Two days before Lincoln High School teacher Mary Ellen Plewes was supposed to start her fall semester, she became known as "the young one" at the doctor's office.
Diagnosed with a terminal bile duct cancer called cholangiocarcinoma, Plewes has a grapefruit-sized tumor that has "obliterated" her arteries and veins — and about six months to a year-and-a-half to live.
“I don’t want people to think that I’ve given up," she said. "Even though I am a realist, I’m going to keep living and keep doing as long as I can.”
Plewes, who has worked for Leon County Schools for six-and-a-half years, only qualifies for leave without pay, which leaves bills unpaid, her refrigerator empty and her two daughters without support.
But the Lincoln community has rallied around her.
Teachers have donated sick leave, and parents of students have dropped off meals, walked her dog and cleaned her house. Some parents have even given Plewes rides to Jacksonville for her chemotherapy treatments at the Mayo Clinic.
“I want them to know how much it means to me. Even though this is a hard time, it’s made everything so much easier," she said.
Plewes, who teaches graphic design, said she always knew she wanted to be a teacher.
She's down to earth and personable, said Laci Smith, a former student who is a now a freshman at Florida State University.
"She would talk to us as people, not just students," Smith said.
Smith and her mother, Marci, have been dropping off dinners for the Plewes family since they learned of her diagnosis in August.
For Laci, Plewes' sophomore year class was a relief. Both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer within four weeks. Throughout their surgeries and chemotherapy, Laci looked forward to Plewes' class, a place where she could relax and learning didn't feel like work.
"She was my favorite teacher that year," Smith said.
The 41-year-old art teacher has tattoos she designed herself on her arms, back and hands that her mother calls “her trinkets."
A wave, a mountain range. Poppies, a cross, an anchor – they're significant.
They represent her children and monumental life moments.
On her yearly road trips, Plewes is known for taking others on life experiences. Her cancer diagnosis, says her friend Kate Pearson, is the same.
"There's nothing she hasn't done," Pearson said.
Plewes is the kind of person who has always been there for her friends and family. When Plewes' sister was deployed, she took in her three kids. When Pearson had her first child, Plewes was always there for support.
"No matter what time of day it is, what time of night it is, there’s no judgement," Pearson said. “When she got this sickness, I felt like I had to have an answer for her. But there isn’t one."
A GoFundMe has been set up for Plewes. Among numerous donations of $25 and $50, there are a few of $5 and $10. These are from her high school students.
"It's very humbling," Plewes said.
Pearson set up the GoFundMe to help Plewes and her two daughters with rent, utilities, food and gas money.
Her 18-year-old daughter, Annabelle Vannoi, used donations for car repairs so she could continue her classes at Tallahassee Community College.
But it's the experiences these funds provide that are most important to Plewes and her daughters.
It means going to the Circle K at 11 p.m. to get slushies, chips and queso at El Jalisco or trips to the Florida State University fountain to fill it up with bubbles.
She's always been a carpe diem kind of person. Spontaneous trips to take the road less traveled have resulted in visits to llama farms in the middle of New England – memories Plewes and her children recount with smiles and laughter while on their large, gray and cushy sectional couch in their living room.
These are things Plewes and her daughters would normally do — but they're trying to do more of it now.
“We’re going to live each day to the fullest," she said. "When people say that, I know it’s such a cliché, but really, if they want to ditch everything and go to the beach one day, then we’re going to ditch everything and go to the beach.”
To donate to Plewes' GoFundMe campaign, search gofundme.com/f/support-mary-ellen-in-her-battle-against-cancer.
Contact Ana Goñi-Lessan at AGoniLessan@tallahassee.com and follow her on Twitter @goni_lessan.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Lincoln teacher with terminal cancer lives her life to the fullest