Life Lesson Essay Contest

The year I turned seven, I discovered the unpredictability of the universe. Six had been a pretty solid age—I was a frog in the class play, my hair grew long enough for barrettes—but after my seventh birthday, in December 1986, the unfair surprises started and kept on coming: the true identity of Santa Claus, a case of chicken pox, summer camp. Most important, No. 1: My father died. And No. 2: I stopped learning how to ride a bicycle.

No. 1 was impossibly unfair. As a result, No. 2 only made sense.

At the time of his death (to answer the most common questions: sudden; heart attack; not overweight; not a smoker; 42 years old; yes, yes, it was), my father and I had gotten about halfway through the standard riding lessons. I understood that my training wheels would not last forever, but we hadn’t yet graduated to the running-behind-and-holding-and-then-letting-go part. That was supposed to happen in the spring. A lot was supposed to happen.

As the winter thawed outside our Washington, D.C., home, my bike stayed in the hall closet, waiting for me or my mom to grab it again. Months passed while the two of us ate our way through the hams of consolation and wondered when life would ever feel normal again. When my first-grade class was given a writing project that began, “If I could have one wish…,” I completed the sentence with “I’d wish that Santa Claus was real.” This broke the hearts of about half my classmates, and while I didn’t mean to hurt them, I can’t say I felt too bad about it. The universe is unpredictable, folks. I was just telling the truth.

By the time we finally fetched the bicycle again, nearly a year later, I had grown about six inches and looked like a bear in the circus, perched on the seat. My mother and I soon moved to another part of the city, and my bike was given away. The hall closet in the new house held only hats, coats, and umbrellas.

Not that I wanted a bicycle. As a gangly, awkward kid with a deep fear of failure, I wasn’t in a big hurry to learn to ride. When friends’ fathers would offer to teach me, I’d always say, “No, that’s fine, you all go on ahead to the ice cream store. I brought a book.”

Plenty of people tried to instruct me: family friends, uncles, pretty much any middle-aged man in the vicinity when my ignorance became evident. But I declined. I was afraid of falling and afraid of looking stupid, and besides, I wasn’t that easily fooled. Teaching me to ride a bike was my dad’s job—various sitcoms, movies, and bank commercials affirmed this—and, sorry, well-meaning family friends and uncles and random middle-aged men, you weren’t my dad.

Once I was in high school, the whole thing mattered less. Communal bike outings waned, and I was rarely excluded from group events because I didn’t know how to ride. I was still excluded, mind you, but more for reasons like being a giant nerd, joining an after-school Wiccan club, or bangs.

None of this changed—until I was 19 and sitting in a courtyard in Avignon, France, and watching my hand go up as if by its own volition in response to a question that began, “Si vous voulez une bicyclette…” I had gone there to study French between my freshman and sophomore years of college, and I knew enough to understand what the nice lady was saying: Anyone who lived outside the city walls could borrow a bike for the summer to minimize the trek to campus. Did I want one? (Did I…what?)

To be clear, I didn’t raise my hand because I had suddenly become brave or tough. No, I simply hurt. I was suffering from extreme pain in my knees that year. The official name of the condition was chondromalacia patella, but what mattered to me was that my knees ached so badly that I couldn’t walk up stairs without weeping. The only thing the orthopedist said would help? Riding a bicycle. (The unpredictability of the universe, part II. Special heading: Irony.)

Here are some vocabulary words I learned in French that summer. No. 1: crème antiseptique, antibacterial ointment. No. 2: pansement, bandage. No. 3: genou, knee. I also got really good at an arm-waving, head-shaking gesture that translated as “I’m fine. No, really, please ignore the tears on my dirt-streaked face and the gravel embedded in my leg. I am totally peachy and do not need you or your moped, and I will be hopping back on this bicyclette any second now.” Then I would look down at the bandaged lumps in the middle of my legs and think grimly of how I had started teaching myself to ride a bike solely to reduce wear and tear on my knees. Irony indeed.

I kept at it. Yes, I was still awkward. Yes, I was still afraid of failure. But ultimately I became more frightened of not learning how to ride—and thus permanently damaging my knees. So every day after class I stuffed my books in my backpack and dragged out my heavy, rusty, gearless borrowed monster.

I fell, I bled—still, I didn’t give up. I kept riding, and falling, and riding again. And, after ripping several pairs of pants and becoming a regular at the pharmacy, I managed to get the hang of it. I completed my first turn. I hit a rock and stayed upright. I sped up. I slowed down. I was riding a bicycle.

I started riding it to school, past whizzing cars. I took it into the country. I rode alone every day for hours—not speaking French, not speaking English, just riding. Biking was supposed to function as physical therapy, but it turned into much more. My cycling inability had been my proof that life was unfair and that no amount of kindness could fix it. If my dad hadn’t died, I thought, I would know how to ride. It seemed perfectly logical to me, but it wasn’t true.

Because my dad died, a great many things were different: where my mother and I lived, what we talked about, how we functioned as a family. There were and are real losses and absences, and I mourn them, but there wasn’t actually any good reason I couldn’t ride a bike.

So I did it. And I fell in love with my bike—especially the speed and the freedom it conferred. I came up with this biking-while-smoking routine that felt terribly European—and which I now realize was terribly 19-year-old.

When I arrived back home, I had changed. My knees hurt less. The rest of me hurt less. I understood that the universe was still unpredictable, but not always in a bad way. For example, No. 1: Starting my sophomore year, I brought my aunt’s old bike to campus with me. I rode it to keep my knees healthy, and I eventually regained the ability to walk up stairs without excruciating pain. To this day, I ride regularly to yoga class and the grocery store. I even bike-commute to work—16 miles each way from East Los Angeles to Santa Monica.

Also, No. 2: Two weeks after telling a college friend that “all I want is to meet a boy with a bicycle,” I met one. On our first date, we rode to an arboretum. I fell off my bike. He bought crème antiseptique and pansements for me at CVS.

When I was seven, I learned how unfair life can be, but that summer in France taught me that life can contain unexpected and joyful surprises, too. Case in point: The boy with a bicycle and I just celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary.

I’ve also learned what I’m capable of overcoming. Now, when faced with various challenges—new jobs, a cross-country move, a new baby—I often think to myself, Remember, you taught yourself to ride a bicycle. How much harder can this be?

Dorothy Fortenberry, 31, of Los Angeles, emerged the winner of our thirdannual competition, claiming the $3,000 prize, round-trip tickets for two to New York City, a two-night hotel stay, Broadway tickets, and lunch with the editors of Real Simple. Fortenberry, a playwright who has never published an essay before, says she had wanted to write this story for years. “But I’m glad I waited,” she says. “It was a more honest piece than it would have been when I was 20.”

Real Simple asked, What was the most important day of your life? And more than 5,000 of you answered. Deputy Editor Noelle Howey spoke to winner Aldra Robinson of Long Beach, California, about her moving and unforgettable essay, which can be found at the end of the interview.

RS: How did you get the idea for this essay? Did you know you always wanted to write about this experience? That is, working in a hospital and witnessing tragedy as well as everyday acts of courage.
Aldra Robinson: I was watching a medical drama on TV, and the storyline reminded me of my time working in an intensive care unit. There are so many stories I could tell, but my memory always returns to one family. I turned off the TV and grabbed Real Simple. The first page it opened to noted the essay contest. It was a coincidence that, in hindsight, doesn’t seem like much of a coincidence.

It’s been almost 10 years [since the events that take place in the essay], and I’m still in awe of how that family was able to handle something so horrific with such grace. Whenever I start to feel stressed by some self-created drama or work deadline, I think of that family and remind myself that nothing going on in my world is anything close to tragic, and even in the face of truly difficult circumstances, I can choose how I will respond. I thought it was a lesson worth sharing, and even if it wasn’t chosen, it might do some good to write it.

RS: This essay can be tough to read, given its somber subject matter. Was it equally challenging to write?
AR: I hesitate to say that it was. Obviously, writing about it is nothing compared to living it. Most of my writing is humorous―or it tries to be, anyway―so writing about something that couldn’t be turned into a big joke was intimidating. When I worked in the hospital, at the end of my shift I would sometimes take the stairs instead of the elevator because I didn’t want anyone to see me crying. Writing the essay and sending it to strangers to read was akin to letting the world witness the tears. Oddly enough, it was rather freeing.

More than anything, I wanted to be respectful of the family. It’s easy to become overly sentimental when writing about something so tragic, and I didn’t want to turn their story into some cheesy after-school special or a sermon about the importance of organ donation. I just wanted to lift the family up and show the world how unbelievably powerful love is.

RS: What is your writing process like?
AR: If being neurotic and unrelentingly critical could be considered a process, that would be the one I’d claim. I write grants for a living, so in my nine-to-five universe, I use an outline. But when writing creatively (my internal censor says, “You write creatively?”), I work best when I get out of my way, ignore the incessant inner critic, and just let the words fly. I’m prone to working in spurts because I’m a procrastinator, but when it’s a topic I love, I can lose myself. I edit best after a piece is written, because I would never get anything done if I edited as I wrote. I consider a piece finished when I’ve edited it to the point where I think it is horribly written and should never see the light of day. Then I send it on its way. At some point, surrender is the only option. (I did say neurotic, didn’t I?)

RS: What book are you reading right now?
AR: It’s never just one! I’m currently reading The Green Collar Economy, by Van Jones, and Sleepyhead Assassins, by Mindy Nettifee, and I’m rereading The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, and Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes. I think this is the fourth time I’ve read Under the Tuscan Sun. I want to be Frances Mayes when I grow up!

RS: Do you have any future writing plans you’d like to share?
AR: I’m working on turning my blog, Consciously Frugal (consciouslyfrugal.blogspot.com), into a book proposal about green, frugal living (wish me luck). I am also building a website called the Martyr’s Manual (martyrsmanual.com). The website is basically a tongue-in-cheek guide on how to be a do-gooder. I’ve worked in the nonprofit industry all my life, have been a green consumer long before it was trendy, and was essentially programmed to save the world by my strange and fabulous parents. Obviously I haven’t succeeded yet. But I have gained some really handy tips on how to live well on less and shop in a way that supports communities, and I carry some strong opinions about the importance of letting our little lights shine. Like a gazillion other crazy souls out there, I hope to find an agent and a publisher who share my passion for all things do-gooder and let me ramble on for pages and pages. Who knows? I’d like to hope that anything is possible.

The Essay

It wasn’t the jolt of panic that shot through my spine, exploding into my chest when they wheeled her through the front door. It wasn’t the crushing fear etched on her parents’ faces as they waited, helpless. It wasn’t any moment during her week in the intensive care unit. It happened more than a year later, as I reached for a cup of coffee in the break room and saw a small newspaper clipping tacked inside a brief, handwritten note. It was then that I first understood the true nature of grace.

Lord knows it wasn’t the first time a heartbreakingly tragic tale had taken root in one of the rooms of the intensive care unit in which I spent most of my college years as a unit secretary, chasing after nurses, trying to be of some use. I thought I wouldn’t survive the first few weeks, as families sobbed next to beds filled with silent loved ones breathing with the help of machines. Even several years later, as I look back at my life in Columbia, Missouri, through my window in California, realizing that I gained enough weight while working in the ICU to equal another human being, I wonder how I managed to get through one day. I still feel a sense of awe remembering the nurses who walked those halls for years. It takes a hell of a lot of heart to handle death and disease as a routine part of the job.

She was 15 years old when a vessel ruptured in her head. There were no warning signs. No one could have predicted it or stopped it from happening. She was on a school field trip when it hit, learning about the brilliant blanket of wildflowers the Ozarks shower across the landscape each spring. One minute she was standing, laughing with her friends. The next she was on the ground, unresponsive.

We didn’t get many kids in the unit. Older patients with strokes and middle-aged folks with back surgeries were far more commonplace. Occasionally a traumatic case would come through, but rarely a child. So when a young person did roll through the front doors, everyone’s chest would tighten and a wave of sadness would flow through the corridor before we put aside our fears and went to work. Treatments for bleeding in the brain are fairly standard. But some of them shocked me, despite the fact that I had been raised by two nurses and our dinner-table conversations had often centered on stuff so grotesque, you would have thought we were discussing a Halloween haunted-house display.

By the time the girl reached us, the swelling in her head was severe. To lessen the pressure and therefore the potential damage to her brain, a portion of her skull was removed. When her parents were asked to leave so that one of the nurses could perform a task, I stood at her door and wondered about the white bandage on her head. How was it possible to survive when a portion of the very thing that is supposed to protect you has been removed?

Throughout the course of a week, everyone did what they could. Countless doctors fluttered in and out of her room. Her family clung to one another, fear turning to grief in their furrowed brows. After a barrage of treatments, it became apparent she would not make it. Staff whispered in hushed tones about how sad it was to see someone so young die like this. I asked one of the nurses why the doctors were continuing with treatments when it was obvious that she was gone. She told me that cynics will tell you physicians are simply worried about being sued, so they administer treatments and tests they know will have no effect to give the impression they have done absolutely everything possible. But most often there are circumstances where the family needs more time to come to terms with what is happening. The added activity and its explanations help them to understand the reality of the situation. When I looked into her mom’s and dad’s faces, their crushed hearts breaking through, I knew they understood.  They didn’t require a lengthy explanation from the organ-donor coordinator. After tests demonstrated that their little girl was brain-dead, they asked what the procedure was to make her an organ donor, because it was what she would have wanted. She had played in the school band, fed families at a homeless shelter during Christmas, and wanted to save every stray pet that crossed her path. I stayed overnight after her parents had kissed her good-bye and helped the organ-donation team coordinate the surgery, stopping occasionally to touch her arm and thank her.

She was from a small town in the Ozarks where community is family. On the day of her funeral, the high school was closed and virtually every student attended her service. Her friends and fellow members of the marching band played a song as all the other people present held hands. Then the service ended, and everyone went home.

A little more than a year later, I wandered into the break room to pour myself a cup of cheap, wretched coffee, the kind only hospitals dare serve, and looked to see what new, absurd jokes were on the bulletin board. (My all-time favorite: If assholes could fly, this place would be an airport.) Next to memos and a recipe for monster cookies contributed by a happy wife whose husband had survived a stroke was a handwritten note that read, “Thank you for all you did.” Tacked inside it was a softly crumpled newspaper clipping containing a poem that opened with a message from her parents: “We miss you so much. Our hearts ache for you every single day.” They had placed a tribute to her in their local paper and sent a copy of it to us.

I don’t remember much about the poem or the message it tried to convey. What I remember was the date on the newspaper clipping. Instead of honoring her on the day of her birth or death, they chose to remember her on the day her organs were transplanted. They chose to honor the day she gave others life. Four people received life-saving organs from that 15-year-old girl. Two others received essential tissues. In all, six people were transformed because those devastated parents decided to honor the giving spirit of their precious child. I do not know if I could have such courage in the face of such unimaginable pain. I could not fathom how they maintained the ability to breathe. To walk. To get out of bed. And then I remembered my grandmother, who had borne her two sons one year apart and buried them some 20 years later, one year apart. How did she endure it not once but twice?

Working in that intensive care unit gave me countless sad tales, and some unfortunate memories are burned into my brain. But it wasn’t some catastrophic moment that taught me one of the most powerful lessons of my life. I learned that unbelievably awful things can and do happen. In truth, they are not such rare, isolated events. Each of us has a story that would break someone’s heart. Despite the grief and the unfairness of it all, we keep going. There are chores to be done. There are people who still need our care. There is a life to be led.

The real lesson was found in the date on that small newspaper clipping. I realized that, regardless of the heartache, we may choose the moments in which we live.

On that day, I learned that love creates a tremendous capacity for grace. And perhaps it is that grace that keeps us moving forward.

Click here to read Parenting a Child With a Disability, the powerful runner-up in the first Life Lessons essay contest.

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