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?