The Parapan American Games are held once every four years. In August of 2007, the games took place in Rio de Janeiro.
That year, Brazil hosted 1,150 athletes from 25 countries.
When the team landed in Rio, security hurried them from the plane to the terminal because of gang shootings across the runways. They arrived early for swim training and to get over jet lag.
Beth’s coach, Peggy, led the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Team as Head Coach for the first time. The team of 14 swimmers voted Beth Co-Captain. Julie O’Neill, promoted to the top spot in U.S. Paralympics, told an Ohio reporter, “Beth just has a great personality. She’s dedicated, intelligent. She’s got all these pieces, and she’s one of the athletes we look to for leadership.”
“She’s an incredibly positive person,” Peggy added, “and it rubs off on people she comes in contact with.”
Peggy led team-building activities, a few repeated from Beth’s high school and SAK teams. Out of the pool, one involved dividing into groups and picking one in each to chew the most gum as quickly as possible. In the pool, Beth grabbed the ankles of a swimmer ahead of her as they raced a lap. The team played water polo in the deep end while Beth bobbed and treaded water. They also raced with funny strokes. I followed the trip in email newsletters from U.S. Paralympics. They included quotes from the athletes, including Beth.
“I am really excited about being here, and I am very honored to serve as the captain for the women’s team. It is a great learning experience for all of us.”
John and I searched for simple, sparse furnishings for our new Massachusetts apartment in many stores. I shopped with Maria, too, and we checked sales and clearance racks for good deals as always. John teased about metal shelving units in all the rooms, and made do with just one in the garage.
We displayed family pictures everywhere.
Our furniture matched for the first time, and I got a kick out of shopping for kitchen towels with a red theme. I found some with brightly-colored poppies, complimenting a set of red bowls with white polka dots.
Medication kept the lid on my depression, but failed to stop the headache. The pain level cycled, as always. with my heartbeat throbbing in my head during peak times. The base level had continued to increase very gradually since the onset. Even so, I appreciated the fact that the base level of the headache was manageable.
I walked up and down Bear Hill for exercise and helped John get his classroom ready. He had extra work to prepare to teach in a new school system in a new state. He reviewed the curriculum, all new to him. He also had to schedule and study for the teaching tests Massachusetts required, despite his National Board Certification and 30 years of experience. I debated about when to apply for a job. John suggested I postpone job applications until after the Beijing Paralympics, a year away. That was an event I wouldn’t miss, and I planned to stay in China for an extended time.
We talked to Beth on the phone from her team camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado as they prepared for another adventure in another country.
I shared our new Massachusetts address with family and friends. It turned out to be the wrong address. In mid-July, our new apartment waiting, John and I drove to Massachusetts from Ohio. Beth chose to stay in the Tiffin apartment by herself for less than a week, to continue swim training. I would return to Ohio in five days later. She spent time with Ellen and Lizzy. Peggy drove her to and from swim practices.
When John and I arrived at Watertown Square in a heavy car, the wrong apartment waited for us. The leasing staff apologized for their mistake and significantly dropped the rent at another, nicer complex owned by the same company. Instead of unloading the car in Watertown Square, we drove a little farther to the next suburb, Waltham. We chose an apartment with big windows at the top of Bear Hill where chipmunks played on the balcony. The downside? It extended John’s commute to work a little, and our rent would jump to the usual higher rate, over $2,000 a month, after a year. In the meantime, we could live in an upscale, fancy, sunny, spacious apartment. We called Macy’s to change the delivery address for our new mattresses and unloaded the car.
We made several phone calls to family with our correct address.
John picked out our first flat screen TV, and we set out on a mission to find the perfect sofa. We also stocked up on groceries for our empty kitchen. The second day, we perused more sofas from Dedham to Natick to Burlington. The third day, we bought the first sofa we had liked on the first day, a wine-colored reclining sectional. It would move with us three times.
I left John in Waltham without a car, but with Maria not far away. I drove back to Ohio by myself, singing with CDs most of the way. In Tiffin, Beth and I folded clothes at a laundromat and packed for her training camp in Colorado and the Brazil games after. Sad to end their long Tiffin history, Beth said goodbye to Ellen and Lizzy. I’d miss her friends, too.
I dropped Beth and Peggy off at the Detroit airport. Then I sold the beds, emptied the apartment, loaded the car, and gave away the rest. I headed east, excited for the new beginning. I replayed my favorite Joshua Radin song, “Everything’ll Be Alright.”
Wherever we lived, John made it my home.
When I arrived back in Waltham, our apartment only had a sofa, a TV on the floor, and two mattresses. I unpacked my grandma’s etched crystal bowl for the kitchen counter and added fresh fruit.
My African violets survived the car ride and found new sunny windows to love at the top of Bear Hill.
At the Paralympic Championships in Vancouver, Canada, Beth excelled in the 200 free. Distance events tapped into her ever-increasing stamina and allowed her to find the best rhythm. They also translated to her top spots in the World Rankings and high odds of earning medals. However, the 100 free event for S3 women at the Beijing Paralympics would be dropped, leaving only two events, the 50 free and 50 back. One length of a long course pool, both sprints.
Not one distance event.
Eliminating all except two shortest S3 events for Beijing would carry forward, by precedent, to the next Paralympics, where they might be cut again. At least 90 percent of all Paralympic swimmers carried classifications with higher numbers than Beth. They had opportunities to qualify in many events in a wide range of distances and strokes.
Firmly closing the door on distance events, Peggy and the Harvard coaches shifted the focus of Beth’s workouts.
They eliminated circle turn practice and added more sprint sets. She wouldn’t race again in the butterfly, breaststroke, individual medley, or 200-meter events. I suggested she reset her first slow American Records, including the 200 back. She also could easily claim more records in other strokes and distances. Beth chose not to reset slow records, or swim other events just to get her name in the records more often.
Beth’s forward freestyle progressed to surpass the speed of her double-arm backstroke, making the 50 free her best chance for a medal in Beijing.
The freestyle also placed her higher in the World Rankings. She aimed for the 50-meter freestyle American Record, the most difficult in her classification. Beth also shared her newest goal: a small tattoo on her leg when she made the Beijing team.
Next: Wrong Moving Address!
Beth’s second trip to the Paralympic World Cup in England fell conveniently during reading period, Harvard’s open study time before finals. I stayed home. Peggy flew to Manchester as a Team USA coach. Aware of Beth’s earlier solution for the high bed at the same hotel, Peggy placed the box springs along the wall and left the mattress to sleep on. Beth brought home a bronze international medal.
In Ohio, the two-story Tiffin home we bought in 1984 for $39,000 appraised 23 years later at $105,000. In the midst of the housing crisis, home sales had slowed nationally and even more in Tiffin because of factory closings. We listed the house for $99,000. On a lucky day, a young couple requested a second showing of our home. We told them we would accept an offer of $90,000.
The home where we raised our children sold.
An early closing date forced us to rent a Tiffin apartment for two months. I turned in my notice at the nursing home and sold our second work car. We left our old house and garden walkways on an emotional day. So many memories. I wish I had kept the seeds of the flowers we called 4 o’clocks. They thrived in the dirt of a front window well. Over decades, the colors blended into one-of-a-kind blooms, each flower unique.
At a tiny apartment across town, John and I carried a double mattress to the bedroom floor and a single bed on a metal frame for Beth in the living room. The only other furnishings: a TV, card table, and two matching chairs. And important things, like my African violets.
Beth’s sixth swimming summer began with my drive east to pick her up at Harvard and bring her to Tiffin for the last time.
She swam with SAK and Peggy at the outdoor pool and on her own at the YMCA. She researched her senior thesis. Always reading, Beth checked off more books on her top one hundred classics list. We both read Jane Austen books and watched movie renditions, always rating the books higher. She completed her Harry Potter collection with the seventh and last, “The Deathly Hallows.” The first 24 hours of sales set a new record with 11 million copies sold. She waited in a long line with Ellen and Lizzy to see the fifth Harry Potter movie, “The Order of the Phoenix.” A dinner in Sandusky with Laraine ended in a teary farewell, probably for the last time.
Beth started graduate school applications and made notes for admission essays.
“I have met many people with disabilities who are limited by inadequate health services. This stark reality has shifted my focus from a childhood desire to be a doctor to fighting for disability rights.”
Next: More Travels!
Newton, Massachusetts topped the list of the best small cities in New England.
The city shared a border with Cambridge where Beth attended college and Maria taught special ed. John applied to the Newton Public Schools and to a few other systems in the area. Two schools called him for interviews that he scheduled during his April school vacation.
To start spring break, we drove to Somerville and dropped off a carload of boxes and Beth’s cedar chest to store at Maria’s apartment. We visited with the girls between their busy work and college schedules.
John and I relied on our new GPS to find the Newton elementary school for his first interview. I dropped him off and waited for his phone call at Not Your Average Joe’s, my new favorite restaurant. He felt good about his interview.
Like Maria, John’s passion for teaching showed.
John accepted a second grade position in Newton to start in the fall. With crazy home prices in the Boston area, we viewed many apartments to rent. Our house payment in Ohio had been $475 a month including property tax and insurance. In 2007 near Boston, the rent for a nice two-bedroom apartment started at $1,900 a month, plus utilities. Slightly higher salaries did not begin to make up the difference, though it would be worth it to be closer to Maria and Beth. We paid a deposit on an apartment in Watertown Square with a July move-in date.
At his request, John’s friends hosted a happy hour for his retirement at a restaurant instead of a big traditional party. Gifts included an intricate scrapbook with personal messages from co-workers. The last day of school, he brought home a box of mechanical gadgets and science toys that he used to entertain his students.
We teased John about being a talented comedian—for second graders.
Beth’s times in Montreal qualified for the Parapan American Games in Rio de Janeiro to be held in August. Saving money for the probable trip to China, I decided not to fly to Brazil, especially since Peggy would travel on the U.S. team.
One April morning in pouring rain, Beth met her co-workers from John Kerry’s office in the town of Hopkinton.
The Senator arrived, greeted Beth by name, and led the way to the start of the Boston Marathon wheelchair race, moving cones out of the way for her. John Kerry’s daughter shared her umbrella with Beth. The Boston staff asked her to work in the Senator’s office for another school year. Beth reluctantly declined to open up a little breathing room as a senior.
In Tiffin, John and I mapped out our move from Ohio to the East Coast.
I worked most days at the nursing home while John taught his last months in Ohio. Our furniture cost too much to transport, so we made plans to sell it. John created signs for a big garage sale. We evaluated every item large and small to keep, sell, or donate. I tossed most of the stuff accumulated over 30 years into garage sale boxes. We planned to move in a few carloads.
I had filled three Amish cedar chests with childhood keepsakes, one for each of my kids.
Maria had hers in Massachusetts. John and I drove another to Ben in Columbus. He worked as a supervisor for ADP and planned for graduate school. The chest reminded him of gerbil bedding because of the cedar scent. To simplify his upcoming move to graduate school, Ben gave away the chest to his cousin in Columbus but kept most of the contents.
We kept family treasures.
My Grandma Barnes’ fancy bowl with etchings on clear crystal always held fresh fruit on my kitchen counter. As a child, I sat at her kitchen table near the bowl and a plate of molasses raisin cookies. My grandma put ice cubes in my glass of milk, a habit I thought peculiar. From her kitchen, I had a clear view of a small room with tables full of blooms, a collage of color. I loved the lavenders, creams, pinks, and blues. Some solid, some variegated, some fancy with ruffles. In a clear glass jar, green stems with roots floated in water, a nursery for baby plants. The room full of African violets captivated me, a soft-spoken child who dunked cookies in iced milk.
As 2018 draws to a close, I'd like to thank each one of you, my loyal blog followers, for your lovely support! The amazing story I share in this blog includes even bigger adventures ahead. My memoir, Struggling with Serendipity, will launch on April 9 in bookstores and on Amazon, with pre-orders starting March 9. I would LOVE to talk with you on my spring tour, which will include book events on the East Coast in addition to the Cleveland area, Columbus (Ohio), and Chicago. Last but not least, I'm sending you all of my best wishes for the happiest of holidays and a wonderful new year, from my family to yours!
Next Week #OnTheBlog: Treasures!
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My efforts to anticipate and avoid problems failed during a Paralympic swim meet in Canada. I met Beth at the Montreal airport. She wasn’t a fan of flying but that didn’t stop her from getting on planes. Beth surprised people by traveling alone with a duffel bag on her lap and a big Harvard Swimming pack on the back of her chair.
I had no rental car reservation. The subway had been recommended, and it worked—if you could climb flights of steps. We decided on taxis instead. On the last morning, we rode through a heavy March snowfall to the swim meet.
One of Beth’s big wheels flattened during prelims, a first in seven years of air-filled tires. After her injury, I worried about many things, but a flat tire had been completely off my radar. Overly optimistic, we hoped a new inner tube in an odd size could be easily found at a local bike shop.
On a Sunday. During a snowstorm.
I left to save the day while Beth rested in our hotel room. I planned to pick her up with an inflated wheel in my hand before the last finals session. I hailed a taxi carrying the flat wheel and a list of bike shops; thankfully, Montreal had several. A friendly driver headed for the nearest one while I called others. Phone recordings said some were open though no one answered.
Beth called me in a panic when I left the third bike shop with the flat tire. She learned it was a big deal to miss a finals race at a championship meet, with paperwork required in advance. Time ticked away, and drivers acted as though they’d never seen snow before. Plows blocked roads and piled snow on parked cars.
Miraculously, the fourth bike shop had the right size inner tube. By the time they fixed the wheel, and I arrived back to the hotel, finals had already begun. The taxi driver waited while I ran up to our room with the wheel and flew back down with Beth who wore her swimsuit under sweats. Peggy called us from the pool. We might make it in time for her first race. A traffic jam tested our patience and dampened the beauty of the white wonderland.
Finally, I paid the driver way too much, and we rushed to the pool deck where Peggy waved frantically. Right next to a starting block, Peggy and I stripped Beth’s coat and sweats off in seconds and literally dropped her in the lane. Another quick moment, and the race began. Her hastily donned goggles came off and floated in the water behind her.
We laughed about it later, but it wasn’t funny at the time. ;-)
In hindsight, we should’ve borrowed a wheelchair from another swimmer for Beth to get to finals with Peggy. Friends on the team with prosthetic legs sometimes traveled with wheelchairs. I bought a set of foam-filled tires the next day--the only kind she’s used since!
Back home in Ohio, I returned to my job on the Alzheimers unit at the Shawhan.
I tried to engage the residents to brighten the moment, the hour, the day. In Lorain on a weekend, John and I sang happy birthday to his sister, Jean, one of the last songs she’d sing when her Alzheimers progressed. Another day, Maria called me on the way to the emergency room at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Beth, suddenly sick with strong nausea, headache, and fever, had asked her sister to take her to the hospital.
I worried about sepsis. The leading causes of death for people with quadriplegia were pneumonia, septicemia (blood poisoning caused by sepsis), and suicide.
The emergency room staff identified an infection and waited for other test results. After a few miserable hours, Maria lost her patience with the staff. An ambulance carried Beth to a Boston hospital, while Maria followed in her car. An attentive doctor understood quadriplegia. He ran more tests. By morning, Beth’s fever dropped, and he ruled out peritonitis and sepsis. The doctor released her with strong antibiotics and instructions to return to the hospital if anything worsened. I was already on Rt. 90 in Pennsylvania en route to Cambridge.
Beth’s severe symptoms lessened by the time I arrived.
I brought her chicken soup from Au Bon Pain and helped as much as I could for a few days. I encouraged her to slow down, though she quickly returned to her full schedule.
Big changes approached.
At home in Tiffin, I divided a lifetime of photographs into four piles, one for each of our kids and one for John and me. I threw away old albums and put the photographs in labeled boxes of memories.
Our ordinary lives had detoured to less traveled roads—with more on the horizon.
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