I had loaded the dishwasher in the late afternoon. Was it only yesterday? School had dismissed, but he was still at work, and I was already thinking of dinner preparations. Then, the phone rang. It was one of his colleagues. He had suddenly become ill… had collapsed… had some kind of episode… and was taken to the hospital. I grabbed keys and was out the door.
It was the coffee mugs that finally made me cry. There were just so many of them. They had come to us in small batches around holidays, and at the end of each term. Most came from the dollar store or Walmart. Some were filled with sweets or accompanied by a small stuffed toy. They had cards attached bearing sentiments like “To The Best Teacher!” and “Thank you for helping me learn”.
I was always happy for him, and very proud of these expressions of respect and affection from his students.
He shared the sweets with me and put the stuffed toys on a shelf in his home office, squeezed in between the books, binders, notepads, and pencil caddies. The coffee mugs went to the kitchen cupboard for daily use. I appreciated them as practical, tangible, rewards for the time, effort, and emotional energy that he invested in his job, in his students.
I don’t remember the drive to the hospital, other than the effort I made to stay within the speed limit, and the fear that sat like a boulder in my gut. Then, somehow, I was there, being shown into the exam room where he lay quietly on a gurney.
As time passed and the cupboard shelves slowly filled with more mugs, I started to feel a little irritated. Couldn’t they think up a new kind of gift? I couldn’t remember which mugs were actual gifts from students, and which few were anonymous exchange gifts from staff and faculty holiday parties. Although I expected him to feel a little sentimental, I assumed that he had also lost track of the names and faces of the givers. Seriously, who could remember? How many mugs could one teacher use? The trouble was that he did use them. Not only were the shelves full, but the dishwasher always had several gifted mugs in each load. And the “pretty” mugs that matched our plates? Seldom used. It offended my sense of… I don’t know… how things should be…?
I held his hand, while they asked questions. Had he ever had this or that condition? What was his family background? Was I alright to go home alone? Could they help me in any way? Dazed, I answered as best as I could.
While he always chose one of his mugs, I served him coffee in the “pretty” mugs, whenever I had a chance. I also mentioned the full cupboard once or twice, but he hated getting rid of anything. Finally, during a spring cleaning spree, I took all of the gifted mugs out of the cupboard and placed them on the counter. I asked him to help me sort out which, if any, could be given to the local thrift shop, to relieve the crowded shelves. Reluctantly, he looked them over and searched his memory, slowly picking out two or three that he couldn’t attach a name or face to. I quickly whisked those away to a box for donations. Whew! I felt progress had been made. I thought, in a few months, maybe we can cull a few more.
Then, he began to pick up the other mugs, one by one, and to tell me stories about each student who had honored him with their humble gift. There was Marlene, who no one knew needed glasses, until he noticed her straining to see his notes on the board. And Omar, with a learning disability, undiagnosed until this teacher brought certain behaviors to the attention of the school psychologist. And years later, the graduations where they asked him to pose with them for photos. While I saw a mug covered with dead presidents, he saw Paloma, who remembered his love of history, and brought a souvenir from her special field trip to Washington DC. The generic holiday mug that said “Ho, ho, ho!” became Alex. And of course, the Santa mugs were Debbie and Sophia, the giggly, yet studious duo who liked to hang out in the classroom after school to straighten books and sort papers. The motorcycle mug was Joaquin, and the one with the U.S. flag was Destiny. For him, the mugs took on the personalities of the givers.
I stroked his cool brow as they told me what had happened, and stated their diagnosis.
The memories didn’t stop with those who gave gifts. He recalled their friends and classmates, many whose dads were not around, and who needed him, not only as a teacher, but as a positive male role model. The memories also branched out to the families of his students. As a result of his efforts, Marlene’s mother, who had been struggling to find work and to learn English, was put in touch with a community adult education program, and was hired as an assistant in the school library. There were two girls whose mom, “the cake lady”, always baked for class birthday parties. Remember when their big brother became an intern to a US Congresswoman, and later was elected to the school board? The time when Anisa joyfully told him she had been diagnosed with PTSD. She wasn’t crazy! What she had was really “a thing”! When Destiny returned from a family vacation at the beach, heartbroken about the uncle who had saved her life, only to lose his own in a powerful undercurrent. There were Monique and Tina, who constantly misbehaved, but who made a beautiful farewell poster for him when he left to teach at another school. There was Roman, a tough kid who talked back and resisted learning with everything in him, yet excitedly jumped up out of his seat to greet “Mr!” when his teacher showed up to fill in for a different class. Yes there were quite a few mugs, but so very many more memories!
I caressed the salt and pepper stubble of his pale cheek, as they discussed the actions that needed to be taken.
His nostalgic smile and the soft, far-away look in his eyes completely dispelled my negative feelings. Every one of those mugs served up a warm helping of recollections with his morning coffee. With a renewed sense of gratitude, I put the mugs away, realizing that the kitchen cupboard was much more than just a practical storage area. It had become a sacred place, a kind of magic portal to a time and place full of tears and smiles, trials and triumphs, and of watching his students learn and grow. Those mugs formed the background for a significant chapter of his life story.
The hard lump of fear in my belly gradually softened and spread until it surrounded me like a shroud.
Needless to say, the precious memory mugs continued to be used regularly, and the “pretty” mugs stayed on the shelf, untouched, for the most part. The only difference was in my perspective. I had come to understand that he actually did remember the giver of each and every mug, and that those memories helped him stay connected to the positive aspects of a very demanding profession. He kept those memories alive, and kept working long hours, late nights, and weekends, striving to do his best for his students. He also kept sharing their stories and his hopes for them with me, while he drank his morning brew from any one of his special mugs. Life went on.
I was lost in a fog, but somehow able to keep moving. They said “go home and rest, for now”.
I drove home through the darkness, and somehow accomplished my nighttime routine. I fed the dogs, and locked up the house for the night, but my thoughts were still with him. Exhausted in every way, I finally slept, waking once or twice, only to quickly close my eyes at the memory of the hospital room, his hair fanned out on the crisp white pillowcase, his face, peaceful, but so pale. This morning, I still moved around as if drugged, slow and unsure. My routine was full of holes. The things I regularly did out of love, out of a desire to lighten his load didn’t need doing. There was no breakfast to prepare for him, only my bowl of cereal. No lunch to pack for him to take to work. No need to make sure he had his phone, school keys, and backpack full of textbooks and graded papers. I did my best to skip past the missing parts of the morning, feeling my way, a fragmented soul lacking enough light to see through the darkness.
I searched for things I could do to keep moving, all the while talking to myself. Life is about change… I fed the dogs and let them out to run. Some changes are bigger and scarier than others… I grabbed a broom to sweep the little porch. Try to think positively… Resolutely, I returned to the kitchen and started to unload the dishwasher. No more lesson planning weekends… First put away the plates and bowls. No more parent conference evenings… then the silverware goes into the drawer. Just keep moving… Pulling out the top rack, I put away drinking glasses. No more grading papers late at night… Lastly, I reached for his coffee mugs. Lifting the first one, I was struck by the fact that I was holding one of his treasures and I closed my eyes. There would be no more students with their gifts… For a moment, I felt as though he had left that hospital bed and was there with me. Memories will live on… Slowly, lovingly, I placed each mug on the shelf remembering the all-night grading sessions, the exhaustion he felt so much of the time. He could rest now… The stories he frequently shared with me about the students who needed extra help, the ones that made him laugh, and sadly, the troubled ones, those that had he felt unable to reach. The hard work was finished… The memories from those years washed over me. With one hand on the cupboard door, and the other still lingering on the final shelved mug, I stood for some time, tasting salty tears, clinging to my memories of the strong man he had been, drawing strength for the days ahead. Life is about change… Slowly, reluctantly, I closed the door, leaving the mugs in the cool, sacred darkness of the cupboard. All the memories, his and mine, I tucked away in my aching heart.