My November Serendipity Newsletter includes a hardcover book giveaway!
And here's the next blog segment of our story:
The inauguration of President Barack Obama began the New Year. Beth and I flew to California for the first time, taking the BART train from the San Francisco airport and the Caltrain to Palo Alto and Stanford. We stayed in a hotel near the Caltrain station and walked to campus. Beth met with staff at the Diversity and Access Office and the law school.
A large area under construction near Stanford Law would be the new graduate dorms where she would live. Much closer to classes than when she lived in Harvard’s Quad, with the added advantage of no snow and ice. We walked under the canopy of trees on Palm Drive.
Beth reconnected with two Harvard swim team friends who worked for Facebook in downtown Palo Alto.
At one of Stanford’s heated outdoor pools, I watched Beth while I returned work-related calls. She put her hair in a ponytail, stretched on a swim cap, and swam freestyle, backstroke, and butterfly laps. Each movement was the result of years of practice. After, she lifted herself out of the pool at the corner to sit on the deck. Shining in the sun, she looked up at me with clear blue eyes and an easy dimpled smile.
I wished I could have glimpsed that singular moment after her spinal cord injury.
Beth couldn’t move at all in intensive care almost 10 years earlier, a time when no one imagined her swimming laps in January under California's winter sun. She’d also come a long way from floating free in the rehab pool in Green Springs, Ohio.
The next day, Beth’s right elbow swelled to the size of a baseball, an occasional recurrence aggravated by any kind of physical stress, extra wheeling or swimming or maybe getting bumped the wrong way. On our flight back to Boston, I suggested a power wheelchair to use only part of the time.
Beth wouldn’t consider it.
Next: Overseas travels, again!
In her new Malden apartment late one night, Beth transferred from the wheelchair to her bed, and a wheel lock didn’t hold. She tumbled to the floor. Her roommate Lizzy slept nearby in the next room.
Beth’s deep aversion to asking for help resulted in close to an hour’s struggle to get back into bed. And raw rug burns on her knees. She accomplished the feat only after creating a series of higher levels with pillows and anything else she could reach. If it had been me, I’d have asked for assistance right away.
Beth considered the solo achievement a victory.
John called it unnecessary stubbornness. I nagged her about taking care of the rug burns to avoid infection.
Meanwhile, Maria taught her second school year as a lead teacher while Ben attended graduate school at Brandeis. I started a new nonprofit job in Wellesley, running programs for residents in need. John settled in at Waltham’s MacArthur School.
John soon made many close friendships with the exceptional staff.
Some weekends, I met Beth and Maria for lunch or clothes shopping. Maria dressed casually for work, like me, since she often sat on the floor with her preschoolers with a disability. Beth established her preferred style: dresses (or tops with skirts), and boots. The wheels of her chair ruined light colors despite side guards, so she avoided white clothing but not buttons and zippers.
Mint Julep in Harvard Square remained Beth’s best source for dresses, though a few she bought weren’t appropriate for work. She saved those for dancing in Boston clubs. Wearing two small white pearls from China in each earlobe, she had blond highlights in her brown hair from the Judy Jetson salon in Cambridge. She replaced the Harvard Swimming backpack with a leather messenger bag that hung from the unused push handles of her wheelchair. We ordered a set of Spinergy wheels with black spokes instead of yellow, to look more professional.
Meeting new people in and out of her office, she never hesitated to extend her contracted hand with the HOPE ring.
Beth's job focused on international health systems and extensive research for a $7,000,000 grant proposal. After a workday in Harvard Square, Beth occasionally wheeled over the Charles River to swim laps at Blodgett pool and say hello to the coaches.
Beth continued to love swimming, though she welcomed the break from swim training.
Did you miss my October Serendipity Newsletter that came out last week?
For the first time since the car accident, months stretched ahead with nothing but time for Beth and for me. Abruptly back in Massachusetts after Beijing, Beth planned to get a job with almost a year until law school. John and I lived far from public transportation, and with independence a top priority, she decided to rent her first apartment and assumed she would find a full-time job to pay for it. A leap of faith.
Separate plans converged in serendipity.
Calling from Tiffin, Beth’s high school friend Lizzy asked to stay with us while she looked for an apartment. She decided to relocate to the Boston area to find a teaching job. Beth and Lizzy made an easy decision to be roommates.
The two recent college graduates applied for jobs in Cambridge.
Beth and Lizzy looked at more affordable apartments farther away. I drove them to tour a nice complex in Malden. When Beth asked for my opinion, I pointed out the considerable distance from Malden to Cambridge. Nevertheless, they signed a year lease for an apartment near the Malden T stop before either of them had a job.
Lizzy’s parents arrived from Ohio to help with the move. I set up a single mattress on a metal frame for Beth and a small computer table from IKEA. She borrowed a shelving unit and a lamp from John and me. Beth’s Stanford Law dorm would be fully furnished, so it didn’t make sense to buy more.
Beth’s sparse bedroom contrasted with her overflowing clothes closet.
Within a week of signing the lease, Beth accepted a full-time job in Harvard Square as a research assistant for the Harvard Dept. of Health Policy. Lizzy had a successful job interview with the Cambridge schools where she procured the job. Beth and Lizzy each had a 30-minute commute from Malden to Cambridge on the T red line subway. Twice a day.
“Becoming independent,” Beth said. “That is my greatest achievement.”
Next: New challenges of independence!
On September 17th, Team USA paraded into Beijing's Bird’s Nest.
At the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, 547 athletes from 62 countries competed in 141 medal events.
All the countries assembled, and we watched more stunning performances that created magnificent scenes with thousands of performers, young and old. As the Closing Ceremony ended, athletes danced with performers on the stadium floor, and Beth found herself blue eyes to bellybuttons with pink cows.
The cow costumes caused visual problems for the wearers.
“After Closing Ceremonies,” Beth wrote, “at least a hundred of these cows stormed the floor of the stadium. They kept running into us and running away. They would also begin to deflate, so volunteers would run up and herd them off the track to get blown back up. My teammates and I were literally crying we were laughing so hard.”
Back home, the U.S. Paralympics team joined Michael Phelps and the other Olympians to meet President George W. Bush at the White House.
Beth shook the President’s hand and smiled for the pictures. Later, athletes congregated at the hotel lounge. Flirting with Olympians on the men’s swim team marked the official end of Beth’s four-year plan and the Beijing experience.
Real world adventures in Beth’s future would be equally exciting.
Next: October's Serendipity Newsletter!
The following day, I picked up Beth and Peggy again in a taxi. We met Brittany at Wangfuying, Beijing’s most famous shopping area. We stopped first for Starbucks coffee and tea. In the open-air market, we dared each other to eat roasted scorpions and seahorses.
No one accepted that challenge. ;-)
Next, we made our way to my favorite place in Beijing. Near a magnificent temple, Brittany filmed a video of Beth navigating a ridiculously steep ramp with help. Brittany also practiced her Mandarin with friendly locals at the Temple of Heaven and answered their questions about her friend’s injury and swimming.
It made me happy that Beth loved the serene park as much as I did.
Under the shade of gorgeous old trees, I drew Beth into a hug and smiled as she patted my back. A perfect moment. Finally free, guilt no longer clouded my view. With eyes wide open, a breathtakingly beautiful world surrounded me—not in spite of Beth’s injury but because of it.
Life wasn’t just good, it was better than before the accident.
Among the lucky ones, we gained a deeper appreciation of the connections that made our lives meaningful. I shared her smile as we left the canopy of ancient trees and moved into the sunshine.
“I could have spent all day exploring there,” Beth wrote, “but we left for lunch at a Peking Duck restaurant where I was peer-pressured into eating duck brain. It tastes like chicken, but I almost gagged from the texture.”
The most honored guests traditionally received the brain of the duck, a delicacy.
When pickled sea cucumbers followed, marine animals known for their leathery skin, Beth declined. Brittany filmed another video at the restaurant of a quad learning to use chopsticks. With no storm and no taxi problems, the day passed too quickly.
Time for the Paralympics Closing Ceremony . . .
Last week, my third Serendipity Newsletter came out. The fourth issue will be released on September 25th with a new slideshow and a new resource guide. In the meantime, more China adventures!
On September 16th, I picked up Peggy and Beth at the Athlete Village in a taxi to visit the Silk Market. In addition to the beautiful silk, the jewelry with real pearls was inexpensive. Next, we took a taxi to the unique hutong Matt had showed me.
At my request, Beth’s friend Brittany had called ahead and used her Mandarin language skills to make afternoon pedicure appointments for Beth and Peggy at the same salon Linda and I enjoyed in the hutong. At a teashop with glass jars of loose tea, Beth bought jasmine blossoms that bloomed in hot water.
I found inexpensive yellow and white silk flowers, intricately sewn by hand.
When we entered the salon for the pedicures, the sky suddenly dropped hard driving rain. Peggy and Beth decided to cancel the appointments and return to the Athlete Village instead.
The day turned tense as taxis full of passengers passed us by.
A few available ones refused to take us. A helpful shopkeeper translated for us with one of the taxi drivers. He said the Athlete Village was too far away. We learned that taxis stay in one area of the gigantic city.
The shopkeeper called security.
After a long wait, a police car pulled up along with a taxi to take us back. We thought our troubles had ended, but the taxi driver couldn’t find the Athlete Village, despite our Beijing maps and written directions in Mandarin provided by U.S. Paralympics. In pouring rain, the taxi dodged a multitude of bicycles, most with more than one rider on seemingly endless flower-lined streets.
We finally arrived at the Athlete Village, soaked and cold.
Peggy and Beth hurried to Team USA's dormitory. From there, I relied on my sense of direction to help the frustrated taxi driver find my hotel. I left him a big tip and hoped he found his way home.
My daughter Beth’s last race as a member of Team USA was at the Beijing Paralympics, in the same Water Cube where Michael Phelps earned eight gold medals. Beth dropped three seconds off her previous best time in the 50 free to set a new American Record at 1:10:55, even faster than I had hoped.
The top S3 women in the world clocked in at finals from 0:57 to 1:18.
At this elite level of competition, the broad variation of 21 seconds starkly contrasted to other finals races at the Paralympics where times varied by seconds or fractions of seconds. The lower-numbered classifications, like Beth’s, tended to include a wide range of function, compared to higher-numbered classifications with specific criteria that more effectively leveled the playing field.
I admired how Beth and Peggy graciously accepted the inequities and aimed for achieving her ultimate American Record.
“I was so psyched to see Beth at this level of competition,” Brittany said. “I knew how seriously she took swimming, but I didn't have a sense of the enormity of her accomplishment until I was in the Water Cube, donning my handmade 'Go Beth' T-shirt, screaming as she tore down the lane. Watching her swim, I was so proud of her, thinking about how insane it was that one of my best friends is fifth in the world in swimming!”
Beth celebrated the accomplishment, happy with her three-second drop and new American Record, as well as her jump in the world rankings from 10th to fifth.
Peggy and Beth continued with their post-meet ice cream tradition, though their only choice was the soft serve at McDonalds in the Athlete Village. U.S. Paralympics Swimming won the official gold medal count, with lifetime bests in over 90 percent of their swims despite tough competition from China, Great Britain, and Australia.
When the last finals race at the Water Cube ended, USA swimmers had two days for sightseeing in Beijing, a sprawling city of over 6,000 square miles.
Next week: Look for my 3rd Serendipity Newsletter!
After five years on the U.S. Paralympic National Swim Team, my daughter Beth’s smooth freestyle beat her backstroke times. Within her S3 female classification of mostly quads (those with quadriplegia) from around the world, the ability to swim the freestyle placed her in an even smaller sub-group of less than a dozen who could swim a forward stroke in addition to the backstroke.
Have you ever tried to swim the freestyle without moving your legs and with hands that can’t cup the water?
September 13th was the day of Beth’s freestyle race at the Beijing Paralympics. In the packed Water Cube for morning prelims, I watched in dismay as another swimmer in Beth’s heat moved too soon. The false start sent all eight of them back to begin again. It was an unfortunate and rare occurrence for arguably the most important race in Beth’s swimming career. It could be difficult to mentally refocus, and she needed to place in the top eight to progress to finals that evening.
Beth placed sixth in the race that immediately followed the false start, an outstanding swim that qualified her for the 50 free final race.
That evening, the antics of the big pink cow mascots attempted to diffuse the tension of finals. Exuberant spectators packed the stands. In the ready room before her most-anticipated race, Beth listened to the Van Halen song “Jump” on her iPod, smiling at the “Right Now!” refrain. After 50 months of continuous year-round workouts, this was it! Her favorite coach, Peggy, pushed Beth’s wheelchair up the ramp to her lane.
”I felt prepared going in from all my amazing training at Harvard behind me,” Beth wrote, “and I was able to enjoy the moment as my heat was paraded out onto the deck and behind the blocks.”
With music and fanfare, the announcer introduced the eight S3 competitors for the 50 free from Australia, Germany, Great Britain, China, Singapore, Mexico, and South Africa. Plus, the USA! I took a photo of Beth waving on a big screen as she was introduced. I watched a competitor jump on one leg to the starting blocks. Two others walked. They climbed onto the blocks to jump off while the other five, including Beth, started the race in the water.
For maybe the hundredth time, Peggy lay flat on her stomach with her body on the deck and her shoulders and head over the pool. She grabbed my daughter’s ankles to hold her feet on the starting wall. Beth floated parallel to the lane lines, then turned on her left side with her right arm straight and pointing the way. She held still until the buzzer sounded, and the event began.
Eight women left the starting wall, most swimming the backstroke.
Beth’s forward freestyle looked effortless and beautiful. An extraordinary work of art. I stood with her friend Brittany in the USA section. We yelled as loud as we could, though with most of the crowd cheering for the Chinese swimmer, Beth heard only an enthusiastic din. She could see other competitors as she swam, and she gave it her all.
“I swam a 1:10.55, a best time and a new American Record, which places me fifth in the world,” Beth said. “What a great race!”
Hello, friends! Did you see the second issue of my Serendipity Newsletter? My third newsletter will be sent on August 28. Hope you're enjoying the last weeks of summer!
My first week in China passed quickly. Before Linda and I checked into the Continental Grand hotel near the Olympic Green, we rode in a taxi with Matt to his favorite Peking Duck restaurant. The popular dish arrived unassembled at our table with duck pieces, artistic condiments, and very thin pancakes.
Matt showed us how to combine the duck and unusual condiments on the pancake before folding it over to blend the different textures. Delicious, but I still preferred the dumplings from Matt’s neighborhood hole in the wall restaurant. We ordered traditional moon cake for dessert. He suggested leaving some food on our plates to avoid being rude, contrary to our American instincts.
After dinner, Linda and I said our thanks and goodbyes to Matt, grateful for his hospitality and insights into Beijing culture.
At the Water Cube, the morning prelims sessions included all the qualified swimmers in the world in a specific event. The top eight from that group returned for evening finals. I watched my daughter Beth qualify for finals in the 50 back with a top eight time in the morning.
Only thirteen S3 female swimmers competed at the 2008 Paralympics in one or both short S3 events.
Each higher-numbered classification filled several prelims races with eight swimmers in a heat—in many different events, some with long distances. Beth had remarkable stamina in the water, rare for an S3. The odds of her medaling in any longer event? Probable to certain.
Unfortunately, the International Paralympic Committee had decided that races longer than 50 meters were not an option for S3 females at the Paralympics.
The adorable pink cow mascots in Beijing entertained the crowd at the WaterCube before finals. An unusual plastic costume inflated around and above the person wearing it, extending to about seven feet tall.
Beth wrote in her blog: “Before every finals, three of these blow-up cows jumped around on deck and occasionally fell down . . . and couldn't get back up!”
In the finals for the 50 meter backstroke, Beth finished eighth in the world, quite close to her personal best time of 1:16.13 for the stroke she learned first. The most important race of her seven-year swimming career was next, just two days away.
It would all come down to the 50 freestyle race.
Welcome! The two winners of my book giveaway will be announced on my Facebook and Twitter on Thursday, August 1. Click HERE for my second Serendipity Newsletter. The blog post that follows is the next segment of my family's story (usually three posts a month now) and shares one of my favorite adventures:
On September 10th, Matt showed us his favorite places in Beijing. The one far off the tourist path had curious boutiques and restaurants in a “hutong,” an old narrow alleyway. Matt worked at an Internet café while Linda and I browsed the shops. Exploring was fun. We paid $4 each for elaborate foot massages at a small salon and soaked our feet in wood buckets filled with flower petals and water. We experienced “cupping” for the first time. A young girl sat by my feet next to clear rounded cups with a wide opening. She lit a match at the opening of the glass cups, one at a time, and suctioned it to the bottom of my foot to draw out toxins. When she removed the cups, they left round bruises.
We also visited my new favorite place in Beijing: the Temple of Heaven.
First constructed in 1420, the circular temples on different levels incorporated exquisite detail. We walked through the Temple of Heaven Park under a canopy of ancient trees. I asked Matt about the groups of residents everywhere. Some played badminton or string instruments while others sang or danced and more. Did they gather specifically for tourists brought by the Paralympics? Matt said no. Residents met friends there throughout the year. Most of them lived in very small apartments, so they socialized in public places like the park.
I followed a formal procedure to visit Beth at the Athlete Village.
I couldn’t wait to have more time with her than a few minutes at the Water Cube. She greeted me in the Athlete Village with a radiant smile and a big hug. Her fingernails sported new red, white, and blue polish, almost professional-looking despite the fact she painted them by herself. Animated, Beth talked about new acquaintances from other countries and fun times with her teammates. I loved how easily she laughed. We strolled through elaborate gardens between the buildings where the athletes stayed. We sat in the midst of the lavish flowers and ponds.
I told her I was proud of her. Unconditionally.
The best-case scenario for Beth’s two races: making finals or beating her best times or setting a new American Record. The odds of rising from 10th and 11th place to the top three for a medal? Slim to none. She also might go home with no best times and not make the top eight in the morning sessions to earn a place in finals. Whatever happened would be more than okay. I remembered the uncertainty after the accident when we had no way of knowing what the future would hold or if she even would have a future.
Every day since Beth's injury had been a gift.
(Click HERE for professional photos from the Beijing Paralympics.)
I'm a mom on a mission to share the power of hope and connection! For signed copies of my new memoir, click BOOK. ❤ Cindy
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