The Last Mile – Day 9
Today is about courage. My mom was an intensely courageous woman. When she was a young child, her teachers recognized her brilliance, and my mom skipped not one, but two, years of elementary school. After this, she was always the youngest student in her class, yet still received honors when she graduated from Erasmus High School. I found two of these medals in her house after she moved up to Boston, and presented them to her. She wore them with great pride.
My mom’s work at age 21 as Long Island University’s registrar took enormous fortitude. Her appointment came the end of WWII and the passage of the GI Bill. Young veterans returning from war swarmed toward colleges, all expenses paid. LIU went from around 300 students to almost 3,000 – the vast majority of them men. I remember my mom talking about the challenge of figuring out thousands of class schedules – without the aid of computers, no less. I can barely imagine the maturity and poise it must have taken, at such a tender age, to deal with the crush of so many eager young men – and some women. I have always admired my mom for having the strength to make it all work.
During this time, mom and dad met. They married in 1948, and cranked out three kids between 1952 and 1956, despite having very little money. My mom stayed home to care for us, although I often thought she would have made a better breadwinner than my father did. He might have made a wonderful stay-at-home dad, in a more modern era. My mom essentially raised us alone, because my dad was working three jobs. Despite the struggles of taking care of us alone, too often without enough money, I don’t recall ever feeling like we were odd, or “less than,” or that we lacked anything.
In the early 60’s, my mom was inspired by President Kennedy’s exhortation of “Ask not what your country can do for you…Ask what you can do for your country.” She returned to school to become a teacher. Despite mockery from family and friends, she got the credits she needed (she already had a Master’s degree) and went on to become a brilliant and beloved teacher for 30 years, as well as our family’s main breadwinner.
When she was 52, my mom nursed my dad through cancer, with all the terror and trepidation that accompanied his diagnosis. Eight years later, he fell ill again and died within two months of discovering he had lung cancer. My mom became a widow at age 60. Despite the depths of her grief, she continued to work as a teacher, she traveled, and she tried to live a normal life, until four years later when she was diagnosed with cancer – and only a five percent chance of surviving for one year. Her courage was astounding – she faced her diagnosis and treatment with grit and determination. Against the odds, and a grueling six months of chemotherapy and radiation, she became a cancer survivor, and lived for another 22 years – enough to become a grandmother, and make a difference in still more people’s lives, mine among them.
Over the course of her lifetime, my mom faced challenges head-on, she overcame adversity without hesitation, she beat back fears about loss of life – her husband’s and her own – with aplomb. She was a role model for a generation of students, many of whom continued to be inspired by her for decades after they graduated from elementary school.
My mom modeled courage, internal fortitude, and overcoming fears – for her children, her nieces and nephews, and her grandchild. She was one of the bravest people I have ever known. I remain in awe of her.
Stay tuned. More to come.