A Matter of Life and Death

I am a two-year cancer survivor. I am grateful every day for the second chance at life I’ve been given. I’ve been too close to the alternative not to be grateful.

I have a friend who might not be so lucky. He is a family friend of several decades. Our sons were in the same class in school. His daughter is a good friend of my daughter. Our families have been very close at times.

But he is now in big trouble. Diagnosed more than a year ago with a rare form of advanced lung cancer, Sloan Kettering doctors put him in a clinical trial. My husband, who ran into him every week at the grocery store said he was doing well.

Then suddenly that changed. The doctors thought the reason for his blurry vision was cataracts. They were removed but his vision became more blurry. Then he stopped being able to chew his food and began to need a liquid diet to sustain him. A spinal tap was done and cancer was found in his spinal fluid. A course of radiation was prescribed next. Nothing changed.

Now he is barely able to speak comprehensibly. Upset by this twist of fate, my family and I visited his family yesterday. His wife told me he hasn’t wanted any visitors because he feels so embarrassed about his condition. But he agreed to see us.

We spent a low key, pleasant two hours with him and his family. He began to perk up as the time passed, and spoke quite a bit more than I had expected him to. He clearly enjoyed being part of the conversation which was mostly about funny shared memories of events that transpired when our kids were younger.

Toward the end of the visit he brought up the subject of his illness and told us what events were in store for him this coming week: an MRI of his brain, a visit with the oncologist to discuss the chemo he will soon be undergoing and a couple of other doctor visits. He will start chemo on Thursday. He has not given up hope and is anxious to start the course of chemo therapy.

It was a difficult thing to do: to face someone you care about deeply, who you suspect might not live much longer. I think our visit meant a lot to him; he thanked my son for coming out from Brooklyn to see him. We told him we would be rooting for him every day; he said he would let us know how things progress.

Going to visit him to cheer him up and cheer him on was not easy but it was the right thing to do. He is in a fight for his life and he needs all the love and support he can get.

Freedom’s Just Another Word….

I recently visited my former school where I taught English as a Second Language for 22 years.  I haven’t been back for two years, the most significant reason being that within two months of my retirement I was diagnosed with late-stage cancer.   This past year I have begun to reclaim my life and this month I had the perfect reason to return: I needed some teaching materials for tutoring an ESL Beginner and was going there to borrow them from the teacher who replaced me.

I made arrangements to arrive at the school at the end of the school day. As I pulled alongside the curb under the shady tree where I had parked for several years before I retired, it felt like I had never left.  Everything about the outside of the school was exactly the same, including the giant oak tree which stood right outside my window and I lovingly dubbed “my tree.” This back entrance I had used during my final years because it was right next to my classroom. My colleague suddenly appeared and we embraced.  It had been two years since I had last seen her.

Going into the building was like stepping back in time.  There was a hush in the hallway where my room had been because most of the teachers had already left for the day.  My previous classroom was now occupied by a third grade teacher; I peeked in through the door window and felt a poignant pang.  I loved that room; it was so peaceful and spacious with bold touches of red on the floor and walls.

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We proceeded to my colleague’s classroom. Stepping into her room I was struck by how familiar it all seemed.  It resembles classrooms across the country which are set up in much the same way. The first thing I noticed is that she has a Smart Board.   This is an interactive screen which affords a teacher a myriad of ways to teach using technology. When I left, I was still using markers on a white board. No one had offered me a Smart Board. Sigh.

Next I noticed the charts around the room that reflect the topics and strategies the teacher has been focusing on.  I saw  my board games stacked on a couple of shelves and a cart full of Big Books I had left behind.  As I examined and touched each item it all seemed so vividly familiar to me. I was glad to see my replacement still had four PC computers available to her students; she uses a lot of technology-based activities with them.

We gathered my materials, put them into containers, carried them out to my car and went to have an early dinner together at a nearby diner, another place I used to haunt. As we pulled away from the school I felt a bit nostalgic. The strongest feeling I had, however, was that I was so glad to be free of the constraints that made my final years of teaching not so fulfilling or rewarding.

It is an impossible task to make ESL students meet the new standards and score well on the state tests as quickly as the state expects them to. My evaluations took a nose dive because my students performed poorly on the tests. I went from being an award-winning ESL teacher to being labeled a “Developing Teacher.” It was a losing battle and I am glad to be free of it.

I loved my students and I loved being an ESL teacher. I gave it my all for 22 years, but it’s time to enjoy the rest of my life.

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