For Ceretha


Ceretha in my Class

I woke late this morning to a voicemail message from a student, "I have a message for you that was passed along to me from someone else. Please call me."

Cryptic. My curiosity piqued, I called. It seems a family who knew my student was also the family where my other student, Ceretha, had been staying. I wrote about Ceretha a few weeks ago, the student with cancer. On Friday, she died. That was the message -- on Friday, Ceretha had died. I wasn't sure what to say. I have a head cold, stuffy ears. I don't hear well. I said this to my other student. I couldn't think clearly. I asked if she knew if there would be a service, muttered something about the book of my class's writing that Ceretha had been working on and then hung up. I was trying to remember the last message I had emailed Ceretha, where had I left her in the editing process? The book was so important to her. Had I left her hanging?

When I met Ceretha three years ago, I think, she had already been diagnosed with cancer and was in the middle of chemotherapy. She came to class cautious like a scared deer or rabbit that would dart off at any minute. She was afraid of being hurt, of being wounded. She learned I had been a religion major and was fearful that I would be judgmental of her free-spirited views. She had a handful of stories of religious leaders and other authority figures, who had wounded her along the way. She learned that some of the students in my class were former military or criminal justice majors and she feared them, too. Some of her stories were of people doing illegal things -- she feared revealing these in their presence. We spoke, I reassured her and she returned to class to try it out. She returned again and stayed.

She often came to class medicated, foggy-headed and she would apologize for this. She spoke in fast, quiet huffs as if she was running out of breath, as if she couldn't get words out fast enough, as if her time was limited. And, it was.

I'm not sure how much of Ceretha I knew was influenced by this, a lot I assume, but I had never met anyone so driven to tell her stories, to create. She took over the class book project. She sent me frequent emails asking me to critique her work. She wanted to come to class so badly, even when she was sick, that she requested on more than one occasion that I pick her up at her apartment. So, I got to learn a little about her, driving her to and from class. She was smart, knew her way around the computer, had a background in science and web design. Yet, what I really learned was how creative she was and how she loved to share it. She taught Photoshop to children and teenagers, had taught yoga and dance. She made web sites and masks, took photographs and wrote stories. And, when I met with her for the last time a few weeks ago, she was compiling all her work on a web site; in this way it would outlive her.

She knew she had only a few short weeks, but she talked about all she had to get done -- our class book, two other books she had written, the web site, she was considering what art to put in an upcoming show. It was easy to forget she was dying; she was so alive.

And, I didn't know what to say, how to act under these circumstances. So, I sat on the bed when I visited  and looked over her shoulder at the laptop and edited our book. Then, I listened as she told me what was happening with her other stories -- how a group, sort of like Make-A-Wish, was helping her make her dream of getting her books published come true. As I listened, her eyes glittered a lively, crystal blue. Her voice was enthusiastic, but still rushed. Her hands often brushed her swollen abdomen. Her hair had grown longer -- almost shoulder length. One of her books is called hairstory, about the importance of hair and what her diagnosis of cancer meant in her hairstory. In the book, she worried that her hair, ruined by chemotherapy, would not grow back before she died. I'm glad it had, at least a bit. She asked me to take a look at some of the pieces on her web site -- I think you'll like try harder, she said.  I did. Her words, a nod, I think to my religion background, an acknowledgment of what we each believed. You can read it here:

When I last met with Ceretha that beautiful, sunny September day -- the type of dazzling fall day that hasn't yet caught on to the reality that it's no longer summer -- I was swallowed by her dreams. They seemed so real -- finishing the book, submitting that photo. She left no room for sadness or death although she spoke of these matter-of-factly, like an impending nuisance of an appointment, she'd like to forget. I kept wondering what I would do in her place. When I came home I sketched her and wrote a poem. I emailed it to her fearful of her response. She didn't write back the first day -- her email reception was sporadic -- but she did on the second. She loved it, and plans to add it to her web site. She gave me permission to post it on this blog. She wanted people to know about her, to see her pictures, to read her words, to know she lived.

And, so today, I sat in front of my laptop and browsed her web site and read her stories, many of them birthed in my class. Many words and sentences revised, revisited, rehashed at my prompting. It would be easy to see her words and pictures merely as her legacy: what she left behind. They are more than that, I think. I don't think Ceretha was leaving them simply so she would be remembered. I don't think that she was in a rush those last few days just to compile a monument. I think she was living them until she wasn't anymore. I think her words and pictures were as much a part of her as her hair. They flowed from her head and into the world where they continue to grow.

Check out Ceretha's words and pictures at