My wife, Jan, was a teacher for twenty years. At that time, I knew many of her students and was well aware of the tremendous impact she had on them. She taught “gifted” kids at the middle school level. Many of her peers marveled at how much she loved to teach this age group. Part of the reason was that when we raised our two sons, she especially enjoyed them at that age.
Where her students were concerned, she knew that middle school was a critical time in their development and that her impact on them would be lasting. She made it her mission to make every day she was with them “count.” They loved her for that.
I was fortunate through the years to get to know many of her students—both when they were young and entered adulthood after college. Many went on to become professionals. I marveled at how many of them stayed in contact with her. As I was editing her book, How Do We Come to Know? I then understood what was so magical about her as a teacher.
One of her many memorable students was Alex. He was a budding quarterback at the middle school level and had his heart set on attending a Jesuit high school known for both its academics and the prowess of its athletes. He wanted to play quarterback for them.
As he was about to leave the eighth grade, Jan took it on as a special project to help him attain his goal. That was not a challenge as he was a great student and a devout Catholic.
Alex went on to study at this august school and, yes, played quarterback until his high school football career was ended by an injury. From high school, he went on to our state university, where he excelled as a student and a leader. While at the university, he had two very close friends die at their own hands. It affected him profoundly. After college, along with a team of friends he led, Alex formed a non-profit organization that took it upon themselves to produce a first-class documentary designed to help prevent suicides among college students. He chaired their board and coordinated several major fundraising events to help them realize their goal—which they did!
While he was leading this effort, he was also a law student.
While he was in law school, he interned with a prominent personal injury attorney in St Louis. Jan and I had our horrendous car crash during that time. She was an invalid for a year. The kid who hit us (at 80 mph) was uninsured. Alex coordinated with his employer what amounted to our settlement. This took a year. Those who are familiar with my column know that after a year of strenuous rehab following the wreck, Jan suffered several severe strokes, the fourth of which took her life 30 months after her first one.
Throughout her ordeal as an invalid, Alex remained vigilant regarding her care. He was a source of strength for me during that terrible time.
Alex went on to join a law firm in the city. He had met a wonderful lady in law school. They dated for several years. Earlier this year, they married. I was honored to be invited to their wedding and reception dinner, where I sat with some of his family members and the priest who married them earlier that day.
As you can imagine, he and his new bride were busy meeting the 200+ guests who attended the reception.
Alex and his mother attended Jan’s funeral in September 2021. Next to the guest register at the funeral, I had placed some small printed cards with Jan’s photo on them and a very inspirational poem, so much so that I have memorized it and recite it daily. I know of several people who knew Jan who kept that card to remember her.
At the wedding reception, Alex dressed in his tuxedo, and his beautiful bride thanked me for coming to their wedding and reception. I told him how proud I was of him and mentioned that Jan must indeed be looking down on them, smiling from heaven. Alex then did something that stunned me. He opened up his tuxedo coat, and pinned to the inside pocket, was the inspirational card he had taken from her funeral. Imagine this! It’s the most important day of his life. He’s still in his tuxedo, and he is carrying that card next to his heart. He didn’t have to say anything. We exchanged a look I will never forget. What a gift to Jan—and me!
In the fifteen months since Jan passed away, I have heard many tributes to her. She was a legacy to so many people. But none will surpass that card penned to the inside pocket of a new groom’s tuxedo. Alex! I’ll love you forever for that. You are a most generous and caring soul.
Michael Burroughs is the author of Moving Mountains: Facing Strokes with Faith and Hope. He lives in St Louis, Missouri.