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. 😛

The Ghost of Christmases Past

“Christmas songs are cheerful and hopeful — two words that no one would ever use to describe me.”

For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been my favorite holiday. As a kid, I loved the anticipation leading up to it. The blast of cold air, followed by the scent of pine, as my father brought the tree through the front door. Opening the doors on the Advent calendar and lighting the Advent candles. We also had a nativity set that I thought was beautiful. (Who knows how it would appear to my adult eyes.) On Christmas Day, baby Jesus appeared in the manger, which conformed to his body perfectly. It was magical.

Unfortunately, my father was still drinking back then and my mother was increasingly ill, so when Christmas actually came, it was often a disappointment. Even worse were the years my parents were broke and I got to listen to my friends talk about all the awesome gifts they got.

But then my father got sober and we all got some type of counseling and Christmas got a whole lot better.

My younger sister and me, dancing a merry jig to “Linus and Lucy.”

Christmas was especially joyful when my siblings and I had grown into adults. At dinner, we somehow crammed seven adults at the dining room table and four kids at a card table. Then we enjoyed my mother’s delicious turkey dinner while discussing movies, books, and our jobs. You couldn’t ask for a better Christmas.

Then my father died.

The first Christmas he was gone, the family gathered at my brother’s house instead of my parents’. That was different. My mother hadn’t cooked the meal I enjoyed so much. Worst of all, my father was not at the head of the table, peppering the conversation with his typical dry comments and sharp observations.

After that, the family fragmented. My younger sister spent Christmas with her in-laws and my brother spent Christmas with his. My older sister and my mother would put together a little turkey dinner and invite a friend or two. Some years my husband and I joined them. Other years, most of us managed to show up at my brother’s house. And while all of those Christmases were very nice, they weren’t the noisy, chaotic, laughter-filled times that I remembered. They couldn’t be.

I had no idea how deeply we needed my father to function as a family until he was gone. He was a stabilizing influence, which is funny when you consider how badly he wrecked our lives when he was drinking. Without him, things felt shaky and uncertain; the family was falling apart and couldn’t be put back together. My mother, in particular, seemed lost. We all tried to help her but obviously we couldn’t do the one thing she would have wanted most, which was to bring him back.

For me, Christmas has lost its magic. I’ve held on to what I can: my husband and I put up a tree and I spend many hours admiring its sparkling magnificence. I also have over 100 Christmas songs in my music collection. Listening to them always lifts my mood. Christmas songs are cheerful and hopeful — two words that no one would ever use to describe me.

Inevitably, I play A Charlie Brown Christmas and let in the ghost of Christmases past. I look at the photo of my sister and me dancing. Outside the frame, my father is sitting on the couch and in a departure from his normally stoic self, he joins in as he waves his arms in the air.

Merry Christmas, Dad. We miss you.