Etched on Heart and Wrist: When You Lose Someone

I sat anxiously in the cold, black folding chair, my friend Molly across from me, watching my expression – waiting for my reaction to the needle. Alternative rock music played quietly on an old jukebox in the small parlor. Every wall was lined with artwork – skulls, half-naked women, and symbols that I am sure hold meaning to at least one person. I had never wanted a tattoo. But since that day in August when Ellen left, it was all I could think about. I thought about it for 3 months and then decided that on my birthday I would have something etched permanently to remind me of her.

I’ve spent a lot of my life searching. I had given up on a lot of plans and goals because I honestly didn’t see myself as worthy. I was always searching – for what? I don’t know. I suppose I was searching for purpose, for identity, for something to fill the void I felt in my heart. I was lost…until I went to college. And then still a little lost until I met Ellen Caldwell. 

When I graduated from Mt. SAC and transferred to Cal State Fullerton, I felt out of place. I had been at my community college for so long that it was a comfortable, cozy home by the time I left. CSUF was so foreign to me even though it was only 15 or so miles up the road. I adjusted, of course. But that old part of me was still searching, still ready to run. Then during my second semester, when this petite, energetic salt-and-pepper haired woman burst into my Chaucer class, teaching from the moment her long dress whooshed around the door frame, I was changed instantly. I knew I would come to know and love Ellen as if I had always known her. As if I had been searching for her. 

Meeting Ellen, learning from her in class, and then building a true relationship outside of class is what really changed me. Ellen embodied everything I admired in an educator: gentle honesty, rigorous coursework, compassion, and humor. She was a “hard grader” and told you when your writing wasn’t what she knew it could be. She left you written feedback just about as long as your actual essay.

Even when her door was closed, it wasn’t. Ellen was always available. She worked with countless students day in and day out, and still made time to sit with others, too. She gave all of herself. 

For the last year of our mentorship-turned-friendship, we would talk 3 days a week for about 30 minutes, usually in the morning. She would ask about my kids, my husband, and how I was doing. I would bring her apple butter, she would give me detailed feedback on the flavors. She co-wrote a short story with me once. And she tolerated my dozen or so ideas for my final project. Ellen would laugh with me, and she cried with me. When I confided in her about postpartum depression, she showed me only love and gentleness when others had made me felt isolated. And sometimes, only once in a while, I would get to return the same gentle honesty to her when she was trying a bit too hard to make a student learn and reach their potential. Once, I told her, “You can’t make him want to learn.” Her response was, “Now who’s the advisor?” 

Ellen’s spirit of service for her students, both in the classroom and as an academic advisor, is what I aspire to. She quite literally urged me to follow in her footsteps. At the same time, Ellen taught me that we must take time to smell the roses, so to speak. One of her final pieces of advice to me was to “take time for yourself” and to “be like Lana,” one of the other remarkable professors at CSUF. I know that in her final months of life, Ellen realized that she should have taken time for herself. She could have seen a doctor sooner.

But she always put us first.

Some nights I cry, thinking about this fact. I’ve tried wishing her back to life, back to health. Sometimes I forget that she is gone and when something great has happened, I get the urge to head up to the fourth floor of the university building and tell her. But in the midst of my excitement, my heart takes a dip and I sigh, letting out the pain. She isn’t there. She isn’t coming back.

I fight the urge to run, and I keep walking forward. 

Because I believe at the end of it all, Ellen felt her life’s work had been fulfilled through the thousands of students she inspired, and colleagues too. And now it is our turn to pick up the torch and keep marching, ever onward, ever with the passion she had to help others. Will I take her advice? Yes. But I will honor her in the best way I know how: helping students succeed. 

This is why I tattooed her signature and a rose on my left arm: as a daily reminder to treat each student how she would. And to stop and smell the roses, too. 

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