Stamped: An Indelible Mark Left By My Colleague and Friend
I pull the book off the shelf contemplating the lesson I'll be teaching the next morning. The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg, one of my favorites. There is a name stamped in slightly smudged black ink on the inside cover, however, and for a moment I have to catch my breath. I think the font is Franklin Gothic, and it's imprinted in half-inch letters on the inside cover. Full name and middle initial standing in between first and last. I pause, allowing a string of memories to pass through my mind's eye. An automatic smile accompanied by tears welling in my eyes. I run my fingers across her name, imperfectly stamped but bold, undeniably her -- Deb -- my dearest and best colleague, and I wished she were still one door down from my classroom.
Circumstances beyond my control brought me to meet Deb. I had been teaching a bubble class for two years, but when the bubble burst, I was assigned to third grade in a different school in my district. I was worried. I didn't know anyone and I'd have to build new relationships. So, I packed my boxes of bulletin borders, paper clips, and tape, and made the move. Deb, boisterous, very tall, freckled, one hundred percent Irish Catholic, Philly born and raised, devout Phillies and Eagles fan, greeted me and grabbed a box out of my hands. She took me straight to my room where she helped me move in and get settled into my new classroom. We were instant friends, and with that friendship came years of eating lunch together every day, sharing life's struggles and joys, but most importantly, never a day without full-on belly laughter about only-God knows what.
One day, I showed her a strategy I had found called, Click and Clunk. I made little cards for kids to hold up as we read a passage and if they knew it, they'd flash "click" but if they didn't, they'd flash "clunk." That's when she gave us our new nicknames.
"You're Click," she said with her normal deadpan face that always sent me laughing. "I'm Clunk. Move over Cafe Sisters!" she'd say. Click and Clunk are takin' over. Catherine, we're going to write a book and we're going on the road." She joked.
The laughter and the joking was cut short on warm June night when my phone rang at 12:30 AM. I was waiting for the call because a headache and confusion so severe put her in the hospital that afternoon.
"Cath. There's something on my brain. I need more tests." I sat up in my bed, stunned.
"Oh, Deb." I had no words. What do you say to someone, a bigger than life someone who has had your back for the past five years and whose mantra in life is to be a giver not a taker? What do you say to someone who you watched rise to occasion and do something good for someone even when they hadn't treated her so well? So, I said what emerged deep from my heart. "Deb, just know I love you, and know you won't go this road alone. That I can promise you." We hung up. I was heart-sick, and I buried my head into my husband's chest and cried.
Twenty months later, after two surgeries, a stroke, hospitals and a nursing home, I was given the greatest gift by her beautiful daughter and husband -- two people I had never seen love a woman so competently, selflessly. When they had lovingly closed the door for visitors, as Deb was too ill, they still allowed me to come as often as I wished. One February night, I visited with Deb for the final time.
I sat in a wooden chair beside the hospital bed in her bedroom in the home she and her husband built in the woods on a hill. The house she talked so often because she loved decorating it and putting the lighted deer in the woods and talked about how awesome they looked when the snow fell. I glanced at her phone on the nightstand, texts constantly lighting up the screen with messages of love and prayers from friends and family. I remember when she told me how here daughter was going to the Apple store to buy it for her -- the daughter, tall, beautiful, and smart as she, the one she talked so much about I felt I knew her like my own. I looked over to her and lying on the bed, swollen from cancer and steroids. And there she was tucked in lovingly by her husband who loved her deeply and was trying desperately to cope with losing her, and who left me alone in the room to do what I can come to do, to read to her one last time. Talk to her one last time. Tell her that I'm not sure what I would've done had she not loudly and confidently pushed her way into my life, and tell her that because she did, I'm richer, better for it and that I will never forget her.
And then, after an hour and a half of reading W. Philip Keller's A Shepherd Looks at the Twenty Third Psalm, a book I had been reading to her over the course of weeks after I fed her mashed potatoes and squash I had whipped with cream and butter which she loved, I knew it was time. Strangely, a red, robust cardinal had perched outside her bedroom window on a nearby tree branch in the snow on the February evening and now it had flown away. Night had fallen and in the peace and sadness I felt, I knew she was leaving. I heard the rattle in chest. It was time for me to say my final goodbye. So, I leaned over and took her face in my hands and allowed the words to choked through my tightened throat.
I'm not an expert on death, but I knew from the many stories my mom, a nurse, had told over many years. That is, dying people sometimes need for us to give them permission. They hang on tight, especially the fighters. And, Deb, for sure, was a fighter.
"You can go now." I spoke her daughter's name, her husband's name and told her how they're okay. "You've fought so hard. It's okay to go." Tears flowed easily.
She died the next day. This larger-than-life, stranger to no one left this earth, and the world was down one really incredible, talented, caring teacher. A teacher I came to appreciate not only while I taught with her, but also in her illness when I heard countless stories from family, friends, former students, and parents who told stories of how Deb had made a difference by how she taught, loved, and gave her money and resources with great joy.
Deb left me the contents of her classroom, which included her entire mentor text library. I have over two hundred books with her name either stamped or written in perfect Catholic-school cursive inside. And they are organized on my shelves, always ready for me to pull one off so I can help kids become readers and writers, the very thing about which Deb was so passionate.
Some of the books are filled with humor, and some are sad. Some of them stir your heart and make you think about life and being a better human. No matter the book or the story within it, when I pull them off the shelf, I am given the gift of remembering a friendship, one with a teacher, like the letters of her name stamped on the inside cover was tall, bold, and one you're quite sure to always remember -- Debbie A. Kiester.