By Caryn M. Sullivan
I’d just made my First Communion when the woman who gave me life betrayed my trust and eroded the foundation that should be afforded to every child.
Under the auspices of taking a vacation, my beautiful, brilliant, willful mother loaded our wood-paneled station wagon and set off for Miami, Florida with her five children, her lover, and his two sons.
It was no vacation.
It was a made-for-Hollywood getaway by two lovers whose actions left scars on their children’s hearts.
We made our way to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where we lived for two years. Mom dissolved her marriage to my father and began a new one that lasted just eight years.
How they fit seven children under the age of 10 into the rear of the vehicle is beyond comprehension – but that mystery pales in comparison to the big one – what were they thinking?
I was the firstborn of five children, though my adopted brother was the oldest. We were a sight to behold – four redheads and one brunette.
We played and fought and learned early in life that we had to watch each others’ backs, for, while she loved us, our mother had her priorities and her children were never number one.
Mom died in 1981, five days before I married my college boyfriend. We never had a chance to talk, woman to woman, about how or why she’d planned and executed her dramatic getaway from Baltimore. I never got an explanation for what prompted such a draconian departure. I never got an apology for taking me from my father without so much as a hug goodbye.
There’s a deep void where information should dwell. In my youth I filled it with wariness and watchfulness, a reluctance to get too close to anyone, for people tended to disappear from my life.
Adulthood didn’t offer much respite from challenges.
My first marriage fluttered and died. It was my fault. Absent a role model, I had no idea how to build a lasting relationship.
With a good dose of therapy I learned a bit about relationships and took the plunge a second time, marrying a man who brought two children to our marriage and gave me two of my own.
Our son was diagnosed with autism in 1993, shortly before his sister was born. His needs were all consuming for me, though my husband’s first heart attack, my breast cancer, and our daughter’s bone marrow transplant supplanted them for a bit.
Crisis free in 2009, I went to Maryland to meet my new niece. I was basking in the innocence of new life when an ER doctor interrupted a lovely visit to report that, while they’d done everything they could, my 54-year-old husband’s heart had stopped beating.
While I’d lived most of my life in anticipation of something else happening…someone else leaving…I was unprepared for that phone call. I was unprepared to make my own calls, to our children, scattered around the country; to our family and friends and colleagues.
My mother always said that life isn’t fair and no one likes a victim. Her words had carried me through many a crisis. But when I suddenly found myself in the freakin’ widows club her words rang hollow.
Angry, depleted, and heart-broken, I no longer felt the power of her words. My protective cocoon imploded, rendering me raw and vulnerable. Weary and confused, I searched for meaning and evenhandedness in my widowhood.
And then I met a man whose words changed the trajectory of my life.
Perhaps it was the collar that encouraged me to pour out my woes to Father Johnson at a high school fundraiser. Perhaps it was divine intervention. Or, maybe the wine emboldened me.
“Why must our children grow up without a father, as I did?”
“Why did I survive cancer but Ted die of a heart attack?”
“Why have some people been so hurtful?”
Father Johnson had no explanation for events or behavior outside our control. But he had advice for how I could move forward with my new life. On a Saturday evening in April 2010 a stranger gave me a life-changing gift.
Faced with adversity, he said, we all have a choice.
We can be bitter. Or we can be better.
Bitter or better. For someone who abhors ambiguity, this was a gift of incredible magnitude. Those three little words shone with such clarity.
In the years that passed since our chance encounter I’ve devoted myself to living the choice to be better. I’ve developed a roadmap to resilience, populated by wisdom gleaned by observing others who choose better over bitter.
I made a conscious choice to honor my late husband’s legacy by living my life fully, since his was cut so short.
I made a conscious choice to set an example for my children and grandchildren, for I know they are watching and listening.
I made a conscious choice to be more fully engaged in life, to seek out new adventures, to reach out to strangers, to express gratitude to those who’ve loved and supported my family and me.
I made a conscious choice to share lessons learned with others, for I’m mindful that everyone experiences tough stuff. It’s part of life’s promise.
In short, I chose better.
When your goal is to tell someone’s story – to make the reader feel something and perhaps move into action – the storyteller must ask good questions, listen carefully, and find a way to connect the reader with the story. With personal experiences as her backdrop, Caryn Sullivan does just that.
Caryn began her writing career as a communications major at the University of Utah. But her critical thinking skills led her to law school at William Mitchell College of Law and a career at an international law firm and a Fortune 500 insurance company.
When her son was diagnosed with autism in 1993, she hung up her shingle but continued her advocacy as her family navigated autism and a series of life-threatening health challenges.
Seeking an outlet, she began writing again in 2007. Her essay, Dancing with Despair, was included in an anthology of works by other mothers whose lives had also been consumed by their special needs children. That led her to the Pulitzer Prize winning St. Paul Pioneer Press, where she has been the only regular contributing columnist to the Opinion page since 2007.
Her writing about autism earned her the ARC of Minnesota Community Media Excellence Award in 2008. Recognizing we all struggle with something, Caryn expanded her storylines, writing about challenges ranging from Alzheimer’s to addiction.
When her “w” changed unexpectedly from wife to widow in 2009, Caryn faced a choice. Would she be bitter or better? In her award-winning memoir, Bitter or Better: Grappling with Life on the Op-Ed Page, Caryn offers readers a roadmap to resilience, marked by inspirational stories of others who’ve also chosen “better.”
Passionate about sharing stories of people and organizations engaged in high impact work, Caryn’s writing appears on her blog, Gifts, Gratitude & Gumption, as well as other outlets such as optionb.org. A national speaker, she inspires professional and civic organization audiences to live the choice to be better; mindfully own their legacy; and “perfect the pivot” by embracing opportunities and managing obstacles.
An active community volunteer and board member, Caryn supports University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital; Fraser, Spare Key, Smile Network, and Starkey Hearing Foundation, among others.