Letter Writing

After writing a long letter to someone Saturday morning, I attended the “RI Writing Project” Spring Conference in the afternoon and listened to Rhode Island’s Poet Laureate, Tina Cane, speak to an audience of school educators about social and emotional learning and, surprisingly, letter writing. After reading some of her poetry, Tina asked us to take a few minutes to write a letter to a teacher from whom we learned something important.

The lessons we remember are not the facts memorized for tests – math formulas, history dates or verb conjugations. Rather, we remember the relevant information we can apply to living mindful lives. Then Tina prompted us to circle the strongest words in our letters and use those to compose a poem. So here is my tribute to my third grade teacher, Miss Fribley:

DEAR MISS FRIBLEY.

You challenged us to use esoteric words.

Words like scintillating, onomatopoeia and loquacious.

We competed in spelling bees and homonym games,

and decades later,

when a Praying Mantis landed

atop the polished surface of our Punch Buggy,

to contemplate its reflection,

I did, too,

recognizing Nature’s astonishing word play:

Praying on a Beetle

Preying on a Beetle, a gargantuan Beetle.

Dear Miss Fribley, how does one swallow such a thing as that?

Wondering what Miss Fribley may be doing now, I conducted a search and came across her obituary:

Judith Ann Fribley, of Winnetka, IL., died July 7, 2008. She was 71.

Born April 25, 1937 in Pana, she was a 1955 graduate of Pana High School, and attended MacMurray College in Jacksonville Illinois, where she pursued a degree in elementary education. She taught for many years at Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka and did graduate studies in education at the University of Illinois. She spent several years teaching in Connecticut before returning to Illinois. She often traveled throughout the United States, pursuing her interests in wildlife and the Native American culture. Her trip to Alaska to see Mt. McKinley in the sun was one of her most memorable.

Ms. Fribley was an active member of the Winnetka Presbyterian Church, and an avid volunteer at Good News Partners of Jonquil Street in Chicago, which provides housing and other services for the formerly homeless. She also tutored and mentored indigent children through Good News’ programs, and cooked and served at the soup kitchen they sponsor. She was a longtime supporter of many local and national charities. She was known for her love of cats, and throughout her life adopted many from local shelters.

Ms. Fribley enjoyed gardening and visiting museums and cultural events with friends and family. She was an abundantly generous woman, and a wonderful daughter, sister, aunt, and friend. She resided in Winnetka until 2004, when she entered the Alzheimer’s wing of Presbyterian Homes, McGaw Care Center, in Evanston

There is a quote at the top of Miss Fribley’s obituary page: “Say not in grief: ‘He is no more’, but live in thankfulness that he was.” And so, I think of him, our late son Neil, who loved games as well as Miss Fribley.

From a social emotional learning perspective, this letter writing assignment serves two express purposes. One is to articulate a life lesson, and the other is to express thankfulness, a practice which has benefits that extend far beyond school and on into later life. Thank you, Miss Fribley.

A letter is a wonderful to say “Thank You” or to let someone know you are thinking about them. When is the last time you wrote a personal letter, by hand, and mailed it to someone special?

Slam Dunk!

Game Boy

On February 19, 2017, our Jester, Neil Fachon, crossed over into another realm. The first condolence letter to arrive was from Neil’s friend Trey, whose mother, Gail, was our home care nurse. Trey captured memories of Neil’s love of game play in a long letter. He placed the letter inside a note card. On the face of the card was an original photograph Trey had taken of flowering dogwood. The image was fitting, as every spring a dogwood tree would bloom outside the bedroom window where Neil sat at his computer.

Although Neil and Trey grew up in different towns and attended different schools, they had a friendship that began with recreational soccer when they were grade-school age and continued on into their college years.

So, what does one say or write to a bereaved family? How does one find the right words? Trey just allowed the words to flow and filled two folded sheets of lined paper, with his neat all-caps style of handwriting. His thoughts and memories poured out onto the pages in a fluid stream of consciousness…

DEAR MR. FACHON, MRS. FACHON, AND EVIE,

I WOKE UP THIS MORNING AT ABOUT 7:45 A.M. AND JUST LIKE ANY OTHER DAY, I CHECKED MY EMAILS, LOOKED AT THE NEWS, AND PEEKED AT MY FACEBOOK ACCOUNT. I STARTED SCROLLING DOWN MY HOME PAGE, STOPPED SCROLLING ABRUPTLY, AND SAW “A WISE OLD SOUL HAS RETURNED HOME… NEIL PASSED AWAY JUST AFTER 7 P.M. LAST NIGHT.” OVER THE PAST 6 MONTHS OR SO, I HAVE BEEN GETTING CONSISTENT REPORTS ON NEIL’S WELL-BEING (NEIL WAS THE FIRST ONE I STARTED CHECKING IN WITH, AND THEN LATER MY PARENTS WERE UPDATING ME)…WHEN I SAW THAT FACEBOOK POST (HAVING ALREADY KNOWN NEIL WAS NOT DOING WELL AND WAS IN HOSPICE CARE), I DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO REACT. I WAS SAD, DISTRAUGHT, PERPLEXED, AND FRUSTRATED WITH MYSELF (FOR NOT HAVING BEEN ABLE TO HELP, BEING HERE IN PENNSYLVANIA). HOWEVER, IN THE MOMENT, I DECIDED TO BE CONSTRUCTIVE AND TO BROWSE OVER MY HISTORY WITH NEIL. FOLLOWING IS A LIST OF SOME OF THE BIG THINGS THAT HAVE STUCK WITH ME: PLAYING DODGEBALL WITH NEIL’S FRIENDS AND NEIL IN THE BASEMENT OF THEIR HOUSE ON ASHBROOK RUN, PLAYING H-O-R-S-E WITH THE BASKETBALL HOOP OUTSIDE YOUR HOUSE (NEIL WAS ALWAYS VERY TALENTED AT IT; I WOULD SOMETIMES TELL HIM IT WAS LUCK, BUT HE’D KEEP MAKING THE SHOTS), PLAYING RECREATIONAL AND COMPETITIVE SOCCER WITH NEIL (INDOOR/OUTDOOR) THROUGHOUT MY YOUTH (NEIL WAS ALWAYS A TEAM PLAYER; ALWAYS ONE TO PASS THE BALL AND GIVE SOMEONE ELSE A CHANCE), PLAYING SOCCER FOR PRACTICE IN OUR BACKYARDS, GOING OUT FOR SOME SAILING ADVENTURES ON “QUANTUM LEAP” IN POINT JUDITH POND (NEIL WOULD ALWAYS LOVE TO PLAY HEARTS (AND OTHER CARD GAMES WITH ME IN THE CABIN AND SEE IF HE COULD “SHOOT THE MOON” AGAINST ME), PLAYING “BACKYARD SOCCER’ WITH ME ON HIS COMPUTER (WE WOULD ALWAYS BE OVERJOYED AND OVERCOME WITH LAUGHTER WHENEVER WE SCORED SOME ‘IMPOSSIBLE’ GOALS), PLAYING POOL IN MY BASEMENT (WITH LIMITED ROOM TO MAKE A SHOT AND WITH SOME BENT POOL STICKS – NEIL DIDN’T WORRY ABOUT THOSE SMALL THINGS; HE WAS JUST GLAD TO BE DOING SOMETHING FUN FOR BOTH OF US). THOSE ARE SOME, BUT NOT ALL, OF THE MEMORIES THAT HAVE DEFINED MY FRIENDSHIP WITH NEIL. HE WAS ALWAYS A LEADER, ALWAYS AN ACTIVIST, ALWAYS ATHLETIC, ALWAYS A TEAM PLAYER, ALWAYS THOUGHTFUL, ALWAYS BOLD AND ADVENTUROUS, ALWAYS STRONG, ALWAYS PASSIONATE, ALWAYS FORGIVING, ALWAYS CHEERFUL, ALWAYS CLEVER, ALWAYS ABLE, ALWAYS WELL-READ, ALWAYS A FIGHTER, AND MOST IMPORTANTLY TO ME, ALWAYS A FRIEND. EVEN THOUGH THERE WAS A TIME WHERE ADVENTURES LED US IN DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS, THERE HAS NEVER BEEN AND NEVER WILL BE A TIME WHERE I HAVE FORGOTTEN OR WILL FORGET NEIL, AND ALL THE JOY AND HAPPINESS HE HAS BROUGHT TO MY LIFE THROUGH OUR FRIENDSHIP. NEIL WILL FOREVER BE WITH ME IN SPIRIT. I WOULD LIKE TO SINCERELY THANK ALL OF YOU FOR LETTING ME KNOW AND BECOME FRIENDS WITH SUCH A CARING AND GENUINE MAN. I WOULD LIKE TO GIVE THE MOST SINCERE OF CONDOLENCES TO EACH OF YOU. WHAT GIVES ME COMFORT IS KNOWING THAT NEIL’S LIFE AND EVERYONE’S MEMORIES OF NEIL SHALL NEVER FADE. EACH PERSON WHOM NEIL HAS TOUCHED IN HIS LIFE WILL BRING NEIL IN SPIRIT WITH THEM IN THEIR EXPERIENCES AROUND THE WORLD. NEIL WILL BE LIVING VICARIOUSLY THROUGH EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US. JUST BECAUSE NEIL HAS PASSED DOES NOT MEAN THE CELEBRATION OF HIS LIFE IS OVER. RATHER, THE CELEBRATION OF HIS LIFE HAS MERELY HIT A NEW PHASE, ONE IN WHICH MEMORIES OF HIM AND WITH HIM WILL LIVE ON FOREVER.

BY YOUR SIDE IN THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS,

TREY 20 FEBRUARY, 2017

This letter brought immediate comfort and some laughter. Trey mentions “SHOOT THE MOON” and ‘IMPOSSIBLE’ GOALS. Shooting the moon is what one tries to do when dealt a really lousy hand of cards in the game of Hearts. It’s risky, yet fun. One plays to win all the hearts and the queen of spades. He who successfully shoots the moon is the biggest winner. If Neil’s life was just a game, shooting the moon was the best metaphor to describe his approach to that game.

Neil was named, in part, for Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to step on the moon. At the time of his naming, we were unaware that the name Neil means champion. He had a strategic mind, which he used to his advantage in competitive chess and tennis, however, he was game for any game.

Neil’s playful spirit reflected the rhyme from a favorite story book, The Jester Has Lost His Jingle: “But one was still happy and bubbled with joy, for he played with life as you play with a toy.” We continue to honor Neil, by raising funds in his memory to The Jester & Pharley Phund. which delivers Jester books, dolls and joy to pediatric cancer patients and other children facing a wide range of other serious life challenges.