Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Remembering a Teacher, Mother and Fighter

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 had been dying of cancer when she sent it. Maybe she didn’t even know herself.

I first heard of Ria when she taught my daughter’s English class in ninth grade. My daughter mentioned that “Dr. Van Ryn” was a tough but excellent teacher.

Someone with a doctorate, teaching freshman English in a public school? That’s a little unusual.

It turns out that Ria often chose the unusual path. She had just left a tenure-track teaching position at Yeshiva University in New York City -- a position she earned after getting one master’s degree in religious studies, as well as another master’s and a doctorate in sociology.

But 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 had been raised, and where her mother and one of her sisters taught in her childhood school district. She earned her third master’s degree -- this one in education -- and a teaching certificate before getting a job teaching high school English and social studies.

Raised Unitarian, Ria had converted to Judaism in graduate school.

Her dissertation focused on 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 together for a day of service and a shared meal.

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 in August of 2017, when she was 37.

Her family was thrilled.

“She was Jewish by choice and a single mother by choice,” her sister Trina Van Ryn said.

Ria told her parents, Debbie and Jack, that they were going to be co-parents with her. A tight-knit family, they call themselves Team Van Ryn.

In July of 2018, when Ria’s eyelid started drooping, her father urged her to have it checked out. A CT scan showed she had gastrointestinal neuroendocrine cancer with tumors in her chest and stomach: a rare, aggressive and unpredictable cancer.

Her daughter was 11 months old.

Ria didn’t want to know the survivability rate; whatever it was, she had every intention of beating it. She had been a state-level swimmer in high school, and had run 13 marathons. She would fight this.

Her father, an orthopedic surgeon, knew the odds.

The family kept their fears and grief to themselves. They were Team Ria.

“We will be with you every step of the way,” her sister Zannah told her.

Ria filled a 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 also kept teaching.

During this time, she emailed me -- “at no small risk” to herself, she wrote -- to talk about incidents of racism in the school that concerned her. Eventually, she took her concerns higher, personally meeting with the district superintendent.

“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.

Shortly after Christmas, my daughter’s principal emailed the students and parents 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 yet 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 and sick, but she wanted her now.

Both of them took her by the hand and walked outside.

“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 that note a few months before she died. I think about the writer and reader my daughter has become. Ria helped do that.

Through the lives she touched, she’s blowing kisses back to all of us.