I’ve never seen a penguin in its natural setting unless you count the adorable boys who shoot pucks at “The Igloo” in Pittsburgh – at least that’s where they played when I’d travel three hours from Columbus to watch a hockey game back in the day. I know The Igloo has since been demolished and the Penguins have a new habitat, but in my mind, they’ll always play at The Igloo. Of course, the Penguins I’m referring to belong to Genus: National Hockey League; Species: Penguins VERSUS Genus: Spheniscus; Species: Humboldt Penguin.

I don’t really know a lot about Penguins other than they are flightless birds who primarily live in the Southern Hemisphere. This makes me wonder if they have distinct dialects, like my “South of the Mason-Dixon Line” relatives and their southern twang? Are there redneck Penguins? I’ll probably think about that for the rest of the day. What I do know, however, is that a wonderful woman named Ms. Brenda loves penguins and that’s all I truly need to completely endear me to these kooky little birds.

I met Ms. Brenda when she was assigned to keep Ben afloat scholastically after his relapse with Neuroblastoma. His relapse happened during the summer between second and third grade so we knew that school attendance would be intermittent at best given the intensity of his therapy. Ben attended exactly one day of third grade before contracting a fever due to his reduced blood counts so we made the decision to get a home/hospital teacher immediately. We had no idea how she would enhance our lives.

Upon meeting Ms. Brenda, she told us a bit about herself, including the fact that she absolutely adored penguins. She also said she liked hockey, which added another layer of awesome to her persona. Ms. Brenda came to teach Ben every school day, whether we were at home or if he was in the hospital. She took it at his pace (he does not love school) and she made it fun as possible for him. She encouraged him to read (which I’m confident is why he’s such a voracious reader today). She made a deal with him that a part of class time on Fridays could be spent playing Wii together as long as he got his work done.

Ms. Brenda saw me at my absolute worst. There were many days that she’d arrive to teach Ben and I’d retreat upstairs to cry – or to sleep – or to write. I was at a point where I was just so emotionally exhausted. I made sure that Ben and Madeline were cared for – medications dispersed, homework completed, etc. – but I did the bare minimum to care for myself. During those months I became an excellent depressive personality. I owned it. If there was a crown to be won for Ms. Depressed USA, I was the winner AND the first runner-up. Geez. Redneck Penguins and Personality Disorder pageants, I’ve just produced an excellent reality show.

Regardless, Ms. Brenda didn’t judge. She came and did her job. If she found the dishes overflowing the sink to be disgusting, she didn’t say. I know Ms. Brenda has seen her share of tragic situations. Her job is to teach children who cannot go to school for whatever reason. Cancer. Long-term illnesses. Body casts. She’s seen children suffering but is strong enough to say “sorry about your situation but you still need to learn.” And she does it with a unique brand of love. She is simply amazing.

Ms. Brenda taught Ben for well over a year – all of third grade and part of fourth. When Ben decided that he was ready to go back to school, it was hard for me in many ways. I was worried that he would get too tired. I was worried that kids wouldn’t be kind. I was not happy about losing Ms. Brenda. I knew that I would want to stay in touch. So, she’d come along to the movies with us. Her son taught Ben the basics of golf. She came to Ben’s birthday party. We remained a part of each others’ lives.

When Ms. Brenda learned that her very best friend had terminal cancer my heart broke for her. Here is this woman so selflessly giving her talents to children going through a tough time only to suddenly be thrust into a horror of her own. We would occasionally meet and talk about her BFF and how hard it is to navigate the horrible world of cancer. I learned that there is no possible way to soothe someone dealing with cancer. There are no right words. There are no right deeds to offer. You just have to be willing to LISTEN. And for all the wonderful things that Ms. Brenda had done for us, the least I could do for her was to simply listen. It hurt to watch her hurt. Maybe that gave me a little glimpse of how she felt for me all those mornings she’d come to the house, my eyes rimmed with red, my nose runny from the tears. But she was there. She was instrumental in getting my son what he needed and that helped more than I could ever express.

Ms. Brenda, unfortunately, did lose her BFF to cancer. I know that she will mourn that loss greatly for a long time to come but one of the incredible pleasures that came from it is that Ms. Brenda has chosen to continue living her life with verve. She’s made a bold decision to move to Arizona simply because she wants to. I admire that. We should be bold in our everyday lives because we simply don’t know what tomorrow brings. I hold Ms. Brenda in the greatest esteem. Through her actions, I’m changing myself (albeit a little more slowly!) I want to live this life. The only way to do that is to do it.

And I know without a doubt that my Ben feels the same way about Ms. Brenda because he has chosen her for his HERO project that he is presenting at school tomorrow. I cannot wait to hear for myself how he feels about her and watch her expression as she listens to his heartfelt presentation. She IS a Hero in every sense of the word.

There is no doubt that we’ll miss having instant access to you once you move, Ms. Brenda. But you’ll remain in our hearts forever. All I can say is Thank You for being the teacher who changed Ben’s life. Who encouraged him. Who listened to him. Who loved him. He will never forget that.

Neither will I.

You, my friend, are cooler than any penguin. And you don’t even have to sit on ice. 🙂




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