Warning: This is a novel. I thought about breaking it into two posts, but I didn’t. If you want a break, stop reading halfway through and come back.
This has been another Kara McCartney service announcement. The more you know.
When I was three I ran away from home. I wasn’t very good at it. According to witnesses, I screamed, “I’m going to be Kara Jo OLSON!” and marched out the front door.
The whole crawl-out-the-window thing was too discrete an exit.
I walked a mile-and-a-half down the road to my best friend Annie’s house. I packed a water bottle (in case I died of thirst in the wilderness, I guess?). That is one angry, determined little three-year-old. With a clear misunderstanding on how adoption works.
The Olson family should have made the whole thing legal that day, because I spent the majority of the next fifteen years under their roof. Just think of what one more dependent could have done for their tax returns. I loved playing Kara Olson. Annie’s family was massive—with over forty cousins spread across two sides and a host of aunts that were practically identical to Annie’s mom, Mary.
Mary was the “fun mom.” All my memories of her are just being this really weird, bubbly person that told crazy stories and had a million activities planned. You know how most kids ignore their parents until adulthood? I’m pretty sure Annie and her two siblings skipped the stage. We loved having Mary around. She was always laughing—usually very loudly, and usually at herself.
I’m not sure how or when I learned about Mary’s life before Mick and the kids. I’m assuming Annie told me, or maybe my parents. It was just this thing I knew. I knew she was engaged before Mick. I knew she had brothers but I only ever saw the sisters. I knew all these things, but I never really thought about it.
If I had to name the most resilient woman I know, it’s Mary Olson. Hands down. The woman who—in my opinion—is the most positive woman in the Northern hemisphere has been hit harder by life than any person I know.
And I wanted to know how. I wanted to know how it’s humanly possible to go through life laughing and smiling when that very life puts you through hell.
I wanted to ask Mary about her life for…years. But what was I supposed to do? Call her up and say, “Hey, didn’t you have two brothers die when they were teenagers? Can you tell me about that? And you know how you almost died in that motorcycle accident with your fiancé? What was that like? Oh and why you’re at it, weren’t you struck by lightning?” Great dinnertime conversation.
I chickened out so I texted Annie. On her green light, I made the call.
“Kara Jo McCartney!”
Cancel everything I said before. I will forever have a personal vendetta against Mary Olson for my entire hometown knowing my middle name.
“Mary Olson. How are you?”
“Oh you know. I just loaded one hundred pounds of mashed potatoes in the back of my minivan. Ardel McCartney and I are bringing fourteen pies later and…”
I will never understand what radioactive spider bit Mary or my mom to make them Volunteer Super Women. Every one of their kids are well into adulthood, and they still spend their weekends with the other “parents” serving free meals to senior citizens. I used to wonder why they were still the key organizers, but after ten years of that you just kinda learn to stop asking.
I tried to make a semi-normal transition away from small talk and failed. There was no easy way to ask this. “I want to know how you’re so positive.”
Put your problems into perspective.
Mary laughed. “My dad used to say, ‘If you have a problem and money can fix it, that’s not a real problem.’”
My stomach turned. No amount of dollar signs would bring Mary’s brothers back.
And for the first time in the twenty-seven years I’ve known her, Mary told me the whole story. She told me about being fifteen years old, and her older brother dying in a car crash. It was terrible—a head-on collision involving five teenagers, each one killed instantly. Years later, when Annie’s older sister Megan was just an infant, Mary’s youngest brother was killed in a tractor accident. Two brothers. Eleven years apart. Both just sixteen years old.
She told me about being twenty-two, engaged for the first time, when she was riding on the back of a motorcycle with her fiancé and a car hit them. “They took me in a separate ambulance,” she told me. “And I think I was just so heavily medicated I kept blacking in and out, but I remember wondering why no one would tell me anything. Every time I woke up I was like, ‘Is he just down the hall? Is he in another room?’ then I realized why no was telling me how he was doing.”
She told me about spending the entire summer in the hospital, May to July. She told me how her and two friends had each planned their weddings one month apart—August, September, and October. The September wedding never happened.
Remember that this is not the worst thing that could ever happen to you.
When I was twenty-two I thought the world was ending because I hated my job and my boyfriend broke up with me. How could someone like Mary not wake up each morning wanting to punch someone like me in the face?
“You really just have to laugh out loud at people,” she said. “You overhear someone at work or at the grocery story and they just have all these problems and they’re so busy and it’s like, ‘Excuse me, have you ever followed Ardel McCartney around?’
“I can remember the first summer Megan came home from college, and she was working at the nursing home. I don’t remember what happened, but she came home one day complaining that it was the worst summer she had ever had, and I went off.
“I told her, ‘If THIS is the worst summer you ever have, then I am just SO HAPPY for you, because let me tell you about the worst summer I ever had.’ You can say those things when it’s your own kid, but you can’t say those things to a stranger on the street. Even if the worst day of their life is a broken fingernail.”
If you ever want to feel like an entitled, spoiled brat, I suggest you give Mary Olson a call. How is someone supposed to get over something like that?
You always have a choice: You can be bitter and angry, or you can be happy for the life you have.
“Exactly what was my alternative? I was twenty-two years old. I was too young to stay single my whole life. I don’t think of myself as this super-strong person.”
Excuse me, what does qualify as a super-strong person? If losing two brothers and a fiancé, having a near-death experience, and being struck by lightning doesn’t qualify; who makes the cut? Just wondering.
“What should I have done? Be bitter and angry and mad at the world? I always thought about how disappointed these loved ones would be with me if I didn’t pick up the pieces and move on.”
When Mary was released from the hospital that summer, somehow friends and family convinced her to go to the other two weddings. “I didn’t want to go,” she said, “But they said, ‘Oh just go, you don’t have to stay for long,’ so I put a smile on my face and went. The first one was very painful. But there was this guy I knew who sat and visited with me, and that guy was Mick.
“By October, I was feeling a little better. I went to that wedding and Mick was there again, and he asked me to dance. A bunch of friends went to the bars after the wedding, and we stayed up all night and all had breakfast together the next morning. And that’s when Mick asked me out, and I was like ‘….I just went through allllllll of this,’ and he told me he knew what I went through and that he would be patient. He wasn’t very patient!”
You have to pick yourself up and move on.
It’s really hard to explain this without you there on the phone with me, but Mary told me this entire story like she was telling me the sky is blue. Like, of course she went on with life, and it would be ridiculous to sit at home and cry, and what was she supposed to do, have a meltdown?
Yes. That is exactly what you are supposed to do. You are supposed to cry and scream and have the meltdown to melt all meltdowns. Let me show you.
“I often think about all the strength it took to go to those darn weddings. It’s a good thing I didn’t stay home. You gotta pick up the pieces and go on with life.”
I kept thinking back to Mary’s words, Exactly what was the alternative? Then I thought about all the people who choose that alternative, me being one of them. I thought about all the people who would have crawled into bed and cried and wondered why all these terrible things kept happening to them.
I thought about all the times I’ve said the words, “I have bad luck,” because I get into a lot of car accidents where I’ve never been injured, and I get thousands of dollars worth of parking tickets because I refuse to switch my plates over, and I get towed because I think no-parking signs are suggestive in nature. I thought of all the times I cried over boys who don’t matter, jobs that paid my rent, or thighs that fit into respectfully-sized jeans.
I thought about each and every time I chose to, in Mary’s words, be bitter and angry at the world for no reason. And here was someone who has every reason to hate life, and does nothing but walk around laughing and smiling.
In fewer words, I pointed this out. And once again she made it clear she did not like the alternative.
There is always a choice. Mary chose to build an awesome life with three great kids and a man that loves her very much. You can be grateful and happy for what you’re given, or you can walk around hating whatever source of energy did you wrong.
“I mean, there were dark days,” she said. “And I did bottle a lot of things up—honestly I’m probably lucky I didn’t lose my mind. But I have a strong faith and I just keep telling myself, ‘Well, I guess someone must want me here.’”
Yes Mary. We’re all really, really happy you’re here.