Life is serendipitous. In spite of our best efforts there is so much about each day over which we have no control. We may leave early for work to get a head start on the day only to encounter a huge traffic jam caused by a stalled car. Our outdoor wedding may have to be rushed indoors when an unexpected rain storm comes roaring through. Of course there are even worse things that burst into our world like a phone call in the dark of night bringing us unwanted news of a loved one’s death or a serious look from a doctor delivering a diagnosis that we don’t want to hear. None of us can escape such moments. They are an inevitable part of our humanity, and yet we all know of souls who appear to be stronger and more optimistic and capable of overcoming even the most horrendous situations.
We often wonder why one person falls apart in the face of challenges and another appears to react with grace and courage. Is it good fortune? Is it a quirk of DNA? Are there actually people who don’t have to experience as much pain and sorrow as the rest of us? These are the kinds of thoughts that may come to mind whenever we feel beaten down by life events. It always seems as though the whole world is spinning in delight while we are left alone with our worry or grief.
I’ve said little about the historic fiftieth anniversary of mankind’s landing on the moon in 1969. In different circumstances I might have been ecstatically happy when I watched Neil Armstrong plant the American flag on the rugged surface of the orb that seems to light the sky each night. I had been watching the progress of space travel since my science teacher, Mrs. Colby, heightened my enthusiasm in the seventh grade. I watched Alan Shepard become the first American to travel into space in her classroom, and later gathered with my classmates in front of a black and white television to witness John Glenn orbiting the earth. My brother had walked around the house clutching my father’s copy of a book describing a journey to the moon written by Wernher von Braun. I lived in the very city where NASA was headquartered. I should have been over the moon with joy on that July day, but instead my mind was focused on other things, worries that were threatening to overwhelm me.
The summer of 1969 had begun well enough. I was a young bride of only seven months still in honeymoon mode. My husband Mike was working as an electricians’ helper for the summer, taking a hiatus from his graduate studies at the University of Houston, and making good money pulling cable under the floors out at NASA in preparation for the big journey to the moon. He worked long hours, sometimes coming home only to grab a bite to eat, shower, change clothes and return to his job again. He traveled with his uncle so that I might have our car to run errands and visit with family and friends while he was occupied.
I beat a path between our apartment and my mother’s home more often than not. At first everything appeared to be normal there, but before long I noticed how preoccupied my mother was with her thoughts. Her usual joyful nature was clouded over in ways I had only seen in the days just after my father died. My mother had been let go from her teaching job and I suspected that her pride was mortally wounded. She had always been quite successful at anything she tried, so this was an experience that she didn’t quite know how to handle. She had also been dating a man for quite some time but had begun to feel that her relationship with him was toxic. She vacillated between wanting to walk away from him and feeling a certain level of love for him. She often asked me for advice, but I was young and inexperienced and unable to fathom the depth of her concern. I thought that with a bit of time she would soon be her old self.
Instead of getting better as June turned to July her behavior became ever more concerning. She kept the blinds and curtains in her home drawn tightly shut, blocking out the summer sun. She became less and less able to follow a simple conversation and tended to burst into tears without warning. She refused to turn on the air conditioner or even open the windows, so her house was stiflingly hot. Nothing seemed to draw her from her ever darkening frame of mind, not even visits to see her mother.
Soon traveling the short distance to see how she was doing became my daily routine. Her behavior was unlike anything that I had ever witnessed in my life. I grew ever more worried when she took to her bed and began speaking of unreal fears. She suspected that our family was being watched by the FBI and that someone was trying to poison her. Her eyes darted in terror as she described her paranoid thoughts. I hoped that with time she would become her old self, but instead she only became worse.
About the time that the whole country seemed to be celebrating the landing on the moon, I was conferencing with our long time family physician and attempting to understand what was happening with my mother. I remember watching the historic moment in a state of detachment. As I planned strategies to get my mom the help that she needed it felt as though I was all alone in an otherwise jubilant world. It never occurred to me that at the very moment when I was feeling so down there were no doubt others like me who were dealing with situations even worse than mine. While in the throes of tragedy we rarely consider that our woes are as much a part of existence as our joys. In the moment of worry and grief it is so difficult to see any kind of light, and yet there are people who somehow find it.
What I learned during that dreadful time is that sharing my story helped. I soon enough realized that I was not as alone as I had thought. There was not a crowd that surrounded me, but those who did were incredibly special, and often unexpected. Over the next forty years I would turn to the kindness of both friends and strangers again and again whenever my mother’s mental illness returned. I began to realize that even in the darkest hours there is a ray of hope. We have all experienced unbelievably trying times during which it is tempting to feel as though we have somehow been abandoned. The real truth is that nobody is ever all alone. There will always be someone who will help. All we need do is open our hearts and humbly and gratefully grab the lifelines that are there. It is the small step that may help us to make a giant leap.