When I first took a job teaching, I thought I’d teach for a few years and continue the counseling direction it seemed God was steering me. I worked during the day, did grad school at night, and crammed counseling hours in wherever they could fit around everything else.
I never dreamed I’d wind up surrounded by opportunities for end of life, hospice, and other grief related things in the course of my years teaching.
In fact, I have been to more funerals tied to teaching than either of my parents have attended…combined – for their entire lives (for non-family members). That’s a pretty odd statistic considering that in the ten years I spent teaching, only two of them were in a traditional classroom with a “regular” sized class, and not doing the non-traditional teaching I did after that.
Among the deaths have been siblings, parents, and even former students. All were sad, but the shocking unexpected death of sweet Jonathan six years ago found me more at a loss for words as a teacher than I’d ever been before.
My very first day teaching at that school, an adorable little boy with dirty-blonde hair and a cute little accent eagerly tugged at my hand as we walked out of our kindergarten room to go to the lunch tables.
“Miss P, do you want one of my olive and feta sandwiches?” he queried. I politely declined and thanked him and he grinned up at me and said, “Ok, tomorrow!” and ran to join the rest of the class at the picnic tables. Despite my refusal of his sandwich, on the second day he was trying to teach me Greek. That cute little boy – with the sandwich combination that sounded altogether unpalatable to me…my love of feta, including on sandwiches, couldn’t make up for my disdain of olives – had a name that was a mouthful, with a last name that took awhile before it would roll off your tongue (or your fingers!)
Jonathan was the much beloved, and long awaited and prayed for son of a precious Greek couple. Both raised in Greece, they returned ‘home’ at least yearly, and Jonathan’s grandmother (who spoke almost solely Greek at the time) spent half the year in the States with them. When God brought Jonathan into their family they were filled with joy. His mom and I had countless meals and conversations during the year I taught Jonathan, and in those that followed, and their elation with this child God had blessed them with couldn’t be clearer. Jonathan’s brilliant (no exaggeration) scientist father would glow with pride when talking about him.
Neighbors of mine, strong Christians, and with his mom also having her Marriage and Family Therapist license (among several other post-graduate degrees – clearly Jonathan’s dad wasn’t the only brilliant one!) we formed a fast friendship. So much so, that the following year after my best friend had Jonathan in her class, we decided to take them up on their invitation to visit their family in Greece that summer. With his mom also having degrees in Bible, archeology, and ancient languages, who wouldn’t want to spend time with people you genuinely loved and enjoyed who also were anxious to show you their beloved homeland and could do so with such unique insight?
Mel and I spent a memorable week with their family in Athens and the surrounding areas. What a start to a six-week trip together – and what a gift to see Jonathan in “my Greece” and his rapid-fire responses in Greek to the other kids at the camp he was at while we were there. Ever the gracious host and hostesses, his parents and grandmother showed us a wonderful time in Athens.
Jonathan loved life and loved his friends. Never one to say he loved school, even at a young age, he just wanted to see and do everything – not sit still hearing about it instead of experiencing it! He was athletic, excelling at sports, particularly soccer, but he also played tennis, ran, and did a lot of mountain biking and boating.
Although Mel and I both ultimately left the school we had been teaching at, we both stayed in touch with Jonathan and his folks, especially the first many years. Obviously there’s something special about a family you meet from school if you go to spend a week with them halfway across the world – they were far more than another school family, but truly friends.
Wednesday, March 14th, 2007 seemed like any other day. Having had a yearly physical scheduled with the doctor, the doctor told his mom that Jonathan was “fit as a fiddle,” and she dropped him off, a bit late because of the appointment, to school. In the early evening, at the park just down the street, Jonathan was at soccer practice, a team his dad helped to coach.
Running laps with his teammates, his dad saw Jonathan fall to the ground, and initially thought he was goofing around, attempting to make a friend laugh – something Jonathan prized himself in his ability to do. It quickly became apparent that it was no joke – something was terribly wrong. They tried to do CPR and he was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late – before even a single friend had reached his side where he collapsed on the field, Jonathan was already with Jesus.
All the doctors and experts had expected they’d find something wrong with his heart or some other explanation for the seemingly inexplicable death, in the end, there were no answers. The coroner proclaimed him the healthiest dead person he’d ever seen.
It was truly only a case of God having the only answers – there was no human explanation for Jonathan’s death. No accident, illness, disease, or senseless act. Just an active, healthy, happy boy running laps one minute, and with Jesus the next. Literally.
I remember finding out Jonathan had died. I was stunned. My jaw dropped and I sat there, totally incapable of even formulating words. And my heart broke for my friends, his sweet parents, along with everyone else who knew and loved Jonathan. I remember waiting for the time zones to be appropriate, and then calling Mel in shock, knowing she’d want to know. And I remember wondering how in the world all our old students would handle the news of the death of their friend – especially the little “rat pack” of boys that had been inseparable since the first day of kindergarten.
I remember driving down to the cemetery, a place I know all too well, and one at which I’ve spent many an hour.
I remember the tear-stained faces of old parents, friends, and fellow teachers.
And I remember being nearly tackled by a throng of former students.
These kids – my kids – surrounded and threw their arms around me.
Other than Mel, who was now half a world away, I was really the only teacher they’d had that was no longer still at the school – the one no one was quite sure if I knew and would be there. It had been a long time since I’d seen many of them, years for many, but it might as well have been the day before.
I suppose there’ s always something about firsts – first classes and first teachers.
These kids – the ones who years earlier would come tugging at my arm wanting me to tie their shoe, help write or read something, tattle on someone, or, most often, get a hug – were my firsts. And I was blessed to be part of many of their firsts, as they learned to read, figure math problems, and to make friends.
There were a lot of firsts that year of kindergarten – and we found ourselves facing another. The unanticipated and completely unexpected first death of a classmate.
These kids were the ones who years earlier used to stare up at me with tear-stained faces, often wanting an explanation for some “wrong” (real or perceived) and then needing a hug or for me to “fix it.”
Now, many were at or near eye level, many tear-stained faces showed traces of eyeliner, and many voices were cracking from more than just the emotions and tears of the moment. Their needs were no different than they had been all those years earlier – they wanted an explanation and hugs.
Hugs, to be certain, were not in short supply. I’m not sure I was ever without two or three literally clinging to me – my arms, my waist, my hands – wherever they could grab.
Answers and the ability to fix things, on the other hand, were definitely lacking.
The kids that once used to find a broken pencil, a soccer ball over the wall at recess, or a classmate who was now “best friends” with someone else (for that particular day!) the biggest wrongs in their world and very tear-worthy events were now standing alongside me at the funeral of their friend.
What do you say, nearly a decade later, when those same tear-stained faces now are looking down at you and asking why? Why didn’t God keep Jonathan alive so at least his family could have said goodbye? Why did Jonathan die when he was so healthy? Would they be next? He was healthier and more active than most of them! Why would God let that happen?
It wasn’t a time for pat answers or theological platitudes – and, in reality, answers weren’t really what they were looking for anyway. And neither was I. You don’t expect to outlive your students. You don’t expect to see a memorial service video online for an old student among the “special services” for one of the large local churches down the street. At that point, there was certainly nothing I could fix either. That wasn’t what they needed at that moment anyway.
Togetherness, and the comfort that brings, was what they needed.
And so together we stood. Together listening to the pastor speak. Together listening, and sometimes singing, as songs were sung. And together as a coffin all too small was lowered into the ground and covered with dirt. Our Jonathan.
Together we stood again days later at Jonathan’s memorial service. And, together we stood again after that at his home with just his parents and other family and close friends.
I wiped a lot of faces and gave a lot of hugs that day – the same thing I did for them all those years earlier – this time, though, I didn’t give a lot of answers and there was nothing I could fix.
I much prefer the days of wiping faces and giving hugs over the little things, but, if it was going to happen, I’m glad to have faced they day of wiping faces and giving hugs because of Jonathan’s death with them.
All of us together.
Except for one.
And the one?
As the song we used to sing (over and over and over because they loved it!) at chapel said, he was at My Father’s House. Hopefully the “big, big table with lots and lots of food” had an olive and feta sandwich awaiting his arrival.
Although Jonathan’s death took all of us by surprise, his arrival in Heaven certainly didn’t catch his Father by surprise. Nor did his love of the slightly unconventional olive and feta sandwich combination!
Jonathan made the most of each moment of his short life. He lived and loved fully and with abandon.
I remember sitting with his sweet heart-broken grandma in her bedroom just days after Jonathan’s death. They had celebrated her 90th birthday two nights before Jonathan died, and she was wrestling with God over why He’d allow her to live such a long and full life, yet take Jonathan Home so young. Through her tears, she gripped my hands and said, “He lived well.”
Indeed. Jonathan lived very fully in his few years of life.
And as anxious as he was to share his olive and feta sandwiches and to show me around “my Greece,” I’m sure he’s even more anxious to show me around Heaven someday!
With whatever days I have left – however short or long my life is in the end – I pray I’m also remembered for living and loving fully.