I joined a writing critique group in the spring of 2019. I wanted to learn how to write both fiction and nonfiction. I was rather confident that I wouldn’t have any problems. How hard could it be after writing business letters and lesson plans for thirty years? Plus, I wanted to be a writer when I retired, so I was excited when I saw a posting for a writers' critique group in the area where I lived.
The first meeting was held at Hardees. It was a meet and greet to discuss goals and purpose. This was how I met Dorice Nelson. She was 89 years old and feisty. I thought she was more my age at first because she was vibrant, focused on the group, and professional. She and I had something in common. We had both been English teachers. She had published five books, and also did some editing for professional writers. She was clearly more experienced than me. The critique group assumed we would exchange work and give each other feedback. Dorice decided otherwise. It was all of us writing and she gave the feedback. After all, she was the published writer.
For our second meeting, I took a scene from a story I had written. Dorice told me I could not write that scene in first person. I asked why not? The rest of the meeting was a lesson for me about first person. The next meeting, she growled at me. I needed to know more about the protagonist to write that scene. Her editing was in bright red. At this point, I realized I didn’t know anything about writing. It reminded me of the quote by Alexander Pope, “A little bit of learning is a dangerous thing.” My ego was taking a nose dive.
At the third lesson, Dorice threw her pen down, ran her fingers through her hair in frustration and declared, “You can’t even write a complete sentence.” I was terribly embarrassed, but also upset. I retorted to this great teacher, “I can write very well.” I was aware I was being churlish and defensive. I had been a high school principal before I retired. I was thinking, you have no idea how much I had to write in my job. Instead of being rude back to her, I just told her I didn’t understand all these rules for writing fiction. ” At that point I knew she had taught high school students. She had “that look.” I also knew I was not going to win any arguments with her.
Our meetings were at Dorice’s home. The entranceway smelled like the lemon oil you use on furniture. Like my house, hers had bookcases full of books in her family room. The room was tasteful and immaculate. I loved the beautiful white rug which I always stepped around for fear of soiling it with my shoes. We would often discuss various authors, and their writing styles, when we sat at her kitchen table. She kept fresh fruit on the table for us, and her peaches gave off a sweet floral aroma that filled her small kitchen.
At this point in our group writing lessons, Dorice began teaching us, using a textbook entitled, No More Rejections, by Alice Orr. It was an excellent textbook, and she told us she had taught classes from it before. Ms. Orr was a friend of hers. Each meeting I would bring my homework, and she was a difficult teacher to please. Some of the best professors I had in college were demanding and held their students at an emotional distance. I felt Dorice was similar to them. The lessons were a huge stressor, but I appreciated her tutoring me. At one point she called herself my mentor. But Dorice seemed to lose her patience quickly with me, and I would leave feeling like I’d never be a decent writer. I don’t give up easily when I am being challenged; however, Dorice was certainly pushing me. I kept coming back because I love to write. I also wanted to impress this grouchy, brilliant woman.
One day I was the only one in attendance. She told me she had colon cancer, and it was stage four. She was going to start chemotherapy. My jaw fell in shock. Then she gave me a signed copy of Alice Orr’s book. The author had written a personal message on the title page for me. I was astonished at Dorice’s thoughtfulness. I will always treasure the book because I thought Dorice didn’t care for me. As I left, I gave Boots, her dog, a treat and scratched his head. I needed to process this new information about her cancer because she appeared so healthy. I suppose cancer can hide in wait for any of us.
Dorice wasn’t letting a small thing like cancer get in her way. We continued to study through several more rounds of her chemotherapy. I noticed her legs were showing red splotches and her hands were rough and cracked in places. I told her I would pray for her that night. She told me she didn’t believe in God, but I think she did. I knew so little of her personal life. Teachers usually don’t encourage a personal relationship with a student.
I called one day and asked if she wanted anything special. She had spent a few days in the hospital from side effects of the chemotherapy. Could I bring her anything? She said, “This isn’t going to make us friends. I don’t need any more friends.”
I replied, “Okay.” By now I was getting used to the brash comments she made. I had an aunt who had a personality like Dorice. I turned to my husband when I got off the phone and told him we were taking Dorice an Arby’s roast beef sandwich. When we arrived, she answered the door with a mask on her face, and Boots did a happy dance for his treat. She would look at Boots with such love in her eyes.
I learned later the doctor told her she couldn’t have any more junk food. The next time we had a meeting, she had removed all the cookies and sweets on her countertops.
We had one more meeting before she had to stop with our lessons. She told me that I needed to go to Writers’ Village University. She highly recommended it for me. I was crushed. I thought she was tired of teaching me because I never heard the words, “Good job.” I tucked away my pride and decided to enroll in the WVU MFA program as she suggested. That was when she wrote me an email and told me she was teaching there, and she wanted me in her class too. There was no way I was going to take her class. I assumed the students were advanced and I needed the basics. My other thought was she would shred my work in front of others. I could deal with her comments in private, but my self-confidence was not that strong for public feedback.
Something compelled me to go visit her each month under the ruse of taking her books to read. She would ask me if I wanted them back and I would tell her to donate them to the library. As 2020 rushed by us, I dropped books off in my COVID mask, and always made sure to bring Boots a treat. I never went inside because I was scared I might give her the virus or carry it to her. I looked forward to seeing Dorice and Boots. Her smile that time I came to the door touched my heart, and I realized I had truly started caring about this dying woman and teacher. We would email too. I would edit some of her work online but she bluntly told me she didn’t like fantasy stories so she didn’t want to edit my work. I think she was getting weaker during this time and she couldn’t admit that to me.
When 2021 brought us a short reprieve from the masks, I still avoided going inside her house for fear of contaminating her with some aggressive type germs. I worried about her getting sick.
When June arrived, she opened the door, and I could see she had lost a lot of weight, and her beautiful gray hair had thinned; however, she and Boots still smiled at me. The cancer was ravishing her but I never heard one complaint about her pain or fear. She came to the door well dressed, hair combed, but looked horribly emaciated. It made me want to flinch, but I knew she would never forgive my pity so I covered my feelings by watching Boots dance for me.
July came and she told me she was in Hospice now. She demanded it be at her home. I would surmise no one wanted to cross her at this time in her life. I went on vacation so I didn’t get to visit her. We did exchange emails. She asked me how my classes were going and I had to admit it had been the right thing for me to enroll. I expressed how much I loved my classes. That seemed to please her.
When I went to see her in August, a stranger answered the door and my heart stuttered. The woman introduced herself and told me she was a friend of Dorice's. Then she took me back to her bedroom. As I walked down the hall, I tried to get control of my emotions. Dorice was in her bed and she appeared tiny and frail. I wanted to hold her hand or hug her. I wanted to offer sympathy but she still had that look of steel in her composure. She didn’t have the strength to talk to me but whispered, “Sandra, I’m dying.” I nodded my head because I couldn’t speak for fear of bawling. Not crying out loud but raucous bawling. I didn’t though, because I knew she wouldn’t like it. Then she sat up in bed to choose one of the two books I had brought her. She knows she is dying but she still loves to read.
Would I ever be that strong at the end of life?
She had a custom-built bookcase that wrapped around one wall to another wall in her bedroom. It was loaded with books. That didn’t include the books she had in her den. We had that in common too. I have books stacked everywhere although I have two rooms with bookcases. I started feeling awkward because it was evident she was too weak to socialize. I asked her friend where Boots was, and Dorice had already moved him to his new home. A friend of hers had taken him because she was too weak to care for him anymore. I felt an overwhelming sadness that I wouldn’t see Boots again. I said my goodbyes and told her I would see her soon. I knew I was lying.
I walked out with her friend and I told her to make sure and tell Dorice I loved her. I knew it would mean something to Dorice but I was scared if I told her in person, I would get some type of bluster from her. How could you not love a woman whose last thoughts are picking out a good book to read? Perhaps we were kindred spirits. After all, we weren’t friends.
My husband was waiting in the car. When I slid in the passenger side of the car, he said, “By the look on your face, she must not have long.” I nodded because tears were falling down my cheeks. I looked out the window the rest of the way home. The tears continued to fall as I remembered all the tiny moments of happiness we shared over books, and the debates that would continue from verbal discussions to long emails.
I received a call on Sunday from a family member that Dorice had passed. I didn’t catch the woman's name because I was so upset. I had only known Dorice two years and yet she had touched my life in so many ways. It felt like she was my family. She had told me she was tough on me because I wanted to be a writer. It made me wonder if I did enough for her at the end. She didn’t want me to pray, to show emotion, or give her love, but I did use prayer, tears, and love. This was one time I didn’t heed my teacher’s request.
The next day, Dorice’s son called and told me I was in her will. I was speechless. Why in the world would I be in her will? I remained silent until he spoke again. He told me that she had left all her books to me. Some were books I had given her but a huge number were instructional writing books and materials. I’m still emptying boxes but a peek into them showed mystery novels too. What a precious gift to me. I was humbled thinking of such a profound bequest. I already miss Dorice.
I admired her knowledge of writing and wished I had taken some formal classes with her, but at ninety and dealing with cancer, her stamina was fading. I had many relatives, including my mother and grandmother who died with cancer, and I knew how difficult it became to deal with daily life problems. Dorice became irritable and crabby because she refused to take her pain medicine. She kept thinking she could manage the pain and I admired her tenacity. My grandmother taught me to respect my elders for their wisdom. I will think of Dorice each day I pick up one of her books on writing. I knew after I started classes at Writers’ Village University that she cared for me and I often wondered why it took her so long to realize she did. Perhaps she didn’t want to become attached to anyone she'd have to say goodbye to so soon. I hope she will be watching and growling for me to improve.
Our friendship, which I would argue with if you said it wasn’t, was an unlikely one. It was also a teacher pushing her student to excel. Harsh perhaps? I thought she was at first but as I got to know her, I knew I would value her instruction. I still wanted to learn and possessed the desire to improve. People often blame a teacher if they fail. I blame the person who doesn’t take advantage of what the teacher offers them to learn.
BIO: Sandra Niedzialek holds two Master's Degrees and is a retired high school principal. She has also been a national motivational speaker, a consultant for The State Department of Education, and has been an instructor as a reading specialist at Queens University, Charlotte, NC.