Four years ago, the city was papered with slogans of hope. The words “yes we can” were replayed in sound bites and duplicated on bumper stickers. I’ll always remember the night people flooded the streets to celebrate the election. I watched the footage from my hospital bed.
Hope, the word on so many lips, had a different meaning for me.
That night, I felt like the world was going on without me. I wanted to be one of those idealistic twenty-somethings sitting on each others’ shoulders and waving flags. I wanted to do my part. Instead, I sat with my mom preparing for a weeklong chemotherapy treatment. Change, leadership, and celebration seemed so far from me.
My battle for my life seemed like such an insignificant, lonely fight compared to the organization and community rallying in the streets.
The night of the election was also the night that I found out my sixth grade teacher was being treated for a brain tumor down the hall from me. To this day, she remains my favorite teacher. We called her Skoom (a shortened version of her last name), which was fitting because it sounded like a verb, and she was a movement, a feeling, a collection of dynamic actions. She had flaming red hair and regularly transformed her classroom to reflect the subjects we were studying. We built a pyramid in the corner, had chariot races in shopping carts, designed puppets, delivered daily compliments to each others’ mailboxes, and dressed up for a showing writing fashion show. In her class, I discovered my love for words and theater. Inspired by her passion, I wrote short stories and stepped on stage for the first time.
And that night, twelve years later, she was asking for me.
I didn’t want to go to her room at first. I didn’t want to see someone I had idolized for so long brought down to that level of humanity. But I went because she sent a message through our shared oncologist asking to see me on her first night of treatment. At first, her nurse didn’t want to let me in. She kept checking her charts and asking if I was family, even though with my baldhead, pajamas, and IV pole I was clearly one patient asking to see another patient. She couldn’t get over the fact that—separated by decades of age difference and two different types of sarcoma—we had a connection.
After years in the oncology ward, I was prepared for the scene in my former teacher’s room. Her daughter rubbed her sock-clad feet. On the television, images from the election played. Skoom watched as tears rolled down her face. She couldn’t control them. The tumor was pressing on her brain. Her family referred to it as her “sad button.” Still, she watched the news because she was always a fighter. She fought principals and school districts in order to keep teaching with creativity rather than surrender to a trend of standardized testing. Later, she told me she thought the stress of how administrators treated her, despite her rave reviews from students and parents, contributed to her poor health. Like so many visionaries, she faced bullying and belittling from people meant to support her.
I went to her bedside. We had matching needles and tubes protruding from our clasped hands. She asked me how to do this. She asked me if it was going to hurt. She was terrified of what chemotherapy would be like. I looked at the woman who inspired some of my deepest dreams and couldn’t believe I had something to offer her. The red hair I had so admired was already patchy on the pillow. I told her all I knew as the word hope flashed across the screen.
For several months, we met to write together between our treatments. We laughed the first time she swore in front of me. The many layers of teacher and student fell away as we shared both illness and the belief that words could make sense of this world. On days when she felt too weak to meet, I worried I was pestering her. Some days she seemed so beaten down, the light in her blue eyes dulled to a steely grey. Other days, she laughed at her own wicked sense of humor.
Once, she showed me print outs of all the encouraging emails I had sent her. You should put these in a book, she told me with her teacher look that said she wasn’t simply making a suggestion. I’d like to have these words put on a plaque in the hospital. After all those years, she still believed in me. But as I got better, she got worse.
The day came for goodbyes.
I wrote a poem for her memorial. The crowd of former students overflowed out of the high school auditorium. As students came forward to remember all the ways she saved them, I remembered the adversity she had faced. I remembered all the nasty things said about her because she refused to change her convictions.
When our sixth grade class did a play based on Greek myths, Skoom cast me as Pandora. I opened the box that unleashed all evil and pain into the world (represented by black balloons, which caused multiple hilarious prop malfunctions when I couldn’t get them back into the box during the show). At the bottom of the box was hope—tiny, fragile hope.
For the last four years, I’ve heard people complain about how change hasn’t come in the way they expected. They feel gipped and jaded. I understand their disappointment. There are days when I want to see a more amazing response to my intentions. I want every day to have the communal enthusiasm of that election night.
Yet, the nature of hope is to be free of numerical value. It just has to be big enough to keep us fighting for the vision we hold in our hearts of a better world. Hope is also immune to success and failure. By refusing to give her students any less than her best, Skoom influenced thousands—little by little, day by day, in the trenches of public education. And I was given the gift of being able to encourage a person who had so inspired me, even though we lost her too soon. The ability to change one person’s experience—no matter how slightly or for how short a time—is the one tool at the bottom of the box that we have been given to sustain us against what sometimes seems like insurmountable odds.
I always think of hope as a bird. Perhaps, it’s because of the Emily Dickinson poem. I imagine it looks like the baby bird I found on the sidewalk once on the way to school. The newborn bird’s skin was transparent, and I could see its heart working. My best friend and I wrapped it in towels and placed it on the overhead project to keep it warm while we were in class. We fed it soaked dog food in an eyedropper. Despite our nursing, the fragile baby bird died. This is hope—acting in the face of futility, loving what seems temporal.
Hope is a choice. The choice to put words to paper. The choice to begin new loves despite having fractured hearts. The choice to defy the odds and fight against the status quo. When we have it, we can see potential where others see wreckage, change where others insist on stagnation, and love where others only see difference.
As election season comes back around, there seems to be so much hate and fear in the dialogue. Those twenty-something friends of mine who ran out in the streets are, at times, baffled and beaten down by the backsliding in progress. When I begin to worry about what the future will bring, I close my eyes and imagine that bird in my palm. I remember holding Skoom’s hand. I know that when we are faced with a dark night or a hard climb, we find all the more reason to shine our light and lend a hand. Even if it means touching only one life at a time.
Danielle Orner is a writer, actress, motivational speaker, yogi, vegan, cancer survivor, and amputee. Diagnosed with bone cancer at age fifteen, she spent a decade getting scans, surgeries, and chemotherapy treatments. Three years ago, she decided to take an active role in her health researching anti-cancer lifestyles. Currently, she is cancer-free. She doesn’t wait for the six-month scan to tell her she can start living. She’s too busy making impossible things possible. To learn more about Danielle, follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
*Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography.