Lauren Thompson, on the surface, seems a lot like the two thousand or so other students preparing to graduate from Rowan University in May: young, smart, energetic, eager, dreaming of the future.
Peek under that surface, though, and she is, perhaps, a little less carefree. Dig deeper, and she is, no doubt, wiser than most 23-year-olds.
“Life,” said the 2006 Seneca High School graduate, “will happen the way it needs to. In the end I can’t control a whole lot.”
Unfortunately, she learned that the hard way.
The Tabernacle resident was enjoying the spring semester of her junior year in 2010 when her mother’s back pain, which had started in January, started escalating. Thompson and her mom, Arlene, figured at first it was minor but by the end of the last academic year knew it was time to follow up on the problem.
Helping at home
“It really got to be bad toward the end of the school year,” said Thompson, who transferred to Rowan in 2008 from Burlington County College. “I was traveling home a lot to help my mom and my brother. I was home two weeks, and we realized she wasn’t getting any better. By mid-May I was doing everything around the house. Cooking. Cleaning. She had trouble walking. She couldn’t leave the upstairs.”
On May 29, 2010, her mother — who was a French and Spanish teacher — entered the hospital, thinking she had a fractured spine. On June 1, the hospital contacted Thompson and said she needed to come in. Doctors had found a tumor on her mother’s spine that had metastasized from her kidney. She spent three weeks in the hospital and about five in rehab before returning home and later having more stays in the hospital. The physicians gave her three to five years.
She died in November 2010, three days before Thompson’s birthday.
Thompson, an English and Subject-Matter Education major, was student teaching at Pitman High School at the time.
Supported by others
She lacked irony when she said, “This was not my favorite thing in the world to be going though. I went though a lot of this while student teaching. My cooperating teacher, principal and supervisor were extremely, extremely supportive. My students had no clue, which I was very proud of. I never broke down in class. I really didn’t miss any class teaching days.”
Since her mother’s illness and death, Thompson, whose adult brother is autistic, has been juggling a lot in addition to her studies this final year of school.
She is a third-year resident assistant and vice president of Student University Programmers (SUP), a student group that stages events on campus. She’s also been working in Rowan’s Office of Service Learning, Volunteerism and Community Engagement.
And she has been trying to keep her mother’s memory alive through several service projects.
“I’ve done a lot to keep my family together, to organize everything, to make my mother proud. Hopefully in the end I can continue her story and I can tell those stories to others. I truly don’t believe people die until they’re forgotten,” Thompson said. “My mom used to tell me, ‘You continue to tell their stories, and they live on.’ At this point I just want to live life to know that she’s proud of me.”
She started the Knit to Embrace program on the Rowan campus. “This program teaches students to knit or crochet small blocks. When they finish their blocks, the students have the opportunity to donate their block to be sewn into lap blankets for chemotherapy patients. I will be donating these blocks to the Fox Chase Cancer Center in the Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mt. Holly, where my mother received chemotherapy and radiation treatments,” Thompson said.
Thompson was a key part of SUP’s St. Baldrick's Day program in March, raising more than $800 and shaving off her mid-length wavy blonde hair to support pediatric cancer research.
Keeping memories alive
“Although the past several months have been really difficult, I am trying to make the most of it and give back to the community that helped me when I was in need,” she said. “I’ve found that this volunteerism and this need to get her memory out there, honor her memory is very important.”
Thompson also is keeping her mother’s memory alive in other ways. She writes about her mom, whom people say she looks and sounds like, though Thompson is a 5’4” blonde and her mother was a 5’10” redhead who adopted Thompson and her brother.
Thompson has saved voicemails from her mom on her phone. Every day she wears a cross she gave her mother before she died. “It was the one piece of jewelry she wore every day,” Thompson said. “This cross went through chemo treatments, radiation, ups and downs. She took it off in late September when she entered the hospital. She took it off and she gave it to me. And she told me this is our deal, ‘When I’m in the hospital you’ll wear the necklace. When I’m home I’ll wear it.’ It was our way to communicate with each other. I wear it and it’s a comfort for me.”
Looking to the future
Thompson is more pragmatic than bitter about the turns her life has taken. She plans to attend grad school and maybe work as a higher education administrator. She is seeking guardianship of her brother. She plans to sell the family home, and eventually she’d like to marry and have children.
Through she sometimes wonders, “Why is it like my life is like a Lifetime movie?” she sees a future for herself and she is grateful for support she has received from her uncle and his family. “They’ve been a huge help,” she said. “My uncle was there for me every step of the way, talking on the phone for hours while I cried.”
She’s also grateful for the support of her longtime boyfriend and his family, who promised to look after her and have gone so far as to adopt her toy poodle, Beaver, so she can still see her.