Sunday, October 12, 2008

Reflections on turning the big 4-0

I am not a “doom and gloom” kind of gal. In fact, my glass is always half full. This is the part of my personality that, I believe, has led to my success helping students and families through the roller-coaster ride of middle school. I see the light at the end of the tunnel, celebrate strengths, support weaknesses, and maintain high expectations throughout the entire ride. When it’s over, most people are appreciative of the optimism.

This attitude does not mean I completely ignore signs of pessimism by closing my eyes, covering my ears, and pretending I’m in some far away fairytale land. This would be silly. Rather, I’ve been told that I can generally roll with the punches, weigh the pros and cons of a situation, and set forth on a path that leads to the most positive outcome. It’s not always easy, but then life isn’t supposed to be easy. (I’m certain my parents said this to me when I was a child and it has stuck.)

Considering all sides of a situation is much easier in a professional role than in my personal life. The emotional ties are just not the same. It is easier to get overwhelmed with negativity when you are emotionally involved with a situation. For example, I am facing my 40th birthday in just a few days. My wonderful husband took me out for an early celebration last night and while sitting on a bench eating our ice-cream cones we had a serious discussion about how we physically feel different when we become 40 years old. By “different,” I mean worse.

Of course, Gary had several years to prepare for this discussion since he is six years older than I am, but he empathetically supported my personal revelations. For me, my eyes have worsened significantly over the last few months to where I panic if I don’t have my glasses nearby. I laugh at the memory of when I used to wake up and take kick-boxing classes before work, settling now for a short, leisurely stroll with the dog to the end of the driveway, and back. Yet I still dream of the long-distance bike rides with the kids and hope one day to make this dream a reality.

The conversation over ice cream left us laughing at how things have changed since we met and married in 1994, when we were both young and fit. Now, we are both happy to be healthy enough to enjoy our family and friends. Not everyone is as fortunate as we. In fact, many of our family members have had their lives cut short by disease or accident, and I wonder just how our lives might have changed if these ancestors had been given the opportunity to live full lives.

It is truly unfortunate how many people died at a young age due to disease. Take a look at any 1910 U.S. Federal Census, for example, and see how many children a woman had given birth to compared with how many of these children were still alive. The comparison is staggering; it was very uncommon for every child born in a household to survive through childhood. Tuberculosis took thousands more lives, especially in the early 20th century. My great Aunt Elizabeth died of pneumonia she caught when she traveled down to Cincinnati to witness for herself “the great flood” of 1937. With advances in medical care, so many of these people would be able to overcome their fateful illness and make a complete recovery.

Just like today, it is the young, healthy lives cut short by accident that are sometimes the hardest to comprehend. My great grandfather, Howard Lee Cook, is an example of this tragedy. On a rainy, Sunday morning, July 4, 1920, Howard and his wife, Eva, were driving a few miles to Centerville, Indiana to visit Howard’s ailing mother. According to the newspaper reports, “[Mr. Cook] was driving from the north and had stopped to allow a fast train from the east to pass. The noise of the westbound train is supposed to have deafened Cook so that he did not hear the train coming from the west.” (Richmond Item, July 6, 1920, page 1, column 4).

In the end, Howard was killed instantly. Eva “evidently tried to jump from the automobile, but was not far enough to escape injury. One of her legs suffered a compound fracture, her back was bruised and nose broken. The attending physician at Reid Memorial hospital state last night that it was thought she was internally injured. Her condition is extremely critical” (Richmond Item, July 6, 1920, page 1, column 4).

Howard’s death at 44 years old was devastating to the family and the entire community. My grandfather, Harold Cook, was just 16 at the time and the only child of Howard and Eva. No one may ever know the reasons why he did not accompany his parents on this trip, but the presumption is he stayed behind to prepare for the celebrations that would occur later that day. It is daunting to think that I would not be here had my grandfather been in that car.

But, because I am here and I continue to look on the bright side, I rejoice in that I have gained so much from this tragedy. My grandfather immediately became a strong, independent leader who cared for his injured mother and learned the benefits of working hard for a living. He was successful in both his professional and personal life, allowing his own children to grow and prosper. I have wonderful memories of my grandfather. My great grandmother, Eva, also became stronger through her ordeal of recovery, recording every single event about the ensuing trials with the railroad and her medical procedures. Even after she remarried, Eva kept journals and diaries, and I am proud to have possession of these valuable documents. They are a genealogist’s dream.

In the end, turning 40 isn’t so bad. It allows me to reflect on the past and dream for the future. I have a lot to be thankful for. I am thankful that my parents raised me to be honest, caring, and hard-working. I am thankful for the education I have received, and the opportunity to return the favor by providing an education to others. I am reminded of this point, especially, as Howard Lee Cook’s 1893 Indiana Common School diploma is hanging in my office at school. The piece of paper is so much more ornate than my own college diploma, and his early death forces me to appreciate, every day, the time I am given here on Earth. In reflecting on the past it is obvious that my family has truly been my biggest blessing.

With our ice cream finished and heading into the movie theater, Gary and I both agreed that the second half of our lives will be even better than the first half. We have goals for ourselves and for our children, and we are trying to create an environment for all of us to be able to successfully achieve these goals. While I may not be able to see very well or beat the kids in a race across the yard, a great future lies ahead. Knowing that we will celebrate life every day keeps the light at the end of the tunnel shining brightly.

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