09 March, 2023

Denise Saladyga

Today is the funeral of Denise Saladyga. It is also what would have been her 71st birthday. Her loss is felt by many today, but I wanted to take a moment to share that particular slice of her life that intersected with my own. Others will be sharing stories of how completely and utterly stoked she was to be a grandparent; of how her personal experience with breast cancer became a driving need for her to become an advocate for fellow breast cancer diagnosis recipients, especially in the educator community; of her infectious love of drama she shared with her students; of how she worked tirelessly to educate some of the least privileged students with severe learning disabilities and help them to become true participating members of our shared society; and of how she was a true and close friend of my partner, Katherine Hess, being there for her many times in her hours of need.

I didn't know Denise in most of these capacities, except in stories. I first met Denise through my partner, who introduced her as a friend. The stories they would share when they got together were wonderful to experience second-hand. Some of them were great positive stories about students and what they went through to turn those lives around. Denise also had a few horror stories about particular administrators and staff in Montgomery County Public Schools, some of whom apparently didn't act very appropriately with Denise at particular points in her career. However, the most memorable moments for me, having only met her in the last decade of her life, are the games we would play.

Each year, I would drive from Maryland to Florida for Dice Tower Con (now Dice Tower East), a board game convention where lots of games are played over the course of a week. On our way back, we would often stop at Denise and Joe's place in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. They had a wonderful place. I would sleep in the spare bedroom and partake of their amazing and generous breakfast. And, each night, we would play board games.

Katherine also owns the special edition Azul Giant.
Joe wasn't as much of a fan, but Denise just adored Azul. It's a board game about laying down tiles of various patterns. She loved the beauty, but also how the puzzle of the game ramped up in difficulty as each round of the game progressed. Denise, Katherine, and I played repeated games of Azul each time we visited, and Denise loved it.

What I remember most about these experiences is the conversation. Katherine and I would talk about the convention we'd just left in Florida, describing the games and the people we'd interacted with. We'd often have to pause mid-sentence because the turns would get so complex. Then, on my turn, I'd get to hear about so-and-so student that both Katherine and Denise had mentored, and I'd inevitably make a mistake that would cost me the game.

The boards would be set up on a circular crocheted piece by Denise. Unlike other games that use a rectangular board, Azul is played with a series of smaller circular boards that surround an empty space in the middle. This made it perfect for the crocheted cover on the table, and the game pieces beautifully adorned the space made by the various colors. At home, we have a rather large blanket crocheted by Denise, lovingly made in identical colors to a painting that Katherine made. It's a wonderful addition to our house, and it makes for something nice (& beautiful!) to cover up in on sadder days. The fact that the blanket matches the colors of Katherine's painting is an amazing bonus. Denise really took a lot of time to think about the things she crocheted for her friends, and it really shows.

The four of us playing Azul.
I last met with Denise and Joe at The Cheesecake Factory last year. It was one of the first times I interacted with someone without my mask post-COVID other than my partners. It was wonderful to get caught up after the COVID years, which really derailed our plans of being able to see them in Myrtle Beach for a while there. The food was especially good that day. We shared an appetizer and talked of all kinds of things. I was inundated with photos that day — Denise was so very, very proud of being a grandparent. We ordered dessert, said our goodbyes, and after too short a time we found ourselves walking back to our respective cars. I never got a chance to speak with her again.

I know that Denise did a lot in this world. She was very well known for her cancer activism in the educator community, standing up for her fellow teachers when they needed it most. Among students she was loved dearly for her dedication to teaching the dramatic arts. She was quite close to her family and undoubtedly has many stories there that should be told. But that small slice of her life that she shared with me was mostly just about board games. I wasn't Denise's closest friend. I certainly wasn't as close as Katherine is. But I really and truly appreciated Denise all the same. She was a tough opponent and won more than her share of the games I played with her.

I'll miss you.

My beloved friend Denise passed away a few weeks ago from her third battle with cancer. Today she would have turned 71,...

Posted by Katherine Hess on Thursday, March 9, 2023