Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Brief Encounters

Sometimes in our lives we have such brief encounters with others and yet they leave lasting impressions on us. It may only be a minute, a small act of kindness, a written word or two, some small consideration, or a helpful hand. Sometimes we stumble upon these encounters with strangers, and other times we are fortunate enough to have a brief encounter that so profoundly touches our lives and we are also Blessed enough to have that experience last for just a little longer than a moment in time.
I was privileged to have had such an encounter with Kerry, one of the Kindergarten students in the classroom where I was a teacher’s aide a few years ago. Kerry was in my life from mid-September to January, and in just four short months my heartstrings developed such a strong attachment to her. Kerry came to our classroom with cancer. She had been diagnosed at the age of two and since that time she had numerous brain surgeries, and had undergone countless sessions of chemotherapy. Her skull was misshapen, and she had several scars on her little hairless head. She was near blind in one eye, and the eye would ‘roam’ and she couldn’t focus it at all. She used a tiny little walker that her Mom had decorated with stickers, and a helmet hung in the coat closet for her to use whenever we went into the playground.
Over the first few weeks Kerry tried hard to keep up with the other kids, scurrying around the classroom and the playground with her walker, learning her letters, numbers, and colors, doing all the arts and crafts, fighting for a favorite toy, standing her ground. But by mid-October Kerry no longer wanted to participate in much of anything. Her Mom sent her to school with her ‘sick-y bowl’ as she was undergoing chemotherapy again, and it left her sick and exhausted. Most mornings she would nap in the back of the classroom on a Barney mat that my sister Diane had sent in for her to use, and most afternoons I would sit with her in the rocker on my lap and sing to her. She became an attachment at my hip because I’d carry her everywhere now as she had become too weak to walk. Her Mom would come up to the classroom at lunchtime to sit with Kerry so I could take the rest of the class out to the playground. One day her Mom said to the teacher Debbie and myself that it wouldn’t be too long before Kerry died, and she wanted to know if Debbie would like for her to speak to the class about it. I was seething inside and I wanted to scream at this woman, “Why don’t you have this little girl at home with you? Why don’t you want to spend every minute of what little time she has left with her?”
One day I worked up the courage to ask her just that, more out of bewilderment now rather than anger. Her Mom humbled me by answering, “Because I want Kerry to experience everything a normal five year old would experience. I want Kerry to have as normal a life as possible for as long as possible.”
And, to tell you the truth, I was so grateful her Mom felt that way, because I got to spend so many hours of Kerry’s last months with her. She and I got to know each other very well. I learned that she loved Barney and her family, in that order! I learned that she collected Beanie Babies and I happily added to her collection. I learned that she didn’t like dressing up but that she liked looking at party dresses, and she especially liked white Communion dresses. I learned the songs that she liked most, and the games she liked best, and I learned that Kerry was feisty. And sadly, I learned that Kerry thought she was ugly.
On the first Friday of every month the whole student body went to church for a school Mass and the Kindergarten class participated in this. At the November Mass, Kerry as usual was in my lap and I noticed her shaking her tiny fist at two little girls across the aisle. I asked her why she was doing that and she said, “Because they’re looking at me. They’re looking at me because I’m ugly, because I have ugly eyes.” My heart broke for her and I said to her, “Oh, no, Kerry, they’re looking at you because you’re so beautiful, and because you have such beautiful blue eyes.” She smiled up at me, and snuggled into me and she fell asleep. Kerry continued to be such a joyful presence in that classroom and such a joyful presence in my life each day until Thanksgiving. As Christmas approached her days at school were few and far between, and her Mom came to retrieve her walker and her helmet from the classroom. She told us Kerry would be in the following week though as she wanted her to participate in the Christmas play, Kerry was going to be one of our little lambs.
All that week Kerry sat on my lap and repeated a mantra “I want to go home. I want to go home. I want to go home.” And something told me that Kerry’s spirit wanted to go Home to God. I asked her if she wanted to pray with me and she shook her head yes. I carried her to the front of the classroom where we had set up a Christmas tree, and my husband had made a little manger and placed it under the tree, and Debbie had swaddled one of the dolls from the playroom to be our Jesus. I told Kerry we would ask Jesus to take her home, and she smiled at me, and she looked down at the baby and she said, “Jesus, I want to go home.” And I prayed too that Jesus would please take her Home to Him.
Kerry seemed so fragile the day of the Kindergarten Christmas play, but she was dressed as a lamb, sitting in her Mom’s lap on the stage with her classmates, too weak to sing along, but she was there, smiling out at all of us in the auditorium.
Her Dad brought her to me after the play was over to say good-bye, and the pain on that man’s face is a heartache I will carry with me all my life, his eyes filled up and he had to excuse himself, and I felt helpless, I had no words of consolation. How could you tell a man that is about to lose his baby daughter to cancer that everything is going to be okay? Maybe he couldn’t bear to hear that Kerry was a part of some great plan. Maybe he couldn’t accept that it was God’s Will. How could I say any of those things when I was finding it hard to accept myself? I felt powerless. There was nothing I could do for this man. I could only hold his little girl in my arms and pray that he and Kerry would find God’s Peace.
Kerry didn’t come back to school after the Christmas vacation, but I did see Kerry once more after that, it was a cold January afternoon, and her Mom had come to pick up Kerry’s sisters and brothers from school. Kerry was sitting in the front seat of her Mom’s car in the school parking lot, God was good to me as I happened to pass by and I spotted her. She looked so frail, and she looked so tiny wrapped up in a big blanket. Her Mom had rolled down the passenger window for me and I leaned in to say hello, Kerry’s eyes were closed and I thought she was sleeping, but she opened them and smiled a weak little smile at me, and then she leaned her head against mine. I told her I loved her and she closed her eyes again and shook her head yes, and she said slowly, weakly, slurring her words a little, “I…love…you…too”. Her Mom told me the doctors said it wouldn’t be long, and it wasn’t long at all because on January 20 God took Kerry Home.
I went to her wake and Kerry looked angelic dressed in the white Communion dress her Mom said that Kerry had picked out for herself while shopping one day, and some of her hair had grown in, and it curled around her beautiful little face, and she looked so peaceful. I saw that among the toys placed in with her was one of the Beanie Babies that I had given her, and her Mom said she had always slept with ‘Monk’. Her Dad asked me how I thought she looked, and I said she looked beautiful, she looked just like a little cherub. Kerry had always looked beautiful to me though, and Kerry was always my angel. And I thank God for allowing this little soul to come into my life. One of my most valued treasures in this Blessed life I live is that God bestowed on me the gift of this brief encounter.

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