Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Date: Sat, 30 Dec 2000 07:04:22 -0500 (EST)
"Brrrrrrr" ain't the word for the chill outside. My face was pimpled by globs of small tear drops frozen to my cheeks. It was soon that icicles hung from my leaking nostrils. I was getting a headache from bumping into blocks of my frozen breath that floated in the air ahead of me. Even a polar bear would wear gloves and earmuffs on this frozen south Georgia tundra. What a time I picked to hit the streets again after I a sprained toe I got fromtripping down a step kept me sidelined for the last five weeks. Only a mile and a half this morning. While my body and mind were fighting against nature's attempt at cryogenics, my spirit and soul were kinda warmed by two cards I had received while I and my Susan were traveling the cold and wet countryside of England's Wiltshire, Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset.
I had gotten up at 3:30 this morning, still jet-lagging on English time, brewed a pot of coffee, and had sat down to read and re-read those two cards that I had brought home. There were each as compelling as a Shakespearian soliloquoy.
These past weeks since Thanksgiving break at the end of November have been a series of times when I have had to believe even though I wasn't sure why I should. Seeming like an endless journey of sorrow, it was a time, like Tom Paine wrote, that had tried my soul. There were moments I think I knew exactly how Job felt. It was a time when technology was not enough, when knowledge was not enough, when information was not enough. It was a time when a friend of mine reminded me that maybe I just had to have faith in faith.
Yesterday, I was in the office catching up on stuff and opening a few pieces of snail mail. The contents of one envelope sent cold shivers through my body. It was a funereal pictured program. It was sent by Niteka's parents. It brought back hard memories. My eyes fixed on the photograph and on the name: Niteka Wesby. They rode on an express lane to my heart. I went limp and slumped down in my seat. The minute or so passed like a lifetime. Niteka was never really far from me. Thoughts of her popped up as I roamed the magnificance of the Wells cathedral, the ruins of the great abbey in Glastonbury, and gazed as the inspiring Winchester cathedral. Now, the events and feelings flooded back.
The chair in the back right corner had been empty that Monday after the Thanksgiving break. I didn't know why. I wondered. She had never missed a class. I asked the other members of her community. They didn't know. Later that day came the fateful telephone call from Student Affairs. Niteka was dead. I pulled up the Augusta newspaper on the compurter. Killed a couple of days before Thanksgiving by a gangland bullet in her small home town. Cut down at 18. Wiped off the screen. She was an innocent in the wrong place at the wrong time. When a person that young dies, it is almost as though more than one death has occurred. That bullet didn't just tear through her back. It penetrated the hearts of those who knew her. It tore a hole in the universe that would never mend. It destroyed a piece of the future. And, there will be eternal black hole where once there had been a shining star of life.
We had spoken more than once or twice. I had encouraged her when I read in her journal of her self-doubts in spite of the honors she had received in her small rural high school. She was becoming a leader in her community. She had hugged me when we broke early for Thanksgiving and had whispered her thanks that I had helped her start believing in herself and that she belonged here. She was slowly adding value to herself and lifting her lid to peek inside herself into her potential. And now, she was gone.
I had called her parents. My palms sweated as I held the receiver. My hand shook as I punched in the numbers. Listening first to the cracking voice of her father and then her mother's was tough. I felt so helpless. Everything I said sounded so trite. At that moment I almost wish I was a distant, cold, disengaged lecturing professor. Had to tell the others in the class. They took it hard. That was tougher because I had to look into their stunned and saddened eyes. With tears rolling down my cheeks, I slowly wrote the "words of the day" on the blackboard, "Carpes Diem." We talked. With a cracking voice that betrayed by sorrow, confusion, hurt, and anger, I reminded them, and myself, that this is the only day we're promised. True. Still, at the time it sounded so clinical, so matter-of-fact, so meaningless.
Then, by some fate, immediately after I had opened the envelop from Niteka's parents, I slowly opened another envelope. It was plain, not revealing the gift that lay within it. It was a Christmas card from a student I'll call Sara. On the inside flap, under the cute Santa Claus greeting, on to the back flap, and then on to a separate piece of paper she wrote something that rivaled Dickens' Christmas Carol:
Dear Dr. Schmier: I've been thinking and feeling a lot since classes ended. I've been thinking about you. I've been thinking about Niteka. And I've been thinking a lot about me. I hope you are having a happy holiday. I know you weren't all that happy when classes ended. Maybe I can help you smile. You were right. I want you to know that I am making sure that I am fighting for the first time in a long time to be happy and that I am struggling hard, real hard, not to feel sorry for myself and to like myself. I owe it to me to be happy not just to be alive each day and breathe but to live and breathe life into each day. Each day has to be not just a thanksgiving, but a thanksliving. I never knew that. You and Niteka taught me that. Weird, huh? You wrote CARPES DIEM on the board as the words of day when you told us about Niteka's murder. I've never seen tears on a professor's face when we talked and you said you didn't know why such things happen and her stupid death was a time of testing. Maybe this will help. Here is my Christmas gift to you. Those tears washed away the doubts I had about your sincerity when we talked all those times about my troubles with losing my mom and feeling abandoned. I kept saying to myself, "yeah, yeah, yeah" when you told me about feeling abandoned as a second son in your family. I have to admit now that I was curious that you never told me what to do like everyone else did. You just told me what you did to find yourself and that it was possible for me to find a way if I wanted to and had the courage to do it. It hit me a few days ago. It was true. You really did care and that maybe I was worth caring about. You really did believe about hope and love and belief and faith. And that's why you refused to abandon me even though I kept abandoning myself. You kept coming back to me time and time again even though I didn't do anything to encourage you to think I was worth not being abandoned again and I really screwed up the class. I'll let you in on a secret. I did it on purpose to get you off my back, and you gave me a change to clean up my mess. Your class is a special place to learn about history and life and ourselves altogether. It's a place where you are interested that we become better persons not just better students. I want you to know that a bunch of us did what you said you were going to do. We hung around after you cancelled class and left the room. We talked and thought about how some of us knew Niteka or wished we had gotten to know her better. She always had a smile. Then we got to talking about how each of us would spend our last day. We gave each of us an assignment. We had to make up a list what we would do if we knew that tomorrow wouldn't come for us. During the next work day in class, we enchanged our lists. Boy, did I see what some of the things you said to me meant. My life was so poor and empty. I have so used the least rather than the most of my life. There is so much living I could jam into each day. And yet so many of us have gotten ourselves into so many jams, have been so petty on the silliest things, concentrated on the least important things, and have walked around a lot as if we were dead. Reading each other's list I saw how much I could see and feel and do, and how blind and deaf and numb I had been because of the stuff you and I talked a lot about. And we talked about how and why we wait around and waste so much of each day. And you know what? None of us wrote down stuff like climbing mountains, going on a spending binge, going on some way off vacation, or going to the moon. Most of what we wrote was just simple everyday stuff about laughing and appreciating and thanking people and apologizing to people and doing for people and calling people just say we loved them and watching the birds and slowing down and feeling. It surprised the hell out of all of us. And it finally hit what you had been saying to me all semester. Life is not fair. I have to deal with it, get over it, get on with it. I can't decide whether shit happens, but I can choose whether to walk in it or not. I think I see that I have to decide what to do with my hurt and whether I let it weaken or strengthen me. And like you told me over and over and over again, to live is to both win and lose, to laugh and cry, to be happy and unhappy, to taste the sweet and the sour. I hear you now. I'm not going to let that past stuff destroy me like I was doing. I don't live a life. I have to live a series of one days that add up to a life. So, every day has to be like Christmas with its gift of a day. And I have to give it all I have and do the best I can and do better the next day and I have to help other people do the same. And if we can live, like you wrote on the board, carpes diem, we'd have so much more meaning to who we are and what we do. I just finished watching Christmas Carol. I am like Scrooge. I have been saying "bah, humbug" to life and myself for so long that I had lost my spirit, and along comes the ghost of Niteka like the fellow he worked with. I feel like I've been visited by all those Christmas spirits. It's just oozing out of me. Niteka gave a lot of us, at least me, the ultimate gift. I only hope I can unwrap and use it each day and I don't lose this feeling. No, I am not going to let this be just another stupid New Year's resolution. This is going to be me like you said one inch at a time, one step at a time, one day at a time. Now, I don't know where all this is going to take me, and I am scared. I don't know if I can do that. I won't know unless I try, huh? Like you did. And if you could do it, why couldn't I. Right? I know now why you only talked about yourself. It was an example of what I had in me if I had to guts to look. But, I've got to face whatever things may bring instead of running from then. I'm going to study like hell, like I can do and got to do now. And, I am going to live like hell. I want you to know that I've stopped with all this crap and that I'm starting to get rid of crap I took inside me that I hid behind so that I can start the long road to cleaning my body and soul up. I'm warning you. If I get to thinking I can't do it anymore and that I'm too tired to try, I'm going to come into your office for a good kick in my ass and my spirit. Well, I'm going to pop in whether I need that kick or now just to say hello. Niteka gave me the gift of life with her life. And I am sorry it cost her her life for the likes of me to find our lives, but I don't think I would have seen or believed what you were saying otherwise and I would have gone off the deep end. Hell, you know I was thinking that I was a worthless piece of shit and was thinking of flushing it down the toilet. Thankfully it was only talk because I didn't have the guts to do it. Hell, \I didn't even have the guts to live. Not now. No way. No more being the coward in class or in life and blaming others. Like you do in class when some of us really screw up and you still find a reason to care about us and offer us hope, I have to do that for myself now. Remember the picture, Private Ryan? I am going to make Niteka's death count by making it give me life. Happy holidays. And like you tell us everyday, smile!
Renewed love of life, new found faith, better priorities, deeper love for herself, greater sensitivity for others, wanting to share precious insights that she had gained at such a high price. Good coming from tragedy and pain. What a lesson! Am I ever smiling!
There's more. Sara's letter got me into some deep thinking. Not now. I'm drained.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier firstname.lastname@example.org Department of History http://www.halcyon.com/arborhts/louis.html Valdosta State University Valdosta, GA 31698 /~\ /\ /\ 912-333-5947 /^\ / \ / /~\ \ /~\__/\ / \__/ \/ / /\ /~\/ \ /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" - \____