Cancer made me who I am today
There’s a post I’ve been contemplating writing for quite some time. Now, thanks to Jess, I have found the perfect time to share it with all of you.
After losing her mother to cancer, Jess has been a strong advocate for finding a cure for cancer. She’s hosting a blog hop so people can discuss their experiences with cancer. My close friends all know about my teacher that passed away to cancer but now, I would like to share this story with all of you. Why? Because this woman was and still is my inspiration every day.
At one point during the first few weeks of school when I was in third grade, a woman who I recognized came into the cafeteria during our lunch and turned off the lights (remember when this was the sign for everyone to be quiet? What a strange concept). This woman’s name was Sandy Herman and she was a special education teacher. Little did I know that this very day would change my life forever.
Once she had everyone’s attention, she removed the red hat she was wearing to reveal a bald head. We were astonished! What woman has no hair? And why is she showing us? She then told all of us – an entire elementary school – that she had cancer. I’d heard the word before. I knew my grandfather died of cancer when I was 15 months old. Therefore I knew cancer was bad news bears. Because she was a one on one tutor with some of my peers in my third grade classroom, we began to see her more. Once a week we would gather in a corner of the classroom and sit and listen to her speak. She taught us wonderful lessons that I don’t think any normal third graders would grasp but she made it so easy for us to understand. She talked very openly about dying. She talked about her wishes to be cremated & have us decorate Chinese takeout boxes so we could all keep a piece of her when she was gone(this never happened & it only occurred to me a few years ago that parents might have a slight issue with their 8 year olds getting ashes from their teacher). She taught us about giving from the heart and how you can’t put a price on something you have given out of love. She taught us about dying wishes – she travelled to Greece, Jerusalem & the Virgin Islands in the months before her death. We helped pick out a hat for her to wear in her obituary picture. She talked about her regrets for never starting a family of her own but shared with us how much she loved her friend’s son whom she referred to as her nephew. I remember how she dressed as a “punk rocker” for Halloween that year and bought a striking pink mohawk wig that she applied to her bald head. This is what she did – always making the best out of a bad situation.
I remember her telling us how sick the radiation and chemo made her feel. I remember how when her hair began to grow back she had a fuzzy graying head which was a big change from the brunette waves she had beforehand. I remember her growing weaker and more tired. Eventually she had to leave school. One of her close friends came in every week though to pass along messages from her and talk about how she was doing. The parents had initiated a phone tree and we knew the time was near. On Sunday, May 13, 1989 the call came. Mrs. Herman has peacefully passed away. I was devastated.
My mother made the calls required of her by the phone tree. My father took me to the park to meet up with one of my classmates & best friends. We cried. I screamed how much I hated her for leaving us. I was beyond upset. “It’s not fair! She didn’t say goodbye! She promised us she would say goodbye!” This is when I first started learning about death and grieving and how there are different stages. I remember some details of the next few days so vividly. Being asked to put the flag at half staff. Attending the funeral with my mom and two other classmates where we stood in front of her garden as her ashes were spread over it. I remember being gripped with fear. Fear that I would die. My parent’s would have to tuck me in & talk me down every night because I was scared i would die in my sleep. I know everyone goes through a stage where you realize your own mortality and it scares you but it had to be disturbing to my parents to deal with that coming from an 8 year old.
After she was gone, I could still see her & hear the lessons she tried to teach us. I struggled with a lot of things but I will never ever forget her & the courageous battle she fought. Whenever I need to give a gift, I do it from the heart. I have a bucket list of things I would do if I found out tomorrow I was dying. She taught me so much and I will be forever grateful. I’ve spoken to FF & my family about my wishes should I get sick or have a tragic accident. Cancer sucks…but without it I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I miss Mrs. Herman every day but I also hope that I have made her proud by continuing to spread her message.