Walking down the baking aisle two days before my forty-second birthday I saw a woman I haven’t seen in twenty-one years, and she hadn’t aged a bit. Her hair looked the same, as if it had been curled and set a few days ago, and the collar of her bright turquoise jacket was turned up against the cold.

For a full ten seconds I stopped my cart and watched her, taking in every last detail so I could both compare and commit them to memory.

Her glasses looked rounder, not so rectangular, and though her feet were just as small, her shoes were fancier than what she used to wear. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t shrunk or grown any, and the brown pleated pants, the slow and steady way she appraised the boxes of jello, even the length of her footsteps seemed the same.

Every other aisle I trailed behind her, pretending to scrutinize what she scrutinized. While she meandered past the milk, I feigned interest in the lactose-free options. As she looked over the frozen shrimp, I stared at the frozen scallops and considered actually buying some to make my “I’m not really following you through a grocery store” walk look more authentic, but I knew, eventually, I’d have to come clean. 

Turning into the checkout lane I kept the full six feet of social distance between us, and I felt it in my bones that the universe may not give me this same opportunity again. Deciding to take my chances with cosmic coincidence, I slowly walked past her keeping my eyes averted. 

Maybe if I didn’t look up and kept my mouth shut I could keep swallowing this lump in my throat forever.

But my heart knew better so I turned around and said, “Excuse me ma’am. You don’t know me, but I’ve almost said hello to you ten times in the last twenty minutes. You look exactly like my même.”

There. I got it out before the lump could move.

“Oh,” she looked at me with bright blue eyes. “Your grandmother lives around here evidently?” 

“No, but I wish she did. She passed away a long time ago. Looking at you today was like seeing her again, so thank you for looking so familiar.”

That was all I could say without abandoning my cart in front of the express lane. The nice stranger lady gave me a brief look of sympathy and for the life of me I couldn’t remember if those were Même’s eyes or not. Weren’t Même’s green? 

The fact that I couldn’t remember leveled me as much as walking away. 

I suppose if I had to narrow it down to one emotion, the way I feel about losing my grandmother has to do with security. She was my même, my rock, my emotional support person, but grief is funny. It’s not only about who or what you’ve lost. It’s about you too. 

I miss my old self as much as I miss Même. 

For those of you who haven’t experienced this kind of loss, you might think this sounds a bit narcissistic, and you’d be right. It does. 

But those who have, you know that when someone you love dies it’s like a part of you dies with them, and the part of me that my grandmother brought out, the girl who always felt like everything would all work out alright in the end, she seems so far removed from me now. 

When I was younger, Meme spotted the landmines in my life and she helped me avoid them. She told me where the bear did his business in the woods, and she also told me where, when and how to do mine.

All of my uncertainty vanished with her steady Downeast drawl. I can still hear her saying, “Come on, Em-ly. You’re goin’tah be late for work if you don’t get a move on lickety-split Missie!” 

That clarity, that voice inside my head feels as missing to me now as she does. 

The older I get, the more I realize Robert Frost was right. “Life is too much like a pathless wood,” and I really don’t know which “way leads onto way” most of the time.

Unfortunately, for the past six months, I’ve felt lost in my own life. I have chronic occipital neuralgia and despite everything I’ve tried (steroid injections, anticonvulsants, herbs, enzymes, amino acids, analgesics, massages, ointments, muscle relaxers and vitamins) all of these failed attempts at feeling better have left me feeling at a loss of what to do next. 

What do you do when life takes a turn you never saw coming? Meme would know, and she would tell me. I’m certain of it.

So today, I find myself looking at three of my present, real-life heroes who are paving the way for me, for all of us really, to figure out how to embrace the winding road ahead. 

My first hero is a sweet sixty-three year old man by the name of Rick McHale. When I came home from the grocery store that day, still crying, I took a picture of the beautiful blueberry fields surrounding my home and posted it on Facebook. Within minutes I got a message from Rick, or Happy, as his grandkids call him. 

I asked him how he’s been feeling. Rick was diagnosed with Covid this past Thanksgiving and he replied, “Getting there.” 

Unfortunately (for those lucky enough to recover from this disease), the road to recovery is a slow process, but Rick is no stranger to long recoveries. When he was just 32-years-old he worked as a sheet metal worker at our local paper mill. While he and another man were installing a 15-foot metal pipe 18 feet above the ground floor the pipe broke.

Without thinking, Rick grabbed his end and held on until everyone below was out of the way. This instinctive act of selflessness saved lives but cost Rick dearly as he ended up permanently injuring his back. 

In the last 30 years, Rick has undergone 7 surgeries to repair the damage done from that day. He has daily pain, but he tries to avoid doing anything that makes it worse. Though his disability made it impossible for him to continue working, he decided to turn his love of taking pictures into a hobby and has become a photographer of both wildlife and athletics at our local schools (sometimes they’re one and the same).

Because of a blood clot in his lung after his fourth back surgery (the bottom part of his lung died), Rick’s recovery has been slowed. He’s had lingering breathing problems, no energy and he’s still very tired. Through all of this, Rick continues to take photos, push through his own pain, and find time to laugh, love, and celebrate his return to good health with his wife, children and grandchildren.

My next hero is a long time friend and colleague by the name of Tish Frazier. Tish was an English and business teacher (among other things: athletic director, adult ed teacher and long term sub) for thirty-something years, and she retired in 2009 to enjoy life as a wife, grandmother and avid athletic supporter for the students at our school. 

Two and a half years ago at the age of 65 Tish was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had nine weeks of treatment, then surgery to remove the ovary and all of the other tumors. Shortly after, Tish underwent another nine weeks of treatment.  

In remission, Tish felt good for about 10 months before the cancer came back.

Then, she had four cycles of treatment — two weeks on and one week off. For the fifth and sixth cycle Tish could only do one week on because her blood levels had dropped, and she needed a transfusion. 

Though smaller in size, her tumors weren’t gone, so they put her on a maintenance drug called lynparza to keep them from growing. Tish felt good for another 7 months before a new tumor was found. This time, they’re recommending one treatment per month (currently she’s already had three). 

Tish was supposed to have six treatments, but the tumor appears to still be growing.

The doctors feel Tish has become platinum resistant (which means the carboplatin isn’t working.) Soon, she’ll begin a new treatment, and they will have to continue monitoring her blood levels.

Through her hospitalizations (two different times this past November because the tumor was pushing on her colon) and one  life flight trip to Portland, Tish has never lost her spirit, despite the fact she’s now on a mostly liquid diet.

Though Tish says she hasn’t had a lot of side effects from her treatments — mostly fatigue, loss of hair the first time around, some constipation — the pain she felt earlier is gone. She remains determined and optimistic to continue walking her road to recovery and loving her time as a wife, mother and grandmother.

My third and final real-life hero and warrior is a beautiful child by the name of Grayson Andrew Wentworth. The son of two former students, Cameron and Whitney Wentworth, Grayson was diagnosed with B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia in July of 2018 when he was only 22 months old.

Whitney, gracious enough to share Grayson’s journey to “kicking leukemia’s butt” with her friends and family, has chronicled much of Grayson’s road to recovery in her posts and pictures on social media.

Grayson’s grandmother, Wendy Moran, a nurse at Eastern Maine Medical Center and loving Nannie to Grayson, describes G’s unbelievable resiliency. 

“He’s always smiling. He takes his medications daily without a fuss (sometimes as much as 5 syringes at a time). NEVER has he fussed about taking them! He has been wearing a mask in public since day one of his diagnosis (never complaining) although Whit and Cam limit his exposure and are very careful as to when and where it is safe to take him places. 

He has missed out on many “normal” activities for toddlers (for example, starting preschool this past fall). He yearns to be in school and have friends his own age, so he is very much looking forward to kindergarten this coming fall. 

Grayson is one of the kindest, sweetest souls and wise beyond his years. He is funny and I mean funny! He loves with his whole heart and then some. He is probably one of the most appreciative children I have ever met. He will win you over with his charming phrases and little winks.” 

When talking about this same resiliency in Grayson’s parents Wendy went on to say, “Talk about strength! They love that sweet boy beyond measure. They have done an amazing job advocating for and supporting Grayson through this entire journey. They have also been able to teach Grayson manners and respect (as much as they just want to let him do whatever he pleases because he has been through so much). 

I watched these young parents drop to their knees and the wind taken from them when they heard the most devastating news… their son has cancer. They took the time to wrap their head around what they were just faced with, and then I watched them stand up and brush off their knees ready to fight alongside their baby boy! 

They have always remained a team, always fighting for Grayson and loving him through this. The love they give Grayson is like no other. It is pure and deep and Grayson feels it. Grayson admires his parents. He feels their love. He feels their comfort, and he knows that they are right there beside him.” 

Grayson is now in his last year of treatment and on November 13th this phase of his life will be officially behind him. Some of Grayson’s famous lines to his family are,  “I love you more/better” and “Happy home, you happy home?” because no matter where they are, the hospital, clinic, or home, to Grayson “happy home” is wherever his family is.

The Takeaway 

My oldest daughter Addie has a favorite saying of her own. It actually comes from a movie made from one of her treasured childhood books, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. In the film version, Steve Carell who plays Alexander’s father constantly reminds his children, “You are the captain of your ship. Steer your ship with positivity.”

Though his kids look at him with that same vacant stare my own children give me from time to time, when Carell’s character repeats this mantra enough, Alexander eventually picks up what his dad is putting down. Many things can change the course of your life, but you’re the only one who can decide which direction to steer it, and you can choose to remain hopeful or you can choose to go down with the ship. 

Même, Rick, Tish and Grayson have all shown me that captaining my ship isn’t about knowing which way I’m going or even having the reassurance that it will all work out in the end. It’s about accepting life and the vessel we’re in and deciding to keep going. 

Maybe it’ll get better or maybe it won’t, but heroes don’t fold when the waters get choppy because they know that life, like any journey or game of chance, only requires one thing of us: that we continue to take new paths, roll the dice and steer our ship with positivity. 

Recently, for whatever reason, many of my former students have reached out to me. Josh wanted me to know he’s started writing again, and he’d love for me to take a look at a short story he wrote. Nolan messaged me to say he was thinking of me and that he’s working hard. He’s working for UPS now, just bought a new car and starting to get back into aviation studies. 

Jimmy told me at the beginning of the year he started reading more, and he’s read three books since September. He realized now he probably would have liked a lot of the books I assigned (all except that On Writing one) and isn’t funny he turned into a reader? Sky had this epiphany about her calling, and she’s recently gotten back into writing. How was my book coming along? 

Their messages filled something inside me that I thought I’d lost with Meme: my belief that maybe things do work out in the end. Maybe it’s not so bad being another year into my pathless wood. Maybe I’m on the right path after all. And maybe, hopefully, I’ve become for my children at school and home the emotional support person my grandmother was for me, despite how helpless I feel at times. 

What’s more, perhaps we can all take a page from Rick’s, Tish’s and Grayson’s book and keep pushing when life pushes us back because we’ve all got a lot to celebrate in our own “happy homes” loving our people “more better.”