometimes we cling to other people's drama because we crave the vicarious adrenaline rush of a life on the edge. We want to sneak toward the places where the veneer of civilization begins to crack, to feel the thrill of impending chaos. Car wrecks. True crime exposés. Maybe that's what Patty sensed in the midst of her wash of unexpected attention. The news cameras were on her, and now the popular kids were edging their way into the spotlight.

But at the time, I believed Patty had misunderstood the students who had written in the card, unfairly doubting their sincerity. For me, the murder had obliterated our ridiculous junior high obsessions, had melted the imaginary boundaries that separated us. What did social status matter in the face of such tragedy, one that reminded us of how much we loved our mothers—those same mothers who had, in the last few years, become so intolerably irritating—that reminded us that nothing was more important than caring for each other?

Back then, my whole body was a sack of watery grief for Patty. I would have done anything for her, had I only known what it was she needed. Instead, I had added my words to her card: not only were they vague and meaningless, but I had offended her. I had magnified her pain. In the same way that Patty threw her grief onto the popular girls, I tucked my confusion and pain about her loss in my most familiar pocket: guilt and self-blame. And I carried it there, unexamined and unquestioned.

For years after, far into my adulthood, I never sent a single condolence card. I had pushed Patty's story out of my consciousness, but had concluded, rather fiercely, that in the face of deep grief, words are inadequate. So I ignored those who were suffering, assuming they knew I was there for them. Likewise, I never imagined that I, who generally preferred to sort through pain in solitude, could be consoled by a few pastel pieces of paper. If you need anyone . . . I'm here for you . . . I want to be your friend.

But, a few years ago, when both my parents died within a year of each other and I entered that strange, alternate universe which is grief, the cards began to come. On my desk at work. In my mailbox at home. Then a bouquet of flowers. A potted vine growing in the shape of a heart. A book of poetry. With each gesture, I felt a layering of affection around me, felt tethered, safely, to the earth and to those who loved me. Under each inadequate sentence I read: There are no words of comfort. But I am here. I am here. I surround you with love. I set the cards on bookshelves and tabletops and bedside tables, a sort of shield—made disarmingly and ordinarily of paper and painted flowers and gilded letters—against the forces that might push me toward the edge of insanity.

 

Just a few months after Patty's mother's murder, my family, too, was touched by violence. A stranger broke into our house and raped my mother. Thankfully, our crime did not make the newspapers, and, unlike Patty, I had the privilege of processing privately.

Well, almost privately. My mother contacted my and my sister's schools to tell our teachers what had happened, hoping they would understand our distraction, maybe ease up on the homework load, treat us with a conscious kindness. This, in itself, was unusual. My mother, ex-hippy and teen rebel, tended to distrust schools, and whenever my sister or I complained about a teacher, she marched in to give that teacher a "piece of her mind." But mostly, as a busy, tired, single mother with a penchant for attracting drama and erupting in rages at friends and co-workers, she paid little attention to our schooling. Yet, here, in the middle of her own genuine devastation, my mother thought first of us. She enlisted the community—weak as it was—to support us.

In those first few days back at school, when shock had erased my thoughts and I moved through the routines by rote alone, I don't remember how my teachers responded. I believe, thankfully, that they did not treat me differently or pull me aside to ask how I was doing. I liked my teachers, trusted them, but our relationship was respectful, formal. They seemed to live on some far shore my boat would never reach, and I was too shy to be singled out for an awkward conversation. But I trusted that they held me in compassion: as I did my math problems and took my history quiz, I felt them buoying me up with their thoughts.

A few weeks later, my mother realized that she was too frightened to stay in our house and decided to move to my grandmother's in the neighboring town. On my last day in the school, my English teacher—and here I share her real name, Mrs. Janice Golder—decided to give me a going-away party.

Looking at her yearbook picture, I still can't guess Mrs. Golder's age. She is one of those teachers who seems to have always been a teacher. Her short brown hair is set in curls, like a grandmother's, but her skin is smooth and her face is strong and cheerful. She has a double chin, but I don't think of her as fat; instead, she is big. Big enough to fill up our room and keep us safe. She knows what she's doing. She never raises her voice and students never act out. We work hard for her.

In retrospect, it can't have been easy to be cheerful in our school, fraught as it was with its own dangers. The gangs that would later terrorize the high school had begun to bully and bluster down the hallways. Doors automatically locked during passing periods to keep the teachers safe in their rooms. Boys passed marijuana joints back and forth as they strutted down the corridors.

I didn't feel particularly close to anyone in my English class. We had all come from different elementary schools, bused from all over the city. I was at a particularly unattractive stage, with braces and pimples and a bad perm and no charisma to compensate. But I loved English. I wrote in my journal and waited for Mrs. Golder's comments. I eagerly learned my grammar and devoted myself to my creative writing compositions. Still, I didn't notice my classmates, and they didn't notice me. So Mrs. Golder giving me a going-away party was a bit of an embarrassment.

She brought a big cake, round and white with blue-frosting trim and flowers. We milled about, eating. Without the structure of classroom routine, standing alone with my paper plate and plastic fork was pure awkwardness. Usually I loved food, especially piles of frosting, but because I was still living in the tremors of aftershock, I couldn't taste anything. I also felt a bit like Patty with her condolence card: I didn't believe anyone in the class had registered my existence before that moment. As soon as I left, my empty spot would fill in—like a hole in the sand when the tide comes in—and the students would not remember me. Unlike Patty, this didn't pain me, but it made the party feel wrong. An inadequate gift.

Only it wasn't. Even then, through the fog of stunned grief, I was profoundly, heartbreakingly touched. Not by the party, but by the gesture itself. Mrs. Golder couldn't say just the right words or take away what had happened, but she gave what she had. She used her precious personal time and money to buy me a cake and donated a class period to honor me—and not even me, really, as I doubt I was more special to her than any other student. She did it because even an awkward eighth-grade girl with braces and pimples and a bad perm deserves compassion.

The inclusive nature of her love touched me even more than if I had been her favorite. The violence that had touched Patty and me was impersonal—and Mrs. Golder was the force of impersonal love fighting back against the broken people who had harmed us. In her action was a solidity, a grace, much larger than my awkward stance with my paper plate or the ugly blue stain of Crisco frosting on my lips. When I think back to eighth grade, the rape of my mother, the details of that night are tattooed forever in memory. But so is Mrs. Golder's party, an unlikely counterweight. Love's gestures are so unassuming, so ordinary, so clumsy, so imperfect—yet, miraculously, they hold something larger than themselves, big enough to press back against darkness.

Now that I, too, am an English teacher, I can guess how difficult it must have been for Mrs. Golder, with my mother's rape following on the heels of Patty's mother's murder. The suffering of our students rattles us, makes us feel inadequate. I suspect this, too: that Mrs. Golder, with her many years of teaching hundreds and hundreds of students, probably does not remember that cake, or me. And there is something beautiful in that, the love that gives without even the memory of it, like breath; love that might follow me anywhere, a constant shadowing companion.

 

The other day, I sat with a student after school to confer about her paper—a memoir about her depression and suicide attempt. Unlike my own junior high, the affluent high school where I teach is rarely touched by crime, gang warfare, or even the scrappy after-school fight. Instead of threatening each other, our students harm themselves. They cut secret slices on their arms, starve themselves, dream of their own deaths. As teachers, we want to hold them, to save them, but they cannot see us. Our gifts are weak and insufficient.

So I asked my student, who is just stretching her way toward healing, "What helped?" She remembered all her friends who encouraged her, who argued for life, even when she was too sullen and withdrawn to respond. Although they were not in the room, she spoke directly to them: "When you were talking, you thought I couldn't hear you, but I heard you. I heard you." Then she was quiet, and turned to me. "Just being there. Physically. Being there. You don't have to say anything at all."

Since my parents' deaths, I send condolence cards. Inadequate ones with cliché phrases. Like Patty's card, they may frustrate or offend, but perhaps they also hold a little of Mrs. Golder's light. I figure it's worth the risk. And now I know this, too: I don't need any words. Be there. Just be there. This bare, simple offering may be the most courageous of inadequate gifts.


Tarn Wilson is a graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop and has been published in such journals as Brevity, Gulf Stream, Inertia, Life Writing, and The Sun.