Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The child who paid her respects

Tammy on her bus.
FLOMATON, Ala. — The rain had not yet begun to fall, but low clouds crossed air currents above the hillside, curling around one another, gray on gray, and threatening a downpour.

We stood beside a freshly covered grave. Colorful flower arrangements lay spread on the upturned clay or stood in pots where a headstone was yet to be placed. A train passed down the hill, heading east, its mournful wail echoing among the pines and dogwoods.

At the head of the flower grouping lay a school bus formed of yellow silk buds. Near the foot, several popsicle sticks jutted from a clutch of cut flowers, decorated with figures named for some of the children who rode her bus. She drove for the Escambia County, Fla., School District for more than 15 years.

Tammy, my wife’s older sister, died Sept. 12 of complications after more than a year of treatment for leukemia, first at Baptist Hospital in Pensacola and later at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. She left two sisters, a husband and four daughters, her mother, grandchildren, cousins — and countless others — to mourn.

She was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, but an anonymous donor on the national registry was a perfect match for stem cell transplant. Thanks to that donor, her most recent biopsy showed she was 100-percent cancer-free. Tammy was looking forward to leaving the hospital soon and coming for a visit so she could dip her toes in the Gulf of Mexico on an autumn afternoon. She hoped to recover well enough to return to work someday.

Our photo albums are filled with her visits. A joint anniversary cruise on the Lady Anderson. Camping trips to St. Andrews State Park. Family portraits at the foot of the dunes and in the surf along Panama City Beach. Running the Gran Maze at Coconut Creek, miniature golfing, go-cart racing, shooting the rapids at Shipwreck Island. Most recently, a vow renewal ceremony for Tammy and her husband, Robby, at sunset on the beach.

As we stood there on the hill under threatening clouds — a small group having gathered a few hours after the services and now lost in our own thoughts — a beat-up Ford Explorer pulled over along the cemetery lane. A skinny girl in flip-flops and a black skirt climbed down from behind the wheel and crossed the lawn to join us. We didn’t know her, but she knew Tammy.

“I rode her bus when I was in third grade,” the girl explained. “If I was still in school, I’d be a senior this year. I heard this morning about what had happened, but I didn’t have any way to go to the funeral. I had to wait for my dad to get home from work so I could take his truck.”

She stood, hands folded together, studying the flowers and engulfed in memory, and I wondered how many others like her there were in the world. Children who rode a school bus —  perhaps only for a short time, many years ago — who will carry a piece of their driver’s spirit with them into the future. How many others might there have been if things had gone differently?

I wondered what Tammy had done to impress this one child, to move her nine years later to pay respects on a lonely hilltop as rain began to fall. But I didn’t ask. My curiosity didn’t matter, really.

The children mattered, and this girl’s quiet visitation was testament to how well Tammy saw to them in her time.


Peace
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Leukemia Awareness
What: September is National Leukemia and Lymphoma Awareness Month
Who: More than 1 million people in the United States are diagnosed with cancer each year
Details: Cancer.org
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