Sunday, June 11, 2017

Teresa Shirlen Freed

My wonderful wife, Teresa, was a teacher at Mount Hebron High School, in Ellicott City, MD, through the 2002 school year, starting her teaching career upon graduating from the University of Maryland in College Park, MD, in 1994.  She made a lot of friends and impacted hundreds of students over the years, just as she was impacted by them.  She loved teaching, she love her students, and she loved the literature she helped the students experience as the 9th grade English teacher of gifted and talented (GT) freshman.  She also taught a public speaking elective, and sponsored the speech and debate team.

She was a tough teacher, but, as the school year progressed, the students appreciated her style and passion for the books, novels, and Shakespearean plays she taught, realizing how much she cared. Her absolute favorite book was "To Kill A Mockingbird," by Harper Lee.  Teresa also got to know her students.  She wanted to create a bond with them in order to understand them, and creating an environment of trust within the classroom allowed them to be comfortable enough to share the best of themselves as they learned the rich curriculum she taught.

Many of her students were involved with the youth program at Grace Community Church.  In fact, Teresa told me that she knew which students were in the program because of the way they behaved and carried themselves, and she even got to know the church's pastor and his wife, Mark and Lu Norman, because their children were students at Hebron, and she taught several of them.  Mark has said that it gave them comfort to know there was a Christ-follower teaching their kids.  At one point, her students who attended Grace attempted to play match-maker by setting her up with the, at that time, single youth pastor.  But she never followed through with their requests to meet him.

I met Teresa on April 4, 1998, after being introduced to her by my cousin, Dan, who attended Montrose Baptist Church, the same church as Teresa and her family.  We soon were dating regularly, and our relationship progressed quickly.  The Class of '02 was witness to Teresa's stories of our dating escapades, as she shared with them the details of our storybook romance.  We were engaged on February 13, 1999, to much hoopla from the kids in the classroom.  I was not aware of just how much she shared with the students, and am amused to find out what they knew about me.  We were married on July 24, 1999, in a wonderful, Christ-centered wedding in front of over 200 of our family and friends.  It was one of the greatest days of my life.

The students continued to be regaled by Teresa telling stories about our life together, including when we added to our family with our Maltese pup, who Teresa named "Scout," after the little girl in "To Kill A Mockingbird," naturally.  We moved to Howard County in August 2001, since we wanted to be closer to her place of employment, but also because we wanted our children to attend Howard County Schools, which, in our minds, are the finest in the country.

It was also at this time that the long-time principal at Mt. Hebron, Dr. Addie Kaufman, left the school to open brand-new Reservoir High School, in Fulton, MD, just down the street from our new home.  Addie quickly talked Teresa into coming to Reservoir, making her one of the first hires of the new school, due to open in the Fall of 2002.  While she had only ever taught at one school, and she hated to leave Hebron, she was excited by the opportunity to open a new school, especially since it was so close to where we lived.  It was kept a secret for some time, but there was quite an outpouring of disappointment among the Hebron community that she was leaving.  She finished up the school year in June 2002, and made the transition to Reservoir.

Fast forward to the Spring of 2003 and we found out that we were expecting.  Teresa and I were excited and intimidated by the prospect of being parents.  There's nothing to prepare you for it.  But while we stayed excited, the reality of it all kept us grounded and we prepared for this incredible change to our lives.

At around this time, we began looking for a new church home.  We wanted a church that was closer to our community, and after trying several different churches, Teresa recalled Grace Community Church.  We visited in the Summer of 2003 and knew immediately that this was the church for us.  Mark Norman's messages spoke to us, and while we already knew about the youth program, we quickly learned that the children's program was also pretty awesome.

Melody Grace was born in the Fall of 2003, several months into the new school year.  And she did change our lives.  She was so beautiful!  And Teresa loved being a mom!  Our little family now complete, we moved into a new phase of life.  We also had some decisions to make.  After much conversation and prayer, we decided that Teresa would take off for the rest of the school year.  This allowed for Teresa to spend every day with Melody, and we didn't have to consider finding daycare, at least not yet.

April 19, 2004, was a beautiful day.  We grilled burgers and corn on the cob, and had a nice dinner, then we decided to go out for a ride.  It was too nice to stay home and inside.  We drove out to Clarksville with little 5 month old Melody and Faithful Pup Scout, and got some ice cream.  Then we drove up to Reservoir High School to see if maybe there was a game being played that we could watch.  Teresa saw that Addie Kaufman's car was in the parking lot, and we decided to go over to the window of her office.  I was carrying Melody, and Teresa had Scout on her leash.  I stayed out on the sidewalk, while Teresa knocked on Addie's window.  Then she suddenly collapsed on the ground.  I had no idea what happened, and ran over to her. I watched her eyes glaze over and close, and her lips fluttered as the air expelled from her mouth.  I knew something was terribly wrong.

Addie opened the window and I asked her to call 911.  She did, and she also made an announcement for anyone who knew CPR to please come to the front of the school  While we had taken an infant CPR class, I wasn't able to process what to do, so I was relieved to see a woman show up who did (she turned out to be a registered nurse).  Addie came out and took Melody, who was crying loudly, so I could devote my attention to Teresa.

The paramedics soon arrived and they took over.  The police questioned me well away from Teresa.  It took the longest time, but they finally loaded Teresa onto an ambulance.  I wanted to ride with them, but they wouldn't let me, and instead I was led to a police car for the ride to Howard County General Hospital.  I didn't know it at the time, but because I was the only witness to what happened, I was being considered a suspect.  Addie said she would take care of Melody, and one of the school custodians took care of Scout.  Then we headed for the hospital.

I called Teresa's parents, Jim and Lynda, but couldn't reach them.  I called my parents, and couldn't reach them, either.  They finally called me back and I told them what happened.  The Shirlens called back and I told them what happened.  Everyone was en route to the hospital, but I knew it would be 30 minutes for them to get there.  I asked the police officer if he was a Christian.  He said he was Catholic.  I asked him to please pray.

Once at the hospital, I started to rush towards the ambulance bay, but the police officer led me instead into the main Emergency entrance, where I had to wait until cleared to go into the ER.  But instead of being allowed to be near her, I was led to a little room with a small table and several chairs.  There was a Bible on the table.  I thought to myself that this was a room where they give you bad news.

I prayed.  It was all I could think to do.  I asked God to please bless Teresa, to be with me, to be with little Melody...  I still believed that she would be okay.  I didn't want to think of the alternative.  It seemed like a long time, but, finally, a man with a lab coat came in, along with a well-dressed woman carrying a clipboard.  They joined me at the table and told me that they did everything they could, but there was nothing that could be done.  Teresa had died.  I was devastated.  It was just a nightmare.  (Days later, we got the coroner's report saying that Teresa died of a massive heart attack.  She had Mitral Valve Prolapse complicated by an enlarged heart.  She was gone by the time she hit the ground after collapsing.)

Later that week, at the funeral home, we were met by so many current and former students from both Mount Hebron and Reservoir High Schools.  It was an incredible turn out.  And they told so many stories about their teacher.  There was so much sadness over the whole thing, but we found comfort in sharing those stories.  It was about the best thing for me, given the circumstances.

In the days to follow, I fell into a deep depression.  I'm so thankful for so many who helped us through that terrible time, from my parents and in-laws, so many friends, Pastor Mark and Grace Community, Reverend George Aist, my colleagues at work, teachers and staff at both schools...there was no shortage of prayers and support.

And then there were the students.  I was told that both schools wanted to start scholarships in Teresa's name.  In addition, Reservoir collected money for a college fund for Melody.  Such wonderful gestures, I was and still am amazed by the generosity of so many people impacted by our loss.  Mount Hebron had an essay contest in order to give out a one-time scholarship award to a Class of 2005 student, from the last class Teresa taught at Hebron.  Reservoir had a self-sustaining annual scholarship in Teresa's name, and allowed the family and several students and staff to establish the criteria for the award.  In addition, a memorial garden was set up in the front of the school, with a plaque on the outside wall of the school with names of community members who have passed on.  Teresa's name is the first one listed.  And to this day, the garden is a wonderful sanctuary to her memory.

Fast forward again to several weeks ago.  Daughter Melody, now 13 years old, is involved in that same youth program at Grace Community Church that had impressed us all those years ago.  Melody listened to one of the youth counselors, Greg Murach, share that he was a teacher at Mount Hebron High School.  Melody, who is not nearly as out-going as her extroverted mother, approached Greg to tell him that her mother also taught at Hebron.  He asked her name, and Melody clarified that he was probably too young to remember her, but when she said Teresa Shirlen Freed, she told me that Greg just stared at her for the longest time.  Of course he knew her.  He was one of her students!  After the service, I went over to the Warehouse and met Greg, and we shared several stories over the next hour.  It was so cool to hear him talk about Teresa, and I think we were both astounded over this coincidence.  Even more, we realized just how much God had a hand in what was happening, and how much Teresa had played a role in us meeting at that moment....

Teresa had taught at Mount Hebron High School, impacting and being impacted by students, particularly those who were in the youth program at Grace Community Church, including a young Greg Murach.  Teresa and I later meet, get married, and begin attending Grace because of the wonderful experiences Teresa had with the students there.  Melody is born, and once old enough, begins attending that very same youth program, where she meets Greg, who is not only a youth counselor, but a teacher at Mount Hebron.  And the circle is completed.  God is so good!

Yesterday, I received an email from Greg asking if I would be at Grace last night, that he had a gift for me.  He approached me during the service and handed me a large photo album.  He warned me not to look at it until later, because he was emotional after looking through it.  The album contained so many letters written by Hebron students addressed to Melody, telling her about what her mother, their teacher, meant to them.  Most were written only days after Teresa's homegoing.  They were compiled and being held by one of Teresa's colleagues from back in the day, and it was only because Melody approached Greg that they were brought to light.  What an amazing, precious gift!

It was like opening a time capsule.  Melody and I spent the whole evening laughing, crying, and discussing so many of the little stories captured by the students.  I don't have the words to describe how appreciative I am for this incredible gift.

Teresa was an amazing person.  I loved her so much, and I miss her every day.  She was an amazing teacher, friend, daughter, mother, wife, and companion.  I look forward to our grand reunion some day, but I'm thankful for the gift of eternal life that can only be found in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  I know Teresa is in the arms of God, and that helps me get through each day, just as my wonderful, beautiful daughter, Melody, reminds me of just how precious life is.

Have a wonderful evening, everyone!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Big Road Trip, Part 14: Six Flags Over Texas

Up kind of early, we checked out of our hotel and made a supply run to the local Walmart.  We were soon on the road, headed southwest out of Amarillo on US 287.  The drive was uneventful.  Texas is fairly flat, and it seems to take forever to get to where you're going.  There were no real highlights, either, except the experience of traveling through small-town Texas towns.  I love getting off of the interstates.  It's one thing to hurry from destination to destination, but sometimes it's nice to just soak in the local atmosphere, and the smaller roads provide that.

We stopped to gas up in one of those little Texas towns, but did not make another stop other than for quick restroom breaks.  We had a late lunch just outside of Wichita Falls at a Cracker Barrel, then continued on into the Fort Worth-Dallas metro area.  We arrived just at the start of rush hour, and encountered quite a bit of traffic.

Soon, we arrived at our Sleep Inn in Arlington, TX.  We were located right across from Six Flags Over Texas, and one of the roller coasters ran past the hotel parking lot.  From our room, we could also see the Dallas Cowboys immense domed stadium, and the Texas Rangers ballpark.  We cleaned up, then headed back out, deciding to walk over to the amusement park.

We arrived just as it began raining, which, unfortunately, because there was lightning, shut down every ride in the park.  Our plan had been to grab dinner first, but because all of the rides were stopped, every guest seemed to have the same idea.

I'll interject here one of my pet peeves regarding Six Flags parks.  I hate to make a generalization, but cleanliness is not their strong suit.  Neither is the food.  My daughter and I have visited many amusement parks over the years, and I guess we're just spoiled.  Busch Gardens, in particular, is the nicest, cleanest park in the USA, by far, in my opinion, and they have excellent food at all of their eateries.  Six Flags, on the other hand, has mass-produced, very bland tasting meals that are, frankly, poorly prepared.  Finding a clean table is also an issue, and on this evening, I actually had to find an employee to wipe down the only free table we could find.  Anyway, it wasn't a good experience.

Fortunately, the rain let up and the rides started running again.  We were able to get a nice number of rides in before the park closed for the night, including the New Texas Giant and Titan.  Both were excellent!  We also rode Mr. Freeze, which was a nice respite from the immense heat and humidity.

We crashed for the night, but decided to go back the next day.  So, after a good night's sleep, we ate a quick breakfast, checked out, and drove over to the park.  We arrived just as they opened.  It was really hot.  I had been warned by colleagues who work in Oklahoma City that the Texas summers were hot, but I really wasn't prepared.  Daughter Melody and I made a pact to drink plenty of water as we went along.

The park was not crowded, at least initially, so we were able to walk on to many rides.  One favorite was Runaway Mountain, an indoor coaster.  It was nice and cool inside the building, and we rode it twice.  We rode a few more coasters, but the heat began to get unbearable, and with the increasing crowds and the drive ahead, we decided to leave the park at around lunch time.  We were happy and satisfied with the experience, and left happily.

We did a quick search, and found a nearby Chick-Fil-A, the only fast food joint that we patronize regularly.  It was crowded, but we ate a nice meal.  We also changed clothes since we were drenched from sweat after the morning at the park.  Then we were back on the road, headed towards Dallas.

Have a great day, everyone!