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Carolyn Elliott

It’s Never Too Late to Figure Out a Way

Bleary eyed after only two hours of sleep, Carolyn Elliott raced back to the hospital where her young adult daughter, Marissa, was being treated following a terrible car crash. Marissa had several broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and a blood clot in her brain. Carloyn, always a person who looked for signs, noticed one on the bumper of the pick up truck just ahead of her. The sticker read HPE, and whatever it was intended to signify, Carolyn decided to interpret it to read “hope,” a message she needed more desperately than ever. By the time she reached the hospital, her daughter’s clot had miraculously dissolved, and on hearing the good news, Carolyn did too, into a flood of relieved tears.

Marissa’s health scare was even more frightening to Carolyn because, for so many years, it had been just the two of them. Carolyn had divorced Marissa’s volatile, often rageful father when her daughter was still a toddler, knowing the decision would mean raising her daughter as a single mom with sole custody and no support, but equally certain it was the only choice she had if she was going to bring Marissa up to be the strong, independent decision maker she wanted her to become. She would figure it out, just as she had done from the very beginning of her life.

In 1952, when Carolyn’s mother was pregnant, she was exposed to rubella, resulting in the baby she was carrying not fully developing hands and feet. Carolyn was born with only the beginnings of fingers and feet that didn’t extend past her ankles. Her mother worried how her infant daughter would manage until, she said, she watched Carolyn somehow shimmy out of her crib on her own, even without fingers to grasp the bars. Soon, Carolyn got fitted for her first pair of artificial legs, and she became such an active child that those legs were in constant need of repair.

Carolyn went through childhood and into adulthood viewing her physical handicap as merely part of her packaging, and when someone asked her what she wanted to be in life, she often responded, illustrating the different times, “A boy, so I can have adventures.” As she grew older and societal expectations changed, Carolyn realized she could have those adventures just as she was, on her own with her daughter. Carolyn’s career as a high school English teacher allowed her to take Marissa off exploring in the summers, on extended road trips to New Mexico and California, following the Lewis and Clark Trail, and spending an entire month in Ireland.

Meanwhile, her thirst for learning never abated. Following her BA in English and Journalism, she went on to a Master’s Degree in Educationally Handicapped. Several years later, having grown frustrated by listening to women’s comments in committee meetings being ignored, only to witness her male colleagues make the same point and be lauded for their insight, she decided to pursue a PhD in Education Policy and Gender Bias.

The myriad responsibilities of being a single parent and the sole breadwinner and a graduate student, combined with her harsh, dysfunctional upbringing dominated by her father, a WWII veteran who had helped to liberate a Nazi concentration camp but had returned home suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, finally began to take their toll. Carolyn wasn’t sleeping well and felt herself spiraling into depression. But, as she had always done, she told herself there had to be a better way, and she sought it out. With the help of EMDR therapy and the right medications, Carolyn was able to get back to being the person she wanted to be – curious, engaged, resilient and focused.

Today, from her home office in what she lovingly refers to as her “little house near the prairie,” Carolyn is preparing for a new round of adventures. She has found a spiritual home in her local Unitarian church, stays busy with writing and editing for a variety of organizations, and is looking forward to an upcoming trip to Seoul to visit Marissa and her husband, a man who came into her life through a fortuitous twist of fate. (The doctor who treated Marissa as she began the slow process of recovery from her car accident is the one who introduced the couple.) And so, Carolyn thinks, she was right to interpret the bumper sticker she saw on her frantic drive to the hospital that morning as a sign of hope. The signs are there; what matters is what you do with them.

It’s never too late to figure out a way.