What I’ve come to know over the years is that my relationship with Don McKinney was a universal one. I have seen it time and time again, expressions of love and gratitude for this amazing man; each person’s connection to him intimate and heartfelt. He impacted so many lives for the better. You need only read his Facebook page as testimony of his legacy. His life rippled and will continue to do so for lifetimes to come.
Many of you know I went to our last high school reunion motivated by the thought I may not get another, still so fresh following my own cancer diagnosis. I wouldn’t trade a nanosecond of my time with Don for anything. Because that last hug, was our final goodbye. Something many people never get to have.
Interestingly, Don was actually never my science teacher. He was my friend, life coach and confidante. Following the reunion I wrote of him:
In High School I’d a teacher who I credit with my survival; a man who truly saw my introverted and complicated inner emotional nature, the fragility living under the strength. When things were tough I could go to his classroom door. Even if he was in the middle of teaching I’d simply knock and he’d nod, pointing me towards his office. I’d hunker down for quiet time.
Once the bell freed him he’d come join me and listen to whatever was inundating me in that moment. I’d decompress. Occasionally if needed, I stayed behind. Otherwise I’d head to my next class, but always with a note excusing my quiet healing.
In the crowded space of the reunion I disappeared into our reconnection. Into eyes that saw my struggle. That knew how few truly saw this girl for who she really was. How difficult it was to navigate a strong sense of self so early on when most people stumbled. How desperately I wanted to be known. How easily I could bleed.
Don and I hugged. He could see the overwhelm, the panic rising. I’m not sure I can do this cresting. There just inside the archway I entered his office. We talked of the difficulty to make a quantum leap from “you haven’t changed at all. You look exactly the same” to my reality. The one stuck in the unknown. The one petrified that the next scan will confirm. The man that knew the words from Papertown were meant for me. Who already understood “What a treacherous thing it is to believe a person is more than a person. Margot was not a miracle, not an adventure, not some fine precious thing. She was a girl.”
A thousand times over the last 25 years I’ve return to that yellow sofa in my mind. A memory so palpable it heals. And this night I returned for real.
After reading my words, Don replied, “It means a lot to me that you’d share it. But it has always meant a lot to me that you’ve shared yourself—your real self. It, and you, are two of the most precious gifts in my life.”
He went on, “There’s a line in one of the quotes about knowing the smallest things. I’ve thought about the big things in my life—the big events—but I’ve thought a great deal more about those quiet, small moments in which someone I care deeply about took a step that brought them closer to being the person they imagined themselves to be. Those small moments are, in reality, the big things in my life, the most important things, the things that linger in my memory the brightest. I can still see you tucked away on that yellow sofa in my old office and I can hear many of those conversations with you. It is those moments that define me as well as you. And it is wonderful to be remembered in those terms, Dana.
His letters to me always began “Dearest Dana,” and without fail ended with “I Love You”.
I know how important our last goodbye was to me, our hug and I love you. Always make sure to tell those around you that you love them because sometimes you don’t get a tomorrow to do so. And as Don reminds it is the small moments that have the biggest impact and linger longest.
There are those people that are a piece of your heart. But Don was a piece of my soul, woven deeply into its fibers. There, he will always remain bright yellow.
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