One of my friends alerted me to the fact that one of my former teachers had passed away early yesterday evening. I knew she had been battling cancer, though I didn’t know much more than that, and I knew that we had been planning to catch up for ages – plans that seemed to always fall through. Ms Townend, or Dani, as she would probably have me call her, never taught me directly, but seemed to know about me anyway. She was one of my instep (home room) mothers, and even though I only realistically had about 15 minutes with her and a whole bunch of other students every day, she still managed to have an incredible impact on the way I saw the world.
She taught me that I had to look after myself, over and above other people – no matter how much I wanted to make sure they were okay. You can’t fix other people if you haven’t fixed yourself, she said, and of course, she was right. She was always ready with a hug if I needed one, and a sarcastic comment if I deserved one. Then she taught my sister – the only reason I approved of her taking anticipated English was because I knew Dani would be her teacher. My sister was a little scared of her to begin with, but she became a great mentor to her as she had for me. I will always remember her smile, and I was sad but excited for her move overseas.
I’ve been reflecting lately on cancer, mainly because I’m in the middle of attempting to write a piece for Meanjin about my father’s cancer and its connection to my depression. Dani was there for me when Dad was in hospital, when I was scared as all hell that Dad’s body might reject his new liver, that he might come out of hospital in worse shape than he entered. I was scared that Dad might die, and I wasn’t ready for that (and I know I never really will be). Dad is fine now, but this has brought up old memories, both happy and very sad.
I have studied cancer in many of my science courses. I know what it looks like, what it can do. I know why it happens (vaguely), and I hate it when people talk about “curing cancer”. But it doesn’t discount the fact that cancer is ugly. It can be unpredictable, and unrelenting. It doesn’t discriminate, and it takes the people we love away from us. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like for Dani’s family at the moment – for her parents and her children, and her nephews and nieces. But I can say that she created another, extended family for herself – a family filled to the brim with students (some of whom are now adults) and colleagues. And I can say with certainty that everyone in her extended family will miss her very, very much. I am sure her smile will light up wherever she is going, and that her legacy will live on in many, many other lives.