Small town life (and death)

By Mir
November 7, 2011

One of the things I didn’t share recently, because I was worried it would make things harder for them, was that a few weeks ago my folks lost their dog. (You remember Buddy, right? He showed up for my birthday, wearing a tiara!) Buddy was having a hard time moving around when they were here in August, and in dog years he was already somewhere between “geriatric” and “Methuselah,” but that didn’t make it any easier to see him go. I cried when I found out, and he’s not even MY dog. He was just one of those wonderful creatures you can’t help but love, and even though his time had come and I’m certain he’s enjoying unlimited rawhides and squirrels and all the butts he can sniff in doggie heaven, it’s hard.

I was worried about my folks, too—especially my stepmom. My dad is better at compartmentalizing (that comes with the Y chromosome, right?), plus he’s out of the house at work nearly every day, whereas my stepmom is more like me and home all the time, feeling the Buddy-less void left behind. So it was with a small squeal of joy and maybe a sigh of relief that I read the email announcing their new puppy last week. The kids were excited, too, and I thought “Well, then. Circle of life. It’s sad, but it’s okay, and now there’s another dog to love, and life goes on.” It’s overly simplistic to say this, but in many ways the new puppy “fixes” this in my kids’ minds.

My kids don’t have a lot of experience with death, thank goodness. It would’ve been my preference for Buddy to live forever, of course, but all things considered, I think everyone handled it all okay.

On Friday, one of the teachers at the middle school had a massive heart attack and died. During school. While this remains a theoretical event for Monkey—he doesn’t go to school there, didn’t know the teacher—he was once a favorite teacher of Chickadee’s and watching her process this has been simultaneously wrenching and amazing.

Our whole town has been shaken. Teachers aren’t supposed to die. Teachers who are young and apparently healthy aren’t supposed to die. No one is supposed to die during class, in front of students who assume the teacher is playing a joke on them until “oh GOD, he’s really not okay, what’s going on?” recognition starts to dawn. A family has been left behind, a wife and young children, and no one knows what to say or do because what DO you do? Nothing is going to bring him back.

Chickadee found out that one of Monkey’s friends was actually there—like, right there—when it happened, and she immediately inquired as to how he was holding up, and then commented that said friend “Is pretty stable” (hello? Dr. Freud, is that you in there, hiding in my teenager?) and would probably be okay, but what about the more delicate kids, with less family support? What about them? And then she was gone, madly texting with her yearbook staff, discussing the memorial they’d need to put together.

My contractor showed up this morning (the deck is ALMOST DONE) and quietly asked if Chickadee was at THAT school, noting that his son is friends with the oldest from this family that has been shattered with this loss, sharing that another parent actually tried to take him to task for letting his son know what happened. (As if you could hide the fact that one of your friends lost his dad?) Death is something adults whisper about, apparently, but apparently the children should be shielded, even though that’s impossible.

I’ve thought about it all weekend. I thought about it as Chickadee stayed home from visiting with her dad because she was sick, but then on Sunday she was clearly better and still sort of whining and not wanting to go with him, and I wanted to say, “You never know what can happen in an instant.” But I didn’t, because a reminder like that could crush you, if you think about it too much. Without pointing out the obvious (ANYONE COULD DIE AT ANY TIME ZOMG!) we did get her sent off to spend some time with her dad.

Otto and I puttered around the house this weekend and finally went for some groceries yesterday and spotted a “Fresh Produce, 3 miles” sign on our way home and decided to explore. Eventually we wound our way over to a farm not far from home, where a very old dog greeted us when we got out of the car, and a sturdy, white-haired lady with farmer’s hands invited us to peruse her tables of vegetables. We picked out some peppers and potatoes and then got into a conversation about the tiny white eggplants she had—I’d never seen them before—and I turned to Otto and said, “I kind of want to try those, but there’s only a few and I’m not sure what all I could make with it.

“Just take them,” the woman said, “On the house.”

I continued staring at the tiny pile, and said, “Oh, I’ll pay you for them, just thinking of how I can use them.”

She paused from bagging up the peppers I’d already selected and peered over her glasses at me, fixing me with a steely gaze. “I said, TAKE THEM.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said, meekly, and she chuckled.

We chatted, and picked out a few more things, and petted her dog some more, and we promised to come back and let her know what we thought of the white eggplant. We gathered up our purchases and headed home, waving behind us as we drove away.

This is what it is, to live in a small town. To be rocked by loss, when it strikes out of nowhere. To buy food on the side of the road from someone who tells you all about how she got her dog and what to do with those eggplants she’s just going to give you because you admired them. To feel like yes, you’ll come back and tell this woman exactly what you made and whether the kids ate it, because it’s a connection that helps combat that inevitable feeling of being unmoored that tragedy stirs up. To go home and call your parents and ask to speak to the new dog, because even though she’s apparently piddling all over their house, she’s a symbol of youth and renewal and love that goes on, even when life so often cruelly does not.

Hug your loved ones today, okay?


  1. Cheryl

    I am so sorry for your loss. Hugs to your whole family! And I will hug everyone here today too. We lived in several small towns while our kids were growing up – due to my husband’s job we moved a LOT. In one small town, the school secretary went away for a weekend and did not come home when expected. Unfortunately her truck went off the road at a tricky turn, and she died in the accident. This wonderful lady was “mom” to every child at her school, and the whole town took this particularly hard. It was really amazing how everyone really came together, and we all helped each other heal.

  2. Carmen

    Mir, my neighbor died last month. It was sudden and unexpected and a humungous shock to us all. He was 54 – younger than my husband, and although not in good shape – no one expected it.

    It was hard for me. Ridiculously difficult – and we weren’t super close to them. But he left a son who is the same age as my son; in fact, they used to play together when they were younger. Seeing the police escort come in to the neighborhood, watching them leave and then return – seeing his son walking around the neighborhood crying – it was one of the more difficult things I’ve seen.

    I’m so sorry that you had a rough weekend, and poor Chickadee. Be prepared for it to hit her randomly over the next few weeks or even months.

    Yay for the dog, though! And double yay for kindly white haired eggplant pushers – can’t wait to see what you make with it!

  3. Megan

    I do. And one of my beloved loved ones is coming into town day after tomorrow so she’s going to be smothered in hugs.

    The thing about losing someone is that it does keep that poignancy of life right where you can see it. You’re never really able to forget again that it’s fragile and that now is what you have. I’m grateful for that – the gift of grief, maybe – because I am far, far more present for the people I love than I used to be.

  4. Katherine

    That’s particularly awful that it happened in class. Carmen is right that it will hit randomly over time. One of my son’s classmates died in a car accident on the way to school – over 18 months ago, and it still comes up at random times. It was really hard on him, because although he had some experience with death (my dad died when he was about 10), it was the first experience with someone young and healthy dying.

  5. Lucinda

    I am so sorry for the sudden loss of this teacher. In a small town, everyone truly does feel it. But it also makes it easier to bear because everyone shares the burden. That connection you write of is exactly why we too live in a small town. I want my children to put down long, deep roots that will hold them up through all the tough things they will face in life. Sounds like Chickadee has strong roots. Prayers and hugs to all of you.

  6. Kathy

    Bawling my eyes out … and remembering what is really important! Thanks!


  7. Kim

    What a terrible, terrible thing to have happened, in such a terrible way. My teacher’s heart is breaking for everyone involved.
    (And yes, hurray for puppies. But I’m still reeling from the scenario, and can’t quite get there yet.)

  8. Brenda

    I am at a loss. This was incredibly poignant.

  9. Dsilkotch

    This is a wonderful post, Mir. A good reminder for all of us to hold onto the truly important things in life, and not worry so much about the transient material stuff. And good for Chickadee, what a compassionate, mature young lady she’s becoming!

  10. All Adither

    Small towns definitely are special in certain ways. I’m really sorry for the loss of your dad and stepmom’s dog and Chickie’s teacher. That’s tough. Really tough. When I was in seventh grade I remember a toddler from out small town getting hit by a car and dying. And even though I didn’t know the boy and only vaguely knew who the family was, his death was probably the first I’d seen of a child and it left me very unsettled, very…how can this happen to babies? and, is this what life is like?

  11. Kelly

    Oh sniff. Lots of tears now. Definitely going to hug everyone tight. It was All Saints day at church yesterday and we got to light candles for those we missed and so this topic was on my mind already. So difficult, but also love the hope in your post too. Thank you.

  12. Stephanie

    yes… hug them all… tell them you love them… i was just sitting here thinking that a year ago i didn’t realize that in just ten days my daddy would leave this earth… and a year later it’s still not real.

  13. Tracy B

    Thanks for the reminder that none of us are promised tomorrow!
    I’m hoping that “doggie heaven” is the same as my heaven.

  14. Katie in MA

    Aw, man. Hope everyone’s holding up. My sister lost three – THREE – math teachers three years in a row. Not exactly the way you think about kids learning about resiliency and community and trusting in whatver/whoever you believe in that everything happens the way it’s supposed to. It’s a part of life, but sometimes it’s a really sucky part.

  15. Heather Cook

    I became an EMT this year and have already seen enough death, it’s made me simultaneously want to hug my children and become weepy and harden against it with the black humor that most EMS members develop. I am not sure what I’m passing on to my kids, we haven’t had many family members die, just my father in law. But there will come a day soon when they’ll experience it… I just hope I can explain it in a way that helps them.

  16. Karen

    Will do, Mir. So sorry for this man’s tragic early death. Ugh. for lack of a better term.

  17. Debbi

    I’m just sitting here (well, lying, actually, because I’m sick in bed) thinking how beautifully you wove these stories of loss and love and life together, almost like a present and it’s not even my birthday. Thank you.

  18. Angela

    Sounds like the family and the school kids need lots of hugs and to talk about their good memories of him. Just acknowlege and sympathize with the pain. And of course, take the family a casserole! I think it’s a rule that families in bereavement need casseroles. Or something yummy, nobody wants to cook at a time like that. My husband’s stepmother died about 8 years ago, and his little sister, who’s 16, (half sister, it was her mother) says that it’s best to talk about their good memories of her, and she hates it when she asks her dad things that she doesn’t know about her mom and he doesn’t want to talk about it. She says, “Then how will I know?” Big hugs for everyone :-)

  19. Chris

    I am so sorry. I will hug my loved ones extra tight tonight and wish you and yours the grace to cope with this.

  20. Julie

    It’s been such a sad weekend. First this, then a kid at your high school died at a party Friday night. We knew him and his family from extracurriculars, and I’m just devastated. An only child…how do his parents keep breathing in and out? Hope you and yours continue to handle things so gracefully.

  21. Jeanie

    Heart-wrenching post. My condolences to your parents. I’ve lost several dogs and know how tough it is. They become one of the family, not just a dog. I’m very sorry about the teacher, too, and am glad the kids are handling it okay. Hooray for puppies and white-haired farm ladies!

  22. Laura

    Our school lost a beloved coach and we are about to come upon the 2 year anniversary of that loss. He and his wife were killed by a drunk driver and left behind two teenage daughters. To say our school and community were filled with shock and grief would be an understatement. My son, who has Down Syndrome, had a particularly special bond with this coach. He had taken him under his wing and encouraged Sam to be an assistant trainer for the football team. How do you explain such loss to someone whose world is so simple and innocent? I was surprised by how well Sam took it at first. He knew about death from the loss of my grandparents so he understood the concept.

    Then I realized (or already knew I suppose) that grief comes in waves most often when we least expect it. We had just ended the football season when the tragedy happened and I think the loss really hit home with my son at the start of the next football season 9 months later.

    I guess what I am saying in my own rambling way, is don’t be surprised if the grief hits later after the shock wears off. We all grieve so differently and I know, as a parent, our hearts just ache when we have to help our kids go through it. I know you already encourage open and honest communication from your kids, which is a big part of the healing process.

    I am sorry for the loss to your school and your community of this beloved teacher.

    Hug your loved ones A-MEN!

  23. ben

    Quit making me cry in my cubicle. Please.

  24. Kristi

    Yes, ma’am.

  25. Martha

    Beautiful job again. So sorry to see about Buddy but glad they were able to feel “ready” so quickly. Hope it helps them heal! Thanks for the wonderful way you have with words and the ability to tell about the collective loss at school, and the benefits of living in a smaller town. Spent the day in the big “A” Saturday and it reminded me of why I don’t live there any more and why I love our town!

  26. addy

    We were just talking about this yesterday. A beloved childhood friend just died recently. I can’t get my head around it. Hugs for everyone!!

  27. jen minghini

    so sad…
    my dog (my first “baby”) recently died, and a childhood friend died a few weeks ago. too much sadness… so sorry for you on all of your losses. here is to hoping for happier times. hugs for all…

  28. Natasha

    I’m taking my five year old to his grandfather’s funeral this afternoon. I’m going to watch my husband bury his father.

    You truly never know how long you have with the people you love.

  29. Lisa

    Last week I had to attend the funeral of a 10yr old girl, her death was shocking for the whole family, I had to watch her 13yr old brother carry her coffin. Worst moment ever. I went home and hugged my babies and have been randomly grabbing them for hugs all week. Keep the ones you love close. Never waste a moment.

  30. Liza

    Wow. What a tough thing — it sounds like Chickadee is being amazing.

    I’m in a sort of similar space. On Sunday, I went to the funeral of a 40 year old man, who was part of my social circle in my 20s. He’s survived by a wife and a son who is not even 2 weeks younger than my Josie. (This is the part that keeps making me cry.) Like the teacher, Darin was apparently healthy. He collapsed at his regular basketball game with his friends.

    Even though my kids only met him once, 2 years ago, I told them why I had to be gone all day on Sunday. (The service was at his hometown church, 3 hours from where we live.) I didn’t make a production about it, but told them that I had to go to say goodbye to my friend, and tell his family how sorry I am that their daddy died. (I didn’t want to say “lost” to my kids — it seems even scarier.) And I assured my kids that most people don’t die until they are very very old, older than grandma and grandpa, I don’t think even small children are well served by lies.

  31. amy

    Oh dear, how sad :( I’m so sorry.

  32. Erin

    Friday morning, I learned that the teenage daughter of our pastor died Thursday night. At her own hands. The entire community has been shaken by this – it’s so hard, on so many levels.

    What do you say? What do you DO? There isn’t any thing you can DO for someone who has just lost their daughter, their sister, their friend. There’s nothing that can take that pain away. I saw my pastor Monday afternoon when I was at church dropping off cookies (because that’s what everyone came up with as their verb to help – BAKE!) and all I could say to him was “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

  33. mamaspeak

    The timing of this is almost odd to me. Sometimes, I wonder how it is that the universe seems so in sync. Last week, my husband’s pregnant cousin, had to deliver a stillborn child. I have not heard if they determined why he died, but I do know she was no less than 7 months along in her pregnancy. We saw them in June and will see them at Thanksgiving. The already have two boys, the same age as my daughters. (Birthdays are even close.) My girls will remember that cousin M was pregnant and will have a multitude of questions. We received an email this evening that there will be a funeral for baby Asa on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving. Even if my girls didn’t remember, this, they will never forget. I am actually about to search for some material on how best to answer their questions w/out scaring them or creating too many other questions. The hardest part is going to be that he’s a baby. Until now, we’ve been able to shield them from the idea that kids can die too. I suspect I will be having night time visitors for a while after this.

    I’m very sorry for your parents’ loss. My first baby (dog, Merit,) is 13 and I know her days number less than more. I dread the idea of this. It’s the hardest part of having a pet. They leave us too soon. I’m glad to hear that your parents have a new diversion too.

    Incidentally, I had a co-worker die of a heart attack at work, in front of a group of us. Several people knew CPR, and EMTs were quick to get there, but it wasn’t meant to be. He had 2 teenage daughters, and was in his 50s. The hardest part for me was seeing him actually die. I still have this picture of it, his body fighting what was happening to him. It wasn’t pretty, it was very hard to watch, and I was an adult. I hope there are some good counselors to help the kids who witnessed it. All of you are in my prayers tonight.

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