What will a new year teach us?

January 8, 2020


I’m writing this on New Year’s Eve, at the close of what has been a heartbreaking year for my family. Earlier this month my cousin Heather died from leukemia, two weeks short of the bone marrow transplant that might have saved her life. She was 54, mother to three beautiful grown girls, and a lifelong teacher.


Heather’s illness was not a complete surprise, as she had been diagnosed several years earlier with polycythemia, a related blood cancer that often leads to leukemia. When they learned about the polycythemia diagnosis, my Uncle Ed and Aunt Judy moved from New Mexico to Virginia to be closer to Heather and help when she needed it.


What no one expected was my Aunt Judy falling gravely ill in late summer with an unrelated form of leukemia. She and Heather spent a month in the same oncology unit at the UVA hospital before my aunt died at the end of September. I wasn’t present for, and can scarcely picture, my heavily gowned and masked cousin being wheeled into the ICU to say goodbye to her mother. I believe my Aunt Judy, a fiercely and wholly devoted parent, would have gladly traded places with her daughter. I’m trying to make sense of what happened by imagining that for a brief moment, she did.


Heather’s continued faith and quiet determination in the wake of that loss was a lesson, the latest of many she provided in her lifetime. She was the oldest in our pack of five cousins, and in our childhood she led us through many escapades. Once, we found ourselves in the middle of a cow pasture in rural Maryland and realized with real fright that a herd of cattle was moving swiftly towards us through an open gate at the far end of the field. Heather, all of 11 or 12 at the time, told us, “Stand in a circle and quietly hold hands. They’ll move around us.” I don’t know how she knew this, but she was right.


Some years later, after a few bumps and detours, she completed her college degree and began teaching elementary grades K-2. As a child, Heather had delighted our pack of cousins with repeated, lively readings of Kay Thompson’s Eloise in Paris; I could easily picture her sharing books with her students and working the magic that makes children into readers and lifelong library fans.


There are many teachers who at some point move into administration, or other related fields like I did, and there are teachers who choose to stay in the classroom. The best of these get better every year and never stop learning. Heather taught for 27 years until she was too sick to continue; along the way, she earned an advanced degree, National Board Certification, and the love of her students and colleagues. After leaving the classroom, she found work as a virtual mentor to new teachers.


Her oldest daughter Abigail begins her own student teaching next month; although she has her mother’s example, she will not have her wise, in-the-moment counsel. Heather’s youngest, Audra, is also studying to become a teacher.


We are all teachers—even those who are not called to the art and service of a career in the classroom like Heather was. We are teaching our children, neighbors, colleagues, and friends through our choices and words, our actions and reactions.


My Uncle Ed is teaching me how to move through grief and loss. In his retirement, and even through this devastating chapter of his life, he finds comfort and meaning in his volunteer work as a deacon of his church. He is reaching out—and his community is responding in kind. He has set himself the task, as he told my cousin Jeff, of learning relatively late in life how to be “just Ed” after 55 years of marriage and fatherhood.


A new year starts tomorrow. My cousin and my aunt won’t see it, but I will. What will I do with it?


Who will you teach this year, and what will you be teaching them? I wish for all of us to teach and receive lessons in humility, hope, and generosity of spirit. Happy New Year.

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