Friday, November 13, 2009

Hannah's Peers

I've been sitting here with tears rolling down my cheeks for the past thirty minutes or so. I'm all alone in the house tonight -- Brad and Bethany are gone to "deer camp" for the weekend, and I've been spending a lovely evening at home by myself. I'm serious...I love evenings at home by myself. I love being able to eat whatever I want, watch whatever I want on TV, and go to bed whenever I want. Or eat and watch TV in bed...what could be sweeter? I wouldn't want it this way all the time, but I do enjoy having time by myself on occasion...and, of course, I have Lacee, our Westie, to keep me company.

Well, tonight, I decided to watch a couple of DVDs that were given to us last spring, shortly after Hannah went to Heaven. One was made by Hannah's AP English classmates, and the other was a slide show made by her Spanish teacher. When they were given to us, I was grateful to receive them, but I just didn't feel emotionally ready to watch them. I put them away with the DVDs of Hannah's celebration service and burial, and didn't run across them again until earlier this week, when I was digging for a DVD on which to record a TV show for my brother in Indonesia. I decided that I was ready, and that I would watch them this weekend, while I was home alone (Brad watched them back when they were first given to us).

Wow...what an emotional experience! I watched the one from her English class first, and it completely blew me away. It was filmed outside, at different spots around campus, and in it, Hannah's classmates took turns telling what she meant to them, and what an impact her story had made on their lives. It ended with her four best friends sitting on a big rock and sharing stories of things they had done together...getting caught cheating (I'll have to explain that one a little more at some point!), eating lunch together every day, going to Magic Springs, etc., and how their lives had been impacted by hers. It was amazing to see these teenagers sharing from their hearts so openly. Hannah's English teacher closed out the video by telling about the difference Hannah had made in her life. I was completely overwhelmed.

Then I watched the second DVD. It was full of pictures of Hannah that I had never seen before. You know, I don't think I ever fully realized how really beautiful she was. And in every picture, there was her trademark smile. Then there were pictures of a ceremony that was held on the school campus on March 6, 2009, about two weeks after her death. We were unable to attend, so it was wonderful to see pictures of it. A tree was planted on campus in Hannah's memory, and the students, one at a time, sprinkled rose petals around the base of it. I can't even describe how it feels to look at those pictures.
It's really been eye-opening for me to see Hannah through the eyes of her peers. I can only see her through a mother's eyes, so it's been very interesting and enlightening for me to get a glimpse of her life from another perspective.

I want to share another college entrance essay with you this evening. This one was written by Hannah's dear friend, Tyler, who sent it to me this week and gave me permission to share it here. She titled it, "Dulled Edges".

"Death and the subsequent act of grieving are a package deal that visits all of us at some point in our lives. While the long term effects of some losses may not be immediately viewable through the overwhelming cloud of sorrow, they are always waiting. As hard as it is to believe, death has the power to bring clarity to some situations. Eight months after losing one of my best friends to brain cancer, the cloud has cleared enough for me to see the effects. My friend’s mother sent out regular e-mails both before and after Hannah’s death, and she shared a saying with us that I have now found to be true: “The hole will always be there, but the edges will become less sharp.”

Hannah Joy Sullivan’s middle name was the most fitting middle name I have ever heard. She was, in essence, the physical embodiment of the emotion. When we were children, she could be counted on to have a smile stretched across her face every single day and to be always able to point out the silver lining in any type of cloud. Her family moved when she was 12 years old, but true friendship is not deterred by distance. I, along with two other close friends, kept in touch with her via phone, e-mail, and the now antiquated AOL instant messaging. Hannah was always the friend I chose to accompany my family on our annual trip to Hot Springs, always the friend that I went to concerts with, always the friend that I stayed on the phone for hours with talking about American Idol and other current fads in our respective schools. She was actually the one who got me interested in the juggernaut that is American Idol because when I called her on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, she would actually make me hang up and wait for her to call me back when the show ended! Obviously I had to start watching whatever show was keeping her so entranced, and that kick started an entirely new interest for us to share. Hannah and I attended many post American Idol concerts when they toured, and the memories we made on those trips have become priceless.

In February of 2008, after weeks of nausea and double vision, Hannah went to the doctor and was referred to the most terrifying specialist of all – an oncologist. He delivered some of the most dreaded news possible: Hannah had a Type 4 Glioblastoma tumor in the middle of her brain stem. The diagnosis depicted a particularly vicious type of cancer, one that had a dismal 5% survival rate. I remember everything about the night when one of the two friends who also kept up with Hannah called me with the news. I was at choir rehearsal, and although I never answer my phone during practice, I did for some reason that night. I went into the art room and sat on a stool as I listened to the three words that changed my life forever: “Hannah has cancer.” I remember feeling numb for the rest of that night and the following days. I had no idea what to do with myself, and though I wanted to help or to go visit her immediately, there was nothing I could do. The tumor was successfully removed five days after it was found. I watched Hannah put on a brave face when no one else could and go through her intensive treatments with that trademark smile upon her face. For a while she was doing extraordinarily well; the medicine seemed to be working and the cancer seemed to have given up the fight for a blissful couple of months.

The very end of 2008 brought more bad news though as her cancer returned in full strength with an army of tumors to replace the original one on her brain stem. Worse yet, even more were found along her spinal cord. The news was devastating. I watched her go through changes that no 17-year-old should have to: losing her thick, beautiful hair, losing her balance, losing her eyesight. My friends and I went to visit her in January of 2009, and about an hour into our visit, she took off her wig. Her mom later told us she never went without her wig in front of company, and it was a sign we had made her feel comfortable enough to show us the prized asset that the cancer had taken. In spite of the great number of physical characteristics that the disease had ravaged, Hannah was still our Hannah. She joked and laughed and, of course, smiled.

The last time I saw Hannah was five days before her death. She had been moved to a hospice house by this point, and I was in the city for the weekend. For this visit, however, I was not accompanied by my two friends, making it infinitely harder. I entered her quiet room, and rubbed her hand while I tried to say everything I thought was absolutely necessary. I am sure now that none of it was, but how does one prioritize things that need to be said, knowing that this is the last chance? I believe that Hannah knew it was me, although I cannot be absolutely sure. She hardly talked, and the lack of her smile broke my already cracked heart. Her energy was low, so I whispered that I loved her and left her to rest. Seeing her one last time brought the closure I needed, even if it could not soften the pain of her death.

The months following her death in February were a blur. Nothing I did felt like it had meaning, and at times I felt utterly helpless. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and I began to feel happy more and more often. I knew this was what Hannah would have wanted, but experiencing happiness too soon after a death feels wrong, and it took me a long time to get re-accustomed to the feeling.

I have come to realize that Hannah’s death has subconsciously made me more appreciative of the little things in life. I make an effort to never take relationships that are dear to me for granted, and I find that forgiveness is not nearly as hard to give. I would love to be able to say that I never hold grudges anymore, or that I do not take petty things too seriously, but I would be lying. I still make mistakes, and I still take life for granted sometimes. However, I notice these things and make changes faster and more often. I would like to believe that I have learned more about the fragility of life.

A teenager in the prime of life with everything going for her, Hannah was the most unlikely candidate for brain cancer. Because of her, I have realized the importance of every day of life I am given. Life is a gift, and it should not be taken for granted. It may seem unfair for such a young and thriving person to be taken away in such a cruel manner, but, thinking back, I found the silver lining – I know Hannah would have. Because the cancer took her from us relatively slowly, we had a year to value our time with her and, most importantly, to say goodbye to her. This turned out to be the greatest gift of all, as I simply cannot imagine having her taken away without so much as a warning. I am sure the time we were given to come to terms with the inevitable softened the blow more than I can even imagine.

Grief is a common and yet mystifying emotion. Despite the fact that everyone has experienced grief, it never seems to present itself the same way in any two people. For me, it made everything insignificant for a time and then ended up showing me what I was supposed to have learned from Hannah’s story. I miss my best friend every day, and I would trade the lessons I have been taught from her death for her presence any day. However, I know I cannot bring her back, and therefore I must make the most of what the situation has given me. The incredible power grief has over each of us proves that not all of the aftermath of loss is negative and that, given time, the edges of our holes can be dulled."

~A beautiful tribute....Thank you, Tyler.


PJ Pumphrey said...

all I can say is WOW!!! this really touched me, and, brought tears to my eyes...Beautifuly written Tyler!

Paula Roberts said...

Such wise, wise, words from such a young soul...beautiful!!!

The Harper Family said...

What an amazing tribute from a true friend! I had a hard time reading it through my tears. Thanks so much for posting!