09/03/2013 11:47 am ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

Last Gasp

The rest of us are grabbing the last gasps of summer. My husband takes my kids to a water park for one final splash. I scramble to finish my chunky novel (only during summer do I, a literature teacher, actually carve out the delicious time to disappear into novels). The outdoor café nearby bustles with locals and visitors, all eager to extend the last warm nights in short sleeves and mini skirts for a few more hours. Back-to-school ads entice me to waste undefined periods online searching for the best deals on notebooks, running shoes, and, ahem, women's pencil skirts.

But today, I am paralyzed, unable to undertake the demands of life that Labor Day both harkens and delays: writing I've put off, doctors' appointments to schedule, kids' summer homework assignments to check. She would be doing these too. Instead, today I am going to her funeral.

The last time I saw her, a few months ago, she looked fine. I had no idea that she was sick. We would chat on the city sidewalk outside of our kids' middle school, eagerly awaiting our fifth graders' exits from the building. Last year, our sons were still the youngest of the pubescent pre-teens and teenagers at their middle school. As fifth graders, the kids still allowed us parents and guardians to linger and, perhaps, even plant a kiss on the head, as they breathed the freedom of the end of the school day at 3:30. While we waited, I would ask her how her son was adjusting to the school and she might ask me logistical questions, since I was also a parent of an older child there. She always seemed to be smiling, friendly, and eager to participate. When our sons were in the fourth grade, she organized a semi-annual class newspaper, The Fourth Grade Gazette, full of book and movie reviews, news stories, opinion pieces, and humor. Those newspapers were the highlights of the year. The Gazette circulated among all of the fourth grade classes in the school, read attentively and with envy by those not fortunate enough to be in the class. Last fall, when a teacher at our middle school fell ill and parents organized a meal delivery schedule, she signed up, even though her son had just begun the school few weeks earlier.

The cancer, of the stomach, went very fast. Everyone in our community who isn't away for Labor Day will be at the service today. She was that kind of woman -- warm, involved, intelligent. No matter how well you knew her, you had to like her.

I want to find a life lesson here. I want writing to help me find some wisdom as I grieve for her, her sons, and her husband. I repeat those clichéd insights we experience when death crosses our path: embrace the moment, live in the present, and prioritize the people and things that matter. I feel the last gasp of summer as a desperate grab today, a plea to allow the good in life to continue, to extend the sunlight for another hour and let us linger in its glorious pinks, oranges and blues. But the plea comes too late.

While one of her boys will return to the middle school my son attends, the other son, his twin, is about to start a new school next week (it just happens that one middle school starts in 5th grade while the other starts in 6th grade). Last year, she would ask me questions as her one son made the momentous transition from elementary to middle school. She followed his development, moods, and changes with love and wisdom. I keep thinking about the other son who is now starting a new school without his mom. How can I help this boy I barely know? I am frustrated with my abilities to buffer the loss. I wish I had an answer, other than to emulate her example -- to smile at others with the open, accepting warmth that glowed on her face, to extend a hand when possible, and to nurture children as best as we can. She devoted her time to all of the children in her son's class, helping each child find a story or idea to write about for The Fourth Grade Gazette, teaching them how to edit their writing, encouraging them to work with others on stories, and instilling the wish to read the insights and opinions of their classmates. She imparted a sense of pride in each child. It was a labor of love. As Labor Day approaches and my own memories turn sepia toned, I hope to follow her fine example.