Janet Sheridan: Moments of clarity

Throughout my life, I’ve experienced moments of clarity that occurred without fanfare or expectation and illuminated my future.

I’m not referring to the probing reflections that often accompany a mile-stone birthday or significant life event—marriage, major illness, the death of a loved one, the birth of a child—but moments that come unbidden, surprising me with their lucidity.

At fourteen, rather than going straight home after the church youth meeting as instructed by our parents, I joined five friends for a joyride in an aging Ford. I sat between the Lindstrom sisters in the back seat as we fled parental authority through a lake-tinged night.

The red-haired driver, newly licensed, mimicked casual driving skills she hadn’t yet earned: turning to look at her passengers as she gossiped, waving her freckled hands for emphasis, ignoring signs about speed limits and upcoming curves.

The Lindstrom sisters reached out to one another and clutched hands across me, made anxious by the speed, the darkness, the disapproval we’d face should our parents discover the decision we’d made to take this crazed ride.

In contrast, I filled with elation as a new understanding flooded through me: my wise or foolish decisions—more than the expectations, encouragements, and conventions imposed by others—would decide my future. As I moved beyond my present, I would have the power of choice.

Succumbing to our youthful recklessness and my sudden sense of adult independence, I laughed into the window-wind of the back seat.

At twenty, I walked across the grounds of the Wyoming State Training School with my charges: a group of happy, chattering female residents. We were returning to the ward where I worked and they lived after attending a Fourth of July party during which everybody danced every dance with total joy and abandon.

We strolled beneath the fluttering leaves of large ash trees that filtered the light of a mellow moon and softened the lines of the institutional buildings we passed.

My mind preoccupied with thoughts of a recent break-up with a boyfriend I’d once thought perfect, full of self doubt and bleakness, I hardly noticed when Yvonne, a large woman with multiple disabilities, the mental age of a child, and garbled speech, moved to my side, put an arm around me, smiled broadly, and pointed at the gentleness of the glowing moon. Then, in half-swallowed words I had learned to interpret, she said, “I love you, Mom.”

In that instant, I knew as surely as I had ever known anything, that throughout my life love would come to me from many different sources, that I would love and be loved in return.

I slid my arm around Yvonne as we walked together through the shimmering night.

At sixty, sweltering in the heat and humidity of a Midwest summer, I sat on a chair shaded by an over-arching pecan tree and felt relief that Jenny and Joel were fitting and cementing stones to form a patio, while I had the easier task of entertaining grandchildren.

One child sat on my lap holding a picture book he wanted to hear “just one more time, please, please, please,” while a toddler, fiercely determined, scrabbled and squeezed onto my lap as well, demanding “Me, too!”

I opened Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and began to read.

When I married Joel, I immediately liked and became friends with his mostly grown children. Then, as they had children, I became a grandparent, responding, as grandparents do, with patience, pleasure and love.

But always, unconsciously, I held something back, kept a part of myself in reserve, guarded my sense of obligation and involvement. Then on this heat-slick day, holding two sticky little boys on my lap, smelling their sun-warmed hair, I realized I had never been happier, that I loved and would protect these children, that I was as totally committed to them as I would be if my blood ran through their veins.

Such moments of enlightenment don’t come to me often, but they inform and enrich my life when they do.

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