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Gratitude and Loss

Yesterday I turned 33. Aside from being the alleged age of death of both Jesus and Alexander the Great, this age is rather unremarkable. Yet, over the past almost year, some remarkable things have occurred that have made me feel so much gratitude that I want to give the world a giant hug. I met my wonderful boyfriend, went on a family beach vacation and a family trip to Ohio, I PR'd in all the race distances I ran, I got to meet my newest niece, and I ran a successful marathon. Thirty-two has been a good year.

But a recent event has sort of tempered my celebratory mood. I learned that a woman I knew when I was a teenager passed away. My twin sister, Anna, and I babysat for her kids on a regular basis in our high school years. Marla was her name, and she had found our babysitting ad in the small community newspaper called the Treasure Chest, which was hand-delivered door to door in several adjoining neighborhoods. She was sweet, bright, and energetic, and she seemed to adore the idea of having twins babysit for her kids. Charlie and Sarah were probably around five and three, respectively, when we starting sitting for them. I remember thinking often of how attractive the family was. Good-looking parents and adorable children. Their life seemed ideal. Marla and her husband at the time, John, went out with friends on the nights we babysat, and they often didn't come home until late, sometimes to continue the party at home, on the porch. They were young and seemingly successful and liked to have fun.

The kids were clearly loved by their parents, but a bit spoiled also. I remember one time when Sarah, probably four years old, threw a fit because I told her she didn't need to blow-dry her hair after her bath (thinking it was a delay tactic to put off bed time), and she insisted that she needed to or else her hair would grow moldy over night. I later learned Marla had told her this little fib. Marla clearly cared a lot about her own appearance--she was naturally beautiful and always looked well-groomed and put together. (She later became a hair stylist.)

When Anna got a "real" job elsewhere, I became the primary babysitter. I remember being asked one summer to go on a family vacation with them and another couple, to a lake house a couple hours away--on a lake whose name I can't recall. I felt so honored to be asked. What I remember from this babysitting vacation is the following: riding on the back of a four-wheeler with John, Marla's husband, and feeling like it was somehow inappropriate or a betrayal to Marla; watching the summer Olympics on TV while the couples stayed out and drank a lot (which was obvious when they came home); overhearing Marla tell her girlfriend that her daughter had inherited John's figure, which she joked was unfortunate; the two women sunbathing topless in the distance from house, where I watched the kids.

I eventually got real jobs of my own but continued to babysit on occasion for Charlie and Sarah. After high school, I got heavily involved with swing dancing (not what you thought I would say, is it?), and joined together with some Tampa dancers to form a group that would provide instruction, host dances, and hold exchanges with dancers nationally. When Anna moved out of our shared apartment in Orlando to move in with her boyfriend (now husband) in Tampa, I was the only one of the group in Orlando. I decided to move to Tampa, as well.

I had no job prospects and wasn't in school at the time of my move. I was moving purely for dance. It sounds so romantic now. But I did have a connection, I learned. Marla's brother was, at the time. the Associate Dean of the Office of Curriculum at USF's medical school. She offered to put me in touch with him to interview for what I now believe was a made-up position, a brother's favor to his sister, and I soon had a full-time job at USF doing secretarial things for $10 an hour. I felt very adult-like. I also remember that, at that time, I was battling depression, and someone in that office helped me out by giving me resources and referrals for treatment, which became significant later when I would relapse.

After that three-month contract job ended, I was fortunate enough to find another full-time position in the English Department. That eventually led to a salaried staff position with benefits, which meant I could take classes on the university's dollar, which eventually led to my bachelor's degree. I have made a couple more moves in the department to my current position, but it all started with Marla's kindhearted gesture.

I lost touch with Marla and her family for years, and only recently did I try to search for them on Facebook. I realized that the kids must be in or graduating from high school, so I first looked for them, and then found Marla. I sent her a friend request and a message, just to say hello and that I couldn't believe the kids were all grown up. We had a couple of friendly exchanges, but otherwise just remained Facebook friends.

I could see she was divorced from John and seemed to be engaged to another man. Eventually, I learned she was pregnant, and, while on vacation in another state, suffered a cerebral aneurysm. Marla had to be put into a medically induced coma, and the baby had to be delivered prematurely, at only 32 weeks. I checked in occasionally on updates about both Marla and the baby. The baby was surviving, but Marla was still in a coma. Seeing her now-grown daughter Sarah's posts and pleas and prayers for her mother to pull through was heartbreaking. I felt privileged to have watched Marla raise Sarah as a small child, and to now see the close bond that had developed between them.

I became wrapped up in my own life events and had neglected to follow the news of Marla. I was visiting Anna and my nieces this past Sunday when Anna asked if I'd seen the most recent update about Marla. From the way she asked, I knew it was bad news. Marla hadn't pulled through. I couldn't believe it. Having hardly any real information about the medical event, I really just thought it would be a matter of time before she awoke from the coma. Perhaps the alternative was too tragic for me to imagine. Yet that's what happened, and I'm still having a hard time believing that Marla, who's light has shined so brightly in my memory, is no longer living. I feel for her children--for Charlie and Sarah, whom I only knew as small children, and for the tiny baby who has already out-survived his mother.

So in my birthday month, when I tend to think about the past year of my life and all that I am grateful for, I want to take extra time to remember Marla. Had it not been for her, my life would be different now. I don't know how, but I can sincerely say that I'm glad it is the way it is. I am forever grateful.


B.o.B. said…
I'm sorry to hear about your friend Marla. I'm sure her children will remember the wonderful mother they had.

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