Every once in a while, life hands you a personal epiphany. You know what that is, right? It’s a moment when you’re able to get your head around something you’ve been struggling with, or you understand something clearly. There are epiphanies that come on gradually and the realization is like an alarm going off in your head. It’s the “ah-ha” moment. There’s another type, though. The type you don’t see coming and the clarity hits you like a Louisville Slugger to the gut.
This is not a gentle “ah-ha.” This is a full-fledged assault on your current reality.
I had an epiphany last night. And it wasn’t the gentle kind.
I've been in education for twenty-five years. I'm proud of being a teacher even though, for the time being, we're perceived as a scourge on society. I do good work, and my students are important to me. Before I was a librarian, I taught English for ten years and the last four of those years I spent at St. Dominic High School on Long Island. I taught seniors almost exclusively and developed some wonderful relationships with many of the students. My last class graduated fifteen years ago in 1996. They were a remarkable bunch--becoming lawyers, artists, social workers, Marines, teachers, moms and dads, executives, business owners, college professors...you get the idea. They are successful people who are contributing to society and I'm very proud of them.
However, one of them just died. She was thirty-three.
I probably wouldn't have known if it hadn't been for the marvel that is social networking. Because in reality, I lost touch with my students. It happens, but Facebook has brought a number of them back into my life. A year ago, Jennifer friended me on Facebook. I remembered her well. She was a quiet young lady who was as gentle as a breeze. She had good friends, a kind heart and a unspoken passion for everything she did.
She had this passion, I believe, because she knew time was precious. Jenn had Cystic Fibrosis.
It was a quiet battle. She'd miss school, but she never complained. She moved through her life finding a way to complete her education, making a large network of friends, loving her family and suffering the loss of her sister from the same disease.
I didn't have a lot of contact with her over the past year, but it was hard to avoid seeing all she'd accomplished. I learned she'd had a double lung transplant which offered hope and trials at the same time. She worked for others with CF and always carried herself with a mantle of hope. Two days before her death, she posted a status on Facebook that thanked her father for his military service and thanked the family of her lung donor for the gift she'd received.
And then the people who loved her, lost her.
I cried when I saw the post on her wall, made by one of her friends, saying good-bye. I cried and then I had my epiphany. It happened as I was about to whine to someone about my rejected manuscript. As I was about to complain about having too few bathrooms in my house. As I was about to work myself into a frenzy about some petty little thing.
Yeah. I felt really stupid and this is where counting my blessings comes in. This loss has has put things in perspective, and I hate that it often takes something tragic for people, like me, to have a wake-up call.
So here goes...My children are healthy and successful. My husband is a kind and gentle man who adores me, although sometimes I don't know why. I have a career that allows me to make a real difference in the lives of children and I have some wonderful friends. My novels may never be published, but because of my writing, I've come in contact with talented and generous people and I've challenged myself in ways I never thought possible. I have a lot to be thankful for and very little to complain about and Jennifer reminded me of this fact.
Jennifer was one soul who touched many lives. I can't say I knew her the way others did, but she was courageous and she will be missed. She is also just one of a handful of my former students who left this world too soon. All left behind people who loved them and lives full of potential.
I thank God I knew them, just as I thank all of the kids who've crossed my path for the things they've taught me.
With luck, we'll all keep learning from each other.