The gifts have been opened, and Santa claimed his cookies. My stomach was full after last night’s robust dinner — a seafood nabe “(nah-bay”), a one-pot dish of Japanese origin comprising any number of delicious ingredients cooked in a ceramic pot on the table. The choir in church sang many of my favorite carols (“Rise Up Shepherd and Follow”). And there was my son, precisely at 7:30 this morning, as promised, awakening my husband and me to see what Santa brought.
It’s a joyous day for us as a family, but a sad one for me as I have just received word that a friend and mentor, a fellow traveler on the Cancer Road, has died. Though we were not what some might consider close, his life had a tremendous influence on mine. He was the one who took a chance on my work in the classroom, having pulled my resume out of the tall stack of those from others applying for teaching at the college.
During my interview, I asked him why he chose me out of all the others clamoring for the position. After all, my resume could be interpreted as that of a vagabond, with many jobs and many moves. He replied instantly and enthusiastically, “Look at all that experience!”
After I began teaching, I would stop by Dr. Bailey’s office from time to time to chat and get his advice about how to negotiate problems in the classroom. After I wrote my column for the local newspaper about helicopter parents, he gave me a copy of one of his favorite poems, This Be The Verse, by Philip Larkin. I have tucked that copy away in a folder of items for my children labeled “Real Life” — articles, research and columns that I hope will help them through their later lives.
When I got the diagnosis of breast cancer in the summer of 2009, I called Les to talk with him about whether I could or should continue to teach. I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t think I should commit to classes that I might not be able to finish. As an adjunct, I knew this request could mean the end of my teaching career. By that time, Les had already been through the chemotherapy routine himself. Without hesitation, he told me not to worry, to see how the chemotherapy went, and to let him know what I felt I could do. Though I did stay out of the classroom for the year, Les arranged for me to continue to advise the student newspaper. When I decided to write this blog, he chuckled at my having named it after popsicles.
Les’s spirit was indomitable. Since last summer, he had been undergoing a second round of chemotherapy for recurrence, but was still teaching and active on campus. I saw him last a couple weeks ago, and there it still was, that shine in his eyes, that determined tone in his voice, eager to engage in conversation. So easy. So strong.
His passing on is sad because the world is a lesser place without him. My world is a lesser place without him. But I remind myself, as I imagine he would have me do — though his story is not my story, his spirit can take up residence in mine. I sit here typing, knowing that I can hide in my office in sadness, or I can get up and join the excited voices of my children and husband, playing a game in another room on this Christmas Day.
Rise up shepherd and follow.
Follow the star to Bethlehem.
Rise up shepherd and follow.