Marble Surface

About two weeks ago as I walked down the halls of my school, a colleague standing in the doorway of his class said to me, “This is when I am jealous of Karen. She was always able to sit and have full conversations with her students in Spanish.” He went on to explain how it always amazed him. As I walked away it struck me how it must be over twenty years since that teacher saw Karey in a classroom and what she was able to do still has an impact on him today.


This is the impact of a teacher.


In my twenty years as a teacher I have been fortunate to work with and learn from many amazing educators; however, Karey was my first mentor. I first saw her ability to form relationships with kids and hold their attention through activities as a camp counselor. When I was in college, I would visit her classroom from time to time. She had a natural ability to build positive relationships with her students and create a classroom environment that both challenged and supported her students. When I began teaching, I would often pick her brain for ideas for lessons or strategies to use in my classroom. To this day, I still have boxes in my basement of materials she handed down to me. While I’ve moved out of the classroom and into a role as an administrator where I no longer need them, I take comfort in having something tangible to remind me of the mark she has left on me.


This is the impact of a teacher.


When she stepped away from teaching to stay at home and raise her four boys, Karey still drew from her “teacher side” with the creation of a chore chart, displaying the boys’ artwork in the kitchen, and decorating bedroom doors with notes of encouragement or for their birthdays. Through her work on the PTO, Karey continued to support the teachers and staff in the schools her boys attended. I remember on February 4, 2018 when Karey was admitted to the hospital and the Eagles were playing in the Super Bowl. The teachers from the boys’ elementary school pulled together at the last minute to throw a Super Bowl party for Dave and the boys.


This is the impact of a teacher.


I think of Karey often, but I find myself thinking of her more every May. This month is Brain Tumor Awareness Month, and May 1- May 7 is Teacher Appreciation Week. It’s a week to honor and appreciate the hard work and dedication of teachers. I find myself reflecting more on the influence Karey still holds on me and what thoughts she would have as a former educator and mother. I think she would want teachers to know that even on the most challenging days, they are making a difference. That what they do has an impact on each student, so do your best to make it a positive one. She would want students to know that their teachers start each day leaving their own personal burdens, stressors, or responsibilities at the door so they can help their students achieve. She would want parents to know that teachers want nothing more than for their child to succeed. She would want all of us to know that time is precious, and it is up to us to make a lasting impact on those around us.


This is the impact of a teacher.


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To be completely honest, I don't remember much about Friday, February 9, 2018.


I remember the Saturday before she died. It was the last time she was in our house. Even though she would be alive almost another week, by the time she left our house and went to the hospital in Philadelphia, she was already gone. For the month leading up to this moment, the woman who had raised me was slowly being sucked away, little by little. And by Saturday, February 3, 2018, that woman was gone. There was no surgery and no treatment that could make her go back to my mom like the other times.



I remember the Wednesday before she died. I remember sitting in my room when my dad came in with my brother and sat us both down. He explained that we had to go to Philadelphia. At this point, I had begun to understand what was going on. When we got to the hospital, I saw all my aunts, uncles, and grandparents in the Neuro Intensive Care Unit waiting room that I had spent far too much time in.


Shortly after we got there, my dad, my brothers, and I went into a room and someone from the hospital explained that our mom’s time in this world was coming to an end. I don’t remember a single word from that interaction, only the feeling. The way my eyes stung and burned. The way the world blurred. The way the bright white fluorescent lights felt like I was looking into the sun. The way my jaw clenched as if I were trying to break my teeth. The way the walls seemed to be swallowing me. The way my ears refused to let any sound in because of the overload of thoughts running through my mind. And then I walked back to that waiting room.


Numb.


The overwhelming feelings had now been replaced by nothingness. My mind, which had been unable to process the simplest of questions just a moment ago, was now completely blank. I felt nothing.


February 9, 2018


The doctors had said, “it could be three hours or it could be three days”. We had no doubt that it would be three days. Throughout her entire battle, my mom had hit the far end of the range. Only about 25% of patients with glioblastoma live for over a year. She lived for a year and four months. But eventually, she had to hit the end of the range. Karen Stevenson, my mom, died on February 9, 2018. She was 43.


I don’t remember much from that day. I remember the drive home. I felt sorry. For myself sure, but more so for my mom because of everything that she wouldn’t get to experience. My mom never got to see me go to high school or prom, or drive a car. She won’t get to see me pick a college, graduate high school, or go to college. She won’t get to see me graduate college, find a job, or buy a house. She won’t see me get married or dance with me at my wedding. She won’t meet her grandkids, spoil them, or see them grow up. And then multiply all of that by three to account for my brothers. She won’t get to see us grow into the men that she raised us to be.


It isn’t fair to her.


In the four years since she died, there are some things that haven’t changed. There hasn’t been a single day that I have not thought of my mom. I can still hear her laugh and the way it would stand out over everyone else’s. I still get the same feeling every time that I have to actually say the words “my mom died,” or when someone asks why I want to be a doctor. I have to swallow when I say it or else the words get caught in my throat. The feeling where I am transported back into that room in the hospital. The feeling where, for a second, it feels as if my heart has bottomed out. It’s not that I don’t like talking about my mom, because I do, it is just different to say it.


Four Years Later


The microscopic part of me that hasn’t been forced to grow up and is clinging to the innocence of childhood still hopes that none of this really ever happened. That one day, I will go downstairs and there will be my mom, just like four years ago.


I miss my mom more than words could ever say. It’s been four years since I have talked to or seen her and I will have to go through many more years without her, which seems almost impossible. But as a close friend said to me once, I just have to get through each day and remember how proud my mom would have been of me. I will continue to make her proud throughout the rest of my life in everything that I do.


So to my mom, I say thank you. Thank you for showing me how to live my life: with kindness, compassion, gratitude, joy, and courage. Thank you for being my harshest critic and fiercest supporter. Thank you for being the usually sole bright spot in the toughest of times. Thank you for loving me and everyone else you knew with your whole heart. Thank you for instilling ambition, humility, and perseverance in me. Thank you for sharing your loving personality with the unforgiving world. But most of all, thank you for being my mom.


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This time of year gratitude seems to turn into a bit of a buzzword. I myself have countless abandoned, half-finished gratitude journals throughout my house. It’s a practice that started as a tribute to Karey, but I’ve never been able to stick to it. She religiously kept a gratitude journal, documenting a variety of things every single day for which she was grateful. It’s a habit that I envy but have never been able to replicate. This year, I will do something different. Instead of pretending this will be the year I can finally make it stick, I’ll use this as my official gratitude journal entry. This year, I’ll write about a few of the things I’ve learned to be grateful for in the wake of losing my sister. The things that remind me that even though she’s gone, she’s still very much a part of my life.


1) Laughter. I’d like to think I’ve always been the type of person who appreciates a good laugh, but I’ve become even more aware of the importance of real, true, soul-soothing laughter since Karey died. Everyone who knew her, knows what an amazing and hearty laugh she had. She loved nothing more than a good old-fashioned belly laugh. Since her death I’ve found two different notes from Karey, both imploring me to “always keep your laughter.” I find myself pausing in these moments now – when someone I’m with really, truly laughs, when we can’t stop ourselves, when we are laughing so hard we cry, when it just takes our breath away. I try to pause and take it all in, and hold on to it for as long as possible, every time it happens. These are moments to savor, to be grateful for. I promise, Kar, we are keeping the laughter.


2) Dragonflies. Four years ago I don’t think I’ve ever noticed a single dragonfly, but now they seem to show up any time I need a little kick in the pants or to adjust my attitude. The first time I saw one I was sitting in my car, trying to think through a particular issue with one of my boys, overthinking and stressing about being a good mom. I saw two dragonflies just kind of hovering around. A little bit later, after I'd made peace with whatever was worrying me, I saw them again. Google immediately informed me that yes, in fact, in some circles, dragonflies are considered signs from those we’ve loved and lost. The first family vacation we took after Karey died, one landed on my mom’s shoulder while we were out and just hung out for a few minutes. I didn’t need any further convincing. We see them so often now my boys call them “Aunt Karey bugs”. While I don’t think she’d be thrilled to hear she’s a bug now in their young minds, I know she’s happy they feel connected to her. I'm so thankful now every time I see one, I know she's telling me I'm heading down the right path and everything is going to be alright.


3) Perspective. It’s not perfect, but I’ve definitely shifted the way I look at life. I know almost everyone who has experienced loss or tragedy says this and feels this. Before it happened to me, this idea always seemed like such a radical shift, like it was suddenly so easy to only put emphasis and urgency on the truly important things. But it’s not, it’s more like a constant recalibration of what is deserving of your time, your energy, your worry, your love. It’s still getting sucked into the unimportant things at times but having the knowledge to step back and say, this isn’t a real problem and this doesn't deserve my energy. And then adjusting your expectations around it. It’s allowing yourself to be ok with the magic and beauty in the every day. And it’s knowing that not everything HAS to be magical and beautiful. Sometimes it’s just ok, and that is more than enough. Life is full of joy and sadness, it's easy and complicated, all wrapped up together. Life is messy and it’s hard. But if you have the right perspective you can figure out which messes are worth cleaning up.


Thank you, Karey, for all you gave me. Maybe this is the year I’ll finally keep up with the journaling. If not, I’m sure there will be a dragonfly there to remind me that I don't have to write about it to feel the gratitude.


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