Her Serpentine Life

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I’ve always envied the brilliant souls who seem to be decisive in their life choices. These are the people who announce their plans in high school and never waver in pursuit of their philosophies and goals. Their paths seem to be straight and even when they approach a fork in the road they know exactly which way to go without a moment’s hesitation. We all know someone like that and if they are especially lucky we see that their hard work and laser sharp focus pays off for them again and again. The rest of us find ourselves in a confusing maze in which we often simply react to whatever trials and tribulations come our way. We sense that blind luck is playing a bigger role in our lives than we would actually like it to do, but somehow we can’t find a way to be more linear.

My mother used to joke that if she did not have bad luck she would have no luck at all. In spite of her surrender to the fates that befell her she still managed to remain eternally optimistic. I never quite understood how she kept it together so well. Her first fiancee died in the Pacific during World War II. She often spoke of how brutally that tragedy had impacted her ,including describing what might have been her first bout with bipolar disorder. Somehow she pulled herself out of the depression that overcame her by adapting to the reality of her situation. She went to Massey Business College and was soon working as a secretary to judges, engineers and professors. Along the way she met my father and found love once again. 

Mama loved being a wife and mother. It was as though she had been born for that role. She applied both her knowledge of home economics and her business acumen to running a household. She was in her element and loving every minute of it when my father died, leaving her bereft once again with the additional responsibility of raising three children under the age of eight. After an initial frightening episode of depression she pushed herself to be a model of ingenuity as she carried the weight of being mother, father and provider for her family. She did so with an ever present smile and a determination to keep me and my brothers feeling loved and safe and happy. To say she accomplished that would be an understatement. 

There were financial and medical ups and downs and stalls and starts but Mama never complained. We traveled down a long and winding road with her, unaware as children of how difficult the navigation must have been. We hardly even noticed how frugal our lifestyle was because she made even a meal of pinto beans and cornbread seem like a feast fit for kings. Still she was like a giddy child when she was offered a job as a teacher at our Catholic school. The only proviso was that she complete coursework in education after school and in the summers. 

Mama felt certain that she had finally found her niche and she eagerly threw herself wholeheartedly into teaching, studying and continuing to take care of the family. For the first time she had enough income to purchase small luxuries like a new sofa or a weekend vacation trip to San Antonio and Austin. She was the happiest that I ever remember her being and she spoke excitedly about both her students and her classes at Dominican College. 

Eventually my mother realized that juggling and spinning plates at the same time was a bit more than she was capable of doing, so she resigned from her teaching job in order to accelerate her progress in earning a degree in education. She would attend school during the day and spend her evenings studying, writing papers and poring over reading assignments. She got less and less sleep and she exhibited signs of great stress and exhaustion, but she kept on pursuing her goal. With only a few hours to complete, she even landed another job as a fifth grade teacher. 

What should have been the culmination of all of her efforts turned into a disaster. While she had a very successful first semester at the school, the introduction of a very difficult student to her classroom stressed her well-being and her reputation as a strong teacher. By the end of the school year the principal told her that her contract would not be renewed and that it was her opinion that Mama should find another profession. That triggered a decades long battle with mental illness for my mother. For the first time she seemed lost and unable to pull herself back into fighter mode. She was very very sick.

The next few years were torturous for my mom. She was like an animal caught in a complex maze. She finally had her college degree, but she had been blackballed in the teaching profession that she so loved and had a difficult time even finding a job as a clerk in a department store. After months of searching for work she stumbled upon employment at the University of Texas Health Science Center analyzing data for a long-term study of blood pressure. Ironically it would become a place of comfort and security for her, with perhaps the kindest co-workers that she had ever in her life encountered. She made far less than she would have as a teacher, but she had continuing work and the understanding of people who would support her whenever her symptoms of bipolar disorder made it difficult for her to be present. It was the final match made in heaven for her. 

I think that we all imagine and desire a life devoid of the kind of horrific roadblocks and injuries that plagued my mother. We most admire those whose trajectory leads them exactly where they wanted to go. We equate success with such people and yet it would be difficult to deny that my mother’s journey was a model for persistence and courage. She may not have appeared to be on the right track with all of the twists and turns that appeared to be ruling her decisions and her life, but indeed she persevered remarkably. The shortest distance between her beginning and her end might have been a straight line, but she managed to make a beautiful life out of a dangerously serpentine path. 

Before she died, she got to where she had hoped to be. She was admired by her co-workers at the University of Texas. She was loved by her family and friends. She left the world with no debts and no regrets. How many of us will be able to do as well? 

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