In the early morning hours of February 25th, a friend that a year ago I didn’t even know I had departed from this life and entered into a Glory that we who are left behind can barely imagine. Her name was Danielle. She was a friend, wife, mother, teacher. Cancer had its way with her body, but it never had a hold on any other part of her.
When I agreed to take a part-time teaching position last July, I only knew I was filling a role that had been, up to that point, filled by a woman much beloved by staff and students. I only knew that the teacher who had been busily teaching English classes had been battered and worn by busily fighting the cancer that refused to retreat. And then, without even knowing the opportunity was going to present itself, I met her face-to-face.
Every school finds it necessary to subject its teaching and support staff to what always seems an interminable round of ‘in-service’ – ‘TEACHER DAYS’ on the school calendar – a time of information overload that includes, but is not limited to, a sometimes lengthy review of academic goals, benefit packages, introductions of staff, blood-borne pathogens and universal precautions, and on, and on, and on until all those present are sure their heads are going to explode. (I’ve come to realize that these days are, by design, intended to make teachers feel the extraordinary misery that students feel when they sit in class after class after class, searching to find the meaning and application in the droning barrage of their teachers’ voices. Hey. Wait a minute. That can’t be right…)
It was on the third day of such a round of meetings as just described (I was trying my best to pay attention, being, once again a ‘new teacher’) when a dynamo (really, a force of nature) with a great big smile overpowering her petite frame approached me with a tiny gift bag in her hand. “Becky? Hi! I’m Danielle. It’s so good to meet you!! I’m so glad you’re here!!”
She continued, explaining the tiny gifts from her teacher’s heart – dry erase markers, because “you’ll never be able to find any around here when you need them,” and a little pot of lip balm that she’d made herself (she ran a little home business!) because, “if you’re like me – you talk all day and your lips get SO dry!” We talked for a little bit about the plain fact that literature and writing – you know, the Language Arts – comprise the most important learning that students can undertake. I knew I’d discovered a friend for life.
I didn’t quite know then how short the earthly life that she had left would actually be.
The school year commenced. As Grace would have it, I shared Danielle’s classroom with her. Unwilling to give up teaching altogether, she’d agreed to once again teach her jewelry/metal design elective and continue directing the yearbook staff (another 2 days/week elective.) My cush schedule (3 afternoon classes/day) and hers overlapped by a lunch period, and most days offered us just enough time to discover that our teachers’ passions were nearly identical, while our teaching styles and attitudes could not be more starkly opposed. Danielle, full of spirited joy and nurturing encouragement, burrowed into her students’ lives – offering them support and inspiration. Nurturing has never been my strong suit. I’ve always been more bold and brash – rather ‘in your face.’ I told myself, and do believe it – our differences made it easier for students to maintain their deep appreciation for Danielle, and to ease their adjustment to classroom life without her. I didn’t give them any time to breathe, really. With only the murkiest understanding of the school’s instructional atmosphere, and a crystally clear realization that Danielle’s shoes could not under any circumstances be filled, I plunged into the classes assigned to me. Of course it would be Danielle who would be the one most concerned with my adjustment to this new teaching responsibility. She, who had surrendered her role as the English teacher who filled students’ heads with William Shakespeare, and Raymond Carver and Emily Dickinson, now made it her new role to fill my head with insights into student life and instructional programming, and my heart with love and encouragement. After a particularly bad week of head-bangingly frustrating stumbles and irritations, she looked at me and said, “Just do what you know is right. I’ve got your back, Becky.”
I’ve got your back, Becky…
The one with enough burdens to dwarf all of my concerns made my concerns a top priority. Danielle was always pouring out her life into others. It was her way of being filled up. English teachers that we are, she and I both would find delight in the paradox.
And, equally curious, if you didn’t know that Danielle had cancer, you’d NEVER know that Danielle had cancer. Cancer may have grabbed hold of her internal self – and with a vengeance – but she somehow eluded its grasp on her spirit and will to live. To anyone with eyes to see, it remained patently obviously that Danielle’s life was all about Life – about proclaiming the good news of the Gospel, extending Grace, pointing to Truth, loving others out of the depth of her heart, and laughter – wringing the most out of every day and letting her enthusiasm spill over onto others.
One beautiful day in early Autumn, I arrived in our shared classroom to see her clad in a bit of denim and a lot of teal – the ‘awareness’ color for Ovarian cancer. On her feet? Teal cowboy boots. I nearly laughed out loud. There she was, taking students through a process for completing some yearbook pages on time, sashaying through student desks, stopping to take a peek at student progress, and looking, for all the world, as though she were ready for a hoedown. Her joy that day was palpable – right down to her toes covered in sassy teal boots that seemed to say, Marine-like – ‘cancer – don’t tread on me.’
From the moment I met her, I knew I’d never fill Danielle’s shoes. No one ever could. Instead, I walked in the same space with her, and in between her footfalls through the classroom and mine, we would sit for a little while and share with each other our love for good words, written well and preserved in great literary works. We shared our love for teaching, and raising kids, and being married to men who think linearly instead of the way we do – splashing all of the ideas onto the canvas at the same time and discovering what we know through the mess. We complimented each other’s fabulous fashion sense, and complemented each other’s burgeoning love for Jesus – hers through contented joy in Grace, and mine through a bold urgency to reveal the Truth. Wear her shoes? No. Only stand for a while in the gap made by her absence from that place.
Now, her ‘place’ in the glorious presence of Christ is made real. And I am confident of this – that Danielle, in joyous fulfillment, holds places for the rest of us until we, who loved her here, will join her there – “where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20) and where the world and all its hardships, are no longer “too much with us” (Wordsworth).
I don’t remember that we ever talked of my love for CS Lewis or my ongoing love affair with that great Lion. But we talked around Him, every day. We talked about the fight for Truth and the glory of Grace and the way every great story we’ve ever known points us toward the great ‘Author and perfecter of our faith.’ We talked about eternal things and earthly things – about battling cancer and empty nests; about growing older and fulfilling our purposes. We talked about Life and having it to the full – the promise of Jesus. And now, Danielle’s ‘last battle’ is gloriously over. She has “come home at last!” She has found the “real country!” and can truly say, like Lewis’ unicorn, Jewel, “I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life…” She has seen, face to face, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Who has conquered the sting of death and in Whose story we belong.
And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Until the threads of our stories intertwine again, Danielle – I will “thank God each time I remember you” (Philippians 1:3).