A few months ago I received news about a 7th grade student of mine whose mom had just been diagnosed with a terminal cancer. Instantly my heart sank for her. It felt familiar in the worst way. All of the feelings, emotions, and memories came crashing back in like a dam breaking on a river. Later that day I walked out of my classroom door to see my principal and this student walking in my direction. As she approached I quickly pulled her in for hug and held her as she began to break down in my arms. I understood her pain. I knew her sadness.
It’s odd how things turn out. I remember people constantly telling me how I was too young to be going through such a tragic life event. Yet right in front of me sat a courageous, beautiful young girl, with water filled eyes, being forced to experience things well beyond her age. Naturally, I had no knowledge of the days, weeks, and months to come but I didn’t need to. I was more than determined to help her survive it all.
We sat and talked that day. My mind raced as I attempted to think of every “life lesson” that could possibly make things easier. As we talked she told me more about her family (who I had never met), her relationship with her mom, and what she knew about her mother’s diagnosis. They were told her mom had less than a year to live. Fighting my own personal experiences, I quickly reminded her that the future is never certain and to take advantage of each day she would continue to spend with her mom. It was rough. I’ve only ever known how to keep my own head above water in a scenario such as this, not how to keep someone else from drowning.
Whatever I said must have done something good because over the next number of months we often found each other in one another’s company. She and I began to develop a relationship out of the sorrow in our lives that neither of us ever hoped to experience. No one understood her pain in quite the way I did and I was set in preparing her for every step she may encounter along the way. I watched as she began to dedicate herself to her mom; spending extra time with her, making her things, anything she could do to be close with her. I saw the makings of one tough young lady. Her deep understanding of the entire situation was devastatingly beautiful. She began to handle every obstacle thrown her way with a rare maturity like I’ve never seen. I watched as she balanced being a student, an athlete, having a social life, being a daughter, and becoming a caretaker all at the same time. She managed to do all of these things on a regular basis while not even having a license. Unbelievable doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Just over two weeks ago I woke up to my phone ringing early on a Saturday morning. Sure enough, my sweet student fought through the tears just enough to inform me of her mother’s passing. I felt helpless. I spent so much time foolishly trying to prepare her for this moment as if somehow it could be avoided. My heart ached for her. I wanted so badly to bear the pain so that she would not have to. As I hung up the phone I became consumed by the overwhelming feeling of loss once again. I wanted to talk to someone, to hold someone, to feel comfort in any way possible. But I was alone. No one I could have called would have been able to talk me through what I was feeling that morning. I laid there in my bed weeping for a woman I had never met and a young girl I had known for less than a year.
We continued to text throughout that day. Not knowing completely what to do, I offered to come visit her if she wanted me there and if it was okay with her family. I stood outside my house waiting to leave while I contemplated what I would say to this brave young soul when I got there. I wondered if it was even right for me to go. But as I stood there I looked up into the trees to see a cardinal looking right back at me. It was my sign from Brady that I needed to go and that everything would work itself out.
The day of the viewing came to follow soon enough. As I got myself ready it hit me that this would be the first viewing to attend since losing Brady. It made me anxious but I continued to push through. Remembering how difficult that day was in my life I wanted to bring something to help this student of mine survive the next 24 hours she would be forced to endure. It reminded of a gift my aunt gave me while Brady was ill.
My aunt had been on a trip at some point, possibly earlier that year, and took a walk along the beach. As she walked she came across a small stone with a natural engraving. The engraving appeared to look like an angel. I remember her telling me she knew it was special. She decided to hold onto it until she found someone else who needed it more than she did. That someone was me and that little angel gave me hope at a time when hope was hard to come by. Now it was time to pass this little angel along to someone who needed it more than me. So I said my goodbyes, put on my brave face, walked into the funeral home, and handed it off.
Aside from being invited to the viewing, I was also invited to both the funeral and burial services. Both being things I had last experienced due to my husband’s passing. I didn’t feel completely comfortable going to either one, but I was definitely more on edge about the burial service. I had found out earlier in the week that my student’s mom would be buried at the same cemetery as Brady, and I was fairly certain from how it sounded that it wouldn’t be extremely far from him either. In most situations I would think there wouldn’t be much of an issue. However, in my personal circumstance it was. I won’t get into my list of reasons as to why, but the day we buried Brady was the last day I saw his physical resting place. I never went back.
The morning of the funeral came and I was forced to put on my brave face once again. I attended the service then headed to the burial with a coworker and his wife. My nerves grew as we pulled into the cemetery. It had been nearly a year and a half but everything looked as though I had seen it yesterday. The cars ahead of us began to stop and park when I looked out my window.
Then, there it was.
Brady’s big, bold, shiny headstone staring back at me as we drove by. Had we been a couple cars back we would have ended up parking directly in front of it. Anxiously, I got out of the car to head in the opposite direction where the burial I was attending would be taking place. Immediately after the service my sweet student came and found me. I held her tightly as she broke down in my arms once again. I found myself not saying the stereotypical things such as, “I’m sorry” or “You’re being so strong” but instead proceeded to say things like, “Look.. you made it through the worst part of the day. Now you get to go home and rest.” I then went on to tell her about how she made me pass Brady’s grave site along the way.
She looked at me and asked, “Are you going to go see your husband?”
“Well, I guess I’m going to have to now that I’m already here,” I responded.
She quickly grinned and replied, “I think you should” as if that had been her plan all along.
I gave her some more words of wisdom and another hug before I went to visit Brady’s resting place for the first time ever.
By not visiting I had unintentionally turned the entire thing into a metaphorical mountain climbing event. I had to talk myself into staying sane the entire short walk over. “Walk, breath, deep breath, walk, keep going, breath, walk, you’re fine, breath…” repeated in my head with each step. I didn’t know how I was going to feel or what I was going to do. My feet finally came to reach his head stone. I crouched down into a ball and then proceeded cry uncontrollably. There was just enough of my will power left to keep me from laying there in the fetal position. “Why would I do this to myself?” I kept wondering as I thought about how I got there that day. There were several reasons I could think of in my head, but in all honestly it just wasn’t meant to happen on any other day. I was meant to be led there by a young girl who I began to learn was helping me more than I was her.
The chain of events that had to happen for her and I to be placed into each other’s lives is oddly incredible. Through our misery and sorrow has grown a bond of understanding. Somehow she has managed to push me farther than I was able to push myself. She has and continues to be an inspiration not only to me, but in the lives of those surrounding her as well. I truly believe one day she will be able to use the trials and tribulations she has been forced to face to help ease the misfortunes in those around her. She has given me a clearer vision as to why it is important to take my hardships and turn them into something greater, something beyond myself.
For that sweet, courageous little soul, may she come across this… know that I love you, for you have given me purpose.