The rain and snow swirled into a blinding sheet of gray as we made the two-hour drive to New York City. Tim and I had left our Connecticut home at 8:00 a.m., squeezed ourselves into our VW bug, and headed down the thruway. The windshield wipers slapped back and forth, forming icy streaks on the glass. I alternated between keeping a watchful eye on the road and glancing back at Andréa with worry.
Our little bundle of pink, our beautiful rosy cheeked, chubby daughter, perched in her car seat, sat looking at us, wide-eyed and smiling her usual cherub smiles. Just a week before Andréa had run around the house with her friend, Molly, giddily dancing a toddler’s gyrating dance to her favorite songs as they blared from the Fisher Price record player that she dragged around like a perpetual side kick. At eighteen months, Andréa had her father’s love of music and a natural gift for rhythm. She had been dancing, giggling, and joyful.
But on that frigid February day, Andréa had a noon appointment, and the destination was unspeakable. As Tim drove, his eyes stayed riveted to the glassy highway. My mind raced to find ways to keep calm. I consoled myself with the fact that she was too young to know that she was about to enter a place from which children sometimes didn’t return. She didn’t know what cancer was, nor that she had just been diagnosed with it.
Suddenly, Andréa burst into tears, “Mom, I can’t believe I had cancer. I was one of these kids on the bulletin board. It must have been so hard for you and Dad. It was so many years ago, but I remember all of those checkups and how scared I felt every time we came back here- all those blood tests. The whole thing is still a part of me.” I pulled her close as we stepped into a small foyer, and we both let the tears fall.
I watched in awe at the effortless grace with which she engaged each of her students. She was standing in the middle of the group amid wheelchairs and an array of special seats to accommodate their disabled bodies. Singing loudly she began rhythmically moving, shaking, and pointing to each part of her body- then pointing to each of them to do the same. She’d turned their lesson into a dance. Her own joy was spilling over and the children followed right along. She seamlessly guided them from one activity to the next. Action filled the room. With affectionate hugs and tenderness she encouraged to them to try things that may have seemed overwhelming. She kept repeating that familiar refrain, “You can do it- whatever it is you want. Follow your hopes and dreams!” I saw it in her smile, in her tenderness, and in her open arms.
That life-changing knock on the door came at 5:30 a.m. on what I’d expected to be a sunny spring morning. It jolted me from the sound sleep that I had sought for months. The heavy rain had moved off the coast during the night and the dawn peeked through the bedroom window. Tim jumped up and with a grumble he rushed to the door. Still in bed, I listened to grave, hushed voices below. In a stern tone, Tim demanded I come downstairs. He sounded angry. The groggy noise in my brain shifted from annoyed belligerence to a loud confusion. I couldn’t imagine who would disturb us at this ungodly hour in the morning. Had someone stolen our car? Was there a break-in at the neighbor’s?
On one of those typically glorious early autumn days, the sun shone as I left school after a long day of teaching. I hoped my commute from Connecticut to Rhode Island would be traffic-free and leave me enough time for a quick walk on the beach. I grabbed my phone from my overloaded tote bag and proceeded out the door of Memorial School to my car. Typical messages awaited me – a dentist’s office calling to confirm an appointment, a young dancer asking how to support the Andréa Rizzo Foundation, and then the message that made my heart stop. Jane Seymour had left me a message describing a new website for her Open Hearts concept. She wanted ME to come to Los Angeles to tell my story so that it could be filmed and shared on a new website. She left her home phone number and asked if I would please return her call. With my heart now racing, I sat there in the parking lot and I dialed her number. Jane Seymour answered after the second ring. She’d been waiting for my call. As I heard her explain that the filming would have to take place on October 5th, a weekday, I felt a sinking feeling. How could I leave my seven-year-old students so early in the school year? I began explaining this to Jane when I realized that I was about to turn down a chance of a lifetime. Only another doting elementary school teacher could have understood my reluctance.I hesitated and then said, “I’ll be there.” Within 24 hours, I had made plane reservations and received instructions. I would have two minutes to say my piece, and I would have to say it all at once because the camera was going to be on me the whole time. There would be no cutaway shots.