So many emotions and so many thoughts flying around my already ADHD brain. A friend died today after only three months since she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I have known her (and her family) since I was in my early 20’s when I moved to Augusta. Gosh, I was just a kid and still so fragile from living with my abusive dad. I was renting a room in an older couple’s home and was always looking for ways to earn extra money. I’ll never forget when Debbie asked if I could stay at her house to watch her two boys while she and her husband went out of town. Of course I jumped on the chance…I can’t remember the exact ages of the boys but I want to say they were around 8ish and 12ish. Before I was to stay that weekend she asked me to come over a week or so earlier so she could show me around and explain the schedule (while they were gone). At that time they had a dog named Avery. She was a big Golden Retriever. The day I came over for Debbie to show me around I clearly remember ringing the doorbell and hearing a deep voiced dog barking from behind the door. For those who know me know the bigger the dog, the more I love them. And so, when Debbie opened the door, I said hello to her but walked passed her to pet the dog. As I was on my knees petting the dog, Debbie chuckled and said, “Oh, OK..good. I’m glad you like dogs because well, we have one.” Not knowing her well at all back then I remember just smiling. However, thinking about it now it was strange of me to walk right past her into her house and kneel down to pet the dog.
During my weekend stay with the Katcoff boys I got to know Avery well. OR should I say Avery got to know me well… One afternoon Jason, the oldest son, came into the living room where I was watching TV to get me. He told me he had some bad news and was so sorry. I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about…he asked me to follow him into the bedroom I was using because he didn’t know how to tell me. When I got to my room I could see clearly for myself. It turned out Avery had eaten my entire box of tampons! And in fact Jason caught her in the process of consuming the box once the other stuff was gone. My first thought was I had killed their beloved dog with my tampons! And Jason (just a kid) was worried because the dog had gotten into my things. When Debbie and Gary got home I knew I had to tell them because I didn’t want something to happen to the dog. And so when Debbie asked how everything went I told her. She looked at me, looked at Gary and then said something like that’s funny Avery ate an entire box of tampons. For a while after that it was a running joke Debbie would tell others about. I’m happy to say my tampons did not harm the dog. I did laugh with Debbie later telling her that I was certain I had killed their dog and would never be able to baby sit again.
Another funny time was when I was driving Debbie’s son, Jason, and another boy home from a youth group meeting. While driving I noticed a woman up the way walking down the street. In my mind I could tell she was as naked as naked could be but I didn’t want to believe it. That’s when I asked the boys (who were in the back seat) what the heck the lady was wearing. They too didn’t want to believe she was naked but as we got closer there was no denying it. The boys began yelling, “She’s naked! OOOOH! YUCK!” as they put their hands over their eyes. The boys were chattering back and forth to each other how the woman had flab and how her boobs were droopy. I told the boys that was what real women look like. They were laughing hysterically. I was laughing hysterically. One of the boys told us that their parents would never believe them. And so when we got to the Katcoff home to drop off Jason we had to go inside to tell Debbie about what happened. As I started to tell Debbie, the boys cut me off. They started talking about how she had flab and how her breasts (which they refused to say the word but used their hands to say) were drooping. Debbie laughed along with us and also told the boys they described what a real woman looked like. And as she was telling the boys that, they started yelling “oooh” and “yuck” which made me and Debbie laugh even harder. Just as we got done Debbie’s husband walked into the house. Debbie said, “Hey Gar, you’ll never guess what happened to Jason today. He saw a naked woman walking down the street.” And to that we all busted out laughing…well except Gary who had no idea what we were talking about.
Even though I knew Debbie from helping out with her kids and later subbing for her art classes, I really got to know her on a more personal level after we were on a committee together. We had to put together a year book and spent an entire summer meeting every week to work on it. Folks, we laughed. We cried. It was better than Cats. We talked about our crazy families- about motherhood (as my son was just 2 at the time and always went down for his naps when Debbie came over), about our mom’s deaths and about our own mortality. When we’d laughed we did so all the way to tears. And when we cried we did so with even more tears. Debbie spoke about her mom’s death and about her own fears of dying. Today that is what I keep thinking about as the news of her passing begins to hit me.
Carol and I have been talking. We can’t know what we’d do in Debbie’s shoes but the dignity, strength and bravery she showed during these last month’s of her life really were something else. She was forced to retire from a job she loved without any closure or real good byes. She handed over her classroom to me and through her support wanted nothing more than to see me take it over. She’d text me, call me, e-mail me to remind me to do this or that with her students…to have them apply for this or that art contest…to make sure her AP students were on track and had their portfolio’s completed. I would send her text messages with pictures of her student’s artwork, of the display cabinet and anything else I knew she’d like to see. I also would text her and e-mail her for advice to which she always would respond quickly to help me. During my last visit with her I was only going to stay for a little bit but ended up staying much longer. She had a sense of urgency to tell me anything she could think of about her classroom…about her students. She told me to not be afraid to fail those students who refused to try. She told me we are there to give the students every opportunity to be successful but they have to care and do their best. She told me to not hesitate to write up the students when their behavior was bad and she told me about certain parents she had met. And of course she ended with encouraging me and telling me I have a lot to offer the students. Gosh, I have to be honest. I think I would have been pissed off that someone else had taken over my classroom (even if I knew the person) especially without having had any closure. However not Debbie. Oh no not Debbie! Instead she did everything in her power to help me and support me. She even continuously (whenever there was an opportunity) would tell the administration wonderful things about me and would tell them they should hire me. I never did tell her how much that meant to me. It’s not been easy to fill her shoes. Her students and staff loved her. They were rightfully loyal to her. She really was beloved by all at the school where she taught. I never told Debbie but I had a particular problem with one of her classes. The students as a group refused to bring in their homework. So, the principal came to talk to the class. He told them a story about how Mrs. Katcoff failed the assistant principal’s son because he chose not to do the work. I know it wasn’t the moment to smile but I couldn’t help it. His story made me smile. I know the students thought I was being caddy but I wasn’t. I smiled because that was Debbie. That was Mrs. Katcoff.
The last time I spoke to Debbie was just last Friday when she called to tell me she was having a meeting and she didn’t see artwork from my students. It turned out the woman who had them had car trouble and didn’t make it to the meeting. It was something though. When Debbie called she sounded like herself…her voice was strong. It was hard to believe she was so sick and that in just a week she’d be gone.
I have been at awe these last three months when I have watched Debbie live life to her fullest. She maintained as much normalcy as she could. Even through bouts of nausea and pain she went on outings with her grand kids and spent time with family, friends and many of her students. As for me she took time to comfort me, guide me and teach me until she physically could no longer do it. Debbie, it’s going to be really hard to walk into YOUR classroom tomorrow. Your absence will be felt by all. I’m going to miss being able to reach out to you for your advice…to be able to send you a text with a picture of something only you’d appreciate. I will think of you when I open a desk drawer and see your stash of napkins, skinny girl popcorn and chocolate raspberry coffee you left for me. And for the next months as I see different reminders of you in the classroom I will do my damndest not to cry. Thank you so much for all you’ve given and taught me. I won’t ever forget those things OR you.