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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

This Is My Story - Justina Prima

Today's story is a heartwarming and yet heartrending one. Justina Prima is one of my crit family at Scribes, a critique group within American Christian Fiction Writers. This story is about her sister who died just one year ago.

Anna Leising

Entered into Life: November 27, 1953
Entered into Eternal Life October 10, 2011

I expect to pass through this world but once.
Any good therefore that I can do
or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature,
let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it,
for I shall not pass this way again

I think of Anna every day. And when I do, there comes to my mind and heart an image of a monarch butterfly, breaking from its cocoon to make only one round trip in its life. Her hard protective case was the shield from hurt. But within this shell was the slow restructuring of a shy and timid soul to one of peace and serenity at the end of her life. It was an awe inspiring emergence from chrysalis to vibrant wings pulsing its way through the massive journey of life. God was the brush that colored the wings, and it was her embrace of Him which ultimately altered her.

Anna was five years my junior, growing up as we all did in a difficult family dynamic—our father an alcoholic after being a prisoner of war in WWII, our mother severely affected and drawn into her own world. Anna coped by saying little, sinking into shadows but making a brave appearance when required. She wrote poetry and none of it has survived. I believe she threw them away, believing they weren’t good enough.

She made her mistakes through life as we all do, and it was while in college when many turn from God that she truly found Him. The journey had begun and she furthered her transformation.

For the next thirty years she taught high school English Literature. Through each summer we would put our heads together and discuss what books would best inspire her upcoming students: Elizabeth Goudge's The Scent of Water or The Dean’s Watch and authors like her imparting a touch of God to plant His seed.

Her last years of teaching were with an alternative high school in Denver. These students were those coming from homes saturated with drugs, alcohol, and physical abuse. Some were runaways living in cars and returning to school for their diploma and hope for a better life. At times she would call in tears of how she had been too hard on the students, accusing herself of being too cold and distant from them when what they needed was someone to look up to. No words I could impart would soothe her troubled soul. She went on believing she had failed them.

It was while she was teaching in Denver at this school that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had struggled with depression all her life, and now her struggles became greater. But she attacked her crosses with vigor and never once complained. We spoke daily, sometimes more. I listened to her while she spoke of her journey toward death and those things she had learned from the four-year struggle of learning to trust God and His plan for her. Her biggest regret was what she believed to be her failure as a teacher.

And so Anna left her career believing she had not influenced any of her students. I could not convince her otherwise. Through more chemo and reconstructive surgery she expressed her need to return in order try just one more time. It was not to be, because just when you believe it could never happen it did. Her simple tumor developed into a radiation-induced sarcoma, so extremely rare that only forty-five women are affected each year in the United States. She said,”Leave it to me to be the rare one.” I informed her that she was.

Though she had accepted with humility that she had not been the best of teachers, it was at her funeral that I was to have the answer to her burning question of her true impact. After the coffin had made its way through the crowd, I found a dear friend of mine in the large entry hall of the church. She had visited Anna on many occasions, she having been a breast cancer survivor.

She said to me, “Look around. Tell me what you see.” There were countless unfamiliar faces, young and fresh, their heads boasting hair of vibrant colors, earrings in impossible places, and most noticeably tears glistening from every eye. I looked over shoulders and out through the large doors to again see the same. My friend whispered in my ear, “I’ve been listening to them share stories of Anna with each other and how she changed their lives. These are many of her students.”

In a stupefied state I went around shaking as many hands as I could, thanking them for their attendance. One student told me that Anna’s death went over Facebook like wildfire and they couldn’t stay away, even driving from other states. They simply had to come and thank her.

Thank you, Anna, for being in my life, my very best of friends. Thank you for how you have inspired me.

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