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.
Working full-time on weekdays for the first time, Beth alternated between domestic weekends and party weekends in Malden near Boston.
The first involved cooking an elaborate brunch or hosting a four-course dinner party with her roommate. Beth’s specialty: our family recipe for Hungarian chicken paprikash. Party weekends translated to dancing with friends into the early morning hours. Beth also prioritized reading more classics as well as making time for must-see Harry Potter movies like “The Half-Blood Prince.”
The three best friends from high school reunited when Ellen visited. They waited in line for brunch at The Friendly Toast in Cambridge and rode the elevator to the top of the Prudential Center in Boston.
Beth's swim coach Peggy and her daughter arrived for the Boston Marathon in April.
Jess qualified for the marathon, a runner in addition to a swimmer. Beth and I arranged for a day off from work. We left Jess in Hopkinton to start the race, and I drove Beth and Peggy to Wellesley. We watched the runners and athletes in wheelchairs go by the main drag on Washington Street. Next, we drove into Copley Square in Boston where the sculptures of the tortoise and the hare celebrated the marathon since 1897.
The crowds and traffic in Boston swelled to even more intense levels with the event. Runners finished the 26 hilly miles proudly—and in pain. I struggled to understand but then again, I’ve never been an athlete.
The numbers for the 2009 Boston Marathon topped 20,000 athletes and 500,000 spectators.
A pro at long plane travel, Beth flew to Manchester in May for her fourth and last trip to England's Paralympic World Cup. She swam fast and earned a final bronze medal in the 50 back, a nice surprise since she hadn’t been training.
The International Paralympic Committee approved an official reclassification request from U.S. Paralympics for Beth. She would schedule a reclassification appointment at the upcoming CAN-AM meet in San Antonio.
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.
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 . . .
Just one more week! My new Serendipity Newsletter will be sent on June 27 to everyone who signed up with their email!
I arrived in Beijing on September 5th after a 13-hour flight, with the goal of meeting my friend Linda at the airport. We both had daughters on Team USA. I also needed to find Matt, a swim coach from Michigan and a friend of Linda and her daughter. Matt lived in Beijing and offered to let Linda and me stay in his apartment for the first week while his roommate traveled. For the second week, we had a reservation at the Continental Grand hotel within walking distance of the Water Cube.
I’d been in a few overseas airports before, but Beijing’s airport thoroughly confused me.
I eventually discovered that Linda’s flight should have already arrived at a different terminal. I frantically waited for a slow bus to take me there, feeling lost and late. With no international cell phone and not knowing Matt’s address, I had no way to find them if we didn’t connect at the airport. Could I find them at the other terminal? The worst-case scenario would require me to find a hotel for the first week.
That seemed doable, so I breathed a little easier. I found out later all the hotels were full.
Luck was on my side. Linda’s flight had been delayed. I finally arrived in the correct place and asked where arriving passengers entered the expansive terminal. I held my first of many conversations with language barriers with friendly Chinese volunteers.
I had no idea what Matt looked like, but there weren’t many young American men waiting by the arrivals. My relief when I found him felt tangible, a wave of gratitude. He reminded me of Ben as we chatted during the wait for Linda. Matt told me about his job teaching English in Beijing. When Linda arrived, we traveled by taxi to his apartment. On the way, he pointed out lush flowers lining all the main roads.
The week before the Olympics, blooming plants suddenly appeared in a colossal landscaping effort.
Matt lived in a tiny two-bedroom apartment on a high floor in a run-down residential building. From the middle of the bathroom, I could touch all four walls, use the toilet, and take a shower. The water from the showerhead drenched everything in the room and fell into a drain by the toilet. Low water pressure contributed to a sewer smell, and we kept the bathroom door closed. I didn’t mind the less-than-luxurious accommodations. Matt shared the rare gift of seeing the real Beijing.
Beijing sprawled on a grand scale.
Colorful banners hung down whole sides of tall buildings, showing Chinese Paralympians playing their sport. Every element of Beijing contrasted to other big cities I’d seen. The highways with at least six lanes clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic. The hundreds of bicycles in sight at any one time packed together right next to vehicles. The traffic typically was much heavier because they had banned most cars and trucks from the city during the Paralympics.
Impossible to imagine.
Today, I’m taking a blog break to share a splash of serendipity with you!
I was visiting Beth in DC last weekend, and my best friend Deb went to the Wine Room in Marblehead (Ohio) with another friend, Alley. All of us had lived in Tiffin, a small NW Ohio town. Deb was the kindergarten teacher for my son Ben and Alley’s daughter Regina. Ben and Regina were the stars of the kindergarten play that year. Deb recognized Regina’s singing talent and today, Regina has a booming career as a professional singer (www.reginasayles.com).
Regina's mom, Alley, is good friends with Lisa, who owns Mutach’s Market and Wine Room in Marblehead. After talking at the Wine Room, Lisa’s fiancé, Tim, mentioned growing up in Lorain. John and I grew up in Lorain, so Deb asked him if he knew the Kolbe’s.
Tim and John were best friends in 6th grade at St. Stanislaus School when they were growing up in Lorain.
Tim’s awesome bakery, Kiedrowski’s, made the cupcakes for my daughter Maria’s wedding, and we enjoyed more of his cupcakes at Beth’s wedding shower last summer.
Small world. Sweet story, right?
But wait, there’s more! Deb mentions my new book coming out, and my April book events in Ohio. Tim says that he’d like to have a book event at the Wine Room during that time. I talk to Tim on the phone the next day about possible dates, and he’s excited about helping with publicity for it. I connect with Lisa the next day, and she is just as lovely as Tim. So, in two weeks, on Thursday, April 18 at 7 pm, I will be at Mutach’s Wine Room in Marblehead with John to talk about my new book—but the real entertainment will be Tim and John sharing their childhood antics!
Yay for serendipity!
Beth’s senior year at Harvard created a mosaic of color squares on her computer’s calendar. Orange for classes, red for assignment deadlines, yellow for disability work, blue for swim workouts, purple for fun, and green for everything else, including volunteering and swim meets.
Beth made a concerted effort to increase the purple blocks on her calendar.
She participated in more college activities, most for the first time, including the annual ‘80s Dance, ‘90s Dance, A Cappella Concert, and Comedy Show. She also cheered for her friend Brittany during a rugby game.
“Brittany got me out of my shell during my senior year,” Beth said. “Before then, I hardly ever went out socially.”
Early one weekend morning after the T stopped running, Beth, Brittany, and three friends hailed a taxi in Boston. The driver said only four of them could ride at one time. Brittany creatively insisted Beth needed to sit on someone’s lap because of her disability.
The driver kept his thoughts to himself as all five girls rode in the taxi to Harvard.
With a full load of classes, Beth prioritized her homework, kept up on writing assignments, and saved books to read later. She no longer tried to read every word. Graduate school applications also required chunks of time. She applied to four law schools and a doctorate program at Harvard’s School of Public Health.
❤ Fun fact: Years later, Beth was a bridesmaid in Brittany’s wedding. This May (2019), Brittany will be a bridesmaid in Beth’s wedding!
Exciting book news: my Washington DC, Ohio, and Boston events are set! bit.ly/mybooktour Signed copies are available at bit.ly/memoiroffer. Amazon has the paperback and kindle e-book for pre-order, with both coming very soon!
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.
In mid-December, my oldest daughter packed a suitcase for her flight to Boston after her last day of student teaching in Tiffin, Ohio. Maria had applied for teaching jobs and followed up with direct phone calls to ask for an interview. Her assertiveness, a skill I struggled with, landed her an interview in Cambridge.
Maria flew by herself for the first time into Logan airport.
She slept on a futon chair in Beth’s dorm room and rode the subway by herself to the interview. Maria tapped into her passion for teaching children with disabilities. After, the sisters met for dinner at Bertucci’s in Harvard Square before they flew home together. A few days later, Maria accepted the job as a lead teacher in the Cambridge Public Schools’ Special Start program for preschoolers with a disability. The position would begin in a few weeks, in early January. I was proud of her and excited for her, though I also would miss her.
Maria had decided to be a teacher when she was a preschooler.
At her first library story hour with no parents, the librarian told me how Maria found her way onto the storyteller’s lap. At home, her little sister Beth was her student. In grade school, Maria loved to help in her dad’s classroom during summer school.
Maria declared that we would live together forever in our Tiffin home, happily-ever-after.
A decade later, she planned her move to Boston while John and I prepared to sell the only home our kids had known. Our last Christmas living in Ohio embraced nostalgia. We watched The Princess Bride, again, and made popcorn. We played N’Sync Christmas music while we wrapped presents. Ben visited, and we laughed at old videos the girls called “baby tapes.” One of our favorites showed Ben, 5, pulling his little sisters on a blanket around the dining room table. A giggle fest. The video captured a perfect silly afternoon. At the Vermilion farmhouse for Christmas, we connected with extended family and met new babies.
Beth rang in the New Year with her best friends, Lizzy and Ellen, for the last time.
It was a recap of fondue and favorite movies, including Elf and the Grinch. They still laughed so easily. I admired the young women they’d become.
Next: A New Beginning!
(This blog tells my family's story. To see more, click "blog" at the top of this webpage.)
In Norway, we snapped pictures to add to our scrapbook at the Worlds End (Verdens Ende), a desolate spot on the water with many small, bare rock islands. The islands reminded me of stepping stones for a giant heading into the strait of Skaggerak and the North Sea.
The Worlds End looked exactly the same twenty-nine years ago, when I was as an exchange student.
In Denmark, we drove with Anne-Lisé past cows grazing on small strips of grass next to narrow rivers. We visited and stayed with Gretha and her daughter Belinda, who was an adorable little girl in blonde pigtails when I first met them in 1977. We saw the sights in beautiful Aalborg and spent lovely, relaxed evenings with friends before driving to Norre Vorupar on the coast. We carried Beth into small bathrooms where her wheelchair would not fit. One evening, Gretha treated us to dinner at a fancy restaurant on a North Sea beach. Our server and friends teased John and me about ordering only water—apparently a social sin! :-)
Back in Oslo, an airline called with unwelcome news. Our flight was moved up a day, so we boarded a plane after a heartfelt thank you and sad goodbyes with my second mom, Anne-Lisé.
Our layover in Paris turned into a fiasco.
First, the staff acted like they had never had a passenger with a wheelchair before. After we landed and the other passengers left, we waited for a clunky airport wheelchair, then waited longer for a strange cubicle on wheels that raised in the air to meet the back door of the airplane. The four of us reluctantly entered the cubicle, which carried us a long way to a terminal.
Second, we learned our flight to Detroit had been delayed to the next day and the airline would not pay for a hotel.
Third, we picked up our luggage and waited for Beth’s manual wheelchair to be returned to us. And waited. At the customer service desk, rude airline staff nonchalantly told us they couldn't find her wheelchair. No big deal? How could a wheelchair be lost? We moved Beth to a regular molded plastic chair since her back hurt in the airline wheelchair, but she still wasn’t comfortable. We had to keep asking the desk staff to check again, until they finally made a phone call. Or pretended to. Tired and hungry, we were not happy campers. Beth’s wheelchair was lost for two hours.
Fourth, we boarded a crowded airport shuttle to a hotel. On the way, the driver pulled over for an unscheduled stop just to smoke a cigarette, while all of us had to stay on the shuttle, packed in like sardines. The hotel charged outrageous prices. We overpaid for a tiny room with one bed and two of us slept on the floor.
When we arrived in Detroit, we brought with us a new appreciation for U.S. airports.
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