By Louis De Lauro
I was never officially her student, but Megan was my teacher.
She was a tiny, blonde-haired little girl, with pretty eyes and pale skin. I wasn’t surprised at all about her passing. She died young; it was just a few days before the start of a brand new school year.
I remember being in Harvey Cedars at the Jersey Shore with my big Italian family. We were staying in a grand beach house steps away from the ocean. I remember the sunny skies, mini-golf, and laughter at seafood dinners. I remember a phone call in the middle of my vacation from Megan’s mother. I knew right away why she was calling. She was crying and rather than tell me Megan died, she simply told me it would mean a lot to her family if I would attend the viewing and the funeral.
I remember not crying, just wincing and aching inside.
I would later attend the viewing and the funeral and I would hug her mom and kiss her cheek. I would light up the room with simple stories about Megan. I knew it would be my job to honor Megan, just one story at a time. I didn’t cry during or right after the phone call from Megan’s mom or even at her funeral, but tears would come later.
Tears still come today.
Megan was 13 years old when she died. I was 30. On paper, I was her teacher and she was my student, but in real life, the roles were of course reversed. A few years earlier, when Megan was in my 5th-grade classroom, she coughed loudly and choked on every breath. When Megan went out with my wife and me to dinner, she was sweet and polite, but barely touched her food. When Megan was in the hospital, I read to her and held her hand.
I shared countless short stories about Megan at her funeral to her family, friends, and classmates. A few were cute and a few were meaningful. Years later the stories are still worth sharing.
Like the time Megan nearly got nailed with a foul ball while attending a minor league baseball game with me. She tried to catch it while I tried to shield her from getting hit. She was mad at me for not letting her try to catch the ball. I told her the ball nearly killed her. She laughed at me at me and said smiling, “There are worse ways to die.”
There was the time in my 5th-grade classroom, a boy made fun of her and told her she looked like a sickly ghost. I wanted to punish the boy, but Megan insisted I let him off the hook. She had no tears, no anger. She simply wanted me to know that she didn’t need my protection. Just the like the foul ball, this boy was something she could handle. She told me he wasn’t a bad kid and he had been nice to her other times. She told me the boy had a difficult family life and comments from this boy wouldn’t faze her. I believed her and I made it clear to the boy that the only reason he wasn’t being punished was that Megan wouldn’t stand for it.
I wasn’t there to witness the ferret story, but the older teacher who tutored Megan the year before me was put off by Megan’s overcrowded apartment and by the ferret that wandered freely. One time, the ferret ran up her skirt or down her blouse and the upset teacher screamed and ran around in circles. I don’t quite remember the story exactly, but I know after that lesson, this kind woman preferred to visit Megan at the library or hospital only. Megan laughed when she told me this story while holding her ferret on her lap. She also told me she loved her ferret—her ferret needed her and she liked that. She told me if she grew up she would be a teacher or a nurse.
She would need to have a job in which people needed her.
I asked Megan if she ever wanted to meet a famous celebrity. I thought maybe I could make this happen, but she wasn’t interested. She did tell me she once danced with an old man at the Hole in the Wall Camp in Connecticut and he had pretty blue eyes. She said he was a good dancer and he complimented her on her pretty eyes. She told me Paul Newman was the only celebrity she ever really needed to meet because he truly cared about kids.
She told me she preferred kind teachers and nurses to celebrities. She told me she didn’t have time for celebrities; she was more interested in making friends.
I remember a sweet girl named Catherine, and her two kind parents took an interest in Megan. Megan and Catherine became friends. Megan went out with Catherine to the movies and on two occasions she went to parties at her house. They even went camping together. She told me later she wasn’t sure if Catherine really liked her or just liked being a nice girl, but it didn’t matter to her because her new friend gave her the chance to be a regular kid. Megan loved Catherine and her parents for these opportunities. I remember Catherine with tears in her eyes at Megan’s viewing—she obviously cared deeply for Megan. I told her that Megan loved every minute with her.
I think Megan might have been Catherine’s teacher, too. Megan was a fine teacher.
So these stories are pretty light and you might be waiting for a more powerful one. Instead, I will offer you these little tidbits. Megan and I played chess and Othello together in the hospital. I never let her win, and she liked that about me. I tried to teach her to juggle and she never learned, but she always insisted on another lesson. Megan and I read books together; she read on grade level despite missing 100 days or more each school year from grades 3 to 6. Megan enjoyed reading and writing on occasion. I imagine she would like this piece about her. Megan had three other teachers tutor her who all loved her and admired her as much as me, so don’t consider me special.
Remember, I was simply her student.
I have one final Megan story to share. It was Halloween. Megan sat on her hospital chair, next to her bed. She was dressed in a black shirt, black tights and she held a witch’s hat on her lap. Her face was green with makeup that her mom or a nurse had applied earlier that evening. I bought her candy, but she didn’t need any. The bag she held was full of candy, and knowing Megan she probably would only eat a small chocolate bar or two. She would give the rest away to visitors and other children on the floor.
Well, when I arrived Megan was very excited to tell me about all the fun she had on Halloween. She went on and on about costumes the kids on her floor wore, trick-or-treating down her wing in the hospital, and a magic show. She wouldn’t shut up and I didn’t want her to; words flowed freely about her day and her week. Every story was a positive one; every word was one worth sharing. I will never forget the smile on her face as she told me about her day, about the friends she had made in the hospital, the amazing tricks the magician had shown her, and the sweet nurse who dressed like a clown and could juggle. It occurred to me that evening I had spent 80 days of my life in a classroom with Megan and another 40 days in a hospital room, at her apartment, at a restaurant, a baseball game, a museum, and not once had she complained to me about her life, or her circumstances. She was near death on many occasions and even on this date; she was terribly sick and not one negative word about her life.
She fully accepted every bit of suffering that came her way, and lived her life as fully as she knew how.
I’m not saying Megan didn’t cry when she was at her worst or that she didn’t cry in her mom’s arms or confide her deepest fears to others. Every person alive who is dying must have difficult moments. I can’t deny Megan didn’t have these moments, but since Megan’s experiences with me were positive, she embraced these moments with every bit of her being. The Megan I saw was fragile on the outside, but strong on the inside and insanely beautiful. I realized that night in the hospital that when Megan was with me, she was always positive and full of life.
Megan taught me to embrace life moment by moment more than anyone else I have ever met in my entire life. I love her for teaching me this.
I had the pleasure of removing Megan’s green makeup that Halloween night as she continued to smile and talk my ear off. I delicately wiped the green witch’s makeup away with a wet wipe and under her makeup, I saw the most beautiful little girl and my finest teacher.
I miss my teacher.
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Editor: Alicia Wozniak