What was your life-changing moment?

By Caitlin Kelly

She was wandering the shoe department at Bloomingdale’s, the one at 59th and Third in Manhattan. On a hot, humid day, her pale arms were fully bare, shoulder to fingertips.

But something terrible had happened to her, and to them; they were covered with deep, wide scars, dozens of them up and down each arm. Had she flown through a windshield? Been pushed into a window?

Whatever had happened to her surely divided the moments before and the moments afterward into two very different lives.

We all have them.

Sometimes joyful — a scholarship, a career-making award, a fellowship, a new baby, a wedding.


Sept. 18, 2011. Jose and I tie the knot!
Sept. 18, 2011. Jose and I tie the knot!

Sometimes devastating — an awful medical diagnosis, the onset of a chronic illness, an accident and subsequent injury, a divorce, the death of a child or loved one, getting fired or long-term un(der)employment.

It might not be, and probably isn’t, just one moment, but the epiphany that results is often very powerful and, like a river suddenly silted after a landslide, can radically alter a previously set course.

For my husband, Jose, then a White House Press Corps photographer for The New York Times, it was the 1995 assignment — which he volunteered for — to cover the end of the Bosnian war, over Christmas, a job that would prove to be frightening, dangerous, bitterly cold and mean spending six weeks, often alone, in utterly foreign surroundings with very little to eat in rough living conditions.

The first few times I asked him to describe it, he teared up. This is a man of ferocious sangfroid, so a lot had happened there and it changed him forever; he came back and soon afterward became a devout student of Tibetan Buddhism.

Three moments stand out for me:

1) At 25, I won a fellowship to live in Paris for eight months in a group of 28 foreign journalists from 19 countries, ages 25 to 35, and travel alone and in the group, all across Europe, from Denmark to Italy to Istanbul. I was bored with my quiet, calm life in Toronto with all the boxes ticked: boyfriend, dog, friends, work, family. I craved a major kick in the ass, both personally and professionally. That it was!

But I was also terrified to leave, knowing that it would forever change me. I’m still friends with people in Ireland and England and the U.S. and France I met that year, and have since traveled widely for work using my language and reporting skills polished there.

It showed me that the world beyond my city and country is filled with smart, passionate, kind people. By doing hard work, alone, I learned how fully capable I really was.

2) At 41, I was lonely, broke, struggling mightily, and nursing the sounds of an abrupt and unwanted divorce and two break-ups since then. Into my life came a smart, caring, witty man who seemed to want to help me.

But then he didn’t — the day the phone rang and a credit card company informed me that he had opened my mail, stolen my new credit card, activated it from my home phone, forged my signature multiple times and run up all sorts of charges on it. When I called him to ask if he had done it, his three words — said many times in his career as a convicted con man: “It’s not provable.” Nor was it, despite evidence of six felonies. The police and district attorney scoffed at my request to act: to arrest, charge and prosecute him. They refused.

I learned to be much less trusting and know that “authorities” in charge of protecting us from crime may legally choose not to. It was my job, and my job alone, to be much smart(er) about my romantic choices and to stay safe.

Landing in Bilwi with Jen. The start of a great adventure!
Landing in Bilwi with Jen. The start of a great adventure!

3) The third came recently, after an intense eight-day reporting trip to rural Nicaragua for WaterAid, in the poorest part of the second-poorest nation in the Americas. There were many emotionally powerful moments, from Marly, 5, who let me braid her hair, to 69-year-old Ailita, who used her machete to carve a bamboo stem into a canoe seats for us. Jen and I spent a morning trailing two women in their world, one completely alien to ours, (no electricity, no running water, sixth-grade educations, no shared tongue) — walking through the rain forest, crossing the river in their dugout canoe, watching them gather cucumbers and beans and squash from the vine so that we could best describe their lives and their need for water. They were kind and welcoming to us, even though we had never met.

It reminded me again that potential connection, mediated by empathy, kindness and curiosity ignores many visible boundaries.

What was one of your moments?

How has it altered your course since then?




28 thoughts on “What was your life-changing moment?

  1. many years ago, when i married my husband, as a very young woman. my life changed instantly and my childhood gone forever in a moment. then, on halloween, 9 years later, in the rain, i decided to leave him, after having 3 daughters together, to begin life anew, and in a much more positive environment. when i began college, taking my first course, as a mother, ex wife, and shy person. when i graduated 6 years later with a presidential award. when i worked in advertising, and left when i was 40, to go back to school to change careers and become a teacher. to work with people and not dollars and corporations and egos. and next? who knows, i am open to all possibilities. )

      1. i always think of the end result i want first and don’t worry too much about how i’ll get there. i know it will always work out and i will find a way. just never exactly sure the path it will take to get me there at the beginning. all right brain.

      2. We think alike in that respect. I’ve hit all the marks I wanted (except for one or two), both personal and professional — but with no Grand Plan other than “I will get there!” πŸ™‚ Hmmmmm….blog post?

      3. yes, it would make an interesting post, caitlin. (by the way, if i ever spell your name with a ‘y’, there is no slight intended, i had a little girl in my class this year whose name was caitlyn, and i was constantly spelling it your way. her mother finally asked why i kept spelling her name with two ‘i’s’ and i realized i was using your spelling. )

      4. well, happy to have cleared that up. after our first semester, caitlyn’s mom sent me a note that i had spelled her name your way in one section of my narratives. i changed it for her, and smiled because she worried this would be looked down upon as future ivy league universities would consider her kindergarten report card in their decision to admit her or not. i could have ruined her entire future! )

  2. I think mine’s just happening. I was diagnosed with cancer a week and a half ago and will start chemo next week. Given the type of cancer, there will be no surgeries if I can avoid the kidney failure angle so nothing drastically physical to overcome at the moment. The life change is all mental: I’m calmer, focused, more appreciative. All things I should have been for years but wasn’t. Where my course goes from here, I don’t really know but I’m ready. Thanks as always for a great post, Caitlin.

      1. Wow, Kelly. Thank you! What a compliment….that’s why I’m here.

        Have been thinking about you all day…wishing I were closer to give you a hug or do something useful.

  3. davidjrogersftw

    If I hadn’t smoked I never would have met my wife. I’d stand outside the classroom of English 276 and talk with another smoker, a tall young man also taking the class. One day I saw him in the cafeteria with a girl. He introduced us. She was his sister. I knew in an instant she would be the great love of my life–and she is. And she made me quit smoking too–and edited my books, and argued with me about style–particularly my long, lyrical sentences–and we still go for long walks through a garden in early evening.

  4. Pingback: Yeah, I guess that changed things. | Mommy Rhetoric

  5. A thought-provoking piece, as always. I wonder if, in essence, all moments are life changing, but some are bigger than others, and some a more positive than others, and some a more visible than others? For me, it was getting a month-long residency in Launceston, Tasmania, back in 2010. I decided while I was there I’d write everything by hand. It completely changed the way I write. And think. Perhaps the way I act, too. Thanks for getting me to think about these things.

    1. A month to just think. Imagine!

      I love the idea of writing by hand…the way it slows you and connects you so intimately to your words and thoughts….and and the many centuries of writers before us who only wrote in that fashion.

      I’d like to try quill pen and candlelight. πŸ™‚

      So good to hear from you again!

  6. While working as a paramedic in a large city, I witnessed calls go very bad that ended with the patient surviving and calls going very well where the patient died. These solidified for me, without question, that there is a higher power that controls our final fate. It helped to calm me by understanding that when it’s my time, it’s my time, regardless of what else happens. I don’t believe our lives are preordained, just that the final outcome will happen regardless of our external environment.

  7. So funny–I have had a draft sitting in my pile that was all about “defining moments” in our lives. I finally published it, by way of a more detailed response to your post here.

    I love your moments, and the way you outline the “lesson” taken from each. Most of mine also deal with travel, or international awareness in some form. No wonder that we’re both expats of our respective countries. πŸ˜‰

    Thanks as always for a great post!

    1. I’ll have to go read it!

      Thanks…I think we’ve all had many, but when do we talk about what happened after that? Being an ex-pat, for sure, is a life-changing decision. I find it so funny that you’re in my hometown, too!

  8. Chronic ill health changed my life from being totally active and involved to not able to get out of bed and having to tell Drs that they were wrong and I was right in how I needed to be treated.
    SInce then I have lost my job of 36 years and have now set off now on my adventure to live in Spain. Eye opening, thought provoking but always proving one thing………We can be bloomin resilient.
    Loved your post.

    1. Thank you….

      So sorry to hear this, but so true that it’s often not just one sudden thing that can change our lives forever, as you know too sell.

      Buena suerte in Spain! It is s gorgeous place and I hope will welcome you with open arms and abrazos muy fuertes. I hope you have the health and strength to travel there a bit. Andalusia is my favorite.

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