Remembering a remarkable teacher

My son, Will, and Mary Foisy, at First Presbyterian Childrens Care Center.

My friend Mary Foisy loved Halloween.

I remember fondly the annual Halloween parades at the First Presbyterian Children’s Care Center in downtown Howell. The kids at the center, so very cute in their costumes, would parade around the block with teachers and parents in tow as cameras clicked and video recorders whirred.

Mary, the Yellow Room teacher, was a princess one year, a witch the next. When my son, Will, then 2, was in her class, he dressed as a little bumblebee.

I remember the fun she had leading her costumed kids around the block and how much she appeared to love her job.

Mary’s husband, Matt, says the times she spent with the 2-year-olds at First Presbyterian were among the happiest of her life.

All I know is that I am eternally grateful Will got to spend time with her, for she was a most remarkable, resourceful, generous and loving teacher.

As a toddler, napping to Will was an optional activity, one to be undertaken under only the most tired of circumstances. His doctor told me not to worry, that “wakefulness” was a sign of an intelligent child. Call it what you will, but to a tired caregiver, it was just plain cruel and unusual punishment.

Couple his refusal to nap with his penchant for asking questions — many, many questions — and his love of entertaining his peers, and it’s easy to understand how he could sometimes try patience. If he sensed the smallest of openings or was the least little bit bored, he wasn’t shy about pursuing his own interests, which often involved making his fellow students laugh.

But all the ways in which Will could sometimes frustrate made him an easy charge for Mary because, underneath it all, they were kindred spirits.

Where some could have found problems, Mary found opportunities. Where some could try to find fault, Mary found challenge. When Will wouldn’t nap — which was most of the time — Mary figured out ways to keep him from disturbing his little friends’ sleep. She channeled his energy, shared his zany sense of humor and, recognizing his thirst for knowledge, answered all his questions and pushed him to be curious and ask even more. (She was also able to get him to nap a couple times.)

She and Will loved each other. Will came home every day with stories about Mary and Matt and their big dog and their trips to “Shishago.”

When Will turned 3, he moved up to the Blue Room with new teachers and kids. The transition wasn’t easy; Will so missed his beloved Miss Mary.

“I want to go back to Yellow Room,” he’d cry as he learned the lesson that you can never really go back again.

For me, it was a chance to get to know Mary on my own. We’d meet for breakfast. Mary sometimes baby-sat Will, and she and Matt never missed any of his birthday parties.

Just two months ago, at the tail end of summer, Mary and Matt came over for a barbecue. We sat on the deck, enjoying the warm evening, and the conversation got around to how we first met our spouses. I shared that in April, my husband and I would be married 20 years.

“That’s so special,” said Mary, who was married to Matt for nearly 24 years. “You really need to do something. Why don’t you guys go somewhere for the weekend, and I’ll keep Will while you’re gone? I’d love to have him stay with me for the weekend.”

But it wasn’t meant to be. While undergoing tests for another health problem a week or so after that dinner, doctors discovered Mary had cancer. Now, less than two months later, she’s gone.

But she got one more Halloween.

Hospitalized for a spell, Mary improved enough to go home under hospice care. I got a call from Matt on Halloween.

“Mary’d love to see Will in his costume,” he said. “If you can, bring him by.”

I scooted out of work early, got Will home and into his costume. He’s known Miss Mary was very, very sick, and I prepared him that she would be in a special bed and might not look exactly like herself.

We got to Mary’s house — which was all decked out for Halloween — a half-hour or so before trick-or-treating began. Mary was in her hospital bed in the living room, situated in such a way as to give her a great view of all the trick-or-treaters when they came to the door.

Will showed off his costume and chattered on about school and Harry Potter and Halloween. He was showing off for her, and Mary was enjoying it.

The beautiful Halloween night — the nicest I can remember in years and years — made it possible for Mary to really be part of the festivities. She seemed to be doing relatively well, and when I left, I told her to call when she felt like having company again. But four days later she took a turn for the worse, drifting off to sleep Saturday morning, never to wake again. She was 47.

While I struggle with the unfairness of her death at such a young age, I take comfort in how much love and goodness she spread during her time. There’s a saying that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, or how big your house is; a hundred years from now, all that will really, truly matter is that you were important in the life of a child.

Mary Foisy was important to Will and lots of other kids. I will be forever grateful for her friendship, her humor and her grace, and for the wonderful time she shared with my son. Mary made me believe in angels here on Earth.

Note: This piece was originally published in November 2005.

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