Friday, May 6, 2011


It never occurred to me before.

Last summer, as you may recall, my practically lifelong friend Phyllis died. She had been living with cancer for a few years, but then she was stricken with pneumonia, and it was too much for her body to withstand.

A mutual friend of ours participated in the funeral planning. He returns to our hometown at the end of each semester to participate in commencement ceremonies at the university there, and Phyllis' death came very near the time when he would be doing that at the end of the summer session.

He spent a little more time there than normal last August, helping with the arrangements.

Anyway, he is back there now. He just arrived yesterday. The university will be holding its spring ceremonies this weekend, and he posted a notice on Facebook.

A friend informed him that a "Relay for Life" is being held in a nearby town in Phyllis' honor this weekend. I gathered from his response that he had already spoken to Phyllis' family and had been told about this event.

And it all clicked.

Of course. I've seen this before. I knew a couple of people who died of brain tumors when I was growing up, and, at some point, folks organized special events like this "Relay for Life" in their memories. Likewise, I knew some people who died of other diseases, and similar events were organized in their memories.

I suppose these events have — almost always — been intended to raise money for medical research. They also — almost always — become annual events and carry the deceased person's name.

It's a form of immortality, I suppose — I couldn't wish it for a better person even though I still wish, perhaps for selfish reasons, that she was still around.

And I'm glad her name will be remembered — even when the time comes when the people who remember her name have no memory of her.

It's been nearly a year since she died, but in that time, there have been many occasions when I have remembered things about Phyllis that I had forgotten — or, at least, haven't given a lot of thought in awhile.

She continues to influence me, at times to inspire me, in ways that neither of us ever could have dreamed when we were children in Conway, Ark.

Neither, I suppose, could we have imagined, when we saw fundraising events being named for people we had known, that one of us — and, who knows, perhaps even both of us — would be remembered in such a way, possibly long after our contemporaries have joined us.

I am glad she is being honored in this way, but I am sorry she didn't know just how many fish were caught in the wide net she cast during her life.

I guess that is the thing I find singularly sad about such tributes.

Yesterday, as I wrote in this blog, was the 16th anniversary of my mother's death. She was a first–grade teacher when she died in a flash flood — admired and mourned by many.

(She knew Phyllis when I was growing up, knew her pretty well, as I recall. Mom knew all of my friends, but some she knew better than others. We lived in the country, and she knew the kids with whom I played every day, of course, but Phyllis, like most of my classmates, lived within the city limits.

(Mom didn't see most of those friends as frequently. She was acquainted with the kids who attended our church — but Phyllis didn't belong to our church when I was growing up. Nevertheless, Mom and Phyllis gravitated to each other and became friends. I'm not sure how or when that occurred, but it did. I remember that, by the time I was in high school, I noticed Phyllis and Mom seeking each other out at school functions.)

Anyway, the last children Mom taught are old enough now to have children of their own. In a few years, they may be first–graders in the school where Mom taught for the last 12 years of her life.

Those children, obviously, never knew my mother. But they will almost surely know her name. Less than a year after she died, the school dedicated a garden on the school property to her memory.

I don't know what the garden is used for today, but the original intention, as I understood it, was for it to be a place for contemplation, for reflection, for storytelling. A sort of a "quiet place," you might say, and that, I think, would have suited Mom just fine.

It was not a playground for recess. The swings and the slides could be found on the other side of the building.

There was a sign that identified the garden and on it could be found my mother's name. Even if you only ever walked past it and never stopped, you were almost sure to absorb the name from reading the sign — in much the same way that some people who perform heroic deeds say they learned the procedures for CPR and the Heimlich maneuver by casually glancing at posters on breakroom walls.

I haven't been on those grounds in a long time, but I assume that garden is still there. If it is, I am glad that it stands as a monument to Mom.

At the same time, I have a hard time thinking of my mother as a name on a garden wall or Phyllis as the name of an annual fundraising event. They were flesh–and–blood people for me, people who continue to influence my thoughts, my life, my memories.

When I think of my mother, I don't think of the honors she received for her creative teaching techniques. I think of her dedication, of evenings I spent sitting with her at the dining room table, helping her grade papers so she would have some free time to watch TV or play with the cat.

And when I think of Phyllis, I remember laughs and moments we shared, some with other people, some with just us.

I'm sorry they're gone. I miss them every day.

And, when all is said and done, I am glad they are remembered by others.

Even if those people never met them.

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