Seventy? Really? How did that happen? Sunday, June 4th, is my birthday. I’ll be seventy. Seventy sounds old, so I decided to do an internet search. I read, “Seventy is the beginning of old age.” Oh my! As I thought about this upcoming milestone, I reflected back on my life.
I always thought the day I was born was the beginning of old age, the beginning of me until I’m not anymore, one day at a time. In lieu of the alternative, I try to live one day at a time, especially since I got sober. I learned to rely on God, as I understand God one day at a time. On July 1st I will celebrate 36 years of sobriety and that’s how it goes—one day at a time. How amazing is that?
The Menninger Clinic
As a youngster, at nine years of age, my dad died. I was heartbroken and I really didn’t recover until I went to the famous Menninger Clinic in 1970.
Larry, the love of my life, had deployed to Vietnam. I fell apart and, at age 23, was diagnosed with clinical depression while living in Lubbock, Texas. My gynecologist recommended that I see a psychiatrist, Dr. Croix, who was from Manhattan and had trained at The Clinic.
Mother and I flew to Topeka, Kansas, where I was admitted. It was there I learned, in February 1971, that Larry’s plane had crashed and his remains were not recovered. Thank God I was there. I can’t imagine how I could have coped without the loving support of my house doctor, the nursing staff and the other patients.
Promises to Larry
I had promised Larry that he would be buried at Arlington if he didn’t come home from Vietnam and I was heartbroken his remains were not recovered. Yet, I always believed, one day, his remains would be returned to me and our daughter, Laura.
After Larry died, I was discharged from Menninger and moved to Topeka where Laura joined me. The plan Larry and I had for our life together became my blueprint. We had promised to cherish each other and graduate when we married. I still lacked thirty hours on my Bachelor’s degree and immediately enrolled in courses at Washburn University, completed my Bachelor’s and began teaching in Topeka. I had promised Larry I would graduate from college when he left for Vietnam and I did.
On my way home from evening classes at KU a young man, under the influence of alcohol, crossed the center line on the highway between Lawrence, Kansas, and Topeka. He crashed into my car head on and I was unconscious for twelve days. In addition to my head injuries, both of my legs and one wrist were broken. In my unconscious state, I heard Larry’s voice saying, “You have to go back and take care of Laura.” I awoke in a hospital bed twelve days later and eventually returned to work at Topeka Public Schools.
While teaching, I completed my Master’s and Doctorate at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.
Larry’s remains were found thirty-five years after his plane crashed and Laura and I flew to Hawaii to escort him home. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. A crowd of friends, family and brothers in arms, who served with Larry, attended that amazing celebration of his life. One more promised kept.
Teaching, Leading and Learning
Teaching junior high students, becoming a principal, then serving as a superintendent of schools was more than an honor and privilege. The students, parents, teachers and administrators in four different school districts and three states taught me so much.
After I retired from the public-school business, I taught graduate students and led graduate programs at two universities, one in Illinois and one in Texas. My life was filled with challenges, teamwork, close relationships and life-long friends, many of whom I still see and communicate with on a regular basis.
Moving Home to Texas
Since returning to Texas, I’ve had more opportunities to spend time with extended family. Most important was the opportunity to spend time with my mother. My sister and I teamed up to help care for her in her old age. Mother lived to the age of 94 in the care center in Boerne, Texas, where I live. I am so grateful I could be with her when she died; it was an experience I will never forget. I miss her still and, even at my age, I sometimes feel like a motherless child.
I’ve built a new home in the hill country of Texas and my daughter lives close by. I enjoy the company of dear friends here, as well as in Illinois and across our wonderful country. Administrators from the Menninger Clinic and colleagues of Larry’s during his deployment in Vietnam are valued confidants and still close to me.
Cancer, Caregivers and Gratitude
I’m a grateful cancer survivor and I have wonderful doctors in San Antonio and at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. When I travel to M.D. Anderson, I’m always touched by the courage of so many of the patients I meet there. Their tenacity renews my faith in the determination and perseverance of our brothers and sisters on this planet.
Recently, my doctor asked me, “How old are you?” It’s not the first time I’ve heard that question. “I’ll be seventy in a few weeks,” I boasted.
“You don’t look seventy,” he grinned, looking up from my chart.
I wondered if I was supposed to say, thanks. Was that supposed to be a compliment or not? I started to say, “Thank you,” but I realized, I’ve earned every one of those years and I’m proud of each one. I said nothing and, instead, grinned from ear to ear.
Students, Teachers and Mystical Experiences Abroad
During my seventy years, I have had the privilege of visiting schools in China, Peru, Ecuador and Canada as well as across our country.
I was invited to join a group of educational leaders on a sponsored trip to China to visit schools, both in Beijing as well as in rural areas. We toured both private schools for children from wealthy families as well as schools that served the poorest of the poor.
We lunched with our Chinese peers, observed teaching styles and discussed instructional strategies. My take-away from my travels was how excellent and caring all the teachers I met were toward their students. They welcomed us with open arms and, through interpreters and our own made-up versions of sign language, we discussed our students’ strengths and weaknesses, parents’ educational expectations for their children, homework assignments and favorite lesson plans. At the end, we had developed friendships.
A nine-year-old boy insisted that he give me the watercolor he painted, as I oohed and aahed over his work. His teacher wrapped the rice paper painting with great care. The young artist and I beamed at one another and, today, that lovely piece of artwork by my young artist friend hangs in a special place in my home, for all to see.
We rode the bus down a curvy, winding road through the mountainous countryside to a tiny, one-room school.
The principal and teachers were wonderfully welcoming and the children were magnificent, though some were quite shy. That didn’t last long. They had been given a task, to teach the visitors to learn and speak a short list of Peruvian words. They were masterful teachers. Soon they were pointing to objects and making facial expressions in order to teach us our assignment. Their beauty and charisma captivated me.
During the same trip, I climbed to the top of Machu Picchu. I wanted to see the condors and I did. At that amazing altitude, I marveled at the grace of the condors as they soared, dived and glided through the air. I imagined Larry riding on their wings and then I imagined Larry himself soaring, diving, and gliding through the air.
That climb was huge, since my previous trip to Peru had been canceled when, during a pre-trip physical, my doctor told me I’d need to go to the hospital. I left the hospital with two stents in my heart, mainly because my inner voice had cautioned me to have a physical before I made that trip.
We visited a school for children and adults with Down syndrome. These happy, friendly, precious people performed traditional dances for us while musicians played Peruvian flutes.
At the end, the group descended on the audience and we became their students. My teacher was a teenage girl who patiently taught me the dance by showing me the steps over and over. The students were magnificent. We laughed and hugged as we said goodbye. I left grateful and thankful but, most of all, I was impressed by this special, progressive school and their wonderful talented students.
A favorite memory from that trip is when I swam with a group of sea lions off the volcanic shores of Ecuador. They were playing several yards away from my Zodiac when I slipped off the raft, into the ocean. I swam toward them and began to tread water. Instinctively, I dived underwater like they did. Well, sort of like they did. Soon, a circle of sea lions surrounded me. I mimicked their squeals and dived under. As I began to come to the surface, I’d lay my arm out perpendicular to them with the palm of my hand open and upright. They did the most amazing thing next. They touched their noses to my hand. As each nose touched my hand, one at a time, I thrilled by the feel of their tickling whiskers.
Relishing the Future
A friend of mine is a practicing shaman who has studied and worked with the Inca men and women of Peru for nearly two decades. Once she said to me, “Tyra, you’re always dancing on the edge.”
“The edge of what?” I asked. She said something like, “Between both worlds.”
Maybe she sensed how many times God has provided a way for me to recover and how close I have come to the edge.
Where the Water Meets the Sand, published, May, 2016
Barely a year ago my book, Where the Water Meets the Sand, was published. It has been a dream come true. I promised, when I was at the Menninger Clinic, that I would write Larry’s and my story, to honor him and our daughter, Laura. I promised to work hard to do my part to break the stigma toward those who suffer from mental illness and their loved ones. I have had the privilege of speaking to NAMI groups across the country, as well as to book groups and at fundraisers, on the importance of speaking out and telling our stories.
Where the Water Meets the Sand won two awards this past year. The IBPA awarded it the Benjamin Franklin Award at their national conference in Portland, Oregon, and the Texas Association of Authors awarded it first place in the Memoir/Autobiography category. I will travel to Houston in July to receive that award.
June 4th is my birthday. I’ll be seventy years old. I’m going to “Keep on Dancing.” Listen to The Gentrys song here. You can count on it.
I’m grateful for Sunday’s birthday celebration, really grateful.