It was very dark and cold. There was a moment of stillness that lasted the length of a breath. Nothing existed in that vacuum but the jumble of emotions rising in my throat that stung like choking on salt water. I released it, filling the stillness with ocean and energy, and everything came rushing back to life. My brothers were crying in the back seat. My car door opened and my sister was pulling me out by the corner of my jean jacket.
“We’re okay! Everyone’s okay. It’s going to be okay,” Ruth was saying in my shoulder as she held me. I cried between screams. I think I was in shock, like actual shock. I’m still not sure how I managed to park the car on the side of the hill.
As if I was having an out of body experience, I remember seeing an overhead view my younger sister get out of the front passenger seat of my Ford sedan and run around to the driver’s side to pull me out of the driver’s seat, where I sat, screaming. In one moment, I took a breath, and in the next, I mourned, healed, released, and processed, all at the same time. From a cerebral place, a million thoughts came pouring in at one moment, streaming as one-
We could have died. I have to leave school. How did we not die? I have to quit my job. Everyone is okay. I have to move home. My car is totaled. Where is the deer? How am I getting work tomorrow? I’m not going back to the dorms tonight. I’m not going back to school now. It doesn’t matter. We could have died.
About three minutes prior to this scene, I had been driving my three younger siblings home from church on a Wednesday in early January. It was about 11:00 at night, the temperature was probably around freezing, and I almost had them back to my parents’ house in the hills outside of San Antonio. The radio blared and we were smiling and laughing on our way to our childhood home. As we mounted a very steep hill with prairies on both sides, several things happened in a matter of moments. The first was that I accelerated to climb the hill. Also, something told me to break (I ignored this thought). Then, a very large buck leaped into the road, trying to jump my car, but landed on it instead. We stopped short from accelerating at about 60 miles per hour from the impact of the buck hitting the hood of my car. Amazingly, this crumpled the hood and lowered my entire engine a foot without damaging it. The deer ran off into the night. My sister told me that I then managed to pull the car to the side of the road and turn off the engine before Daniel and Isaac in the back seat started crying, and I started screaming.
The part that I am ashamed of here is not the natural reaction to surviving a crash that could have been deadly for at least me and Ruth. I am not ashamed for feeling shaken that this occurred while I was responsible for three children whom I loved very much. I am not ashamed that I allowed my little sister to comfort me, the adult- the one who was supposed to be in charge. What I am ashamed of is that in that moment, the main reason I was crying, was that I knew that I would need to quit college and my job to deal with what had just happened. I was crying because, after a struggle, I had failed.
I had always been an A student, graduated high school a year early, moved out of my parents in the country to move an hour way in the city, and was supporting myself through college. That was, until the end of fall semester. I hadn’t told anyone yet, but I couldn’t afford to live in the college dorms on a part time job at the grocery store and make a car payment. I hadn’t told anyone that I would have to leave school if I didn’t find a place to live in the next three weeks before spring semester began. But I had been determined to find a place to live and pay for school. Because I had to.
I would not fail. I couldn’t; it was unfathomable. I had always been the example for all my siblings to follow, the golden child, the smart one. I was very blessed to have to loving parents who applauded me for my accomplishments and talents, and who supported me as I achieved my goals. But because I thrived on the reward of praise, I didn’t know what failure was. I was about to find out, and little did I know how much it would sting and then change my life.
My dream was to earn a degree in Cross-Cultural Ministry, learn to speak Spanish fluently, and become a teacher and minister. My dream was to move to Mexico and work with young girls. My dream was to marry my husband while in ministry, and we would work together as pastors in Mexico, supported by our church in Texas. I even had my future husband picked out, and passions were starting to spark between us. But all this depended on my present involvement in my school and church in San Antonio. It all depended on my plan working. The day the dean pulled me into his office to tell me that I needed to move out of the dorms or leave the college all together, I was lost.
Looking back, all of this shouldn’t have affected me the way it did. I was pretty self-absorbed. Not much else mattered– just accomplishing my dreams. It’s not that I was selfish. I just didn’t know how to do life when I didn’t accomplish what I set out to do. I had grown up in a soft bubble that allowed me to grow into myself, but didn’t let me stumble. Struggle was an unfamiliarly bitter taste to which I would need to adjust. So many times during this season of my life that was just beginning, I would find myself in a crying, stressed blob, blubbering the phrase, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next!” What I wish I could do, if I could grab the shoulders of my former self, would be to stare into her teary eyes, and tell her the following:
Perhaps you were never supposed to be minister. Perhaps you were never meant to move to Mexico. Perhaps that boy that you loved so much and saw yourself marrying would never love you the way you needed. Perhaps that church and school were never meant to support you. Instead of dreaming of accomplishing the plan, you’ll learn to daydream of the possibilities and get excited by the forks in the road. You’ll come to savor the moments that aren’t part of any list, can’t be documented, and aren’t anticipated. Don’t let this shake you, because you’ll learn that your identity was never in making things happen that look good on paper, but in how you see everything as beautiful.
That’s the thing about having your identity and dreams depend on success. When you fail, you see it as the opposite of the dream, and then you don’t know who you are. That was all that was left of me in the weeks to come. I had no identity, no car, no way to get to work, and therefore no way to go to school. I had to quit my job in the city and apply at my old high school job in my parents’ town. Ruth helped me move my stuff home, and the only memory I have of the next few weeks was feeling broken on my parents’ sofa while I waited for my car to be repaired.
Eventually my car was fixed, I moved home, and quit school. I took this time to figure out who I was. The failure I felt from quitting school would take a very long time to heal from. I can see now how the events surrounding that night didn’t have to define me as a failure, and yet I see how they shaped my future. I finally realized and accepted that my heart was not specifically to be in Christian ministry, but to help people in need. Something that I would learn is part of my true identity? Empathy. I started volunteering as a mentor for at risk youth. Through this, I realized I loved working with young children, and that would eventually lead me to becoming an early childhood teacher. I still loved Mexico, and while I wasn’t moving there any time soon, I started helping out local humanitarian projects that took youth across the border on week long trips to build homes for the homeless. One day, I was tasked with driving to the airport to picking up a group of young men from Brooklyn, New York, who were traveling to join us in Mexico. All of them would become my best friends and one of them would become my husband. We celebrated our tenth anniversary this year.
My dreams have changed over the years. Some dreams turned out to be uphill winding roads that would lead me to find who I am and what I truly value. Through these roads, I have learned to succeed. All of this taught me that failure isn’t the opposite of success, but part of it. Often, failure shapes and strengthens how you succeed. My old dreams have shown me that success isn’t what I my former self thought it was at all- success does not define me, but I define it.