“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
I just returned home. Soon I will catch up with your lives. And before I write about my trip escapades, I needed to write an important post:
I didn’t plan on using the computer much during this vacation. Before I left, I hadn’t even checked to see if the hotels in Dublin and Paris offered Internet. But I’d hoped to look for information about my uncle who had a stroke that impaired his speech last week (no e-mails), make sure there was no change in plans for my get-together with three bloggers from Dublin (no changes), and see if I’d won Tahereh’s Bestie Contest (I didn’t). For the three days in Dublin, I surfed the Internet for only twenty minutes in a special “Business Room” at the hotel. Since I normally use the laptop more often than I care to admit, this was progress. And I didn’t even miss it (mostly).
But on Tuesday night, when we arrived late to our hotel room in Paris, I found out we had Internet access in our apartment. When I opened the my Gmail account, I had an e-mail entitled “Sad News” from the family liaison at my children’s school. Often these types of e-mails are regarding retired teachers, many of whom I didn’t know. I opened it. It may have been the jetlag or the shock of the news that made the words incomprehensible. It was about a student in the other fifth-grade’s class. First I thought it was about his mother’s mother. Then it hit me. This student’s mother had died after a “long battle with cancer”.
Nobody had told me she was sick. I used to know her pretty well. Our sons were best friends from kindergarten to second-grade. They played at one another’s houses every week. Sometimes his mom would stay to chat at my home, and sometimes I’d stay to chat at her home. And we’d talk while the kids played at the playground.
The woman and I had a few things in common. She grew up in Forest Hills, New York where my husband and I lived when we first got married. Her parents still live there. She gave birth to her oldest daughter at the same age I had my youngest daughter, and her and my set of kids were both four years apart. We both have naturally curly hair too, so managing that was always a good topic of conversation!
At the end of the school day when we waited at the entrance of the school, we’d talk. My daughter was little then, and always told her the same stories. While I’d get impatient with my little girl’s chatter, this woman was always patient and sweet with her.
Then when our boys were in third-grade, things changed. My son and his best friend grew apart because their interests no longer intersected. And by fourth-grade, my daughter started kindergarten, so I spent more time in front of her classroom instead of my son’s. And the woman’s son no longer wanted her to come up to his classroom, but to wait downstairs. So we normally just greeted one another in passing.
Her death was, and still is incomprehensible. I’d just seen her at ballroom dancing but we weren’t sitting near one another. And just after that, I’d seen her at the school entrance. She’d seemed tired, but looked like herself. Now I knew her presence meant she’d pushed herself to be there for her son.
All of the times I’d said, “Hi. How are you?” the response had been, “Fine.” After all, what else would she say? “Who me? I’ve got incurable pancreatic cancer. How are the kids?”
The liaison informed me she’d been diagnosed with cancer in October. She’s left her husband, tenth-grade daughter, and fifth-grade son behind. I’d never heard her raise her voice or seen her lose her patience. Her job had been at a senior recreational center in the Fenway area. She always went above and beyond. She often baked huge amounts of sweets for the seniors, even though she wasn’t compensated. At some point, she left her job and trained to help seniors exercise. This was a woman who wanted to help others.
If I collected money for teachers, she’d always put in extra money, knowing that some poorer parents couldn’t contribute. She was nice person with a nice family. It’s just a shame. She could be any of us. It just isn’t fair.
So that night, I lay in bed for a long time, thinking about her and her family and feeling helpless.
The morning after I’d found out the terrible news, I asked my son if he knew the boy’s mother was sick. He did. Students had mentioned it in the cafeteria.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“I don’t think it’s nice to gossip,” was the reply.
“If you’d told me, I could’ve offered to help,” I said.
I didn’t add that now it was too late for me to say goodbye.
I’d miss her funeral, just like the time my husband and I went away in 2007, we missed Papa’s* funeral. He died of lung cancer. I knew he was dying when we’d left, so I made sure my daughter visited him in the hospital so she’d have closure. Before I left, I wished he’d make it until we got back. But just after the wedding ceremony in Serbia, two days after we’d arrived, my sister, who babysat my children, told me the news.
If I’d known she was sick, I could’ve shuttled her children or cooked or something. She had two friends who have girls her daughter’s age and I’m sure they’ve been helping. But I would’ve liked to let her know I cared.
Now I’ll make meals for the family because I don’t know what else to do. A meal is inadequate compensation for the loss. But it’s all I can do.
Lisa Rein-Woisin. Wife, Mother.
* Previous post about Papa: