Note to readers: A month ago I wrote a story about Irene McKee, my fifth grade teacher. If you did not read it before, I would ask you to consider reading it now. If you did read it before, I would ask that perhaps you glance at it again. I say this, because when I wrote it, I had no idea of the story behind the story. I am ashamed of how facile that first story was, how superficial. As a reporter, I should have dug deeper. I missed the true story, or rather, just barely grazed it. No one would have been the wiser for it, except that the one person who really knew stepped forward and shared her knowledge with me. Now I share it with you. I have attached the original story below, and appended to it the story I should have gotten. And, of course, I dedicate this to both Irene Mckee, and her caregiver, Brenda Ostrowski, hoping that when each of us comes to the end of the road, there is someone like a Brenda there for us too....
That's me, in the tie and vest, front row, second from left:
A perfect angel... not quite.
I am a sixty-five-year-old college professor standing in front of a class of seniors when my lecture suddenly veers wildly off course and I find myself talking about Irene McKee, my fifth-grade teacher. Here's what I tell them:
The year is 1960. The place, Belle Stone Elementary School in Canton, Ohio - the same school my mother attended in the '30s.
I am a quiet kid, tiny and overly polite. I am Jewish. For my class picture, I am wearing a tie and vest - not cool in the extreme. I am about to go into CHAP, the Childrens' High Ability Program, which means that I will be a marked man on the playground. But I am no scholar: one "B", five "Cs" and two "Ds" on my first report card from Mrs. McKee. Still, I am no longer getting paddled - I say nothing in class. I just try to be invisible.
Enter Mrs. McKee. She is no-nonsense, a little scary, and notorious for vocabulary drills - "ec-cen-tric" - "per-am-bu-lat-tor" - "scin-til-lat-ing." Each syllable was its own eternity. (Utter any one of those words in my neighborhood and you would find yourself utterly alone.) On the day this story of mine begins, I am sitting at my desk and feel the ir-re-sist-ib-le impulse to approach Mrs. McKee and ask her to autograph my notebook. In the fifth grade, such an act is tant-a-mount to social suicide, but I am up to no-good. I place the notebook before her. She signs the open page, barely able to contain herself. She is beaming.
A moment later, I am back at my desk where, with my arm concealing my fiendish deed, I pen an equal sign next to her sprawling signature and add "the Devil." I snicker. I have pulled off one of the great capers in fifth-grade history.
Then, the unexpected but in-ev-it-a-ble happens.
She announces she is collecting notebooks. I can do nothing. She is towering over me, hand outstretched, demanding the notebook. She casually thumbs through its pages, then stops, dead cold. Silence. Death rays shoot from her eyes.
Exactly what happened next, I cannot say. I have blotted it out. What I do remember is being hauled out of class, steered to the principal's office, and made to wait in a wooden chair while the principle telephoned my father at work. That was not good. A call to my mother was protocol. I was used to that. A call to my father meant this was a capital offense.
While waiting for his arrival, I was made to sit at the top of the stairs outside the classroom and forced to complete a map writing in all the state capitals. I was stumped and filled with dread. Passersby took pity on me and helped with the task. Des Moines... Bismark... Montpelier...
My map was nearly completed when the bell sounded ending the period, and I was permitted to gather my things and go home. Father was a no-show.
At home I got a stern talking to, the what-in-the-H-were-you-thinking variety (the same one delivered after playing show-me-yours-I'll-show-you-mine with the daughter of my father's lawyer) but my father, himself the king of boyhood hijinks (a rabbi's son, he'd shot out a row of street lights with his bb gun) was in no position to command the high ground and could barely smother his pleasure.
And so I had survived the ordeal, learned a state capital or two, and added one more notch to my belt of daring-do.
Me today (a bit of mischief remains):
And now, for the postscript.
Forty-three years later, I am myself a teacher and author of several books. In the mail comes a letter postmarked "Canton, Ohio." It is from a nurse who tends to Mrs. McKee, who is now 93 and nearly blind. Mrs. McKee, she said, wanted me to know how much she admired me and how proud she was to claim me as one of her students. I send her a note back telling her how indebted I am to her as a writer - par-tic-u-lar-ly, the work on our vocabulary.
A few weeks later, a second letter arrives, this one telling me that Mrs. McKee has passed, but not before receiving my note. It meant so much to her. I am writing this on May 3, National Teacher's day. This one is for you, Mrs. McKee, with a much-belated apology and the simplest of words, "thank you."
End of Original Story
And now, the story behind the Story:
Yesterday I received in the mail a five-page single-spaced letter from Brenda Ostrowski, who was Irene McKee's caregiver. Attached to it was the original note that Mrs. McKee had written to be sent to me. But more of that in a moment.
In January of 2003, some thirteen years ago, Brenda Ostrowski was asked to be a caregiver to an aging Mrs. McKee, then 93 and nearly totally blind. All that she could see was the hint of shadows moving across the light. She could not read, see faces, or the change of seasons. For an unknowable amount of time, probably years, she had spent her days sitting in the dark, totally alone, with no one to speak with. She was a shut-in. To help her navigate her house without being able to see a thing, she had allowed her possessions and papers to accumulate and pileup, until they rose to a level of three-feet. And through this mass of papers she had carved channels that guided her, allowing to feel her way from kitchen to living room to bedroom. How she managed to feed herself is something of a mystery, though she had wasted away to a diminutive ninety-five pounds.
Mrs. McKee's nephew had arranged for his aunt to get elder care. Enter Brenda Ostrowski. When Brenda first knocked at Mrs. McKee's door, there was no response. And when the door finally and begrudgingly opened, the woman behind it could not have been less happy to have a visitor. She viewed Brenda as a trespasser, someone sent to strip her of the peace and quiet and privacy that she had hoped to cling to until her death. Mrs. McKee was beyond unhappy. She was living in a frozen state, completely cut off from the world, withdrawn, and inaccessible. She had outlived her entire family - her father, a farmer with an eighth grade education, her mother who had left school after the fourth grade, two brothers, three sisters, and a husband. (She'd been widowed for forty years.) Now she saw this caregiver as life's final insult, but it was that or a facility.
The initial days and weeks with Mrs. McKee were spent with Brenda sitting on one side of the living room and Mrs. McKee sitting on the other, expressionless, wringing her hands. The nephew had arranged to have all of the clutter hauled away. That clutter was the sum total of a life. There was scarcely a remnant or artifact to prove that she had lived at all - no photos, no pictures on the wall, no knick-knacks, just a sterile and lifeless series of rooms waiting for her to be gone. If she had been a teacher, a wife, an active member of the community, it had all been erased without a trace. She was reduced to the status of occupant in her own home.
In the days and weeks that followed, Brenda got no traction with the tiny woman who reluctantly met her at the door each day, with fists clenched at her side, and a pinched frown. She would not allow her to help in any way, would not engage in conversation, and whenever Brenda moved through the house, Mrs. McKee followed so close behind that she could feel the warmth of her breath on her neck. She had nothing left to safeguard or protect except her privacy and this she defended fiercely.
"I didn't ask you to come here," was a constant refrain.
"I can still take care of myself," she would say.
In a room almost completely devoid of objects other than the worn furniture, Brenda saw a single small book on a table and asked about it. It was titled "CHAPS." Brenda asked about it. And for a moment a glint of light came into Mrs. McKee's eyes as she described it as a scrapbook of poems written by her fifth-graders. And it was then that Brenda came across a poem by me - "T. Gup."
"Oh, that's Teddy Gup," answered Mrs. McKee, uttering the name of a student she had not seen or heard from in more than forty years. And for the first time, a slight smile broke across her face. She said that I had become a writer. Brenda suggested perhaps getting in touch with some of the students to see where they were and what had become of them. By now, all of them would be in their fifties. But the idea of such a project brought the first stirrings of life back to Mrs. McKee. It was short-lived. Even with the internet, the two of them could not find or make contact with any of her former students. What they did find were a number of my articles online, many of which had my email address. It was Brenda that suggested reaching out to me. Mrs. McKee approved.
I received an email from them not long after, but honestly, I did not make time to reply for several weeks. No excuses. I was busy. (How truly cold that now sounds.) And when I did respond it was just a few lines saying how much she had meant to me, how she had helped me expand my vocabulary and helped me to see myself as a writer. Brenda read my few words aloud to Mrs. McKee. :"Oh! Oh!" was all she could get out. But she was determined to follow up with a proper letter.
The next day when Brenda arrived at the door, Mrs. McKee held in her hand a piece of notebook paper. It was a letter she said she had stayed up all night writing. The hand that wrote it was unsteady, the penmanship more like that of a fifth-grader, and most of the words were oblivious to the lines. She could not read her own words but somehow she had memorized them.
"This was no ordinary situation," Brenda wrote in the letter that arrived yesterday. "It was a transformation of the human spirit. I felt like a bystander, an audience in a theater, intrigued, watching her story unfold, Irene really had no other connections. Most of her life was behind her, and she'd been sitting in a rocker, in a dark house, waiting...for the end of her life, really. Now suddenly - here was a glimpse of the person she had been - of the person she still was. "
That letter, the original in Mrs. McKee's shaky hand - not the cleaned-up copy that arrived over the internet, finally reached me yesterday enclosed with Brenda's letter. It reads:
Congratulations on your Gugenheim [sic]Award. You'll never know how proud I am of you and all your wonderful acomplishments.[sic] You have talent, yes, but that is no guarantee for success. Most people do not realize the time, effort, energy and hard work you put into every project you undertake as you use your talent so wisely and well. I know all of your awards and honors were earned and well deserved. Your email to me made my day extra special. Thank you for your kind words. They were much appreciated and made me very happy...you can be sure there is a soft spot in my heart for both you and your sister. [my sister, Audrey, was also a student of hers.] With love and all good wishes, Irene McKee."
She included her address and her phone number.
I wasted little time in calling her after I received the email. Brenda remembers the impact of that call when she arrived at Mrs. McKee's house the next morning: "The door was already wide open, and Irene stood there to greet me with a huge smile. She'd heard me in the driveway, and couldn't wait for a knock. Her hands were clenched in excitement...and if there had been a breeze, she would have taken flight, I think - because she bounced up on her toes and said 'He called! Teddy called me!"...She was no longer just an old blind lady, alone in her house. (How many years had it been?) It was your time, your letter, your phone call..that told her she still mattered. She and the work she loved had been important and was not forgotten."
"From that day on," wrote Brenda, "Irene smiled. She smiled about everything. She smiled about nothing. Sometimes I noticed her face tilted to the front window, towards the light, fingers interlocked, smiling as she rocked. Often she shared her thoughts with me. She became the sweetest little 95-pound lady I ever knew - and even hugged me on a regular basis. I believed she learned to trust life again."
It was not long after, Irene was transferred to the hospital. Her breathing was labored. Brenda called her late the night she learned of her hospitalization. "I'll come see you tomorrow, OK? Sleep well, I love you," she remembers telling Irene.
"Okay, I'll see you tomorrow....I love you too."
Irene McKee died that night of congestive heart failure. It was May 1, 2003.
Thirteen years later, I wrote about our reconnecting and attached a class picture from the fifth grade. In it Mrs McKee can be seen smiling. Brenda said she studied the photo and mused about this woman she had come to know so many years after this picture was taken. She wondered: "Did she smile often? Did she say "Oh!" a lot? ...Did she hug her students: Or leave them shuddering? Both? The fact that her best student, the one who dared call her 'The Devil', brings this story full circle: You were her angel, in the twilight of her life - the one who changed the final chapter of her story."
And Brenda closed her letter:
"Ted - I'll always think of you fondly. For all the other old people who came after Irene, I wished every one of them could have been so lucky. I just wanted you to know, Blessings, Brenda"
And blessings in return. A reminder how even a few words of kindness, a moment away from the routine, can change a life. And shame on me for being so "busy" and self-absorbed that I did not seize the opportunity to make that difference when first given the chance.