Ways of Seeing: Year away from home was a true education

I spent my junior year of high school in far-off New Haven, Vt., calling one hundred fifty acres of serene farmland home. I had spent the favorite moments of my childhood on that farm: fantastic white winters and warm glowing summers with my grandparents, aunt and uncle, and cousins.
Of all the journeys to Treleven Farm, this last proved to be the most eye-opening. On land inhabited by sheep, teachers, toddlers, and my 92-year-old grandmother, I witnessed birth, death, and vast natural beauty.
Life in the Green Mountain State was a major change from life in the Park Cities in Texas. I got on a school bus every morning at 7:20 a.m. For the next 40 minutes, I would stare out the window at the most beautiful mountain ranges, clusters of cows, and classic New England homes. Arriving at Mount Abraham Union High School in the mornings was quiet. A school of 600 students is much less chaotic than Highland Park’s two thousand.
Within two months, I knew nearly everyone’s name and face in my entire grade. Each new person I met did their best to make me feel welcome, which made the adjustment much easier. However, nothing had quite prepared me for Vermont winter. I had gotten a taste growing up, from Christmases spent visiting, but after a week we would return to Texas, where it rarely falls below freezing. That is far more bearable than four months in snow and below-zero temperatures in a house with inadequate heating. Heavy clothing and hot tea got me through it, but I can’t say it is something I will miss.
Coming home from school each day meant visiting with my 40-year-old cousin Ethan, my temporary guardian, his wife, Susannah, a leukemia survivor, and their two-year-old adopted daughter, Lucretia. Ethan is easily one of the most intelligent human beings I have ever known, but remarkably humble. He reads anything and everything, has well-thought-out opinions on just about any little-known subject, and teaches high school students at an outdoor education program called the Walden Project. He is trustworthy, wise, and considerate, which made him a crucial part of my experience. I never felt like there was anything I had to struggle with alone, and if I ever felt worried or overwhelmed, I had plenty of people to learn from and confide in.
Just next door was my Grandma Lauraine, the most inspiring person I have ever known. She was an incredibly kind-hearted and strong woman who accomplished much to bring light and warmth into other people’s lives. Extraordinarily generous, bubbly, and unconditionally loving — these are qualities she never lost, even after her mind started to go. Unfortunately, her health started to decline three years ago when my grandfather, her husband of 70 years, passed away at 96.
On the morning of Jan. 14, 2018, her three granddaughters sat surrounding her bed while she slept peacefully. All three of us crying, all three seemingly unprepared, though we knew what was coming. Her breathing was labored. When it eventually quieted, my cousin Anais, put her ear close to Grandma’s face and looked at me with tears in her eyes. “You guys, I think she stopped breathing,” she said. I held onto Lauraine’s hand and tried to process what had just happened. The idea that I would never be able to talk to her again was scary, but I tried to gather myself and realize there was no better way for her to go. She was surrounded by people she loved — maybe somehow she knew that.
I had never witnessed anyone’s last moments before, but I think it helped me to better understand life and be less afraid of other aspects of it. My year away from home in a new environment helped me to grow, mature, and step farther than ever out of my comfort zone.
Ashley Warfield is graduating from high school in May and will be attending Southern Methodist University in the fall. She plans on returning home to Vermont to visit her family and friends as much as possible.

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