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A Life that Mattered

She brought a zest for life to her elementary school classroom. She left a lasting impact on the students she taught and mentored. Her love of the natural world was a lesson embraced. Her classroom was a new adventure, a new opportunity every day.

That teacher was my sister Pat. Next month marks the sixteenth anniversary of her death, at the age of 56, after a sorrowful five-year struggle with Frontal Lobe Dementia. She was in her 28th year of teaching when the first symptoms appeared - personality changes, isolative behaviors, impulsive tendencies. It was the beginning of a new school year that fall of 1999 when she abruptly left her 4th grade students alone in the middle of the day, without notice, and drove home. She was never able to return. She never completed her teaching career. She never lived out her retirement dreams pursuing, with more time, her many varied interests.

Her condition worsened over the next year, and our family was forced to seek hospitalization and group home care for her. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, Frontal Lobe Dementia tends to occur at a younger age, with first symptoms occurring between 40 and 65. My sister was just 51 when the disease struck.

The late-stage symptoms common to this specific dementia, which marked my sister’s condition, were loss of interpersonal skills, decline in personal hygiene, repetitive compulsive behavior, and mutism. She lived out these years in a nurturing group home and died peacefully in her sleep in March of 2004.

Her biographical essentials include graduation from Muskegon High School in 1966 and Western Michigan University in 1970. Her teaching spanned nearly three decades in two school districts in southern lower Michigan. She was an expert birder, a Master Gardener, a loyal volunteer at a nature preserve, and a Cat Show regular throughout Michigan, showcasing her beloved Abyssinians. She shared these passions with her young students.

Naturalist and Silent Spring author Rachel Carson wrote: “If children are to keep alive their inborn sense of wonder, they need the companionship of one adult who can share it, rediscovering with them the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in. We do not have to implant this sense of wonder in children because it occurs naturally – but we do have the obligation to keep it alive within them.” 

Pat’s classroom kept that sense of wonder alive for her students. Her room was replete with books, posters, animals, study nooks, projects, bird feeders outside the window. It was full of promise and a sense of anticipation that every school day held the prospect of a spirited journey. Rachel Carson also wrote: “Each of us needs to ensure that every child gains strength and joy from nature and becomes an adult who will preserve and treasure his or her natural inheritance as something of infinite value.” My sister left an indelible mark on her students in sharing that wonder and awe of all living things.

I have frequently dwelled on how unfair it was that death came too early for her, that she was unable to live out her aspirations she had hoped to fulfill beyond her teaching years. Two years after Pat’s death, I had a dream that I was walking with her on a wooded trail we had traveled together many years before. At a point in the dream, she turned to me and said, “I need to go on by myself now. I’ll be okay.” I watched her move down the trail and disappear through the trees. In reflecting on this dream, I knew it was okay to let her go, for it was a splendid spring day in those woods, a type of day she loved. A type of day she primed her students to appreciate. To remember. And hold on to. I appreciate it too, for when I walk in the woods on a day like that, Pat is still with me.

Contact Rich at richmskgn@gmail.com

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