It is a Thursday afternoon that I won’t soon forget.
Cohen’s 6th grade English teacher, Katie Kloess, was killed in a car accident on her way to coach a basketball game. She was killed at the intersection at the end of our street. An intersection I go through 8, 9, 10 times every day, sometimes more.
The accident happened 10 minutes after I had gone through the intersection to bring the kids home from school and 15 minutes before I passed through again to bring the girls to Crystal Lake for gymnastics practice.
As we left home and headed towards the intersection I could see a single police car – as we stopped at the stop sign there was an officer preventing anyone from turning right. We were headed left. As we made our left turn (towards Crystal Lake) we saw the accident site, we saw the cars. The girls and I saw the impossible positions that cars were in, one backwards in the wrong lane and the other facing us on top of the guardrail. We saw the white airbags that had deployed in each of the cars. We saw no people. Just one police car and a single red emergency vehicle.
I see the scene again in my mind every time I pass through the intersection. I look at the guardrail where the car was every time I pass by. I noticed yesterday that they had painted numbers on the guardrail and I assume it will soon be replaced. I just cannot seem to stop looking.
The girls and I talked the whole way to gymnastics about car accidents – how they happen and how seatbelts can keep you safe. We talked about how injuries can happen even when you wear your seatbelt, we talked about air bags and how they work and why they will not inflate if there is a child in the front seat…we talked about it all.
It wasn’t until later in the evening after the kids had gone to bed that I received a phone call telling me that it was Cohen’s teacher in one of that cars and that she didn’t survive the accident.
I don’t remember my exact first, second, or third thought – something like shock, disbelief, and sadness.
Then the realization that I had to tell Cohen and the girls hit me.
Their school is a small school in a small community. Ms. Kloess had been a part of each of my kids’ school year in some way or another. Carly had her as a PE teacher for the first couple of years she was teaching at Zion; Caroline’s 1st grade class has reading buddies from Ms. Kloess’s class. Cohen had her every day as his English teacher. I had even worked with her on that Wednesday before the accident as she and her students helped unload a truck of food for the Love Project…small tight knit school.
They had canceled school on that Friday – for the very worst reason, an unimaginable reason. I had no idea how they would react to the news or honestly, how I would handle all of it.
Cohen was up early that Friday morning (earlier than usual – as he is an early riser) because he was heading to school for blue and white bible study, which included donuts. Tom and I met him in the kitchen as soon as we heard him get up. Right away he knew something was up, both parents in the kitchen when most mornings it’s just Cohen and the dog. We told him what had happened (its likely Tom actually told him because I may have been crying) and were met with little reaction from Cohen. No questions, no tears – nothing. A very typical reaction from Cohen, he listens, needs time to process and then will ask questions. As the girls woke up, first Carly then Caroline, we told them too. I cannot remember what their initial reaction was…is that strange?
It occurred to me, that for my three kids, this was the first time that someone close to them has died. Close to them in the sense that she was someone that they all saw every day. She was a presence in each of their lives, each day.
Even though school on Friday had been canceled, we were told that our teachers, counselors, pastor and comfort dogs would be at church. They had several prayer services throughout the day that anyone could attend. Cohen chose not to go to school that day. I respected his decision – instead we stayed home, the 3 kids and I, and we baked their choice of treats all day.
As we heard news of arrangements for the funeral and wake I told the kids everything I knew. I allowed them to take the lead as far as doing as much or as little as they felt they could handle. We talked a lot about what a funeral and a wake were and the kinds of things they might expect to see and hear at one. They were all pretty sad and nervous.
Initially Cohen said he didn’t want to go to the wake or funeral, I was respectful of that but felt he might regret it. Then we got the email saying Ms. Kloess’s family had asked that her students (those who wanted to) sing as part of the funeral. Anyone who knows Cohen knows that he does not sing, he doesn’t even try to fake it…I knew there was no way he would want to sing as part of a funeral.
As Tuesday came, the day of the wake, Cohen decided that he would like to go. He was curious to see what it was like and I honestly feel like there was a part of him that knew he needed to be there. He likely didn’t know why, but he needed to be there.
So he and I went. We drove to church; he nervous talked the whole way. When we got there, it was like nothing he’d seen before. The church was full, it was packed with people, filled with pictures and a few mementos, and there was a line of comfort dogs and their handlers that filled half of the narthex and more boxes of Kleenex than we had ever seen in the church.
We waited in a 2 hour line to pay our respects to Ms. Kloss’s family, people whom we had never met before. Cohen asked me a lot of questions while we waited but really spent that time in line studying everyone in the room. He was listening to what they were saying, watching what they were doing and taking mental notes of how they were acting. I think he was looking to see if what he was doing was the “right” thing…though I will never really know for sure.
We heard, while waiting in line, that Ms. Kloess’s family wanted to hear a story about her. When we got to the front of the line Cohen was nervous and wasn’t sure what to say. His sisters hugged both of us and asked to hear about Katie – Cohen was silent but finally said that he really didn’t like English, but he really liked Ms. Kloess, and she was the reason he could actually kind of like English. Her sister then whispered to us – “you know what, Katie never really liked English either – it wasn’t her favorite subject.” I could almost feel Cohen exhale…Ms. Kloess’s family was so welcoming and gracious and made each person in that line feel so lucky that they had been a part of Ms. Kloss’s life no matter how big or small of a part they played.
While we were at the wake, Cohen was still undecided about singing – I think that meeting Ms. Kloess’s sisters and parents made Cohen decide that he would like to go to the funeral on Wednesday and sing. He told me that he would actually sing, and not just pretend to mouth the words.
We woke up that Wednesday morning, it was the first day of their Christmas break; I ironed his (only) collard shirt. The girls got dressed – there was no fighting – no arguing…just a sense of knowing that this was something that we needed to do. Knowing it was going to be difficult and knowing it would be sad but we were going to be together and it was going to be okay.
While I know my role as a parent is to model for my children…I have never felt that I needed to be a model for them more, than on that day.
We squeezed ourselves into a pew near the back of the church; Cohen went up to the balcony to sing. We sat and we watched and we waited. The comfort dogs were there again and the girls visited with them while I sat and watched and waited.
The wake was sad, it was comforting, it was touching and it was even nice at times. Cohen sang early on and joined us in the pew. Caroline had to sit on my lap to make room for him. We sat together we listened to Ms. Kloess’s dad speak, we listened to Pastor speak, we sang songs and we prayed. More than once I caught the kids just watching me. Watching me sing, watching me listen and watching me cry.
In the end, I was glad Cohen decided to go. I was glad I decided to take the girls with us. It felt good, to be there, to be together, to be that model for my kids when they needed to just sit back and watch me. I was so proud of them. I was proud of how they acted, proud of the questions they asked afterwards while we ate lunch together. Then three of them grew a lot that day,
I complain about living in Marengo, a lot. I could not believe the support I felt and saw throughout the town. For me and the kids there were emails, facebook messages, cards and text messages. In the community there were “forever on our hearts” signs on each of the local businesses’ marquees. On that day, and still today, I was so proud to be a part of our little Marengo community and especially proud (and so fortunate) to be a part of our Zion family.
Thank you Ms. Kloess for being a positive presence in each my children’s lives.
Thank you for showing Cohen that English isn’t awful and for helping him find his singing voice even if it was just for one song.
You will be “forever in our hearts”.