Sometimes, a single event changes everything. In physical science, we all learned about the difference between physical and chemical changes. The most vivid memory I have of that class the example of water’s ability to transform between liquid, solid and gas forms, without altering its chemical makeup, H2O. In contrast, torching a Popsicle stick with a Bunsen burner demonstrated that when wood turns into carbon, there is no going back!
I have found that there are physical and chemical reactions in life, too. While growing up, going onto college and leaving home were all life-altering events, they did not redefine my definition of life. Rather, they were just new chapters in the same book. Whether I was taking swim lessons at age 5 or showing my horse at 15, inside, I was basically the same person. Is the water cold? Did the judge see my horse take the wrong lead? Every thought was innocently egocentric. Though many people without children live their whole lives, putting others first, the last time I thought of myself first was on an April morning in 1983: The day my Real Life began.
Holding my first child for the first time was like being fitted with the right eyeglasses, after being myopic my whole life without knowing it. Everything clicked into 20-20 vision and my life’s purpose became crystal clear. That moment changed and enriched my life forever. It’s been almost 30 years and the focus has yet to dim. Though it has gotten better as the kids have grown up, I’ve found out that when my babies were sick, I felt sick, too. With kids playing three contact sports a year, I learned that my children’s injuries hurt me, too. After so many of my own kids’ traumas, I now feel every kid’s injuries. I used to gag at the thought of sharing a drink with my own mate; but with my own kids, it did not faze me to be drooled, spilled or vomited upon … I learned that there is no joy like going to sleep at night knowing the kids are all safe, happy and healthy. I have also learned I only have the ability to be as happy as my saddest child.
Teaching was another milestone. I was blessed to know, from the moment I greeted my first class, that this was meant to be. Nothing felt as natural as the chalk in my hand and American flag over the door. Though I had always presumed I’d practice law with my father, it soon became clear that teaching would fit better into my vision for family life. There was never a happier Y in the road. To me, New Year’s Eve is the crisp autumn night before the first day of school- not some random dark night in the middle of winter! I’ve loved the eager energy of my middle schoolers as much as the faux detached interest of sleepy, nocturnal high school students in my 8.00 class. The familiar rhythms of starting each day with the Pledge of Allegience, changing my bulletin boards with the seasons, and saying hello and good bye to different classes each year have been comfortably predictable, yet exciting, year after year. ( If another teacher is reading this, I know you are nodding with understanding!)
Fortunately, most of these life changing moments have been joyous. But occasionally, a moment can change life forever, with heartbreaking sadness. Such a moment came to us at 12.32 am, on March 3, when we were woken with the tragic news that our closest friend, our youngest son’s godfather, was gone. His tractor had gone through the ice of the lake he’d grown up on and lived by his entire life, while helping his neighbors get their ice shacks in for spring. Nobody knew the lake better than Jacques. The ice was over 18″ thick and he’d already successfully pulled several other shacks to shore. But a stress crack gave way, taking Jacques and changing life as we knew it forever.
Jacques LeBlanc was that rare guy whom everyone knew and loved. He was always the first to lend a hand and a smile. His loss has created a vacuum in our close knit farming community that won’t soon be filled. We met Jacques when we moved to Vermont, almost thirty years ago. We used to phone him every time we had a disaster, so we saw a lot of him that first year. Though we were flatlanders, he and Mim decided to befriend us, and this friendship grew into something we never thought would end so tragically: spanning the baby years, school era, college and even some weddings of the next generation. He never set foot in a college class, but was one of the smartest men we ever knew. Practical and hands on, Jacques was a problem solver whose greatest joy seemed to be helping others. He knew concrete, machinery, plumbing, plowing, fencing, stonework, pond digging, carpentry, sugaring, livestock, crop raising, childbirth, tree felling and 100 other things, too numerous to recall. He was tough and strong- easily throwing 300 square bales overhead into our loft, single handed and getting his prize bucks every fall.
He was also very polite and gentle. He especially loved kids, taking the time to show a new calf, sharing his syrup for sugar-on-snow and giving out rides on his four-wheeler. He was protective of our elderly neighbors and loyal to each one in our tight group of friends.
When he and Mim opened their Bed and Breakfast, his circle of friends literally grew to span the globe. Jacques was genuinely interested in people, and as comfortable talking to a European land baron as a local blacksmith. He was open and unguarded, but did not push into others’ private space. He died loving his wife more than the day he married her; and his kids can take comfort knowing that his was a life well lived — with time invested wisely into the family he loved so much.
His many friends can internalize the lessons he taught by the way he lived: Be kind, cheerful, helpful and put others ahead of yourself. Love openly and generously. Dare to go after what you want. Make your own path. Do what you love. Love what you do. Be the best person you can be.