This old lady!
My mom often said to me: “You never do things the easy way, Maria.” She was right. Sometimes I wonder why I seem to put myself on a steep, rocky path when there may have been a nice paved road that leads to the same place. I’ll wonder about that another time, though, because right now I’m busy making plans for my next journey. In August, I’ll be starting classes for a master’s degree in applied psychology.
Most people my age are counting down the years to retirement, so maybe it’s a little nuts to be looking toward a new career. It feels a little nuts, but in an exciting way. I’m really stoked about the possibilities right now…that’s how I know I’m on the right path.
I’ve always been a late bloomer, and my years as a student have never been easy. I didn’t begin college right out of high school. I moved in with a boyfriend at the end of my senior year in high school and spent the next few years working as a cocktail waitress in Pennsylvania, then an infant caregiver in New Jersey. By the time I was 21, I was back in PA, back to working in a bar, and finally back in school. My first year of college was exciting and relatively uneventful. But early in my second year, I found myself pregnant, single, and still scraping by working nights.
My first son was born the week before spring final exams. My sister brought my newborn baby to campus so I could nurse him between tests. Definitely not the typical college experience. But it worked for me. Ethan went to the daycare on my college campus, and I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in English a few weeks before Ethan turned four.
Six years, one husband, and two kids later, I started graduate school. Classes were in the evening, so I’d wait by the door for Tom to get home for work so I could hand off the boys and go to school. People would ask me what I planned to do with a master’s in American and British Literature—admittedly not the most practical sounding degree. And I told them I had no idea, but I was sure I’d wind up where I needed to be if I just kept moving forward and studying something I loved.
A couple of semesters into grad school, my youngest son, Aidan, was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. For anyone who doesn’t know, DMD is a progressive genetic disorder that destroys the skeletal muscles of the body, along with the heart and muscles that support respiration. What that means is that a seemingly healthy toddler will become physically weaker, year by year. By the teen years, boys with DMD (nearly all people with DMD are male) will develop cardiomyopathy and need breathing support at night. DMD is always fatal, with life expectancies currently in the mid 20’s.
Aidan’s diagnosis swept my legs out from under me. It punched me in the sternum. It just completely wrecked me. For months, I couldn’t read. Literally. I could not read. I could see words on a page, but they made no sense at all. That can be a major hindrance when it comes to studying literature. I fell behind in my program, and just as I was getting back to my studies, I lost my mind. I say that in a tone that might sound flippant, but I assure you there was nothing light about that time. Aidan’s diagnosis had been the boulder that sent down an avalanche. I had shoved all my past trauma high on a shelf, but now my defenses were gone, and the whole world rolled down and crushed me. I spent weeks in a hospital program. Weeks of being unable to eat or speak. Weeks of feeling like I was crawling out of my skin and sitting on a hot burner on the stove. Weeks of not knowing how much longer I could hold on.
Slowly, I found my way through, and with just one class to go, I took a deep breath and returned to the classroom. My last class was in Victorian lit, and I told my professor that I was coming out of a very dark place but I would do my best to get through the semester. I will never forget her empathy. She told me she’d hold my hand if I needed her to and she’d make sure I got through that last course and crossed the finish line. Today, on the other side of the college classroom, I never forget that act of grace and I try to be that same guiding hand for my students when they need it.
I did it. I got through grad school with a perfect GPA and a hard-won diploma. Best of all, I wound up in the place where I belonged, a place I really had no idea I was meant to be, but when I got there, it all felt right. Three months after completing my degree, I began teaching college English classes. I had no idea I would ever be a teacher, but I trusted my path and found that I absolutely loved teaching those classes to that age group. For close to two decades, I have watched teenagers become young adults. Through writing and literature, I formed connections with my students, and I hope that those connections have nourished my students as much as they have filled me.
Teaching has been the most fulfilling gift, and it’s all because I was brave or crazy enough to take the hard road. Which brings me to now, two years since covid has changed the world and the loss of Ethan has so deeply changed me. Teaching isn’t the same anymore, nothing is the same. And I’ve been feeling a pull in a new direction. I’m learning to believe in signs, and the signs are pointing me in this direction. Toward a new degree and a new way of forming connections with people. Everything I’ve learned up to this point is coalescing into a new plan. I have so many ideas and so much hope for this new direction. I don’t have a clear vision of where I will be when I complete this degree, but I know absolutely that I will wind up where I belong.
In August, I’ll return to two classrooms. The one where I teach and the one where I’ll learn. I’m excited about both. And all the while, I’ll continue to be a caregiver to Aidan. I’ll continue to process the bottomless grief of losing a child. I’ll keep running marathons and being a wife and a mother and nurturing friendships and exploring all of the hobbies that bring me joy. It won’t be an easy time or an easy transition, but my mom was right, I never do things the easy way. It’s been a rocky, meandering road that’s brought me to where I am. I’m fine with that. I think I’ll keep on climbing.
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