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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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