Skip to main content

Winter 2022 Connections Alumni Profile

by Janet Howell ’78

There are several of us who would have laughed out loud if told in high school that we would someday return to HC, and I am one of those people. I loved being a student at HC, but I also loved the thought of going on a cultural adventure, of meeting many new people, and of choosing a climate in which to live…which would certainly never be the Michigan arctic. Tim felt much the same way. Tim and I met during one of Calvin University’s few (at that time) cross cultural experiences, Appalachia.

After graduating from Calvin, we landed in West Palm Beach, Florida. I taught English to middle school and high school students, and Tim taught elementary students and coached at the high school. This was the era of journals, and I required them from all of my students. Every weekend I went home loaded with a huge box of journals, but those journals helped me to see my students more holistically and helped my students to open up emotionally. Bonus: I could read and respond to them on the beach. Tim, meanwhile, spent weekends in Florida taking classes, working on his Master’s Degree in Administration. Tim has always loved kids and loved teaching, but he also wanted to lead, affect policy, and make a difference at a different level.

We happened to be in Holland for summer vacation one week, and I stopped by school to say hello to one of my favorite teachers at HCHS, Mr. Dan VanderArk, who had since become the high school principal. Dan expressed that he had just received word the night before that one of the English teachers was leaving. Might I be interested in her position? But they also had a need for a part time female counselor (at that time the other counselors were male). Would I be willing to complete a degree in counseling? (I had a minor in psychology.) The school board was meeting that night, and if I was interested, he’d like to have me interview that same evening. Tim and I prayed a lot about this in the few hours that we had, and God wove many loose ends together and into the tapestry of our lives that day. It was clear that he had prepared me for this position, and we were both excited to be closer to our families. We had missed them, and maybe even the leaves and the snow a little bit.

HC set the foundation for our daughters to think deeply about many issues, to care about specific issues that touched their hearts, and to do something about those issues.

Not long afterwards, we started a family. I dropped teaching English but was encouraged to continue my counseling position on a part time basis. This worked out really well for our family, and as our daughters grew older, my counseling hours increased. I enjoyed working with such a committed staff, and found tremendous joy and meaning in my work with students and in my relationships with them.

It’s not always easy to be the child of a high school staff member, and I will not forget one of our daughters signing up for an appointment with me in high school (and I wasn’t even her assigned counselor). She told me frankly that she felt I had used up my listening skills by the end of the school day, and she had some items on her agenda she wanted to talk about. Well okay.

Yet it was a joy to be able to talk about HC events and chapels together at the dinner table. Sometimes our perspectives on speakers or happenings were different, and that led to deeper conversations and getting to know each other better. We didn’t ever say “Your school is equipping your mind and nurturing your heart to transform the world for Jesus Christ,” but this was inherent in our discussions. HC set the foundation for our daughters to think deeply about many issues, to care about specific issues that touched their hearts, and to do something about those issues.

I have always loved my position at HCHS, and when I became the assigned counselor of all of the international students, I was really excited. One of our daughters had spent a semester abroad living with another family as a college sophomore, and I understood some of the struggles that can occur, both educational and personal. We started International Club as a way for American and international students to mingle, get to know each other, and just have fun. There have been years that American students really embraced the International students, coming to International Club, crafting weekend activities for the group, hanging out together intentionally. Some students have formed genuine friendships and visited their friends at their homes in their countries. What fantastic opportunities for our American students! These students are such a gift to our community. We have so much to learn from them.

I spent Thanksgiving week of 2020 in the hospital, not knowing exactly what was wrong with me, but suddenly understanding that my body was filled with cancer, not the large tumor kind of cancer, but, as my oncologist explained, the spilled bag of rice kind of cancer, and it was terminal. I also did not realize that my family, all of them gathered together, didn’t believe I would live long enough to come home. There were so many things wrong, so many things that could go wrong. They were scared, and because of COVID, they couldn’t be with me, not even Tim.

On December 6, 2020, I was formally diagnosed with advanced stage ovarian cancer. My oncologist gave me two options: (1) Begin treatment, which would include chemotherapy, and might extend my life by maybe months, maybe years if my body was responsive to the chemo and a potential surgery that may or may not follow or (2) Have my peritoneal cavity, which would continue to fill with cancerous fluid, drained from time to time to provide comfort until death, which could occur in months.

Because I had previously read Being Mortal, I was very sensitive to the issue of quality of life, and had strong leanings toward the second option. After deep discussions with family and with God, however, I chose the first option. My oncologist was quick to point out that my cancer would not be obliterated; it would return, but for now, we had a plan of attack.

Life is short, death can be unexpected, and God can use every moment of your life to make an impact, no matter your age.

I’m not sure when I started thinking about death, but I do know that my mother’s near death car accident when I was in 6th grade had a big impact on me. Months after the accident and when she had recovered from her injuries, we learned that our Mom had told the doctors before surgery, “It’s okay if I die; I’m ready to meet my Savior.”

Not long after that I read a book which had a strong influence on my life, 18, No Time to Waste, the true story of Kathi, a teenager who died in a car accident, written by her mother, Margaret Johnson.The themes that have stuck with me for almost 50 years are that life is short, death can be unexpected, and God can use every moment of your life to make an impact, no matter your age. Fearlessness for Jesus. That was my bottom line takeaway. And that might be too when I started talking more with God about his plan for my life and my death. Unlike those who never imagine that today could be their final day on Earth, I have always thought about death quite a bit.

How to die, how to live, whom to live for…these are themes my teachers at HCHS explored through stories, chapels, and assigned books, including The Power and the Glory. Who could forget the whiskey priest and his battle with his own sin and yet his desire to serve the Lord? These were not discussions filled with cookie cutter answers. In my immaturity they “grew me up,” helped me develop a more thoughtful attitude.

How my body has responded to chemotherapy has awed my surgeons and physicians. After nine sessions of chemotherapy, one major surgery and a few minor surgeries, I am doing well. I have good days and I have rough days, as my incisions from a recent surgery are still healing.

The current step in the plan is a regime of parp inhibitors, which I will be taking for two years. So far, the only side effects are extreme fatigue (this early riser now sleeps well past first hour!) and nausea.

In the meantime, how do we live? Tim and I have been advised to live life to the fullest and take advantage of opportunities that come our way.

To me, living life to the fullest means paying attention to the details and seeing God in them: the boxes of Kleenex that are dropped off at the moment we discover we are out of tissues (and we do cry a lot…but we laugh a lot too), the way the sun is filtered through golden leaves, just the right melody to address emotions that are wildly reverberating, the perfect cup of tea shared with a friend. For me it has also meant learning to submit. After all these years I am still learning that it’s God’s plan, not mine. My role is to trust him.

How to die, how to live, whom to live for...these themes my teachers at HCHS explored through stories, chapels, books... “grew me up,” helped me develop a more thoughtful attitude.

Tim and I recently went on a river cruise, something we’ve wanted to do when we “retired,” which one year ago felt like it would be in five years. While there may be more adventures ahead, we really are both homebodies at heart, delighting in the way God is not only caring for us through our community, but also bringing us joy through extending our family. We have just been blessed with twins, bringing the grandchild total to three, with one on the way! We are right now helping out as much as possible, which, on my part, may be less than it might have been, but on the other hand, so much more than I could ask or imagine. Oh, the goodness of God!

Obviously, I have no idea when death might stop for me (with a nod to Emily Dickinson here), but I do know that, along with the poetry that somehow seeped into my mind, those Bible verses I memorized while a student at Holland Christian come back in a powerful way, and I am clinging to them: The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:8 and “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9