Teaching DNA — Having a Time with the Time You Have

Aunt Edy, are you there. Still hanging on? I’m sorry you have to die this way. It’s really not fair and you did make a difference…

I had delayed writing a blog entry for this week because I was feeling out of sorts for no particular reason. Then, while filling out some school paperwork for one of my kids, I happened to come across this letter in a file box. It’s a letter my daughter wrote on the night my sister Edy died after a protracted battle with cancer in 2007. At first, finding the letter made me feel worse. But when I read it to the end, I felt better. So that’s why I’m sharing it (with Carolyn’s permission). Maybe someone else will feel better, too.

My sister Edy was a high school biology teacher. She loved teaching and she was good at it. She came to this profession sort of late in life, getting her teaching degree at around age 40. This took some doing over several years. She juggled single-parenthood, other full-time jobs and her studies. At the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had only been working in a classroom for a few years. She fought hard through chemo therapy and radiation. And after about a year of struggle and progress, the cancer came back in new places. So, Edy fought harder for a few more months. But in the end, cancer won. She was 45 years old when she died.

During that year of treatment, my 12-year-old daughter and Edy spent a lot of time together. Carolyn was in the 6th grade and also especially interested in biology. When she needed a project for a school science fair, Edy guided her through a demonstration on how to extract DNA from common vegetables. I didn’t know a person could do that. Using household supplies like rubbing alcohol and meat tenderizer, they actually extracted the DNA from green peas in my kitchen. In the final step, this white stuff floats to the top of a beaker of watery greenness. They also built a model of DNA out of pipe cleaners and wooden beads. Along the way, Edy taught Carolyn the basic structure of DNA, a subject that fascinated her.

On the night Edy died, my daughter was too young to be allowed into the intensive care unit at the hospital, so she wrote her aunt a note in the waiting room where our whole big family had gathered. A close friend of Edy’s read Carolyn’s letter aloud at her bedside while the machines around her clicked and whirred. Edy was heavily sedated, but seemed to be aware of people in her room. Less than an hour later, she was gone.

Carolyn wrote what her aunt had taught her as if she were giving a recitation:

Ahem, DNA is a chain of deoxyribos and phosphate groups formed in helix and attached to the deoxyribos are A,T, C and G. As bound with Ts and Cs bound with Gs, thus creating over a billion different structures defining thousands of different organisms…

As a chronic meaning-finder and a believer in positive thinking, I found Edy’s passing not only gut-wrenchingly sad but also spiritually confusing. I never knew anyone who wanted so badly to live and so deeply believed in her own survival. If positive thinking had any power, she would be here now. Also, it felt like a rip-off. How could it be that she was meant to go so soon, when she still had so many places to go, dances to dance and, especially, lessons to teach?

On a rational level, I knew that my sister’s suffering was over, and also that she died peacefully with her family around. These were blessings. At the same time, her closet was full of new clothes she had bought that summer in preparation for the new school year that fall. She fully expected to return to work. It seemed to me that if life made any sense at all, she would have. She had only just found what she loved to do!

But sometimes life doesn’t make sense. At least not in a way that satisfies. Sometimes we lose people. And that’s just a drag.

I kept reading my daughter’s goodbye note to my sister. In closing, she told her,

See, even at an early death you taught many valuable things. (I bet you can’t find too many 6th graders who know that much about DNA.) You did your best with life and no one can expect more than that.

And there it was. So what if Edy only had four years to teach? That’s four more years than she would have had if she hadn’t gone back to school. At her funeral, we met a number of students whose lives Edy touched in the space of those few years. Her time in and out of the classroom was well-spent, no matter how short.

It turns out none of us knows how much time we have to work with and no one gets out of life alive. That’s not to be maudlin. These are just the facts.

The best you can do is to do your best with life. Even on a day when you are feeling out of sorts for no particular reason. Do your best with life, and no one can expect more than that.

I asked my daughter this morning if she could still recite the structure of DNA. She can. And the foundational knowledge Edy taught her has been built upon with six years of science classes since. So now, when Carolyn rattles off what she knows about deoxyribos and phosphate groups, it’s a much longer speech.