After someone you love dies, you may discover some things about the person that you didn’t know. My Mom loved to sing. Because her generation (the “Silent Generation” 1928-1945) was different than mine (“Generation X” 1965-1980), the songs she would sing at breakfast (a normal occurrence) and in the evening were oldies. Breakfast was usually “Mockingbird Hill” (When the sun in the morning, peeks over the hill…).
When Mom was diagnosed in July of 2021, my siblings and I began to hear from her former students on FaceBook. As the ALS progressed and began to take away basic functions, we would read to her what her former students were saying. It was all good and brought many smiles and happy tears. While she could still talk, she would relay some story about the student that posted and it was as if she took us by the hand and walked us back to her teaching days. Mom was defined by what she did, a teacher. It was her real joy and privilege to teach for over thirty years.
One recurring theme from former students was that she would sing the first few stanzas of “Happy Trails” as they left class at the bell. Though knowing this song was a favored one, we were still shocked to learn she sang in public too!
I have been teaching now for 28 years. I have taught middle school, high school, and college-aged students. Having heard from so many of Mom’s former students since her diagnosis and subsequent death, it got me to ponderin’ — “what would my students have to say about me?” “Would they even remember me?” (Mom had been retired for 16 years at her passing).
Yesterday was the first in-person convocation we have had at Anne Arundel Community College since 2019. A recurring theme of the various administrators was to remember that the smallest things could make a difference. Even a taped message from the incoming SGA (Student Government Association) president reminded us that the “small things matter”.
I am a big believer in the difference “small things” make. For you see? It has been small things each and every day that have encouraged me to continue hiking that trail. My trail is not always happy, but it is a scenic and worthwhile hike.
People with disAbilities often express their concern that they do not matter anymore. Or perhaps they feel that with their disability, they can no longer make a difference. Many of you already know these things about me, but let me summarize some of my own challenges:
- Late-deafened (25 years on)
- Post Concussive syndrome (TBI as a kiddo and 11 concussions since)
- Meniere’s disease
- Vestibular disorder
- Mental health diagnoses (Panic Disorder and PDD)
- 65% blind in my right eye (concussions)
If I had a dollar for every time I considered giving up, I could retire now! I’m no super hero. I’m not anything special. What I am is persistent and determined. Stubbornly resolved to connect at least one time each day with someone who needs encouraged, loved, high-5’d, heard, or acknowledged. Notice that none of these things require being an abled person! I know that many of my readers are people with disability or chronic illness. MANY have expressed to me the dismay they feel in being disabled, by NOT being able to make a difference. Their physical or mental health diagnoses have meant they have learned coping skills or learned a new way to do things. However, many still FEEL disabled because they feel as if these diagnoses take away opportunities for them to MATTER.
My friends? Please do not ever discount the difference it makes for you to be kind to the cashier at the grocery store. Smiling and saying a kind thing or two to the delivery person may completely turn their day around. Being kind and friendly to that young wait staff person can make a day that is crushing them seem not so burdensome. Send an encouraging email or message to someone you know is struggling. It can be life-changing for them. Make a phone call to someone you know who feels isolated. Take advantage of the way social media platforms “level the playing field” for those with disabilities through CONNECTING them with others. One small comment can make a difference.
I know this for a fact! I know because the
Deborah’s, Wendy’s, Kellie’s, Lisa’s, Candice’s, Sara’s, Stephanie’s, Kyersten’s, Felicia’s, Kimberly’s, and SO MANY more have taken 15 seconds to type me a message that encouraged me and rekindled my desire to keep on keepin’ on. I’m not saying it is EASY. For some, it may mean real “spoons” are used up (The Spoon Theory).
ALS is a horrible, terminal disease. My Mom suffered and died a terrible death. I’m still dealing with the fall out and likely will for the remainder of my own life. But do you know at the end, Mom could only roll her eyes, grin, and wink, but she did that as her hovering children did their best to love and care for her? She could speak some, but it was a real chore to understand, even with picture, word, and alphabet cards to assist while she could still point. Yes. There were days with tears and “why God?” conversations. Yet while DYING she continued to make a difference. These past 12 months cemented an already steadfast “heart beat” for me. NO MATTER WHAT, I can make a difference to someone. In my work as a suicide prevention and awareness advocate, one of my favorite sayings is “Your voice is your power”. Use it.
Choose to sing “Happy Trails” to someone upon departure. Choose to smile and say, “I truly hope you have a great day!” Sign to someone “happiness is a choice”. Send that email to a struggling soul, “I’m thinking of you today”. You have a purpose. It doesn’t matter how many disabilities or challenges you have. You still have the power to make a difference. This is your super power. Use it. It matters. Happy trails to you…
L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.
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L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.