sunset

My favorite high school teacher is dying. I recently learned that she has end stage pancreatic cancer. Interesting combination of words: end stage. It makes her death seem imminent though I don’t know how much time they suspect she has. I hope it is long enough for me to have a dialogue with her. I have written her a letter. I don’t have an email address for her, only a home address. When time is so precious, I resent having to rely on the United States Postal Service. I worry that some scrappy man is riding a pony across country with my letter stuffed into the bag slung over his shoulder, and he may not make it all the way to Michigan in time.

What do you say to someone who is dying? The last time I did it, I was horribly inept. I talked a lot about myself, which is what I thought my friend Irene most wanted, but it didn’t feel satisfying for me. I talked without saying much. I certainly didn’t express what she’d meant to me. Sure, I’d told her often over the years, and she was clear about the depth and breadth of my love, but in my final visit with her, I had no courage. And I still feel ashamed.

It’s easier in a letter.

My friend Lauren has been ushering her parents through the death process over the course of the last several years. I have watched her and marveled at the way she has taken this on—moving them out of their home and into a facility, negotiating the hospice process, staying present with all of her feelings as they shift from utter frustration and impatience to endless tenderness and resilience. If you’re going to die, Lauren is the angel you want floating above you and clearing the way.

My teacher, Ms. Graber, had a reputation for being tough. Those who wanted tough flocked to her classes while others shunned her. She taught science. I was lucky enough to have won the lottery and got her for sophomore Biology. We bred fruit flies while studying dominant and recessive genes. When the year ended, I couldn’t wait to sign up for her Anatomy class. We got to dissect cats. I named my cat Aquanetta and pierced her ears. During our study of the central nervous system, I painstakingly preserved the spinal cord and left intact a ganglia of nerves leading to the brain stem. Ms. Graber told me she’d never seen anyone do that before, and that’s when I started to have illusions of becoming a brain surgeon.

In Anatomy, I learned to love the human body in a way I never expected—way down to the cellular level. I still remember the Krebs cycle and how I diligently colored the mitochondria purple in my anatomy coloring book. As many times as I’ve gone through my library of books and cast away those I’m certain I’ll never look at again, I still cling to that anatomy coloring book.

Ms. Graber came to school every day wearing a skirt and a white lab coat. She had a devilish grin and an infectious giggle. Her whole body shook when she laughed, which was a lot. Her tests were filled with jokes. I could tell where my classmates were in comparison based on when they laughed. Steve Russell, for instance, always laughed first because he was the fastest—but then he ended up as class valedictorian and promptly packed his bags for MIT. A lot of my classmates went on to become doctors. I think this is a direct result of having such a great teacher.

Dying is hard. I know this from being so close to Lauren as her parents die. It takes a long time for the body to fail—to say nothing of our resistance as we cling so desperately to life. I wonder if Ms. Graber has endured any of those hideous cancer treatments, descending into the bowels of the hospital where they tend to hide the department known as nuclear medicine: two more words that are striking in their incongruity.

In my letter to her, I have told my favorite teacher, “I wish I could see you, see your face, hear your voice, hug you. I hope that you are receiving an outpouring of love from so many people whose lives you have touched, mine included. I hope you are celebrating yourself and your accomplishments. I hope especially that you are not in pain.”