A tribute to my friend, colleague, mentor during my teaching years in Hartford.
Here’s the thing, Vicki.
I’m sorry I didn’t write sooner. When I’m at the beginning stages of my grief that I burst into tears every time I think of you, that’s when no words will come out.
Yesterday was the first day I graduated my first hour without thinking of you before the crashing realization came that I won’t be seeing you anymore. (Well, that’s not true. I know you’ll visit us in our dreams. We’ve talked at length about these things. I’m still waiting for your guest appearance.)
Last month, just before Christmas, I drove by your big old farmhouse (as it’s on the way to my kids’ school), and I could see it from all the way down the street, because every single window was lit. I imagined you bustling from room to room, lighting up every window, where those candles would burn until the rooster in your backyard began to crow.
Days later, I packed up my car with all three kids and ventured over to see you. Tyler, who as you know is riddled with anxiety in every social situation, parked himself in your pitch black driveway, and no matter how hard I begged and reasoned with him, he would not get out of the car.
Without a moment’s hesitation, you leaned into the backseat, looked him in the eye and spoke to him in that special way that you had, as though in that moment, he was the only person in the world who mattered.
“Tyler, I know you get a little scared when it’s time to go somewhere new,” you coaxed. “But you should know, I made hot chocolate just for you—and I don’t mean just any hot chocolate. Do you want to know the secret ingredient?” You leaned in a bit closer. “Real, actual melted candy bars.”
Tyler stared straight ahead.
“Also, I have ‘Home Alone’ on the TV. It’s all about a kid just about your age who fights off the bad guys. Would you like to see it?”
For a second, he glanced at you, and then away again.
“And if you’re feeling adventurous, I have a whole attic that you can rummage through to your heart’s content,” you added. “It’s filled with all kinds of stuff, and you can take home anything you’d like. How does that sound?”
As if he snapped out of a trance, he looked at you. For a moment you locked eyes, and he took you in. Then he got out of the car and walked boldly into your house.
It was one of those easy, silent connections that I rarely get to see. You were magic like that.
I walked him up the stairs and into your attic—a dark, haunted place with books and dolls and shadows hanging in every corner—and shining through the darkness was a single electric candle. I thought of you climbing those stairs and crossing that cold, dingy attic each night to plug in that candle, just so your house could throw light in every direction.
I know your students will appreciate this story in all its literary symbolism, because you were magic in the classroom as well. You are that candle in the attic—spreading hope, love and light our way when everything else looks bleak.
After Tyler explored every corner, he emerged with an armful of Madelaine L’Engle books, along with a musty-smelling teddy bear even taller than himself. He held them up and looked at you imploringly.
“Take them!” you insisted. “Take whatever you’d like. It’s just stuff!”
At that moment, his smile could solar power your entire house. He jumped up and down and bumped his fists together (his own personal sign language for “thank you”). I didn’t even care that my house was about to inherit another four square feet of clutter. Because in that moment, I watched you nudge my boy from fear into elation. That was your specialty.
On the day you died, I sat on Tyler’s bed, held that bear and talked to you for a very long time. And when Tyler found the bear in my room instead of his, he understood.
Even though you’ll kick me into the next dimension for saying this, I’ve spent most of this past week angry. Angry that even though you lived a stone’s throw away from me, I probably saw you a handful of times in the past five years. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to see you. It was because you became a principal, and I figured you were busy. I’ve been angry over your two beautiful daughters who still need you, a broken educational system that was about to receive your repair, the thousands of children whose hearts you had yet to touch. Angry because as you stood there before me in your final weeks, I wasn’t intuitive enough to see that anything was wrong. Angry that over the course of the near-decade that you, Jill, Jo-Ann and I took respite in our makeshift lunchroom in the science storage closet, you sat across from me eating farm-fresh produce while I feasted on my kids’ half-eaten bologna sandwich crusts, you coaching me on the powers of positivity while I spewed the day’s defeat into my coffee cup. You were the one who did everything right. Nothing in this world made sense anymore.
As the days went by, it dawned on me. You believed every life is a journey with a specific lesson or mission at the end of it. Once we’ve learned that lesson or achieved that mission, it’s time to move onto another one.
I can’t think of anyone who had life figured out more than you. And slowly, it all began to make sense.
It’s not to say that I believe for one minute your work was done. The world was a better place when you were in it, and I will never accept that all your plans, and all the ways you spread your light to the people around you, have come to a grinding halt.
You taught me to take the suckiest of situations, learn from them, and turn something positive out of them. And so, this one—or should I say, these ten—are for you.
The Ten Things I Vow to Do Differently Because I Knew Vicki Morse:
1. I will be kind to people, especially those that I love. I won’t take advantage of them for a second. Because when it comes to time, there are no guarantees.
2. I will always look for the positives. I will remember that when we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.
3. While my kids are little, I will read to them every night. Even on the nights I am dragging and brain-fried, and I would trade my soul for an extra twenty minutes of sleep, I will never skip this part of our bedtime routine again.
4. I will make a concerted effort every night to sit down and eat dinner with my family—even if we’re only eating grilled cheese sandwiches–because this is one of the most important ways to bring a family together.
5. I will stop doubting myself and just friggin’ do it already.
6. I will finally get around to reading “Ask, and You Are Given,” which started gathering dust on my bookshelf shortly after I met you in 2002.
7. I will always look for the good in my students. No matter what they say or do persuade me otherwise, I will believe in each and every one of them and insist that they reach their potentials.
8. I will become a better listener. When people speak, I will stop what I’m doing and look at them. And when I’m listening, I won’t be thinking about what I’m going to say next.
9. I will smile and say hello to people whenever I pass them, even if I don’t feel like it.
10. I will screen myself for cancer in every way that modern-day technology and medicine has to offer. And I will demand that all the people I love do the same.
Truth be told, I would not be who I am today had I never met you, and hundreds more can say the same. Most people–even those who have lived twice as long as you–don’t get to say that.
Here is a poem that you wrote and attached to an invitation to your Christmas party last month. Now that I read it over, I believe you were trying to tell us something.
The months have flown by since Christmas last
Days grew long and longer, and then that passed.
Since June the sun has been losing ground
And now dark and cold are all that’s found.
What shall we do when all seems so bleak?
When life sends us Trouble, and dead limbs all creak?
When ice seals swimming fish in the depths of lakes
And the robins have flown ‘til the sun re-awakes?
When the cold stretches before us, no end in clear sight
And most of the day has turned into night?
Ah, that’s when the light we all carry inside
Can shine its very brightest, a million feet wide!
Bring the green that holds sunshine into the house
And adorn it with lights that no shadow can douse.
Spark fires to life with brightness and heat
And bring smiles to life with a newly-found treat.
Put candles in windows to tell one and all
The dark is our blackboard, with light we can scrawl
Our hopes and our dreams, the best we can be
It’s the love that grows in despair that sets us all free.
I invite anyone who has read this through the end to add at least one thing you will do differently because you knew Vicki.
Onto your next journey, my friend. I miss you already.