The township school served two small rural communities with a population mix of relatives, friends, and acquaintances, so all of us kids knew each other.
Judith didn’t look like any of the rest of us. That’s because she was born with a rare form of congenital heart disease that caused her to have an overly thin to frail body covered with skin tinged with shades of blue and purple. Also associated with the disease was a lack of physical stamina that kept her from being involved in anything too strenuous.
Her parents were disappointed that she, their only child, had that affliction. Yet, they accepted the circumstance in which they and she found themselves. They wanted her to have as normal a life as possible, to never be treated in a special manner. Teachers at the school were aware of her condition and explained Judith’s condition to the rest of us. From then on, we knew not to tease her for how she looked or when she drew back from our normal rough play.
That was important because back then, school play yards had slides, swings, teeter totters, and a maypole from the top of which hung chains with grab handles on the bottom for swinging wide after a short run. Judith did all those things while we made sure we played safely around her and that she did the same. As for school work, it often took her a little more time to sort things out, but once she did, she was every bit as smart as we were.
During the winter, her parents made sure she was dressed warmly before she left for school. We then sort of took it upon ourselves to remind her to put on a coat before she went outside to play. During the first, second, third, and fourth grades, she didn’t have any more sick days than we did.
That all changed, however, while she was in the fifth grade. A few days before Christmas, she began suffering from a bad cold that not only kept its grip on her, but tightened it. As she grew weaker, the cold gave way to pneumonia. Dangerous for average people, it quickly devastated Judith’s body. Two days into the new year, she died.
The news spread quickly, but none of us could believe it. None of our classmates had ever died. To us, nobody died except grandpas and grandmas. Even worse, the bitterly cold weather meant the hardest part was yet to come.
On the day of the funeral, the sky was filled with thick dark clouds, the frozen landscape dusted with light snow. A cold and blustery northwest wind seared our skin and seemed to go right through our clothes. We stood quietly at the gravesite, our thoughts still trying to grasp the reality that Judith was no longer with us, nor would she ever be again. As we stood there shivering, words were said and prayer was offered. Then the casket was lowered into the ground. Now teary eyed, we turned and without saying a word, began walking away. Not only had we lost a school mate, we had to face the harsh reality of death.
For the rest of the school year, we sorely missed seeing and being with her. By the following year, her name was seldom mentioned, then not at all. Yet now and after all those years, I can still see her face and the bluish tint of her skin. I can even hear her unusual laugh.
We understood Judith’s condition and why she looked the way she did and why she didn’t have the usual physical strength and endurance. Our parents and teachers told us we should treat her with care while allowing her to be herself, to be tested and challenged just as we were. We did that, then went on to pay homage to her departure from this earth in a heartfelt and reverent manner.
I tell you this story because what we did back then in our tiny part of America is what we so logically and sorely need to do more of now.
None of our concern and compassion came from any rules, regulations, or instructions, but rather from where it should always come — caring and instructive parents, knowledgeable and thoughtful teachers, and listening and thinking sons and daughters already well on their way of becoming solid and responsible adults.
Not all the old days were good, but many were, and when we were in Judith’s company, they all were.
I just hope she was able to look down at us as we huddled together in the cold to pay our last respects. Surely she was proud of every one of us.