Death, the Ultimate Teacher

I am not dying… yet. But it is inevitable. I was reminded of that today. Mortality is not an unknown. But it is the how, when, and where that elude us. I’ve seen death too often to never forget that life is short. And had I not been living by that mantra, I could have missed a chance to say a good bye to someone special in my life. A family member, not through Blood but through Love. My ex-husband let me know over the weekend that she did not have much longer. I knew I had to go see her, but visiting hours were limited and the hospice is an hour away. I planned to go Thursday when I had a morning break before a department chair retreat. But I’ve learned that when someone is in hospice, you just don’t know how long they have left. I was supposed to go to LA for a conference today, but last night I decided, no – I’m not going to choose work over saying good bye. What if she doesn’t make it until Thursday?! I knew the aggressive cancer had spread with no hope left to save her. Who is she, you ask? A woman I called Auntie by marriage. She was never married. No children. Devoutly religious. Strong willed. Fiercely independent. Wildly intellectual. No man had been a match for her, and she never wanted to settle. She was a high school teacher – Lincoln High in San Diego – and she lit up with beaming pride when she recalled her days of teaching her beloved student, Terrell Davis – Denver Bronco running back and 2017 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. She had so many admirable qualities. And she had supported me in many ways, even after I split from her nephew.

I left for Bonita this morning with a book in hand in case she might want me to read to her. She loved books. She was one of my biggest fans when it came to my writing. When I posted my writings, she would consistently ask, “When is your book coming out? You better do it because I want to read it!” She inspired me. Motivated me. Believed in me. That’s what teachers do. The book I brought with me was Happy: Secrets to Happiness From Cultures Around the World. I don’t even remember how I came to own the book. I decided right before leaving my place that I should get a book to read to her, but I didn’t have time to buy one. So I went to my bookshelf, and it was the first one on the outside corner of the top shelf. I saw it and grabbed it quickly. I had not even read it yet.

The family was happy to see me. They had not seen me since our split which was almost 2 years ago. They walked me to room 4. The door was slightly ajar. Purell and Kleenex were what I saw first, remembering the rules for visiting – clean hands thoroughly, wear a mask if you’ve been recently sick, and don’t come at all if you’re actively sick. As I entered the room and set my eyes on her, a deep sting hit my gut. It’s a shock to the memory to see someone dying from cancer. Their hair has fallen out, their skin is dull, and their body is still, near lifeless. There is such a stark difference from the vibrancy of life she exuded during the good times I spent with her. It pained me tremendously to see her this way.

She looked like she was sleeping, but Uncle D said she can hear us. So I said hello. She turned to me, opened her eyes, and smiled. She reached her delicate hands out to touch mine. I rubbed them and noticed her nails were beautiful. Tubes were pierced into her arms, flushing morphine drops to soothe her pain. More tubes snaked into her nostrils, feeding her artificial nutrition to sustain whatever is left of her gastric system. She whispered my name, “Thao.” She pulled me toward her, softly, gently, warmly. The tears could no longer be restrained. But in that moment, I remembered again, life is short. Don’t waste this precious moment with her in sadness! I centered myself, smiled as widely as I could, and began talking to her. I told her I couldn’t wait to start writing my book because she was always one of my biggest fans. I then told her I got my sabbatical approved for fall of this year. I will finish my book, with a dedication to her! She smiled and even tried to giggle, but I could see it hurt her to try. So instead, she opened her eyes and blinked many, many times. I pulled out the Happy book, and asked if she would like for me to read to her. She said yes emphatically with a smile and several slow nods. I scanned the table of contents to find a title that might be suitable for this moment. And there it was.. “Recognise Your Teachers”… HOW PERFECT.

I read slowly, loudly, and enthusiastically. She would make soft sounds and smile, letting me know she was pleased with what she was hearing. As I finished, other visitors began to line up outside the door. My time was up. I had to say good bye. But no, I said, “I’ll come see you again and read to you some more.” She nodded, reached her arms out again, pulled me in very close, kissed my cheek, and held my face to hers. I will not forget this moment, thinking it might be my last with her, and knowing she won’t be around for me to read my own authored book to her.

I left the hospice to visit another Auntie on my ex-husband’s side. She was diagnosed with cancer last year, and she responded to her therapy quite successfully, so she was alive and well. She’s not out of the woods yet, but she is living her life to the fullest. We chatted about her travels, about family updates, and her daughter (ex-hubby’s cousin) was there, too. She is about deliver her first child any day now. We three had a lovely time lunching and laughing. We reminisced over stories of our times shared in the past and agreed life is beautiful which made us each feel good about what is to come. I left their home feeling a deep sense of fulfillment from the nostalgia of the past and bright sense of hope for the future.

I arrived home an hour later. Pork Chop greeted me as usual with his wildly wagging pom-pom tail. When I bent down to nuzzle my face into his and scratch him behind his ears, he climbed onto my lap and curled his body into my chest. He then dropped his face into the crevice of my neck, pressing it there for quite some time. He had never done this before. It was as if he knew… I needed a hug. My goodness, dogs are amazing creatures.

As if this had been enough confrontations of death as of lately. Last week my dear friend in Houston lost her mother. Two days ago my dear friend here lost someone close to him. And after saying goodbye to Auntie today, I learned of another death in the early evening – someone in my circle, that happened this morning – he was also a teacher, and he also died from cancer. What. The. Fuck.

He was a young and dynamic Vietnamese American man who loved his family, volunteered his talents for his community, and supported my jewelry business with many gifts for his amazing wife, also a teacher. He told me that he loved buying from me because his money was gifted two fold – one to his wife, the other to students. His last purchase was for their 18th anniversary. He sent a picture of his lovely wife wearing the pieces on their weekend getaway. They knew how to live life in the end – in the moment. He shared with me in our last conversation, “Dealing with cancer sure changed my priorities and outlook on life, and in many ways I think I have become a much better human being, husband, and father.” He told me to keep up the good work with my business and to keep teaching because we both agreed it is a labor of love. He inspired me. Motivated me. Believed in me. That’s what teachers do.

Look at it again – the passage from the Happy book that I read to Auntie.
Tradition:Visiting Teachers
Date:The third day of Tet (lunar new year: January/February)
Celebrated in:Vietnam

I did not get to visit my friend. I did not get to say good bye to him. I am so truly sorry. But know that I acknowledge you and all you’ve done with your incredible life.

Finally, I learned this evening that Auntie is no longer receiving visitors. It must be getting very bad for her. I believe the end is near. I am happy I made the choice to cancel work today. As much as I am dedicated to my labor of love as a teacher, I must remember my priorities.

The roller coaster of emotions today had me struggling to stay centered. It is through writing about these ups and downs and all around of emotions that ground me – and through the smiles, tears, fulfillment, regret, nostalgia, optimism, grief, and happiness – in the end, while death is certain for all of us, another thing is sure for most of us. There is tomorrow. A super blue blood moon will come upon us – 152 years since the last. I’ll rise up, take my beloved Pork Chop outside, look up at the beauty in the sky, and think of those who have departed. They will stay with me. They are out there, up there, dancing in the moonlight. I’ll dance along, sing them a song, and celebrate their lives by doing what they did for me. Motivate someone. Inspire someone. Believe in someone. That’s what teachers do.

4 thoughts on “Death, the Ultimate Teacher”

  1. What an asolutely remarkable recant on the little things in life and how big they are in the trajectory in which they take us. I’m so sorry for your losses, and I’m so thankful for your heart, and that you were able to prioritize life’s love experiences over life’s obligations. Your auntie is, without a shimmer of doubt, positively right – whatever you publish will be magnificent! You’re an embodiment of inspiration through love and light. You practice what you preach, and for that I thank and appreciate you! 💖

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I know your Auntie remembered your SMILE that day in the hospital – it’s very contagious. As always, a poignant piece doc. And yes I admired that you have chosen to become a teacher – something I wished I had pursue. I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for thank you

    Liked by 1 person

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