Friday, August 15, 2008

Embracing Pat

Today I will attend a memorial for my good friend, Pat Clifford.

I first met Pat in 1997 -- I hold in my mind a vivid memory of Pat in a bright yellow raincoat out with the children on the playground - she was comforting a young girl who had fallen down. I had heard that Pat was an amazing teacher long before I met her; I had read work she had written with Sharon. The icon, this mythical woman, put me immediately at ease - she was so smart, so real, very approachable; I fell in love with Pat and her beautiful voice that year.

Partway through that first year, as some conflict in the school caused ripples of tension. I can remember talking with Pat on the phone one night. A bit naive about how to handle a particular situation, I was asking her advice. At one point, I said, "Dammit Pat, this is so hard, I am not sure what to do next", and Pat said, "Suck it up Michele, teaching IS hard work and it requires no small amount of courage - stick to it". In the days, weeks and months that followed, Pat and Sharon demonstrated how to be courageous, kind and steadfast -- they stuck to their beliefs about what was right for children and teachers, and I learned a great deal through their example. There was a great deal of laughter and joy balanced by some tears and frustration that year; when I think back on the magical times I got to spend in Pat and Sharon's classroom, the primary image is one of joyful stewardship of the intellect - I learned more about teaching, learners and myself that year than I had in seven years of university.

Over the past eleven years, I have cherished Pat Clifford's friendship and I have relied on her wise mentorship as I have navigated the professoriate and motherhood. She always knew just when to offer words of encouragement, when to administer a gentle nudge forward, and was both generous and thoughtful with her feedback. She listened patiently to my stories and offered sage observations, stories and advice in return. When I worried about being the youngest female professor in the faculty, she told me to keep the pony tail and to show attitude. Her friendship and mentorship has been so important to me on my journey; knowing Pat has enriched my life, Terry's life and the lives of my children. By believing in me, she has helped me to believe in myself.

A cherished memory -- a story, for Pam. My sons love to grow things in the garden -- one June, as a few things were ready to pick in the garden, I invited Pat for lunch. My two little sons and I were in the yard when Pat came walking down the hill. The first thing you noticed was her big smile, and her hearty hello -- she was always delighted to see my boys and showed great interest in their stories. If they showed her a bug, she bent down, examined it carefully, and questioned them thoughtfully; time stopped as these two people, one big and one small, shared in the wonder of the earth. A dandelion, a rock, a ladybug took on new significance because Pat shared a tiny boy's fascination with these marvelous objects and living things.

In this picture, Pat is accepting a radish from my dear son, who had just plucked a handful from his little garden. She raved over its fresh flavor, expressed delight in his skill as a gardener and made him feel so very important, accomplished and brilliant. Pat savored food as she savored life -- with rapture, gratitude and style!!

Recently, Pat's two lovable big cats came to live at our house. Named for characters in Shakespeare (of course - Pat was an English teacher), Olivia and Portia are ten year old female cats that Pat adopted from the SPCA long ago when she lived in her house. Olivia is a great black matriarch with compelling green eyes, one fang and a throaty purr - she doesn't want any trouble, but she stands her ground. Portia has a creamy white belly and paws, a peach colored nose and orange and black tabby markings on her back and tail. Portia has developed a habit of lounging on my husband's chest and watching television with him.

A few months ago, during a phone call with Pat, I offered to take care of her cats if she needed some help -- I knew what I was committing to, and so did she. In her graceful way, she simply said thank you.

Saturday, I brought my boys to see Pat in the hospital -- they had each made her a blue card. She greeted them enthusiastically as the new cat daddies. She held their artwork in slightly shaking hands, and asked them to explain the drawings, the sparkle paint, the stickers. Pat listened carefully to each of their stories and commented on the details they shared. Erik had drawn a castle with a room for each of us; he drew swirling cat mint plant with hundreds of bees beside it. Kai had painted a blue sparkle paint ocean for the Nemo stickers. Pat praised their work and let me hang them in her room - she made my boys felt very important. My sons basked in her attention and affection. My sons thanked Pat for letting them watch her cats. She asked them about camping. That day, I picked up the keys from Pat and Pam in the hospital -- Pat and I discussed details about Olivia and Portia, like who liked to be brushed, who ate first, where the cat's favorite blankets and toys were, and how much to feed them. We talked about how to best ease Olivia and Portia into our house given that we already had a ten year old cat, a feisty girl named Kiri. When the boys started playing with Pat's precious meditation bowl, I encouraged the boys to say good bye. Her smile shone from the bed, and as I kissed both cheeks, I told her I would visit on Monday.

Sunday morning, my older sister helped me pick the cats up from Pat's condo. I took a few pictures of the kitties in Pat's living room to show to her in the hospital. My husband and I thought it best to settle Portia and Olivia in our bedroom first -- so, once they were home, we set up their blankets, food and litter boxes upstairs. Our other cat, Kiri, had the run of the house downstairs. Portia and Olivia transitioned very well -- Olivia ate some kernels and sipped water from her vase. After the first few hours, Portia was still under the bed, but BOTH cats slept with us that night (along with our children). My sons continue to lavish attention on Olivia and Portia and are delighted with the new additions to our family. I took several pictures to show to Pat -- I knew she would be interested in hearing how her girls felt during their first few hours in our house. It was hard to drag the boys away from the two new girls -- I took the boys to see their grandpa and left my husband in the bedroom watching television with Olivia and Portia.

Monday, August 11, I took some photos of Olivia and Portia to the hospital to share with Pat -- she was delighted to hear that her girls had slept on our bed. "You must have known something that I didn't" she said. Pat smiled and thanked me when I told her that Olivia and Portia were eating, drinking and purring, and getting lots of love from all of us. She thanked me; and, I immediately thanked her - I feel truly grateful for the opportunity to do something that makes her so happy. I told Pat I loved her, I was grateful to be trusted with her cats, my boys were incredibly happy, Terry and I were happy, and that I was happy to adopt the cats because it made her happy. I promised to come and tell her more stories about Olivia, Portia and Kiri on Wednesday or Thursday. I knew she wanted to do some more writing. She and I hugged, kissed, and said good bye.

I am so grateful I got to see Pat on Monday evening. The next morning, my world shattered when I read Sharon's email -- Pat had died during the night. My boys asked me why I was crying; they, too, became quiet and subdued when I told them that Pat had passed away. "Mom, that is very sad - I am going to go hold the cats". My two little boys understand, like I do, that hugging and loving these cats is like loving Pat, because she loved Olivia and Portia so dearly.

I am so very grateful for Pat's love, friendship and mentorship. She helped me find courage so many times when I faltered; Pat was always open to hugs and laughter; she offered wise advice exactly when I needed it. I am grateful for the last few minutes I had with her, for the last few visits we shared in the hospital, for the phonecalls and the shopping trip and the walk to the park and the suppers, for the lunches and the wine, for the trust she placed with me, for the belief she had in me, for the last eleven years that I had to learn with and from this world class teacher, and good friend and dynamic, powerful woman.

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