Although this piece now forms a part of my memoir On Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After It Happened, I was originally prompted to write it for the 2012 Ladies Home Journal personal essay contest. The theme was “The Day that Changed My Life.” Boy, was that tough. Very few of my life’s big changes can be traced to one day. The day I nearly drowned a few years ago was a contender, but I don’t think I was ready to write about that yet. The day I ran away from home would have been an obvious choice, but it didn’t make for much of a story. But then there was this day, the day I became aware that my mother was mentally ill, and that, I thought, had possibilities. Still, I suppose it would be a stretch to say that that particular day changed my life; rather, it was more that it marked a turning point in my theretofore comparatively carefree teenage existence.
It’s an interesting idea, though, isn’t it? Every day, people are faced with calamitous events that, in a flash, change their lives forever: accidents, natural disasters, illnesses, deaths in the family. You can’t even prepare for those kinds of changes because, unlike the string of fairly predictable events that make up the majority of modern life – going off to college, finding a job, getting married, having children, retiring – you don’t know they’re coming. Perhaps that’s why these kinds of stories fascinate us; there’s something wonderful in the way people respond to unexpected challenges, sometimes even something heroic. And while none of us wants to suffer a sudden catastrophe, maybe deep down we all hope that we would have the strength and courage to handle one if it came our way.