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No. 4 - Funeral Blues
or Farewell, My Dear Teacher
I write this having come back from a funeral parlour. Inside that dingy place out in the middle of nowhere, suffused with strangers clothed in shadow, I saw my primary school teacher for the last time. As I gazed upon her coffin, one thought shook me to the core. She looks just like I remember her. You expect, or at least I did, that the bodies of the dead would look somewhat different, that their outward appearance would change in some telling way to reflect their passage into death. But she hadn’t changed one bit. Her visage still possessed the dignity that first struck me nearly twenty years before, unsullied, and the pride that comes with achieving professional excellence, and she projected the same sense of deep calm—the same “Don’t worry, your life will turn out good, as long as you do your job properly” kind of prosaic reassurance.
When my friend called me with the news, his words registered, but my mind could not string them together into sentences. She couldn’t really be dead. She was still shy of seventy, and just two days before, my friend’s mother had chatted with her via WhatsApp.
The usual first question that’s asked when someone dies is, How? In her case, it was a heart attack, but I found myself surprised by how little that mattered to me. Instead, what mattered was that in a blink, her life was snuffed out. What also mattered was that I hadn’t gone to see her in six years, even though every year I promised myself that I would, and even though on every holiday I always thought of her and wondered how she was getting on. And finally, what mattered was that, strangely enough, I missed her already.
As a teacher in primary school, which in Romania comprises children aged six to ten, she was responsible for much more than just teaching. From her we learned to read and write, yes, but also how to argue. She taught us to respect authority, and of the need to sometimes hold your ground against it. She also taught us good manners, and confidence, and built the central foundation for our lifelong moral education. I remember my dear teacher as a pillar of strength and character, a steady limb outstretched for us to hold while we took our first uncertain steps into the world.
One time, when I just couldn’t figure out the proper shapes of the letters in longhand, she rapped a knuckle across my scalp. I remember being very upset. But for her it had been just an ordinary day. She didn’t do this often at all, hit her children, but sometimes a stricter hand was called for. I had been slow in learning to read, and one would have had better luck deciphering hieroglyphs than trying to decrypt my handwriting. But after that rap across the head, things picked up nicely.
Almost a decade ago, my teacher had an accident, after which she never set foot inside a school again. At one point, right before we were to leave for college, a band of her former students got together and we paid her a visit. She’d moved a little ways away, in a one-storey house outside the city she’d spent most of her life in. We sat around a large plastic table, drinking cheap soda and exchanging stories. She didn’t talk much, but listened with glee as each of us presented a version of ourselves she no longer knew. The day went on and people got fidgety in their chairs. At nineteen years old, you have more fruitful things to do than spend a whole midsummer day alongside an old lady in a wheelchair, so one by one, they left, until only my friend, the one who years later would become my death messenger, and I remained. We stayed on for a couple more hours, until the shadows grew long. If I’d known that this would be our last encounter, I would have stayed a little longer.
At the funeral parlour we met her daughters, whom she’d taken so much pride in raising. One was raven-haired and stoic, the other blonde and misty-eyed. They thanked us for attending and asked which generation of students we belonged to. And in that moment, we could no longer remember. “All I know is it was almost twenty years ago,” I managed, and that was that.
I don’t have many regrets yet, but not having seen my teacher alive one more time is one of them. But I take solace in the fact that we kept in touch all of these years. That day, getting dressed to see her off, I wondered at how much had changed since our visit to the house. I had the job I’d always wanted, had gotten married to the most wonderful woman, and my dog was almost four years old. I wished I was able to tell her all about me.
As I type these words, I keep it all inside my heart and mind, imagining that maybe, if the universe is willing, she might be reached for one last message.
The message is this:
Farewell, my dear teacher. You will be sorely missed.
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