A longtime friend admitted me recently, “I wake up at night consumed in mind-numbing terror. It wraps me up like up like a quilt and refuses to let go. I am now in my sixties, and while I am in perfect health and could live another thirty years or more, too many contemporaries have died over the years for me to ignore death anymore. The finality of it brings peace to many, but to me, it is the great unknown.”
She continued, “My heart begins to beat, my hands’ quiver, and I stare into the night with my eyes wide open.”
“Is there anything you do to combat such dread?” I inquire.
“Yes,” she chortled, ” I started letting my dog sleep with me! However, the funniest thing happened after that. Occasionally, I’d wake up and see my dog sitting there on my bed, his eyes wide open, and I know that he’s been thinking the same thing!”
When I told our mutual friend, Liz, about it, she responded that “fear doesn’t shut you down; it actually wakes you up.”
I’ve known Liz for more than fifty years, and I know that she’d understand. After all, she’s a master teacher, a world-class mother, and an unpretentious lover of life. Not surprisingly, Liz’s emotional IQ is off-the-charts. Despite the fact that she’s a deep thinker, her self-effacing humor has invariably framed her.
Typically, Liz processed it and then responded: “Think about all of the students you and I have taught over the years, Shaun – fear is what defines them. They might fear anything from math to failure. For some pupils, it motivates them to greatness. For others, however, fear can morph into an emotional ‘Jersey barrier’. It’s our job to have them acknowledge it – and then have them move on…somehow.”
As someone who always admired Liz’s sagacity and quietude, I then ask, “You’ve had fears in your life, haven’t you?”
“My Dear!” she guffaws, “I have had more than I could count! For years, my fears defined me, kept me in my place – consumed me to such an extent that I was stuck in neutral. Oh, yes, Shaun, fear and I have known each other very well over the years!”
For as long as I can remember, Liz has always been a high achiever. She was in the top academic levels at our local junior and senior high schools in Wellesley, Massachusetts; she excelled in college, and eventually became a revered elementary school teacher who was beloved by both the children and the parents of the Stratham, New Hampshire public school system. Liz’s enduring esprit de corps is such that she essentially organized the last two reunions our high school class has had. Her passion for reading, music, and travel has long appealed to her sense of creativity. When she scolded me for not taking a vacation outside of New England for more than a decade, Liz bellowed, “I have known you for almost fifty years, Shaun! It’s time for you to live life for the moment because everything else is, at most, an uncertainty!”
When I remind her that she and I are in the giving business as teachers, Liz scolds me. “You need to start giving to yourself as well! However, it shouldn’t be some kind of temporary piece of cake, but something that will open your eyes beyond your little classroom!”
I nod and take it all in. Coming from Liz, I realize that she’s looking out for me. She’s like that – and that’s why I’ve routinely turned to her over the years. “We knew each other when we had pimples for God’s sake,” Liz cries. “Now, sadly we have wrinkles! We’ve been around the same block – and back.”
Of course, Liz and I customarily communicate without the presence of any period at the end of a sentence. For us, there’s never been much of an introduction or a preamble. I might receive a simple, “Did you see that?” from her after a presidential debate, a Red Sox game, or a newsflash.
Consequently, when the subject of fear came up a few years ago, I knew that Liz would deal with it scrupulously. She did not disappoint: “To rid yourself of fear, you can’t avoid it. You have to go right through it. Our friend you mentioned is terrified of death – who isn’t – but if you look at life as a cycle similar to the seasons, it all makes sense. What frightens most people is that they don’t know how long the life sequence will be. It would be much more convenient if we all lived for a hundred years. But no one knows when they’re own winter will come. Thus, the fear. Ultimately, you have to acknowledge it and then move on. You can’t let it control your life – or it will. Instead, you need to drive your own bus – and not let it drive you into a ditch.”
For years, music, literature, and sports have often provided us with a constant flow of communication back and forth. In particular, we’ve long been fascinated by what the other person has been reading. In recent years, Liz has become increasingly obsessed with young adult fiction, and, as a result, I eventually began reading books by John Boyne, Jodi Picoult, John Green, and Suzanne Collins. When I read Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale last April and posted it on Goodreads, Liz contacted me and asked, “Is it as good as they say it is?”
“Yes,” I replied.
She began reading it that weekend.
We also made a handful of music CD’s for each other, especially during our summer vacations. She began the last one she sent me with Jeff Buckley’s incomparable rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” In a brief explanatory note, Liz wrote, “We’ve talked a lot about the notion of timelessness in art. I can’t think of anything more sustaining than this version of ‘Hallelujah.’ Crossing the barriers into creative immortality must be such a rush!”
When she was fortunate enough to attend Game 6 of the 2013 World Series at Fenway Park, Liz sent me a Facebook message the following morning: “There I was sitting at the old ballpark with my son about to watch our beloved Sox clinch a World Series championship at home. Can it get any better than this? I think not.” A passionate New England Patriots fan, Liz has actively supported Tom Brady from the beginning of Deflategate – and never let go. Indeed, she was the first Facebook user I know to have posted an article defending the Pats’ superstar quarterback. She has always believed in “Our Tommy.”
Nevertheless, the subject that has consumed much of our correspondence has been education. Over the years, Liz and I have shared the challenges, the intensity, and the all-encompassing delight that comes with being a veteran classroom teacher. “How do you explain to those who don’t inhabit a classroom what a gift it is to teach children?” she once wrote to me.
Liz especially relishes the special joy that comes with teaching first and second graders. In a phone conversation a few winters ago, she described the sound of pencils racing across the paper – learning by doing – as more powerful than the unrelenting clapping of an appreciative audience. Liz relished sprinkling her magical dust on “the strugglers” – especially those fortunate souls she so patiently worked with in one-on-one situations. Albus Dumbledore once said to Harry Potter, “We teachers are rather good at magic, you know.”
Liz has always been that kind of instructor.
Accordingly, I regularly contacted her whenever a teaching job opened up at The Greenwich Country Day School where I teach for the following year. “Liz, I know for a fact that you’d love it here. It’s so close to Manhattan; the kids are incredible, the administration is superb, and the opportunities for you here are limitless.”
For a week or two, Liz would hem and haw and then respond with a message that was heartfelt, unpretentious, and unchanging. “Shaun, I know I won’t be offered a contract with my public school district until the late spring or early summer – that’s the deal here. Yes, maybe I will finally be axed for economic reasons, but I think not. The spotless quality of your independent school, the ideal setting, and the incredible support system at GCDS is so tempting to me, but I would be letting down the next batch of kids who I would teach here. I can’t do that to them. They need me more in Stratham, New Hampshire than the children of Greenwich, Connecticut needs me. It’s as simple as that. I know you ‘get it.’”
As her adult children began to enjoy success on their own in recent years, Liz began to shake off the cobwebs of habit and began to travel extensively. Of course, very few friends of mine have seen more of the world than Liz. We would have occasional discussions about that, especially because she knew that I had hardly traveled anywhere for nearly two decades. “My Dear, you need to branch out, see the world, not be so content with your little nook and cranny. God, you’ve always been such a creature of habit! You were a townie in Wellesley, and now you’re just a townie, period!” I laugh heartily because childhood friends can say anything to one another. It’s one of the joys of knowing and trusting someone for more than half a century.
Much to my amusement and wonder, Liz’s Facebook page began to turn into a veritable travelogue. From Bali in the South Pacific to the canyons of Utah, Liz took advantage of her newfound freedom and ventured beyond her comfort zone. “I am evolving,” she emailed to me in 2015, “and the one thing I do recognize is that if I remain stagnant, I stall out and then wither away like an old Buick. I am now at ‘full speed ahead’ mode!”
When I admitted to her later on that I found comfort in “compliant stagnation,” she giggled and said, “Ah, Shaun, you need to put such doubts to bed. Do you get it? You too need to be a fear-buster!
Fairness has been another long-standing issue for Liz; and so on May 20 last year, when she posted a news item on Facebook, which reported that the top 25 hedge fund managers earn more than all of the kindergarten teachers in the US combined, I immediately checked off the Like button. “It’s really very sad ….” Liz wrote after posting the link, “because I guess that their ability to earn all that money started out with a great education provided by those underpaid teachers ….”
The following day, I informed Liz that I was finally visiting our high school’s new building that she had visited not long after it opened in 2011. “It’s about time, Shaun, to show your Wellesley Red Raider pride once again!” she replied. “And have a great time at the Cape afterward. I would love to walk with you on Nauset Beach this weekend!
Two days later, Liz canceled a dinner engagement with a Statham friend and informed her that she was feeling a little under the weather.
Sometime that evening, Liz died.
For those of us who loved her, it was if we had experienced a collective car crash. Subsequently, Liz’s Facebook page became a memorial to an individual who lived life with every solitary breath, even as she equivalently enriched the lives of those around her. As our fellow classmate, Nancy Gubellini Cook, wrote to me a few weeks ago, “Liz was a deeply spiritual, humble woman who never realized how she touched more people that she knew. Accordingly, her loss has been immeasurable.”
It’s been a year since Liz has passed, and yet I still think of her in the present tense. I guess for anyone who conquered something as palpable as fear; I have a strong sense of what Liz would want all of us to do. It’s almost as if I can hear say – move forward. Face life straight on. Know that whatever time you do have is an indeterminate gift that has neither a clock nor any limitations.
I get it, Liz.
I finally get it.