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I was sitting at my son and daughter-in-law’s house relaxing after putting the grandkids to bed when my phone beeped. It was a message from a former student of mine, calling about a 2012 graduate and classmate of his. It hit me hard that she was found dead in her apartment.

I roamed around the house at a bit of a loss, not knowing what to think. Finally I called her parents to express how sorry I was. These were not empty words. I knew this young woman well and had spent considerable time with her. She suffered her entire adult life with depression and severe anxiety and panic attacks. She was also a month or so shy of finishing a masters in psychology and just on the edge of pursuing her career in helping people. Elysia was brilliant and intuitively understood human behavior. She would have been a great counselor/therapist.

This has happened too many times — calls in the darkness of night and calls to parents and family members. I got out a notepad and started writing down how many times; how many students I have lost over the 23 years associated with the school where I was counselor. I couldn’t remember all of them which made me really sad. They should be remembered. Accidents. Suicide. Murder. Illness. Covid. It seems surreal and so unfortunate — that is not a strong enough word. Young people whose lives end tragically and too soon.

I would like to tell you a story about Elysia (with her parents’ permission) to give you an idea of what kind of person she was and how deep our loss is when we lose a young person like her.

One of my former students came back home to Gallup to visit and do some climbing and hiking. He brought one of his climbing buddies with him. We’ll simply call his buddy “Jack” because quite honestly I cannot remember his name. They were going to spend a couple weeks in the area so they came by my house to say hi and chat and borrow some gear.

Jack was a bit nervous about meeting me. In fact he stayed in the car until I broke the ice and went out to introduce myself. I attribute this to “once burned, twice shy.” Jack’s experience with adults and religion had not been all that positive; actually quite judgmental. Jack was a bit of a non-conformist and could be taken as scary by some — dreads, tattoos, generally rough looking. If he were older, one would call him a throwback to the 1960s, which I, of course, felt thoroughly comfortable with.

Later that night was Arts Crawl in downtown Gallup and the two of them went. After having a few drinks they ended up arguing and almost coming to blows. My former student simply left Jack on the streets of Gallup in the middle of the downtown Arts Crawl. Jack, although he looked scary and intimidating, was terrified. He was a total stranger to Gallup and to everyone there.

Since I was the only other person he knew in Gallup, he thought to call me for some help. Not surprisingly, Jack came to Gallup broke and with no phone. He needed to borrow a phone, try to figure out my number, and then call to see if he could bum a place to stay for the night.

Out of that entire crowd of people, who does Jack approach but Elysia. He asks if he can borrow her phone, and lo and behold, my number is in Elysia’s contacts. Coincidence? Elysia gladly helps him out. He calls and I pick him up.

Out of that entire crowd, why Elysia? How would Jack pick her out of all the people he is bumping shoulders with? Why would she trust him? We could say because there is a bigger plan or Person involved here. That may very well be. I would also say, however, that this is simply the kind of person Elysia was. She was approachable and inviting; so accepting of others, so gracious of other’s faults, brokenness and differences. She was giving and caring. All of this was somehow projected in her person. You’d understand if you saw her face and looked into her eyes.

I am not really sure how many people would have readily helped Jack, looking as he did. But Elysia could see through this facade and see the human soul. She was willing to risk connecting with Jack, who at this point in his life was alone, scared, and needed help.

I wish Elysia was still with us. The world needs more people like her. We are the more impoverished without her. She would have made a great healer and caregiver; the kind of person in the crowd that somehow you know you can trust, who will accept you and help you.

Elysia’s favorite color was purple, her dad told me. I have purple morning glories growing in my backyard. I send him pictures every so often to let him know she is not forgotten.

The loss of Elysia reminds me how we need to take time in this life for others; to be attentive and fully in the moment with others. There are those among us who struggle with demons we can hardly imagine. And life is short. Relationships are more important than things and getting stuff done. People are our investment. Elysia is an example to us all that even in our own struggle, we can reach out to make life a little bit easier for those around us.

In Gold Nuggets: Readings for Experiential Education, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes,
To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

Morning Glories photo by Tiểu Bảo Trương.

Don Tamminga

Don Tamminga spent 20 years as a counselor at Rehobeth Christian School in Rehobeth, New Mexico. He recently retired as the Leadership Training Coordinator for Classis Red Mesa of the Christian Reformed Church. Don now spends his time wood working, birding, biking, baby sitting, playing music, and helping others with projects. He and his wife live in Gallup, New Mexico.  


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