The death of someone that you love deeply is always hard. In the beginning the pain is visceral, leaving your emotions vulnerable like an exposed nerve, never knowing when a shock of pain will overcome you. The passing of time dullens the pain from an open and irritated wound to a scar reminding you of the love that you have had and lost. The different stages of grief are no harder or easier, no better no worse…just different. While time brings healing and peace of mind, it also brings worry and fear that the world is moving on and forgetting the person who continues to be the center of your universe. As I (we) have endured more than two years of grief since the passing of my sister, I have learned that my life always gives me what I need to cope, grow, and continue moving forward. Just as I was beginning to feel as if the world had forgotten about my sister and the pain set in that more and more people in this world would never know her, a few of my students came to the rescue. Enter Brooklyn, DeAsianaye’, and Steven, three extraordinary third graders to renew my spirit and my hope that my sister, while not present with us on Earth, still lives and inspires through the love that we share.
Hanging on my door at the entrance to my classroom is an “All About Me” poster that I created my first year of teaching (2 years prior to the cancer diagnosis). One section of the poster asks you to describe your hero, which I listed as my sister, Darah. I am always amazed at how often students read this poster and comment on the beauty of Darah, as her picture is affixed next to the paragraph about her hero status. Brooklyn and DeAsianaye’, two of my third grade students always commented on the section about Darah and how pretty she is. I must also tell you that I talk about Darah a lot in my classroom, mostly about the life lessons that she taught me and I want to pass on to my students. One day, after reading my poster, both girls asked me if they could have lunch with me so that they could hear “the whole story” about Darah. I could not turn down this opportunity, so they spent an entire lunch and recess period asking me questions about my sister; about her life, her illness, and her death. They were sponges that wanted to soak up every drop of Darah that I would give them. This warmed my heart-my sister who I have feared no one will ever get to know again, is still manifesting herself in inspiring ways in the lives of others. From that day on, these sweet girls would write Darah notes, talk to others about Darah, and recall lessons that they learned from her through me, such as living life with a joyful heart. I know that Darah is having a lasting impact on their lives and it is certainly teaching me to trust and see that my sister is still very much alive in the interactions and relationships that we have on this earth.
Steven’s story is completely different. Steven is a very athletic student who comes across as kind, competitive, hard working, funny, and compassionate. After several days of missed school due to the passing of my Uncle Louie, Steven started hinting at an end of year gift that he was making that he assured would make me cry. The last day of school came, and there was no gift. I was slightly curious and patiently waited to see if the gift would surface. Towards the end of the day, Steven’s mother walked in the door to deliver the gift. As she unfolded a simple piece of cardboard, what fell from the attached strings caused my eyes to well up with tears. Steven had taught himself to fold paper cranes (which he missed watching a Cavs game to learn) and created a diorama of cranes along with a photo of one photo of my sister and one of my uncle. There was not a dry eye in the classroom. As most of you know, birds have become a deep symbol for me of my sister. Paper cranes hung in Darah’s room during her illness and they hung at our wedding to symbolize her. Steven knew this symbol of love and hope for me and created a gift that meant more to me than he will ever know. While Steven had always exemplified a great student and friend, his act of kindness has actually changed my life. His simple and thoughtful gift reminded me not only that my sister and uncle are loved and appreciated through my own actions but also that I can also perform these acts of kindness to restore hope in the lives of others.
I am humbled to be called these children’s teacher, as I believe that they teach me far more than I teach them. These third graders did not perform these acts for a high grade, money, or personal gain, they did it because they live their lives guided by their heart. As adults, we tend to guard our hearts to avoid hurt, but by doing that we can sometimes lead lives that are much too logical, practical, and methodical. Through these whole hearted actions, my students not only taught me that Darah’s spirit is alive and well, but they reminded me to let my heart lead me as I navigate through life.