Over the years, I have taught several hundred students. Although, they are all important to me, there are special ones who stand out, and Abbie was one of these children. She is remarkable in that she had a life-threatening peanut allergy, and there were strict guidelines that had to be adhered to in order to insure her safety at school. However, as I think back, I do not remember the guidelines and protocols; I remember her genuine and ever-present smile. Since receiving this news, I have experiencing intense feelings that life is not fair, anger, and sadness. Being a teacher, I often approach situations through a lens of, “How would I explain this to a child?” I had no answer. All I had were questions: “What is the point,” “Why did such a sweet girl have to die,” “How do you continue to have faith when so many bad things happen?” It was as I was feeling myself slip into a despair where I would allow myself to indulge in the slippery slope of compiling all this year’s losses into a belief about life that it came to me, with incredible clarity, that I was asking the wrong questions. I should not be seeking the answer to why did Abbie have to die, but, instead, why did Abbie live? That question, I can answer.
To many this won’t be news, but to some it will be. I have anxiety, and I have suffered from depression. For many years, my general and anticipatory anxiety has caused me to suffer from tremendously painful tension headaches, which, up until recently, were misdiagnosed as migraines, sinus problems, food allergies, dehydration, etc. I also had frequent dizzy spells, which were misdiagnosed panic attacks. Because of this, I did not experience life to its fullest. I planned and prepared for the worse possible outcome, I catastrophized minor events, I personalized situations that caused me to feel hurt and rejection where none was intended, I isolated myself from people I love and experiences I wanted to have, I tried to control my every moment, I survived, I managed, I got through, but I did not live. I defined and confined myself and my life experiences based on my fears. Conversely, there is Abbie. Her allergy was so serious that she was literally living with a dagger over her head; death could always be around the next corner. By the time she reached my fourth grade classroom, she had been in an ambulance experiencing anaphylaxis on more than one occasion, so she knew the stakes. There were rules and protocols that had to be followed no matter how tired, or lazy, or child-like she was feeling at the moment. There were places she could not go, things she could not do, experiences she could not have, celebrations she could not participate in, and important moments where she had to stand on the sidelines. She was a child who always had to do without, who always watched others enjoy and indulge in things that she could not. She had every reason in the world to be resentful, angry, anxious, disappointed, frustrated, fearful, jealous, or spiteful, but she never was. She could have been manipulative or entitled, but she would never dream of it. Abbie was always happy, always lit the room with her smile, always volunteered to help, was always grateful for what she had and gracious about what she could not have, and Abbie was always ready to laugh. Abbie was not defined by her allergy. Because of this, she packed more unbridled joy, unparalleled friendship, unwavering courage, uninhibited enthusiasm, and unrestrained love into her short life than most people ever get to experience. She worked hard in school, played basketball, had great friends, and made those around her better.
I have no words that could ease the immeasurable grief that her family must be experiencing as they face the reality that their greatest fear in life, the thing they worked so hard to prevent, has actually happened, as they shift their focus away from preparing for the holidays and towards preparing to bury their only daughter, as December 26th arrives and their princess will not be here to celebrate her sweet sixteen birthday. So instead, I ask all of you who take the time to read this to carry Abbie in your hearts and live like she did. As the New Year approaches, resolve to challenge negative thoughts with positive ones. Instead of dwelling on what you don’t have, be grateful for something that you do have. When you feel the tension of stress in your body, replace it with a smile, a hug, or some laughter. In place of frustration, try to feel empathy. Instead of worrying about your weight, be grateful that you have food you can eat. Instead of obsessing about money, your appearance, or status, be grateful for your health. Find things that you love and do them; don’t put them off. Spend time with the people you love. Stop trying to please others, and please yourself. Don’t wait for perfect; it will never come. Be kind to yourself and everyone you come in contact with. If you have fears or worries, face them, not to be reckless, but because life is meant to be lived. As you make this shift and you start to feel more positive, send a silent thank you to Abbie, a little girl who’s greatest strength was not being afraid to live the life she was given.
I was Abbie’s teacher, and she is mine.