When I was in 5th grade, my teacher’s name was Mrs. Honan. Our classroom windows faced south east looking out onto the sports fields, and every morning the sun would pour into the upstairs room with its slanted roof and skylights. Our class was made of twelve students and six desks, each of us sharing a desk with one other. I remember all of the kids in my class by name, and have even reconnected with some of them as an adult. That was the magic of the Key School. One person I’m no longer in touch though, is Mrs. Honan, my wonderful, open-hearted teacher who seemed so full of light and goodness. I’m no longer in touch with her because she is dead.
The funny things I remember about Mrs. Honan are how she held the chalkboard eraser (it dangled from her hand and often fell to the carpet where chalk billowed up like the residue of an avalanche); the coffee mug that always sat on her desk, and her hair. Her hair was *perfect*. She wore a thick band through it that changed colour regularly and spanned ear to ear. It was brown, shoulder length, and never seemed to grow. I didn’t know it then, but I now know that the secret to Mrs. Honan’s lovely hair was that it was a wig.
It was a wig that many women turn to in moments when they don’t feel normal. In moments when they sense society would judge them for not having hair, for being different; for being ill. While not all women wear a wig due to cancer treatment, that was why Mrs. Honan wore hers, though none of us knew her secret. In fact, at the time of her death, it was disclosed that not even her children knew of her diagnosis of cancer. She was a cloaked warrior, not wanting to cause anyone around her pain, carrying her burden of illness all on her own, right up until her death.
I’ve thought many, many times about Mrs. Honan. I’ve considered if I could carry the weight of that secret, if it were me living through cancer treatment while working as a middle school teacher. I’ve wondered if it would be better for my son to know in advance of a terminal diagnosis, or if he should be left to his innocence and happy assumptions about life, instead of worrying about death.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dwell in the future all the time. It’s just that when you’ve had a health crisis that sends you to the brink of touching death, there is a tether to the past memory and to future uncertainty. Of course, we all have an uncertain future that carries with it hope and responsibility, but the blips in the road for those of us who have been alerted to our own temporality through the medical powers that be, are the body’s routine signals that regularly raise the cautionary flag. Life is temporary; none of us know how or when it will end.
Many times over my lifetime I have been told not if, but when. When I heard this news as a three year old, it wasn’t me who was hearing it, it fell on my parents’ ears who had to carry the weight. This was translated into facial expressions and wavering voices everytime my health was taken into question. In my twenties I seemed to live with total disregard for the medical profession. My rebellious nature told myself that I knew myself better than those stiff white coats. Only, at that time I couldn’t have been less in touch with my body.
Nowadays, life seems less certain. I have more reverence for the doctors and I am more in touch with how it feels to be in my aging earthsuit. I am more aware of my deep need to stay positive and live each day with joy and a long view to the decades on earth that are hopefully yet to come, but have a plan *just in case* the expanse of my future on earth is not so vast.
It might sound easy, to stay in the now. After all, there are books, even libraries full of books on this topic, one of utmost international interest for thousands of years. I can assure you though, it takes a daily practice; a practice of being present with what is, called meditation. Whether this practice is performed seated, through yoga asana, cooking or observing wildlife, it is the single most important thing to my own mental health and wellbeing. For many years now I have taken it as a given, but lately I am treating it more gently, holding it with softer, more tender hands.
At the same time, having hopes for the future seem to be equally valuable. The balanced tether between these two places appears to be the thing we call a meaningful life.
I have decided to set Mrs. Honan free: from my contemplation, from my judgement of whether she did the right thing by living out her cancer in silence under her wig. I don’t know whether we, as ten year olds, could have been compassionate and understanding enough to support her with love and joyful childhood presence during our time as her pupils. I’m even less certain of how her own children would have coped with their mother’s impending fate. I do know she made an impression on me, not because of her wig, but because of her kindness and joy. Thinking back, she was a remarkable human being, to be so present and available to us despite her own challenges and pain.
It’s our human birthright to make our own choices. For each of us those will look and feel different based on individual needs and circumstances, based on our ability to listen to our inner voice without answering to anyone else. Mrs. Honan owned her decision about how she wanted to live, and as an adult I have learned an invaluable lesson from her — that staying true to yourself, whatever that means, is a key to happiness and the key not only to living truthfully, but truly living.