At My Student’s Visitation

The whole town goes when it’s a kid.
I’d only known him a month. As his teacher,
I was expected. The funeral home,
used to Alzheimer’s patients from nursing homes,
was unprepared for us. For two hours we waited
in a bursting hallway. I collapsed against the wall,
imagining myself as a partial ironing board
tucked inside a closet.
With every breath, I felt guilty
for taking air from our diminishing supply. For a moment,
getting out of the hallway was a relief.

The coffin was in the visitation room, closed
because of the accident. His school picture
had been blown up to poster size.
I locked eyes with it, him, the whole walk down the aisle,
wondering for the first time
if he’d ever been kissed. I hadn’t, at his age.
When I reached his parents, I thought
of how many hands I’d shake at teacher conferences
the next week, and that thought broke me.

Outside the funeral home, the night
was clean and wet. I choked on fresh air.

This is a reprint of work originally published in While the Kettle’s On.

Melissa Fite Johnson’s poetry has appeared in such publications as I-70 Review, The New Verse News, The Invisible Bear, and Inscape. Her first collection, While the Kettle’s On (Little Balkans Press, 2015), won the Nelson Poetry Book Award. Melissa and her husband live in Kansas, where she teaches English. Her website: http://melissafitejohnson.com.

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