I’d always wondered if she were still alive and I was glad to learn that she was retired and living independently –still sharp as a tack in her 80s.
We exchanged a few emails and I told her what I’d always wanted her to know: that her high school journalism class–and she—were the most influential in the development of my career.
I remembered her as the epitome of a professional teacher:
her short-cropped brown hair; beautiful, clear complexion; no makeup.
Pencil skirts with crisp, high-necked blouses.
Always on her feet in front of class; behind her, large windows facing Ridge Road.
When I decided to visit Rochester, seeing her was top of my list. We decided to meet for a cup of coffee or tea. But just as we were finalizing our plans, nothing. Not a word from her.
This was inconsistent with our correspondence. I was concerned.
Then, an email from her niece, who had been alerted that our coffee date was pending. Miss W had taken a fall, had a seizure and was in the hospital.
I was shocked. What were the odds that she’d take this turn on the very week we were meeting? The good news was that she was doing ok in the hospital and would love a visit.
Rochester General is a familiar place. Not only did my father have medical privileges there, it was where my mother lived for almost the entire last year of her life.
I was there with her for perhaps half of that entire year.
Yes, a place known to me.
The garage was familiar but the lobby and entrances had been remodeled.
Still, I recognized some of the old, familiar doorways that marked my route
to whichever room my mother had been in that week.
The hospital chaplain’s office. The gift shop. Administration.
The Red Elevator (colors were also new) took me to the seventh floor,
where the expected stale odors of disinfectant and hospital food were missing.
I found Room 7873 immediately.
There, in a chair, sat Miss Webster.
I would have known her anywhere.
Her face was unlined, her eyes still alert and curious.
Her voice, exactly the same. Instead of a shirtwaist, she wore a hospital gown,
with jeans underneath. A denim cap covered what was left of her hair,
and embedded in the cap were pink ribbons.
“Come here and give me a hug!” she said.
I did, and then settled into the guest chair for a long visit.
I asked about her illness. She told me about her life.
We talked about teachers I remembered, students we both remembered.
We talked about the state of writing today and my own adjunct teaching career.
We talked about religion and reincarnation.
She said her balance had been affected by this latest turn
and her doctor told her she would not get it back.
“So it looks like I’ll have to work on my balance,” she said.
Miss W was never one to shirk a challenge.
Breast cancer had made an unwelcome visit about five years ago and this latest episode may have meant a spread to her brain. She’d already had a double mastectomy.
“I’m nothing, if not straightforward,” she said, “and I told them ‘take them both, they’re of no use to me or anyone else!'”
Chemotherapy had taken her hair, but cancer had not taken her spirit.
After about an hour, it was time to leave. I could have stayed for hours,
but I didn’t want to tire her.
“I want you to know that I did really well in my career,” I said,
“and the foundation for every bit of it was what I learned in your class.
I made my own way all these years based on those writing skills.”
Her eyes just shone.
“Now, get well,” I said. “I’ll be back in May and I expect to see you here.”
I went over and gave her a hug. She hugged me back.
“I hope you’re right,” she said.
“But if I’m not, I want you to know that I love you
and I’m very proud of you.”
Life is a series of additions and subtractions.
For everything we give up, we gain something in return.
On this trip, I gained the joy of reconnecting
with an influential person in my life.
I couldn’t help but think of what
I’ve missed by not having found her sooner.
The conversations over the years,
comparing notes on writing and teaching.
And yet, I’ve found her now.
And whether it’s for one month,
one year or one decade,
my life’s richer for it.