I dropped the handwritten thank-you card into my “good mail” folder in the file cabinet under my desk. That’s where I keep a few of the best notes mailed from readers.
I had no idea Ria Van Ryn was dying of cancer when she sent it. Maybe she didn’t even know herself.
I first heard about Van Ryn when she taught my daughter’s English class in ninth grade. My daughter mentioned that “Dr. Van Ryn” was a tough but excellent teacher. She cares so much about each of us, my daughter said.
A teacher with a doctorate teaching freshman English in a public school? That’s a little unusual.
It turns out that Van Ryn often chose the unusual path. She had just left a tenure-track teaching position at Yeshiva University in New York City. It was too expensive to live in Manhattan on a young academic’s salary, and she had a dream of becoming a mother.
So, she headed back to St. Louis, where she was raised and where her mother and one of her sisters taught in the same school district she had attended. She earned her third master’s degree and a teaching certificate before getting a job teaching English and social studies in the Parkway School District. She already had a master’s degree in religion from Vanderbilt University. After that, she decided to earn her doctorate in sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In graduate school, she converted to Judaism.
Her dissertation examined youth religious education at a Jewish day school and a Muslim day school. She was interested in how children followed their parents’ religious traditions and how they learned about other religions. At the end of her project, she brought the kids from both schools together for a day of service and to share a meal together.
As devoted as she was to her students, she wanted a child of her own. She was single and decided to pursue fertility treatments. It took a year to get pregnant.
She gave birth to Schuyler when she was 37.
“She was Jewish by choice and a single mother by choice,” her sister Trina Van Ryn said.
Her family was thrilled.
Ria told her parents that they were going to be co-parents with her. They are a tight-knit family and call themselves Team Van Ryn. Schuyler is like a mini-Ria — inquisitive, happy and a bookworm.
In July 2018 when Ria’s eyelid started drooping, her father urged her to have it checked out. The doctor ordered a CT scan. She had gastrointestinal neuroendocrine cancer with tumors in her chest and stomach — a rare, aggressive and unpredictable cancer.
Schuyler was 11 months old.
Ria didn’t want to know the survivability rate. She had every intention of beating it. She had been a state-level swimmer in high school and had run two of her 13 marathons with her father, Jack, an orthopedic surgeon. She would fight this.
Her father knew the odds. The family kept their fears and grief to themselves. They were Team Ria.
“We will fight it, and we will be with you every step of the way,” her sister Zannah Van Ryn told her.
Ria made a big binder with information and questions and carried it with her to every doctor’s appointment. She went through seven different chemo and immunotherapies in 15 months.
She kept teaching after her diagnosis.
During this time, she sent me an email wanting to talk about incidents of racism in the school that concerned her.
“I’m reaching out to you at no small risk to me,” she wrote. Eventually, she took her concerns higher. She asked for a personal meeting with the superintendent of the district.
“What do I have to lose?” she told her mom. “I have cancer.”
Her family rarely saw her cry — only when she talked about wanting more time with Schuyler.
But she never talked about dying.
The principal emailed the students and parents in the school shortly after Christmas about Ria’s death. When I read her obituary I realized we had both graduated from Trinity University and majored in sociology. She had taught my daughter, and we had spoken just once about a story tip.
Ria’s Unitarian family sat shiva for her.
On New Year’s Day, three days after her death, Schuyler asked her Grammie and Opa, “Where’s Mama?” She knew her mother had been in the hospital, but she wanted her mom now.
Both of them took her by the hand and walked outside with her.
“See the sky where it’s so blue,” Jack said, pointing up. “That’s called heaven. That’s where mama is, and there are no boo boos in heaven. Mama’s going to stay in heaven, but she wants you to stay here with Grammie and Opa.”
Two-year-old Schuyler looked up to the sky and said, “Hi, mama.”
She turned to her Opa and said, “Mama blew me a kiss.”
I wish I had written back to Ria when she sent me a note a few months before she died. I think about the writer and reader she helped my daughter become.
She’s blowing kisses back to all of us.
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