A few years ago…okay, five years back, the thought of turning sixty did not make me happy. I told friends, facetiously, that I could only imagine two possible ways to confront this milestone: slit my wrists or have a big party. Obviously I opted for the latter, which turned out to be a great choice. Nearly 80 people came to the party, enjoyed a Mexican feast and listened to live music, birthday songs in both English and Spanish, and speeches. When I was finally given the microphone, I mentioned my earlier, depressing thoughts about entering a new decade and said that what had changed my mind about the first choice was the chance to hear people say nice things about me while I could still appreciate them.
Moving ahead five years, my friend Jan Z. will start receiving hospice care today. I asked her permission to write an homage to her now so that she, too, could hear nice things about herself, though I told her that based on the growing number of comments from all her former educator colleagues on her Facebook page, I was sure her head had been swelling for days. Always the teacher, she corrected me. “It’s not so much my ego that’s affected by reading them. I feel like my heart is full of satisfaction, because the dream of all educators is that we can make a positive difference, not just for kids but for everyone we influence.” Jan and I worked together for more than 20 years, but I don’t want to talk about that period. The people she supervised, mentored and inspired are covering that arena well. What I think about is our time together the last two years, after she chose retirement and later when I joined her in that wonderful adventure. We never did anything big together, nor did we spend long periods of time in each other’s company, but each outing felt special.
Last fall, we took a class to learn to make fancy Christmas cards. Of course hers were beautiful. I kept the last one she made. By then I understood how much work went into it, although I also realized that knowing Jan, she probably didn’t break a sweat when cutting out, gluing, and embossing more than 100 of them. While each phase of her card needed time to dry, she managed to make a few quilts for her grandkids and sew “care bags” for American soldiers overseas. During this time, she and her husband took a class at their church to learn how to “walk beside a family in crisis.” Last summer she joined me for a field trip to a farmers’ market some distance from my home; not only did I end up with some great fruits and veggies, but also some wonderful meals thanks to Jan’s immediate offer of favorite recipes. We carpooled to other events, such as a luncheon with former colleagues 60 miles north of here, and dinners around town. She consulted on my fabric choices for a settee. Throughout this period, and for a long time before, Jan was undergoing regular chemo treatments, but she never uttered a word of complaint. Each time I saw her, including in the hospital ten days ago, she was upbeat, generous in spirit and positive about her life and her future.
Although Jan was a devout Christian, the being that comes to mind when I think of her these last two years is the bodhisattva, an individual who forestalls becoming a Buddha so he or she can guide others to this state. According to Wikipedia, in some traditions, a bodhisattva “proceeds through ten grounds, one of which is Great Joy: It is said that being close to enlightenment and seeing the benefit for all sentient beings, one achieves great joy, hence the name.” Anyone who talks to Jan right now will leave feeling that she has reached the stage of great joy. Recently I saw a notice about a Fathers’ Day contest calling for six-word stories about dad. Here’s my six-word attempt to sum up Jan as she is today: She shows us how to part.
Although Jan is completely at peace, I’m sure many of her friends, myself included, are not. For us, I’ll share a haiku by the 18th/19th century Japanese haiku poet Issa.
The world of dew— A world of dew it is indeed, And yet, and yet…