My story about survival was featured in the Fearless Femme Storytelling Podcast which includes female-identifying individuals sharing their personal stories around a theme. Episode 1 features different takes on the theme “I will survive“ from Ile-Ife Okantah, Suzy D’Enbeau, Janet Meeks, Denise Harrison, and ‘The Young and the Fearless’ Maggie Pazderak. I encourage you to listen to the entire podcast episode and hope the diverse perspectives about survival will speak to you as you face challenges in the days and years to come. My story is shared at 14:50 on the podcast and also follows in print. Listen on Spotify or Podbean.
Oh, dear God! I hear car doors slamming, pounding footsteps and voices of angry men storming across our yard. What is happening?
As a young girl, I was horrified to experience those scary sounds in the dark of night. In that moment I rolled off my bed and hid underneath it until quiet was restored. Deep down in my heart, I knew what was happening.
Those sounds came from men who hated my father. They were white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan. My dad was a country lawyer and a staunch advocate for equal rights. He represented the school board in 1964 when the federal government ordered that school integration must occur. Our school district was one of the first in Mississippi to integrate. As racial tensions were raging, he told the school’s leaders that the government’s order must be followed. On the first day our schools were integrated, my dad helped to escort the first black child, a six-year-old, innocent little girl, safely to her desk at Carthage Elementary School.
When you do the right thing at a time when it’s not popular, harsh ramifications can follow. The Klan burned a cross at my dad’s law office. They burned down the barn on our farm. My dad carried a gun and met with the FBI as those same angry men threatened to kill my family. At the time I wasn’t fully aware of the magnitude of those threats; but as a child, I knew I was afraid. Yet I survived those controversial times because my dad taught me to do what is right, fair and just, even and especially when it’s not popular. I cannot tell you the number of times my father’s wisdom has helped me survive when making unpopular, but necessary decisions throughout my life.
Ten years after integration began, my father took me to the chapel of a hospital where my mother was an inpatient. For months, she had battled ovarian cancer. In fact, she was diagnosed just one week before I left for college. Mother was only 49. I was 18. This heart-piercing meeting was devastating as, with tears in his eyes, my typically unemotional dad said, “Janet, your mother is not going to make it.”
I was very close to my parents. Both were incredible role models in their own special ways. My dad was a brilliant attorney, my basketball buddy and my strongest cheerleader. My mother was a gentle giant. At 6 feet tall, she was a quiet leader who overflowed with compassion. Everyone loved her. My mother was nothing short of my very best friend.
The great times she and I shared provide precious memories for me. At the time, I wondered how I could ever survive without her. But throughout her illness, she expected me to adhere to normalcy. When she died, my heart was broken. Yet I survived by doing what I have learned to do when faced with survival. I poured myself into what’s important to me. I knew my mother would be proud of me for whatever I would make of my life. And through her inspiration, I found joy through trying to make a positive difference in some small way. Yes, I survived my mother’s death because of her love for me, her belief in me, and her expectation that I live my life with resilience.
In 1978 I got married after finishing graduate school and started working for a large banking system. In hindsight, I was too young to marry, and I naively had not taken the time to really know this man who became my husband. The early years were good, and we were happy. And then out of the blue, life threw us a curve when our first baby died due to a fatal birth defect. How could I possibly survive such devastation? During the first year after our son died, I often felt that life was out of control. To survive, I reached out to others who had experienced the same type of excruciating loss. With the help of a hospital chaplain and three physicians at the medical center where I would eventually work, we started a support group. I wanted to help young parents who experienced infant death and who might benefit from listening, love and reinforcement from others who had shared similar pain. In this case, the hope of helping others hurt less helped me to survive the death of my baby. And because of the love I felt from the hospital employees who cared for me when my baby died, I left banking and was recruited to join the executive team of that medical center at the young age of 27! Once again, I poured myself into my priorities while striving to make a positive difference. Most importantly, I survived the loss of my first baby because my two precious daughters were born over the next two years.
A few weeks after my older daughter was born, my husband abruptly gave me an edict that I would quit my job and become the stay-at-home mother he wanted. As much as I love and adore my children, and as much as I respect my friends who opted not to work outside the home, it was not in my DNA to be a stay-at-home mom. So, in that moment, I found my voice and told my husband, “No! I will not quit my job.” My parents had taught me that the sky is the limit and that glass ceilings are nonexistent. I knew I could be a good mother and an effective professional. And once again I poured myself into my priorities… my children first and then my career.
I am convinced that saying, “no” to my husband at that time may well have triggered the beginning of the end of what would become a near 26-year marriage. Based upon his indiscretions and escalating erratic behaviors, I divorced him in 2004. I moved to Ohio for a professional promotion and for a fresh start in my personal life. Not only did I survive, but I would thrive as the years ahead would become the happiest time of my life.
I have shared with you some deep valleys from years past. And yet, while those chapters brought profound sadness, my joy-filled days have far overshadowed the darkness. I have found that valleys absolutely suck, and that somehow mountaintops just might exist on the other side of those valleys. From the experiences with the KKK, my dad taught me to lead with courage and to advocate for equity for all people. Through my mother’s death, I learned the true meaning of resilience. And I cry with joy each time I experience life in ways that she did not… like planning my daughters’ weddings, being present for the births of my grandchildren, and celebrating special traditions with family. Through the painful death of my baby boy, I was blessed with two amazing daughters, and I was called into a healthcare career I have cherished for 40 years. When my first husband ordered me to quit my job, I learned to stay true to myself and my convictions. And, as for the many years of an unhappy marriage, four years after our divorce, I married the true love of my life who is my soul mate and best friend…. the person who taught me not only how to trust again, but also and most importantly, how to love again. Yes, I have survived!
In closing, I really hope that I am done with valleys. I mean seriously…I don’t want any more! But that’s simply not realistic because life in general tends to be filled with peaks and valleys. I am so grateful that I have survived my valleys, and I believe that you can survive, too. When you find yourself in a valley… as devastating as it may be at the time, just believe that somehow… in some way… a mountaintop may not be too far away.
And as for whatever life may bring me in the chapters that are ahead, I will continue to survive!