It’s how these things so often happen. Early on a Monday morning in about 1979, after I had finished meditating, something came to me. It was Mrs. Stanley’s face or maybe her voice. It overwhelmed me.
These things come like a distant bell, a magical, haunting, beautiful sound that you cannot ignore. I hadn’t even thought of her in more than ten years, but there she was, my high school English teacher, calling me.
By then my life had gone seriously wrong. My first baby had died, my poor drunk husband had gone home to his own country, I was poor, and every so often depression crippled me.
The joys I had were my little girl and a new sense of hope and love. I had started to meditate.
On that Monday morning what I suddenly knew—out of nowhere, I thought—was that I had to tell Mrs. Stanley thank you. It was obvious. Looking back, heaven was prompting me, but at that time I hadn’t figured that out yet. I got a card, wrote a note and mailed it.
A week later the phone rang and there was a trembly fairy voice. “Jean, is that you? Is that you? Where are you? Where are you? Come and see me.”
She was in Madison General Hospital, dying. By now I knew a little bit about death, so I went right away.
She is lying on pillows, oxygen tubes in her nose, IVs in her arms—Of course, all her smoking. Lung cancer. The room smells bad, and it’s dim and grey. Her voice is still low, but she can barely whisper.
“Your little girl? I thought you’d bring her.”
“I was afraid to—I didn’t know how you would be.”
She nods. “What did I give you? Why did you write? Was it my teaching?”
This part I know. “No….The teaching was good. But it was never what you said. It was how you were.”
“Remember when that girl tried to kill herself and she came into your room? And you climbed into the ambulance with her and went with her to the hospital?”
She sighs a little. “Poor girl. Yes…yes.”
“You cared so much. You would say anything, do anything…. We were so stupid. So immature. We laughed at you, and you just ignored us. It was how you were, not what you said, not who you were. You were there for us, for all of us, even when you weren’t supposed to be. Even when it was embarrassing. You told us the truth. You were strict but you cared. You always showed that passion, and damn everyone else.”
“How did you hear me? How?”
I shrug. “I just knew. I just knew—It just came one morning.”
She falls back onto her pillows. “So there is something….Oh God. Oh God.” Tears slide down her cheeks.
It was the only time I saw her. In a few days she died. She was one of my most important teachers.
Here is Mrs. Stanley’s lesson: It’s not who you are or what you are that lasts, that matters forever. It’s how you are. Kind. Tender. Caring—No matter who laughs at you. How you touch. How you speak.
Touch kindly. Be there for others. Let your eyes shine because that’s God’s joy. Tell others how precious they are so they know.
How you are is exactly how God happens in this world. How you are is the only thing that matters. That’s it—the whole thing. It’s not what to be, not who to be. It’s how to be.