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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
On September 17th, Team USA paraded into Beijing's Bird’s Nest.
At the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, 547 athletes from 62 countries competed in 141 medal events.
All the countries assembled, and we watched more stunning performances that created magnificent scenes with thousands of performers, young and old. As the Closing Ceremony ended, athletes danced with performers on the stadium floor, and Beth found herself blue eyes to bellybuttons with pink cows.
The cow costumes caused visual problems for the wearers.
“After Closing Ceremonies,” Beth wrote, “at least a hundred of these cows stormed the floor of the stadium. They kept running into us and running away. They would also begin to deflate, so volunteers would run up and herd them off the track to get blown back up. My teammates and I were literally crying we were laughing so hard.”
Back home, the U.S. Paralympics team joined Michael Phelps and the other Olympians to meet President George W. Bush at the White House.
Beth shook the President’s hand and smiled for the pictures. Later, athletes congregated at the hotel lounge. Flirting with Olympians on the men’s swim team marked the official end of Beth’s four-year plan and the Beijing experience.
Real world adventures in Beth’s future would be equally exciting.
Next: October's Serendipity Newsletter!
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.
My daughter Beth’s last race as a member of Team USA was at the Beijing Paralympics, in the same Water Cube where Michael Phelps earned eight gold medals. Beth dropped three seconds off her previous best time in the 50 free to set a new American Record at 1:10:55, even faster than I had hoped.
The top S3 women in the world clocked in at finals from 0:57 to 1:18.
At this elite level of competition, the broad variation of 21 seconds starkly contrasted to other finals races at the Paralympics where times varied by seconds or fractions of seconds. The lower-numbered classifications, like Beth’s, tended to include a wide range of function, compared to higher-numbered classifications with specific criteria that more effectively leveled the playing field.
I admired how Beth and Peggy graciously accepted the inequities and aimed for achieving her ultimate American Record.
“I was so psyched to see Beth at this level of competition,” Brittany said. “I knew how seriously she took swimming, but I didn't have a sense of the enormity of her accomplishment until I was in the Water Cube, donning my handmade 'Go Beth' T-shirt, screaming as she tore down the lane. Watching her swim, I was so proud of her, thinking about how insane it was that one of my best friends is fifth in the world in swimming!”
Beth celebrated the accomplishment, happy with her three-second drop and new American Record, as well as her jump in the world rankings from 10th to fifth.
Peggy and Beth continued with their post-meet ice cream tradition, though their only choice was the soft serve at McDonalds in the Athlete Village. U.S. Paralympics Swimming won the official gold medal count, with lifetime bests in over 90 percent of their swims despite tough competition from China, Great Britain, and Australia.
When the last finals race at the Water Cube ended, USA swimmers had two days for sightseeing in Beijing, a sprawling city of over 6,000 square miles.
Next week: Look for my 3rd Serendipity Newsletter!
I'm a mom on a mission to share the power of hope and connection! For signed copies of my new memoir, click BOOK. ❤ Cindy
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