“If you check the news, don’t worry, I’m okay.”
I remember the day Suzanne graced our family group chat with that very text message.
Dara responded first with a, “huh?”
Ray followed along with a, “what?”
And I chimed in with a, “wait, that wasn’t your school were the kid brought in a gun, was it?”
Suzanne calmly replied, “It was, but don’t worry, I’m okay. What are we having for dinner tonight?”
It was amazing how every group message conversation always ended up being about dinner…
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Yet when the conversation did venture away from teriyaki salmon or who was going to make salad that night, it generally related to work. “How was everyone’s day going?” That question was a staple of our family communication.
Day in and day out Suzanne went to work. She was a special ed teacher. And even on the days when her students brought guns to school she was there, teaching, helping, and making her mark. Seriously.
It didn’t matter that Suzanne was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer two weeks after accepting her position at Calverton Elementary and Middle School in west Baltimore City. She had a deep passion for working with students, especially those who were vulnerable, bullied and misunderstood.
I could recount myriad stories that personify her perseverance, strength and will to make a difference. Instead of doing that though, I’ll simply mention a few “highlights” which will hopefully help paint the picture in your own mind:
- Calverton Elementary had no air conditioning
- They also had no running drinking water
- When Suzanne’s liver failed and she became jaundiced she still taught. Students frequently asked her, “Why are you turning so yellow, Mrs. Shefska?”
- Suzanne lugged around a portable oxygen concentrator — she always had to make sure she had enough oxygen in her body to function.
- No matter how difficult times got, whether it be innumerable brain metastasis, that liver failure, or nagging cancer pains, Suzanne somehow always left the house at 6:30am.
It’s safe to say that Suzanne was a bit crazy. A good crazy, an admirable crazy, a crazy that I am happy to know lives in within me as well, but crazy nonetheless.
And at the time I didn’t quite rationalize why she kept putting herself through this. Every morning at 5:30am Ray would make her a bowl of oatmeal. I’d help out with a kale, peanut butter and berry smoothie — some were admittedly better than others — and Dara would come down to make sure that Suzanne’s outfit looked good for that day (even though she tried in on the night before).
We had this routine. We came together as a unit. We all worked as one to make sure Suzanne was out the door by 6:30 to go and teach. None of us questioned it, we simply enabled it. How could we not?
But now, in retrospect I can’t help but wonder, “why did she do it?” We never discussed this as a family, but today, more than ever before, does the answer seem so clear. I genuinely think Suzanne did it for two reasons.
First, and most obviously, she found purpose in her work. There is a quote from the Talmud which Suzanne lived by, it reads, “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
Suzanne derived meaning from “saving a child’s life,” from having an impact on one or two students each and everyday. For Suzanne, this was her purpose.
Second, and this was less obvious until more recently, Suzanne kept working in an attempt to continue teaching Dara and I. Although she taught lessons in the classroom she did the same at home, for both of us, her children.
I firmly believe that Suzanne kept working in an effort to show Dara and I how strong the human will can be. How someone, no matter how ill, depressed, and down on their luck can persevere, carry on, and defy the odds.
When someone is presented a prognosis similar to Suzanne’s it is easy, if not expected that their disease would define the rest of their life. Suzanne strived to dispute this notion, and fortunately for us, she was able to do that for a little more than two years.
Suzanne continued teaching because she wanted to “save a child’s life” in the classroom. But she also did it to “save her children’s lives’” back at home.
Although Suzanne has passed, her legacy lives on in Dara and I. What we have learned from that brave, strong and beautiful women over the past two and half years will not be lost.
Suzanne taught Dara and I so much, too much, an inordinate amount about life. I learned what it means to love someone truly and genuinely. Dara learned what it feels like to take 15 items back to return at Marshalls at once. That is a life lesson only a jewish mother could provide!
But, in all honesty and seriousness, Suzanne taught us both the little things and the big things. She provided Dara and I with a new perspective on life. And, she did it all with grace, dignity and passion. And that was, and still is a testament to the women she was.
I have only one final note about my mom, and that is this:
Although we all agree we have lost Suzanne too soon, we should not forget what she would want for all of us on this day. As a devoted mother and caregiver she would have two messages for us at this moment.
First, is everyone wearing sunscreen? You need to be wearing sunscreen. Suzanne in her loving, caring and endearing way would be upset if you weren’t.
And second, make sure you drink enough water. You can’t be dehydrated. Do you hear that, Ray? I’m pretty sure that’s Suzanne saying that right now to you.
Truthfully though, Suzanne would want the rest of us to pass along some of the life lessons she shared with us. Whether it be wearing sunscreen, keeping hydrated, or serving someone a second helping of something they didn’t really want at the dinner table — we need to carry on those mannerisms and traditions in her memory.
Suzanne was, and will forever be a fixture in our minds. I love you mom. Thank you for everything.