Written by: Colleen Cannon
It was the middle of homecoming week, and Brebeuf ’s student body waited in anticipation for the class lip-sync battle performances. The excitement and energy in the Schwitzer Gymnasium was electric. Retzy Thompson, a substitute teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit, was the second judge announced. “Coming to a classroom near you. . . Retzy Thompson!” Students leapt to their feet for a standing ovation, screaming and cheering to exemplify their adoration. A slow chant began in the senior section and spread throughout the entire gymnasium, “Retzy! Retzy! Retzy!” Retzy Thompson bounced across the basketball court, blowing kisses, waving, and placing her hands over her heart. Brebeuf loves Retzy, and Retzy loves Brebeuf.
After retiring from a 35-year career as an elementary teacher, Loretta “Retzy” Thompson has been Brebeuf ’s favorite substitute teacher for six years, and her vibrant spirit lights up every classroom, hallway, and gymnasium she enters, yet it’s the story behind Retzy’s radiant smile that is the true inspiration, a story of faith despite unimaginable grief. To find the joy in each moment, Retzy lives in honor of her daughter’s wish: “Get out there, Mom.” When Kent and Retzy Thompson welcomed their only daughter Ashley to the world in December of 1982, Retzy shared, “She was the light of our lives from the day she was born.” Known for her warm personality and her free spirit, Ashley was Kent and Retzy’s world as they created an idyllic family life in Zionsville. After graduating from Zionsville High School, Ashley attended Xavier University, where she studied communications and public relations. With her parents’ unending support, Ashley moved to Cincinnati for her first job, the Public Relations Director for the Florence Freedom baseball team. Just as Ashley’s career began to launch, Retzy began to dedicate her time to volunteering after her retirement as an elementary teacher from Brownsburg Community School Corporation.
Retzy remembers the call alerting her that Ashley was going to undergo what doctors thought was a routine procedure to remove an abnormal cyst. What the Thompsons first assumed was a benign lump was, in fact, a malignant tumor. Doctors quickly determined the diagnosis—a rare, soft tissue sarcoma, one of the rarest forms of cancer—as rare as Ashley’s vivacious spirit. That diagnosis “just blew us away” because we were “in complete denial” that Ashley, “our world, our everything” could have cancer. In the darkness of Ashley’s first days of diagnosis, Retzy began praying to Mary. “Ashley is a gift to the world. Let her live.”
As the days, weeks, and months passed, the Thompsons dedicated their lives to finding Ashley the best care to save her life. Their journey took them from Cincinnati to New York and then home to Indianapolis in search of top-notch treatments for their animated and beloved daughter. Along their journey, they experienced God’s love and grace through the compassionate doctors, nurses, and caregivers who supported and guided them as Ashley underwent surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy. It was a “relentless and aggressive disease,” yet despite it all, Retzy fondly recalls that she and Ashley were “stuck together like velcro,” and they supported each other through the hard times.
Throughout the nearly four years of Ashley’s illness, Kent and Retzy relied on faith, love, and strength from family, friends, and their parish. As Ashley’s disease progressed, Retzy’s prayers to Mary continued. “Give me Ashley’s pain. Let her live.”
Ashley was living at home with her mom and dad and receiving around-the-clock care to bring her comfort and relief. Even though Retzy didn’t recognize it at the time, they were spending their final days together. Close friends and family traveled long distances to support Ashley, Retzy, and Kent, and Ashley even planned and attended her 10-year high school reunion for the Zionsville High School Class of 2001. Even amidst the love and support from loved ones, Retzy’s worry grew. She found herself spending more and more time at church, “praying and praying to Mary.” Days before Ashley’s death, Retzy visited the church alcove that provided her the most peace, and she began to realize the unthinkable: Ashley was losing her strong spirit. Retzy pleadingly prayed to Mary, “Give Ashley her joy, energy, and spirit back. Give it back to her.” Two days later, Ashley passed away peacefully in the loving arms of her parents.
When Ashley died, Kent and Retzy struggled to fill the void in their lives because they “just couldn’t imagine life without Ashley.” While grappling with the unthinkable loss of her daughter, Retzy could feel that Ashley was always there guiding her; even during Retzy’s toughest times, she could hear Ashley’s voice telling her, “Get out there, Mom. You have so much more to give.” In the darkness of Retzy’s grief, she prayed for the peace and comfort to survive each day, “Not tomorrow. Not next month. Just today.” Retzy had faith “that help was on the way,” and she prayed and journaled through her most difficult days.
After meeting a friend for coffee on 86th Street, Retzy lamented that she was growing weary of feeling so grief-stricken, sad, and numb. She knew that Ashley would want her to find her own joy once again. While Retzy was leaving the coffee shop that afternoon, she saw a school across the street, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, and she decided at that moment to inquire about volunteer opportunities. “I had heard so many positive things about Brebeuf over the years, and I thought I might be able to help in some small way.” Retzy began substitute teaching the next week, and she was immediately impressed by the loving grace of Brebeuf students. “Brebeuf kids just made me feel right at home.” Retzy believes that her path to Brebeuf was no accident, and she is confident that Ashley led her to Brebeuf so that she could feel “joy and purpose again.”
Since that day six years ago, Retzy has substituted for countless classes, chaperoned a student trip to France, and even desires to lead a retreat. To Brebeuf, Retzy is a valued member of the community, and to Retzy, Brebeuf is an answered prayer. “Brebeuf students bless me with what I miss most about Ashley: her energy.” Even though there is no substitute for a daughter’s love, the loving embrace of the Brebeuf community is something Retzy cherishes. With every cheer, chant, and clap from the standing ovation the students gave to Retzy, it was a beautiful reminder of Ashley’s love on earth.
On the drive home after her first day of working at Brebeuf and every day since, Retzy reflects, “I’m getting out there, Ashley.”