The legs of my chair scraped against the floor and seemed to protest on my behalf. I pulled viciously at my tartan skirt and contorted my spine to escape from behind my desk which was clearly built for a toddler. As I shuffled towards the front of the class and approached Dr. Miller tentatively I noticed, really for the first time, how small he was. We locked eyes for a second; I dared myself not to look away. All at once his head was on my shoulder and his arms were around me, squeezing. I heard him let out a little sigh; so I bit my lip and examined the ceiling. Cracks, holes, gum…? There we stood, pressed together making the world’s most awkward, empty sandwich.
In my teenage brain an eternity passed, though I know it must have only been a matter of seconds before he whispered into my ear with a smile in his voice ‘that was a hug from Jesus.’ I pulled away and held him at arm’s length. Through tightly closed lips I grinned and inhaled deeply through my nose. I nodded my head slowly as our eyes met again. ‘Yes it was.’ I whispered back before I turned on my heel and made my way back to my tiny desk, each whisper and giggle making contact like a slap as I maneuvered myself back into position just in time for the bell to ring.
I was fourteen-years old when I got my first ever “hug from Jesus,” though much to my chagrin it was not my last. Hell, it wasn’t even my last that day. This bodily gift from Christ was delivered to me by my Religion teacher, Dr. Miller. He was also my homeroom teacher, so I was lucky enough to see him first thing in the morning and also just before I went home each day. He was a very special teacher to me. He was kind, funny and incredibly smart. He taught me the Hail Mary and never once made me feel different for being the only Jewish girl in a Catholic school. A very sharp contrast to Mr Neim, my Sophomore Religion teacher who after much fierce debate about the fate of homosexuals after death declared me a “dirty Jew” in front of the whole class and followed that slur with the statement that he hoped ‘me and those fags would be having a disco party in hell.’ What a cliche! Everyone knows that disco is dead and that it would be a Madonna party we’d be having. I’d be 80’s Madonna. Material Girl, not Lucky Star. Anyway, long story short, Mr. Neim was the worst but Dr. Miller was the best and, to my knowledge, is still teaching.
It was shortly after morning prayers that the first sacred cuddle took place. It was customary at St. Mary’s Catholic high school to say prayers in the morning for those who had passed away in the days before. This particular day was the day that my Mother’s death was announced over the loudspeaker and the day that to most of my classmates, I became very different.
Mom was sick. I knew, though she never said; well not until it was too late. She was in and out of hospital since I was 11 or 12. My brother and I watched as she came back each time transformed. He skin stretched, her hair thinned and one day she came back with tubes running through her chest and in her arms. I still don’t know what those were for, but they certainly didn’t make her any better.
I was only two weeks into my high school experience when she died. The rabbi had come for me four times before. “It’s time” became our mantra in those final days. I felt like an expectant father without any of the joy or excitement. I paced halls, I cracked knuckles. That last time he fetched me I had grown tired of the routine. I knew once we arrived home there would be countless people there. Some I recognized, some I did not; fretting, crying, running around the place pushing me into the wall, shooing me from her bedside. I was ready for it to be over. I thought I was ready for it to be over.
Her death, though thoroughly expected, was somehow still a wretched surprise. It was nothing like the countless deaths I’d observed on cinema and television screens. I genuinely thought people just closed their eyes and gracefully expired. She didn’t. I counted the seconds since her last breath; 50, 60, 70, Christ, 80 seconds! Then she breathed again. The sound of it, violent and quick like she was trying to hold on to something earthly. She wanted to stay, but in that moment, I just wanted her to go. In that second I stopped breathing too. I squinted my eyes so hard that my cheeks ached and thought a prayer that must have gone something like this: ‘fuck. God. Cut this shit out.’ At fourteen, I was sure it was some kind punishment for one of us watching, and that she might suffer like that forever, until suddenly I was holding the hand of a corpse. I wanted to scream. To drop the thing and run away, but I couldn’t, even though it was seriously freaking me out and probably doing long-term psychological damage.
I held onto her limp hand and exhaled. My lungs burned. Then just as I was about to excuse myself, this wet, gurgling sound came shimmying and shaking up her throat. I thought for an instant it was her soul until the black liquid erupted like a fountain of tar out of her mouth. There was no end to it. I have seen that moment in my nightmares ever since. I’d never wanted to disappear so badly as I did then, but when you’re fourteen you have nowhere to go.
To this day people ask me how I could have gone to school the day after she died. The only answer I can give is: ‘what the hell else was I going to do?’ I was desperate for distraction, for normality; desperate to get out of a house that smelled of death, which was bursting at the seams with too many people that walked through me and brought casseroles. I could see their disappointment. I overheard their hushed conversations about my lack of emotion. How I should be ashamed for not crying, for always making things difficult by not joining in with their “circle of sobbing” as I liked to call it. They thought I was cold. They probably still do, but they would be wrong.
These people could be upset. They knew her. Really knew her. They were married to her or were related to her or she was their best friend. She was someone so special to them that they never understood that she didn’t trust me, so I resented her. To me it felt like she was just an ever-fading presence in my house that deserted me before ever telling me anything important, she was the person who thought I was too young to handle the truth about her diagnosis.
Before Mom’s death there were no makeup lessons; there were no big talks about boys and about sex. The following year I would be in a hotel toilet in Kansas City trying desperately to figure out how to insert a tampon before a dance competition while my Dad, with his ear pressed against the other side of the door shouted ‘any luck?’ ‘Didya get it in?’ My Mom died at the precipice of my womanhood without leaving me so much as a Lady Bic, and I found rationalizing my abandonment difficult. Rationalizing her death was impossible.
At school I assumed my anonymity would act as a shield, so I wouldn’t have to talk about it. I figured that it was only my second week there, so no one would even know my last name. I didn’t anticipate Dr. Miller dragging me up in front of the class to be publicly squeezed. But I managed to make it through the rest of that first day without too much embarrassment. Occasionally I would meet the gaze of another student in the hall and they would look at me, all big, wet eyes. I quickly realized that avoidance may not be as easy as I had hoped. A few people approached me open-armed and embraced me. Others offered condolences or shook their heads and whispered things like “shiiiiit” in my ear. It all felt very strange, but at least I wasn’t at home.
Dr. Miller greeted me cheerfully at the door for last period and handed me 6 sealed envelopes.
I took them from his hand and met his eyes with mine, ‘Hey Dr. Miller. What’s in these?’
With a mischievous wink he replied ‘warm fuzzies.’
I raised a curious eyebrow, but before I could ask for an explanation he had wrapped his arm around my waist to keep me in place and requested that the rest of the class take their seats. He turned to face me and declared that because I was having such a rough time he’d asked all of his other classes to write me some messages of support or “warm fuzzies” as he called them. The dread began to pool in my stomach when I realized that he expected me to share them with the class. I winced at the idea, but he looked so proud of himself I couldn’t refuse. I cleared my throat in an over-the-top comic way to try to lighten the mood, but my fellow classmates were looking at me so earnestly it broke my heart.
I pulled out a bright green slip of paper that had written in lovely script ‘Sorry about your Mom. You have pretty hair.’ Everyone clapped and nodded and assured me that yes! I did have very pretty hair. I pressed the paper scrap to my chest, turned to Dr. Miller and made a face that I thought read ‘I’m done.’ Apparently not, as he just nodded at me, beaming.’ ‘One more!’ he begged with his hands clasped in prayer position. I sighed. This time it was a bright orange scrap that read ‘Dear Lee, I don’t know you, but it sucks your Mom died’ another chorus of agreement. Yes! It did suck! This oracle of wisdom had united us all with a common thought and something in my chest bloomed.
I fingered all those lovely little bright scraps of paper as a fist formed in my throat. In the sea of grief that I could not navigate, and could not master, I struggled onto the driftwood of strangers’ sentiment. In those silly, well-meant words, I found the comfort I couldn’t find anywhere else and was so grateful to Dr. Miller for his incredibly kind exercise.
I looked out at my classmates and tried to smile. Instead I felt tears sting the corners of my eyes, and just before my vision was obscured completely, I heard the familiar scrape of the too-small chair on the floor and one by one everyone in the class get up and give me a “hug from Jesus” before the last bell rang.