infinitely improbable moments
Dear Readers: The end of 2019 approaches as my story segments also come to an end. I began this weekly blog about four years ago to introduce my story. Thanks so much for your positive responses and overwhelming support! I am grateful for each and every one of you, old friends and new.
Subscribers will continue to receive my popular Serendipity Newsletter on the first Thursday of every month.
The final story segment that follows takes place in 2010, ten years after Beth’s injury. My memoir, Struggling with Serendipity, continues from that segment in 2010 to the end of 2018. My book has much more than my blog, including a disability resource guide, a Harvard doctor’s foreword, Beth’s letter to readers, spinal injury facts, and a book club discussion guide, as well as an offer to attend your book club meetings, in person or virtually.
I look forward to connecting with you each month in my Serendipity Newsletter. Look for new adventures! Thank you, Cindy ❤️
Here is my last story blog:
Her first year at law school, Beth received an email from one of the young women she mentored about a scholarship fund for physically challenged athletes. Thankful for the referral, Beth filled out an application and received help with tuition from the generous Swim with Mike Foundation. At their annual fundraiser at Stanford, she swam a smooth freestyle with friends. Beth enjoyed swimming in heated outdoor pools year-round.
“I totally loved law school—and I recognize that’s rare!” Beth said in an interview. “Stanford was a sunny, social place where everyone was brilliant and interesting. I was very involved in the school, eventually becoming class president, and made friendships that are still some of my closest friendships today.”
Beth worked on the annual conference for the National Association of Law Students with Disabilities. Elected Vice President at the conference, she bought her first smart phone to check her email more often. She learned to write emails and texts quickly on her phone with her left index finger, relying heavily on spell check. Voice recognition software had improved, but she still preferred to type everything herself. Beth regularly fielded questions from other students around the country.
“At first, it was outside my comfort zone. But I enjoyed giving back and being part of organizations that can improve life for students with disabilities,” Beth said. “Disability rights in general is becoming a bigger issue.”
As Beth’s 1L year ended, she finalized her 2L schedule, adding Stanford’s Youth and Education Law Project to fight for school services for children with a disability. I helped her clear out her dorm and move stuff into storage. I flew with her to Washington, DC. She shared an apartment for the summer with her boyfriend, each with an internship at different law firms.
Beth immersed herself in research for her first law job and also enjoyed time on Capitol Hill with a legal team who lobbied for disability issues. At my request, she carried something to her summer office on a high floor: what they used at her high school during fire drills to carry her down the stairs, an extra vinyl sheet with handles.
Never used, left behind, and never replaced.
The 10th anniversary of Beth’s injury came and went without notice, except for my new compulsion to write about it. When my job at the nonprofit ended, I began my writing project by researching events and gathering media quotes. The actual writing part was daunting. I wasn’t sure I could do our story justice, but I had to try.
Propelled by millions of small choices, time converged—and converges—into more infinitely improbable moments.
Beth’s first month at Stanford, she ran for and was elected to the Student Law Association (SLA).
“I was extremely nerdy at Harvard compared to Stanford,” Beth said. “Nerdy isn’t the right word though, because I’m still nerdy—I love to read—but I’m not as introverted and shy.”
Loving everything Stanford, Beth worked on the SLA social committee and planned party breaks on Thursday nights at local bars, facetiously called “bar review.” Her Facebook friends topped one thousand. Brittany visited and joined Beth and her friends for bar review. Brittany also recorded more videos to post online of Beth putting her hair up in a ponytail and inserting her contact lenses.
In her kitchen, Beth burned her right thigh with hot chili, not as severe as her earlier coffee burn. She treated it promptly this time, thankful her Paralympic tattoo escaped damage.
Even so, she acquired another scar.
As 2010 began, Beth emailed my parents. “I’m winding down on my winter quarter classes. I’ve loved Constitutional Law and the Regulation of Political Process, but I found Property to be a little boring. This semester we also took a writing and oral argument class where we get a fake case and actually go through bringing it to court. I’ve found that I really enjoy the oral arguments! Next quarter, I’ll be taking Constitutional Law 2, Evidence, Intellectual Property and the writing class. It should be fun!”
I know that wouldn’t have been fun for me.
John, a sports fan, teased Beth about being a lucky charm. Her first autumn in Cambridge, she watched the revelry in Harvard Yard when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. A few months later, the New England Patriots earned the Super Bowl XXXIX title., Later when Beth started at Stanford, I called her on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday as she fried pounds of bacon to make bourbon bacon popcorn for a big party.
That day, the San Francisco Giants won the World Series for the first time.
starting at stanford
Happy Thanksgiving from our family to yours!
My new Holiday Gift Guide is here in my December Serendipity Newsletter! It includes nonprofits and giving back.
And here's the next segment of our story:
I accompanied Beth to San Francisco to help her move into her graduate dorm at Stanford.
The routine of boarding a plane had changed a bit. Beth transferred from her wheelchair to the airline’s aisle chair to get to her assigned row in the airplane, then scooted herself over to the window.
Beth reserved the window seat so no one would need to climb over her.
I rented a car at the San Francisco airport to transport the extra luggage we carried. The brand-new Munger dorm gleamed with a baby grand piano in the lobby and colorful paintings on the walls. Beth and her three roommates shared a beautiful apartment with a large furnished living room and a huge kitchen with two full-size refrigerators. They each had a separate bedroom with a full-size bed, desk, dresser, and a private bathroom. There was a fifth bathroom for guests off the living room. Tall palm trees and green grass (realistic-looking artificial turf) replaced the dirt between the fancy dorms.
As a “1L,” a first-year law student, Beth dove into her studies.
She spent extra time preparing for classes with professors who asked questions of random students without warning, cold calling. Some tests required long essays in a short time, and Beth reluctantly asked for additional time to compensate for her ability to type with only three fingers. She volunteered for the law school's pro bono Social Security Disability Project to help people at a homeless shelter obtain monthly payments.
“They appreciate that there is someone who is helping them who understands what it's like to be disabled,” Beth said in the National Law Journal. “Anytime anyone has an interesting life experience or has overcome obstacles in the past, they have a different take on things. It's made me more interested in the client perspective.”
Next: Lucky charm!
a long way from home
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!
swimming to Beijing
Beth’s last swim practice at Harvard’s Blodgett pool ended with hugs and tears with her college coaches. I dropped her off at Logan airport on August 19th for a flight to Colorado Springs and the Olympic Training Center, where the rest of the Beijing swim delegation gathered.
She acquired a big duffel bag full of team gear and started her “Swimming to Beijing” blog. (bethkolbe.blogspot.com)
A training camp at a military base in Okinawa, Japan, allowed Team USA swimmers to recover from jet lag and avoid the air pollution in Beijing before competition started. Beth soaked up the sunshine one day on a pristine beach by the South China Sea. The team staff shared updates and great photos through an email newsletter. Beth could take pictures with her basic phone, but I hoped the disposable cameras I bought would take better photos. The cameras stayed buried and untouched in her bag.
On September 2nd, the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Team relocated to Beijing’s Athlete Village among lush gardens, part of the mammoth Olympics complex.
About 44,000 helpful volunteers kept everything running smoothly for over 4,200 Paralympics athletes from 148 countries. Beth shared a room with a young veteran, the first woman to lose a limb in the Iraq War. Their housing unit consisted of three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and one common room. A sign on the door identified the unit as the nail salon for Team USA and the best for prosthetics.
Prosthetic feet also sported nails in the prerequisite red, white, and blue.
Team USA swimmers would compete in the latest body and leg suits that added a little buoyancy; the same new suits contributed to the unusually high number of World Records at the Olympics just weeks before. Beth wore the Fastskin LZR Racer and the Blueseventy, severely tight leg suits. Coaches helped swimmers squeeze into them. The team tested the suits during a practice in Beijing’s Water Cube.
“I’m excited to race in The Cube,” Beth said. “I feel faster than I ever have before.”
Thank you for following my blog! Coming in June of 2019: my brand-new, once-a-month Serendipity newsletter with happy news, great photos, and helpful resources! At the same time, my blog will change to three times a month (instead of four) with the addition of some tweaks and surprises! Stay tuned! *Cindy
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Graduation encompassed a whole week of senior festivities, including a fancy champagne breakfast on tables covered with white linen. At a luncheon to recognize seniors in the health policy program, I watched Beth wheel forward to speak to the group.
My quiet and shy daughter had bloomed into a confident and articulate young woman.
We celebrated at Bertucci’s after Beth received her second Peter Wilson award. This one earned her $7,500 for graduate school.
My parents drove from Ohio to join us for the pageantry of the Harvard commencement. Professors in colorful robes with banners led the parade into Harvard Yard. The Class of 2008 followed. Students from Harvard’s 10 graduate schools identified their specialties with creative additions to their graduation robes and hats.
We witnessed the perfect ending to Beth’s years as a Harvard student.
J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, spoke at the 357th Commencement. During her speech, John received a phone call offering him a teaching job in Waltham.
I listened to Rowling’s rags to riches speech and remembered the evenings in rehab when Beth and I read Harry Potter books aloud to each other. It was a lovely reprieve from overwhelming days.
If only I’d known then where she would graduate from college—and what would follow!
The day after the concert, John drove Beth and me to the airport for a last-minute weekend trip to Florida. Dr. Hugo Keim, President of ChairScholars, asked Beth to speak to a large crowd of kids with disabilities and their families at their annual festival near Tampa. Dr. Keim and his wife Alicia shared with us how ChairScholars began with a single gift in 1992. It expanded to include scholarships for young people with disabilities in Florida and across the country.
The festival would be the perfect opportunity to thank them in person for Beth’s most generous college scholarship.
Under an immense white tent at the April festival, I talked to remarkable parents and thought of John. More social than me, he often said that everyone has a story. Beth wheeled up the ramp to face the crowd and talked about being open to opportunities and going for the gold, in sports and in life. She encouraged the kids to appreciate the perks of using a wheelchair, like how push handles are great for carrying bags.
And favorite shoes that last forever.
After her speech, some asked for an autograph. It turned into a teaching moment when another mom noticed her unusual grip on the pen. Others crowded around as Beth showed the mom’s daughter how she held and wrote with a standard pen.
Beth’s overseas travels during her years at Harvard concluded with her third trip to England’s World Cup in May and another 50 back bronze medal—in the absence of the three brand new S3 swimmers. Would they skip the Beijing Paralympics?
Back at Harvard, Beth planned her last Friday activity for kids with disabilities and said goodbye to the students and the new KSNAP director she’d trained. With no minutes to spare, swimming six days a week, she worried about finishing papers and studying for finals. Then, before long, glorious freedom.
Next: A Harvard Graduation!
My brand-new Serendipity Newsletter is coming soon! Signed copies of my new book, Struggling with Serendipity, are available at bit.ly/mymemoiroffer. ❤
An important decision needed to be made.
Beth heard back from graduate schools. With acceptance letters from three law schools and Harvard’s Ph.D program at the School of Public Health, she narrowed down the decision to Georgetown Law in Washington, DC, or Stanford Law in California. The idea of going to graduate school in an unfamiliar place appealed to Beth, since she expected to work in DC after law school. She selected Stanford without ever visiting the campus, since she had no open weekends prior to the decision deadline. She wasn't concerned. A great school, great weather, and great outdoor pools. How could she go wrong? Beth accepted at Stanford Law, then promptly and officially deferred law school for one year, as planned four years before with Peggy. Nothing would interfere with her month in Beijing.
Beth’s happy news about Stanford coincided with bad news for John.
The first-year teachers in Newton received pink slips. Their contracts would not be renewed because of major budget cuts. We couldn’t believe it. He had National Board Certification, stellar evaluations, and 31 years of teaching experience, but only Newton seniority mattered. I updated his resume and helped him apply for teaching jobs while he finished the school year. He interviewed in Waltham and South Boston.
At the end of April, I met Beth at the new pub under Harvard’s Annenberg Hall. A packed crowd gathered to launch SPINALpedia, the new disability project Brittany co-founded with Josh Basile. The band Braddigan performed at the event. Beth spoke to the crowd along with another friend and two other quads, including Brittany’s dad.
“My goal was to create a support resource that uses the power of people’s experiences to motivate people with new injuries to adapt their lives,” Brittany said. The band’s lead singer, Brad Corrigan, added, “As a musician, I love stories that are real, and there’s nothing more real than someone sitting in a wheelchair, saying that there’s always hope.”
During the concert, a stranger tripped and accidentally knocked Beth’s chair over backward.
I moved across the room to help, not worried. She had tucked her head safely forward as she fell, chin to chest. Brittany pushed everyone out of the way, including me, before lifting Beth off the floor and back into the wheelchair. Apparently, this had happened before, and Brittany managed the situation to deter anyone inexperienced or drunk from helping. Beth teased her, and Brittany apologized to me, but there was no need. Why would I object to someone looking out for my daughter? With SPINALpedia successfully launched, the website followed, with video clips sharing individual experiences with paralysis.
Next: Florida and England!
Afternoon power naps kept Beth going into the night, though she still looked exhausted. As her senior thesis deadline approached, long to-do lists on her laptop overwhelmed, but she met deadlines. Barely.
Working at a frantic pace, Beth stayed up too late while I learned how to relax for the first time.
I meditated most days, trying different methods and a variety of prompts. Visualizing the headache as an evaporating dark cloud didn’t help. The traditional body scan became my go-to meditation, even though the 30 minutes highlighted the specific ache in each body part. The rest of the day, the aches usually combined into a general malaise.
Never bored, I left the TV off during the day and always had plenty to do. I often played music in the background, from musicals to classic rock. When I finished routine tasks, I tinkered at writing or picked up my sewing bag. I walked down and up Bear Hill and focused on eating better.
I appreciated the year off from paid work.
Beth officially presented her senior thesis, titled Framing Disability: A content analysis on media agenda-setting of disability issues in a political context. Her work earned high honors and analyzed how often specific disability issues appeared in newspaper articles in a presidential election year.
Next: Which Law School?
I flew with Beth over Boston Harbor into Logan airport. John picked us up, and we dropped our daughter off at her college dorm with only weeks left in her last semester. The next goal? Her first tattoo. Since she couldn’t swim for a few days after the inking, she’d planned the timing perfectly, immediately after a big meet and right before her next training cycle.
It would be the last time two days passed without a long pool workout until after Beijing.
The day after the team announcement in Minneapolis, I held Beth’s leg down firmly at a tattoo parlor in Harvard Square. Her leg protested the needle and bounced with involuntary spasms. She chose a two-inch design on her upper left thigh of the new U.S. Paralympics symbol of a bold blue star with three waving lines of color below. The star turned out flawless despite a moving leg. We shared Beijing details with Maria over dinner at Bertucci’s in the Square. And of course, Beth showed her sister the new tattoo.
A clear and bright reminder of success.
Both of Beth’s elbows swelled for the first time as she started her most intense training cycle with a focus on the forward freestyle, consistently faster than the backstroke after six years of practice. A doctor prescribed a strong anti-inflammatory at a high dose. Hit with a piercing, unrelenting headache, Beth called the doctor. He ordered an MRI for the same day. I drove her to the test, relieved I lived close instead of in Ohio. I’d never seen her in that much pain before. Fortunately, the test results came back normal, and her symptoms gradually disappeared when she stopped the prescription.
Newspapers in Massachusetts and Ohio printed articles about Beth’s upcoming Beijing trip.
Her swim coach, Peggy, said, “Beth’s talents lie in her ability to set goals, both short and long term, overcome obstacles, and accomplish those goals while consistently maintaining a positive and fun attitude.”
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