Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Choosing Magic

When I applied to graduate school, I didn't tell anyone except my husband. I had just won a local writing contest and was feeling pretty confident, and felt like the time was right to explore becoming more serious about my writing. I had a job that didn't drain me and my family was financially sound. Warren had built an amazing team at his company that allowed him some more flexibility to help pick up some of the slack at home so I could pursue my Masters degree. My daughter was just getting into chapter books and her enthusiasm about books fueled my desire to be part of that excitement for kids beyond my own.

I spent hours researching writing programs. There weren't very many with a focus on writing for children, but the ones I found sounded fascinating. I also looked at other programs like writing for social justice and community literacy. They had equally impressive programs. I applied to 4. All of them required writing samples. Warren took the realm at home and with our daughter, and I wrote essay after essay, filled out all the applications, and completed various writing to meet the requirements. I still didn't tell a soul what I was up to. I wasn't fully convinced that I would be accepted and I don't do well with failure. If I did not get accepted, I did not want to share that with anyone beyond the person I knew would still be encouraging no matter what.

I sent my applications and tried not to be too anxious about the responses. Although I had given myself options, I really, really wanted to get into Vermont College of Fine Arts. Aside from theirs being the first MFA program to focus on writing for children and young adults, their faculty list was impressive and diverse. Their teaching model had been adopted by other graduate programs, and their list of alumni was awe-inspiring. Getting in felt like the ultimate validation that I should be writing stories for young readers.

On February 12, 2012 Warren and I were in my car and he put his hand on my knee and asked gently, "Have you heard from any of the schools you applied to?" 

I told him I had not heard anything. 

He didn't falter and said, "You'll get in. I know you really want to go to Vermont, and you will." 

He rubbed my knee, and then put both hands on the steering wheel. We didn't speak of it again because we both knew how much I wanted him to be right. 

Three days later Warren passed away unexpectedly. I felt as though a huge chunk of myself was missing. I didn't know how I was going to face a future without him. All that had once seemed solid and sure was gone and I operated on auto-pilot, in a fog of epic pain and confusion. Nothing made sense anymore. Suffice it to say, I was no longer thinking about graduate school or writing.

Two days after the funeral I got a call from Vermont College of Fine Arts. The voice on the other end congratulated me on my acceptance. I cupped my hands over the phone to stifle a sob and sunk to the floor in my kitchen. The voice said, "Hello. Can you hear me? I said you got into our writing for children and young adults program. Are you still on the line?" I choked out a "yes" then couldn't speak again for fear I would weep into the phone and scare her into rescinding the offer. 

Her response, "You're the calmest person I've talked to about coming to VCFA. Most people are super excited. It's a tough program to get into." I thanked her and told her I was happy. Then I asked for some time to decide and rushed to get off the phone. I walked up to my aunt and sobbed into her arms, facing the first milestone without Warren. What would have been a time for celebrating, made it strikingly clear that my biggest cheerleader was not there for this moment. 

That is one of the hardest parts of my grief journey. I wanted so much to share that accomplishment with Warren, to see his bright smile and the pride in his eyes that I had grown so accustomed to. No one knew what it meant to me to get into VCFA. No one knew I was even pursuing it. In order to share my joy I would have to explain those things to my family and friends. I barely had the energy to breathe, let alone articulate what it meant to get in. I kept hearing Warren's voice in my head, telling me that I would get in. I saw the confidence in his eyes from just a few days earlier and my joy was quickly sucked into a mix of pain, anger and awe. 

The program required me to go to Vermont for ten days every six months for two years. I had just lost my husband, my partner in all things. His death made me the sole provider for my daughter on a salary that was nearly one third of our joint income. My daughter was constantly checking to see if I was breathing in my sleep. How could I even consider going into debt and leaving when she had just lost her daddy? It felt like life had just thrown me another cruel joke. It had presented me with something that I wanted so badly but could not have. Another glimpse of what could be but never would be.

Still, I couldn't shake Warren's words. I could see him so vividly assuring me that I would go to Vermont. How could I let him down? He believed I would go more than I did. Another thing that was prevalent those days was that so many people were reaching out to me. I felt their love for Warren and their sincerity at wanting to do something, anything they could, to help me. They wanted to be close to my daughter and I so they could feel closer to him. Some told me they wanted to find a way to return the kindness he had once shown them. It was fascinating. Even though I had never experienced such a loss in my life, I knew their reactions were unique and special. I decided to trust Warren. He had always given me incredible advice. He wanted me to be a writer. He called me a writer in a way that felt genuine. 

A few days later I called VCFA and accepted my place in their upcoming class. I knew it wasn't going to be easy. I had five months to help my daughter heal enough to let me out of her sight for two weeks. I used that time to prepare myself to meet a slew of people who wouldn't know me as Warren's wife. I called on those caring souls who offered help and asked them to help me in various ways to make it possible to go to Vermont. I visualized myself taking on a totally new challenge. I told myself that I wasn't doing it alone, Warren would be with me.

This is not to say that it was smooth sailing. I can't tell you how I survived my first two semesters because I remember them in bits and pieces, like clips of a movie. There were plenty of tears. There were times I felt that Warren was so far from me, and other times when I'd smile at something I wrote, imagining his reaction if he could read it. When I completed the first draft of my young adult novel I was instantly filled with relief, pride, and anger that I couldn't share it with him, see his smile, or hear his voice tell me that he knew I could do it. When I got to work with amazing advisors who I held in the highest esteem, it hurt not to share that excitement with him. On the day I walked across the stage at my graduation ceremony the tears would not stop, no matter how hard I tried, feeling every minute that the person who should have been there to share that moment was not with me. I still look back and feel awash with the joy of the moment and the sadness of that fact. 

However, so many beautiful realizations came from that experience that I will be eternally grateful that I took the chance and didn't let grief and fear stop me. I made incredible friends, worked with phenomenal writers, and wrote some of my best stories to date. I learned more than I dreamed, and most importantly, I began forming new dreams for myself that were mine, not remnants of the life I'd lost, but the life I wanted to live. It was healing and magical to explore new possibilities and know that I am braver than I believed, stronger than I seemed, and smarter than I thought. 

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