I was teaching religion to a group of five years olds on Wednesday afternoons. It was a small class filled with very sweet youngsters the same age as my eldest daughter. I was still in my twenties and filled with boundless energy and wild ideas for setting the world on fire, but first I wanted to do something for my church, and so I had volunteered to be an instructor in one of the classes.
Midway through the school year the director of the program called me to her office and said that she was trying to place another parishioner into one of the classes as an aide. She wondered if I would like to have a bit of assistance with my crew of kindergarteners. She suggested that I might also be a good mentor for the woman who one day hoped to have a class of her own. I was intrigued by the idea of being called upon to help train a future teacher and so I accepted the offer without having any idea of how enormously that decision would impact the rest of my life.
I called my new assistant later that week to get to know her as well as to briefly outline my classroom procedures. I tended to operate in a kind of fly by the seat of my pants, highly flexible method of preparing for each class. I soon learned that the woman who would be helping me wanted a more structured, almost scripted outline of the lesson that she might study before each scheduled meeting. With that in mind she asked me to come to her home for a planning session.
Her name was Pat and she was about seven years older than I was. In other words she had a maturity that I had yet to master as someone still experimenting with adulthood in my twenties. She lived in a gorgeous upscale home that she had meticulously decorated with carefully chosen furniture and art. I felt a bit overwhelmed upon entering her domain and wondered why I, who lived in a house filled with hand me downs from relatives, had been chosen to guide an obviously far more accomplished woman than I was.
I learned that Pat had been a registered nurse and that she was married to a NASA engineer. She had two young children who were as young as my own but she had not become a mother until she was well established in her career. She did everything with the meticulousness of a charge nurse, taking notes and asking critical questions. I had thought that she would simply show up each week for the class and I would use her skills to corral frisky children and pass out supplies for the crafts. Suddenly I realized that having her as my aide was going to greatly increase the amount of work that I would have to do each week. I was not so certain that this was going to work. Also, I found that I was intimidated by her polish and experience. It felt as though ours was an upside down partnership and that she should have been the person in charge and I the follower.
Pat seemed blissfully unaware that I was internally struggling and feeling like a bit of a misfit. She worked hard to be more than just a “go for” in my classroom. Together we began to have a great deal of fun each Wednesday when we met with the children and each week when we met to plan the lessons. Before long Pat was generously inviting me and my family to dinners at her home or suggesting at we take our children on outings. Our relationship deepened little by little and when the school year was over we both realized that we had become friends.
Over the years our husbands became the best of buddies who held such interesting round table conversations about all facets of the world that we joked that they should have their own televised talk show. (I still think that it would have been a hit.) Our children became like siblings and Pat and I became like sisters. Our differing personalities complimented each other and we continually learned about ourselves and the world around us just from hanging together.
We went on trips together and created and shared traditions with our families. Our doors were always open and dropping in unannounced became a routine. Pat taught me how to keep some kind of goodie in the pantry or freezer to prepare with a pot of coffee or tea whenever she or another friend or relative stopped by my home. She showed me how to do a fifteen minute house cleaning if someone called and said they were coming. It involved swishing the toilet in the bathroom, cleaning the countertops in the kitchen and tossing all of the misplaced shoes and other items into a bedroom with the door closed. She introduced me to places in my own city that I had never before known and she demonstrated how to have a “rainbow day” in a moments notice.
I always imagined growing old with Pat and her husband Bill and her children. She was the sister that I had never had. Both of us could be ourselves with one another with no filters, no pretense. We were the yin and yang together. Perhaps that Director of Religious Education had possessed a wisdom that I did not realize at the time. Somehow she understood that placing Pat in my classroom out of all the others was the right thing to do. I have always wondered how she could have known that things would work out so well.
When that same Director of Religious Education moved to another city she submitted my name as her replacement. I enjoyed three years as the first lay person to be in charge of guiding the children of our little Catholic community. Eventually I wanted to be a regular classroom teacher and I had the honor of suggesting that my one time aide, Pat, be given the directorship of the religious program at the church. I would spend the next forty years of my life teaching everything from fourth grade to Algebra II and finally becoming a Dean of Faculty. Pat would retire as the longest running director of the religious education program the church ever had. Our friendship would evolve into the kind of love that sisters have for each other.
Pat developed cancer and fought a battle with it for years. In the end that dread disease was the only thing capable of dampening her energy and enthusiasm. When she died I felt lost and in some ways I still do. We were confidants, soulmates, the best of friends. I miss being able to drive up to her house and knock on the door anytime I wished. Now, it is her daughter who brings Pat’s light to me. It is as though Pat has become an angel watching over all of us and it all began with a meeting to plan a few lessons.