Was It Meant to Be?

There are perfect moments in life when all the confusion falls away and things become clear. You see how everything fits together; every loss, every disappointment—they all led to the happiness you feel right now. With its infinite complexity, the universe can’t help but hold all you’ll ever need. The trick is knowing how to find it.   –“Lost and Found”

With my parents in 1988. I surgically excised my toxic boyfriend from the photo after we broke up.

This is an excerpt from a chapter of my memoir that tells the story of a wonderful thing thing that happened as a result of a painful loss. It’s a fancy way of saying, “It was meant to be,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” neither of which I necessarily believe.

I spent most of my 20s being furious at my parents for fucking up my life. They were good people and I know they did their best, but their best was sorely lacking. They lived in a perpetual state of learned helplessness that informed all their decisions. The opportunities they missed to get help for themselves and for us had long-term consequences that affect me to this day.

I used to drive myself crazy imagining what my life would have been like if my dad hadn’t drank, or been stuck supporting his sick parents, or my mother was well enough to teach. But worse than the typical things I missed, like ballet and music lessons, were the pivotal things that impacted my growth and success as a young adult.

I had a lot of emotional problems when I entered high school. One of the administrators suggested that I get counseling from an agency that, as it turned out, I unwittingly ended up at seven years later anyway. The other recommendation came from my uncle, who said my parents should have me apply to small, private colleges instead of large state schools. He said the small schools would want me and would offer financial aid. I only know this because my mother told me years later — like, when I was in my 40s and clearly too old to do anything about it.

Because I had a slow start my freshman year of high school, it didn’t matter how many “As” I earned the next three years. My cumulative gpa was permanently fucked. That meant no scholarships, which was a disaster for a kid with no money who also had parents with no money. My two years of earnings from McDonalds evaporated halfway through my second semester at Bowling Green. I cobbled together the remainder of my tuition with work-study and a Perkins loan, which I got to spend the next two years paying back after I dropped out of school.

Being out of school meant I had to get a job, so I spent a year temping at various offices in downtown Cleveland. For a sheltered, sensitive kid who had never planned on anything but an academic life, it was brutal. I spent those days feeling alone, confused, and terrified that everyone would learn how stupid I was and fire me. For all my book smarts, I knew nothing about the real world. Temping in a city was a crash course in survival.

Eventually I got a full time job as a secretary — a profession I’d spent four years in college prep to avoid. I bought a car and moved out. I was broke and unhappy and deeply ashamed of what a failure I’d become, but I made the best of it. I took every computer class the bank offered. I became a Wang database administrator. Then I learned about relational databases and took classes in Paradox. Later, I took a minimum wage job at an internet provider and learned HTML. Those skills got me contract work and better paying temp jobs when I returned to college full time.

Unfortunately, the stress of adapting to student life after so many years of being a professional triggered severe depressive episodes. I was barely able to function. I spent three years failing and dropping out of classes before I finally graduated with a cumulative gpa of 2.76. It was humiliating for a former Honor student, but after eleven years of aborted attempts to get my bachelor’s degree, I was thankful just to have the damn thing.

The gpa was an issue when I applied to a master’s program at the same school but they admitted me on a probationary basis. I got a lot of help from professors who knew me from undergrad, especially when I told them about the depression and explained that I was now under a doctor’s care and on medication. Upon learning that I knew web design, the department chair offered me an assistantship as the department webmaster. I kept my own hours and worked offsite. Ultimately, my boss didn’t care how much or how little I worked as long as the work got done. This enabled me to get my graduate degree while also holding several part-time jobs, and it paid the mortgage on my house.

I graduated just shy of a 4.0 (stupid B in 20th century Irish Novel and Film!) and I defended my thesis at the same time I finished my course work. My advisors and the department chair told me that was almost unheard of, but I didn’t really have a choice. I couldn’t afford to pay tuition on my own, so I had to get everything done by the end of the assistantship.

With my master’s degree I was able to teach English classes. With my writing skills and computer background, I was able to create technical manuals and user guides. With my knowledge of internet applications, I understood how to create and leverage online content.

All of these skills are requirements for the work I do now, which is Instructional Design.

This profession did not exist when I graduated from high school in 1983. And it did not mature into a web-based discipline until the 00s. Colleges eventually caught up and began offering master’s programs in instructional technology; I just got there the long way.

It’s a high-paying field, especially in manufacturing, where instructional designer jobs are hard to fill. My employer had to go out of state for our last hire. So no matter what happens in my current job, I will always be able to find work, and I will always make a livable wage. It’s a very good place to be at this time in my life, but I wouldn’t be here without all the obstacles that forced me down this path.

I don’t know if that means this was meant to be. I only know that I ended up in a job that is perfectly suited to my temperament and skills. But more than that, my twisted career path exposed me to different industries and enabled me to work closely with all kinds of people: corporate VPs, blue collar workers, creative staff, tech guys, academics, and students of all economic levels. Those experiences have given me insights into people that I might not otherwise have met.

For a writer, that information is invaluable. A fiction writer needs to understand other points of view, and it’s a lot easier to do that from experience than imagination! In a very real sense, the losses and disappointments I had made it possible for me to achieve my dream of writing a novel.

All I need to do is finish the damn thing. 😛

Sister Patty Ann, I Hardly Knew You

“Like most teenagers, I was the center of my world and thus believed that I was the center of everyone else’s, too. I was convinced that Sister Patty Ann hated me.”

When I wrote my memoir in 2004, one third of the book was devoted to my student days at Lumen Cordium High School. It was a beautiful place and it transformed me from a disconnected and indifferent student to an active and engaged young women with a passion for learning. There was only one blot on the otherwise perfect four years that I spent there.

Her name was Sister Patty Ann.

She taught Biology and was the subject of many tearful entries in my Sophomore year journal. Like all nuns, she looked ancient but was probably not much older than I am now. She was irritable and impatient and did things that, to a sixteen-year-old girl, seemed petty and vindictive, like making us outline entire chapters from our biology textbook, and then taking points off for a missing period behind an enumerator. She was the only person who ever called me Terry — a nickname I despised — and I was too afraid of being yelled at to correct her.

Like most teenagers, I was the center of my world and thus believed that I was the center of everyone else’s, too. I was convinced that Sister Patty Ann hated me. I dreaded Biology class and spent every moment in that room filled with anxiety that Sister Patty Ann would call on me and then yell at me for being wrong.

It all came to a head in the Spring of 1981, when I had to meet with her during a free period to make up a lab I’d missed when I was out sick. I had to prepare a slide to look at something under the microscope. Sister Patty Ann spent the whole time hovering over my shoulder, micromanaging my every move, and loudly sucking her breath through her teeth any time I touched the slide.

It was too much for a sixteen-year-old girl to bear.

I turned around and shrieked, “Would you just back off already??? You’re making me so nervous, I can’t concentrate!”

Sister Patty Ann was startled. “I’m not doing anything,” she said in a surprisingly reasonable voice.

“Yes, you are! And I’m sick of it!”

Now Sister Patty Ann looked bewildered. “What are you talking about, Terry?”

“I try SO HARD but NOTHING I do is ever good enough for you!” I started bawling my head off. “AND STOP CALLING ME TERRY!”

Sister Patty Ann waited quietly for a moment. “I’m sorry, Terry,” she said. “I didn’t realize you were such a sensitive girl.” Then she told me to go splash water on my face so we could finish the lab.

After that she was nice to me. One day she was waiting outside the classroom. As I entered, she threw out her arms and gave me a bear hug. My teenage brain nearly exploded as I realized that The Dragon Lady actually had a heart.

As the school year was ending, Sister Patty Ann told us a story about the early days when my high school was founded. All the nuns at the convent got to choose which subjects they would teach. Sister Patty Ann loved history and wanted to teach it, but a nun with more seniority got it instead. No one wanted to teach biology, so that job fell to the nun with the least seniority, one Sister Patricia Ann.

I left class that day feeling incredibly sad for her. She’d wasted twenty years of her life doing something she hated. I felt sad that I hadn’t known about it sooner, because maybe I’d have tried to be more understanding.

If nothing else, maybe I would have hugged her back.