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.
last swim meet
Sending best wishes for a Merry Christmas/Happy Hanukkah!! For last minute gifts to be delivered before the holidays: bit.ly/memoiroffer
The next segment of our story:
Most Sundays, Beth wheeled over a mile and a half from her Stanford dorm to the local farmer's market with friends. The unused push handles on the back of her wheelchair made handy holders for bags of fruit, vegetables, bread, and cheese. She also liked the market at San Francisco’s Ferry Building, where vendors offered enough free samples to make up a meal.
On a weekend trip with her law school roommates, Beth held a parrot on the San Diego boardwalk..With several students in one hotel room, the trips were inexpensive. She toured Wine Country in the rolling countryside north of San Francisco was beautiful. When Maria visited over spring break, Beth read from a thick law book while they sunned on the beaches at Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay.
One night as she transferred into bed in her dorm, Beth fell to the floor when a wheelchair brake didn’t hold.
She attempted to get off the floor on her own for only a short time before texting her three roommates to ask for help. The bed was too high. One of them saved the day (night). Beth’s aversion to asking for help evolved to a reluctant acceptance and the realization that it wasn’t a weakness. All of us need help sometimes.
In March, Beth flew to San Antonio with her boyfriend for her reclassification appointment and her first swim meet since Beijing. I encouraged her to sign up for long races; with her unusually high stamina, she easily could rack up several more American Records in addition to the 14 she held.
Beth chose not to since the number of records never mattered to her.
The international experts at the Texas meet assigned her the same exact classification, despite the wide range of physical function among her competitors. Unless a mass retesting of S3 women resulted in classification accuracy—not at all likely—Beth’s odds of medaling at the next Paralympics remained low. Reconnecting with coach Peggy and other friends at the meet balanced the disappointing news.
Beth’s swim times in San Antonio earned her a place on Team USA for the World Championships in the Netherlands, despite not training for the meet and enjoying the River Walk each evening. She declined the Netherlands trip since it interfered with her upcoming summer law internship. After her last race in Texas, Beth hugged Peggy goodbye to return to law school, fondly remembering their seven years of swimming quests.
Beth retired from competitive swimming with 14 S3 American Records, seven short course and seven long course.
Next: An End and a Beginning!
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!
Living in the Boston area never bored me. I attended a yoga class with my girls where Maria helped Beth into some tricky body positions. On the weekends, John and I discovered interesting places in our big backyard, including Plymouth Rock, Arnold Arboretum, Thoreau’s Walden Pond, President John Adams’ residence in Quincy, and the John F. Kennedy Museum.
Busy on weekdays with our jobs, John and I traveled on a weekend to Cape Cod for an extraordinary trip. From Sandwich to Provincetown, we viewed swimming seals and beautiful beaches. Another weekend, we drove an hour to Salem and the Witch History Museum.
I particularly loved the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, full of treasures brought to Salem by sea captains who traveled to the Orient.
Ben graduated with his master’s degree from Brandeis University and applied for jobs in the Boston area, accepting one in the office of Harvard’s Registrar. He avoided driving in the crowded streets of Cambridge, and preferred to take a bus to work instead. Ben made plans to apply to graduate schools for a doctorate in literature.
Maria taught through the summer again, working in the same Cambridge Public School program for preschoolers with disabilities. I continued to help with field trips, proud of how Maria connected with her students. All of them learned how to communicate more effectively, including the children who didn’t speak.
In August, Beth packed her suitcases to get ready to fly across the country, again.
This time, she would take her place in the Stanford Law Class of 2012.
final world cup
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.
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!
John and I hosted cookouts for the five of us in our immediate family, plus a boyfriend or girlfriend. Sometimes, Scrabble games followed that Ben almost always won. We teased Beth about choosing a law school in California, as far across the country as she could get from us in Boston! Especially since she influenced most of our migrations from Ohio.
Beth reassured us, laughing, that she’d be back on the East Coast after graduating from Stanford.
I cooked my first big turkey dinner after 50 years of traveling to Thanksgiving feasts in Ohio. My mom and grandma had cooked for crowds and timed everything perfectly, with the turkey carved and the potatoes mashed just minutes before we ate. I had roasted a turkey before but not with all the extra side dishes. My first attempt resulted in dry turkey and lumpy gravy.
The pumpkin pies I made from my great-grandma’s recipe didn’t last long.
In December, Beth’s boss asked her to attend Harvard's Health System Research Agenda Workshop with him in Cambridge. Late in the evening of the third, Beth sent me an email:
OMG. Bill Gates was at my meeting. Then at dinner, I sat by a lovely French man who is the head of the World Economic Fund. He asked ME about my research and said I was helpful! So I’m having an existential night.
I need to figure out what I want to do with my life because anything is possible.
Love from your daughter, who has a big head tonight and danced alone on the T with her iPod.
Next: November's Serendipity Newsletter!
freestyle in the real world
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!
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.
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