A Story of Resilience
“Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been different if he hadn’t died when I was so young, and I wonder if he were alive, what would he think of me and my life now?”
Mary Pat Moeller, now at 64 years of age, is the Director for the Center of Childhood Deafness at the Boys’ Town National Research Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. She has been married to her husband Jim for 37 years, and they have two wonderful kids and five lovely grandchildren together. When she is not running an institute or spending time with her family, she practices with a competitive swim team. While Mary Pat’s day-to-day work to help the deaf is impactful and thoughtful, her journey however, is seemingly unbelievable.
Mary Pat grew up in a family with nine kids, including herself. Although their house was large, floored with linoleum, her family had little extra money when she was growing up.. Her father was a lieutenant colonel in WW2 and later became an engineer, and her mother was deaf and stayed home watching her nine kids, a more than full time job. It was Mary Pat’s father’s job to clean those linoleum floors every Saturday morning with a hefty machine that had a scrub brush affixed underneath. She says she fondly remembers sitting atop that machine as her father pushed it around, waxing the floors, and she would observe the floors as they slowly began to glisten. This was one of Mary Pat’s favorite memories with her father, a lively man who had an unyielding and unswayable belief in her that was at times, almost palpable.
When reminiscing about her father’s belief in her, Mary Pat recalled one particular evening when she was in Junior High. Her father had been helping her with her geometry homework, and he told her she really had a “mathematical mind” and that maybe she could one day pursue a job in “these new things called computers.” Although she never pursued a job in IT, her father instilled a confidence in her, a confidence that any woman is as capable and intelligent as any man. This notion, although more commonplace now, was an idea that was not widely tossed around at the time. Despite Mary Pat’s father being a busy man, with a full-time job and nine kids to look after, he shared an intimate and loving relationship with his daughter, Mary Pat. It was a relationship founded on a basis of complete admiration and unconditional trust. He was the rock of the family, the anchor, the bulwark, and more. He was the confidence behind many of Mary Pat’s actions.
Yet, on an early Monday morning in April, when Mary Pat simply went into her parents’ room looking for bus money, she saw her father sitting in a rocking chair, clearly sick. Her mother told her that they were waiting for an ambulance. Weeks went by as her father lay ill in the hospital, Mary Pat recalls he was no longer the same healthy and lively man, and all he wanted to do was come home. “His speech was slurred (lack of oxygen) and he begged me to get the car and take him home – I explained that I did not have my driver’s license yet – he did not care – he wanted to come home.” Days past, until one Sunday morning, a terrible phone call came in that her father had died in the night from his heart attack. The family knew he had heart problems, but it seemed as he had been rapidly improving. It was an immeasurable shock to the family; Mary Pat was only 16 years old when it happened, and at the time, she was the eldest of the six kids still at home, the youngest being only two years old. Because of her mother’s deafness, she and her siblings consequently were handed responsibilities children normally would not have to handle, the weightiness of their responsibilities exacerbated by not only their mother’s deafness, but also their father’s death. In some ways, she and her siblings served as a bridge between her family and her community.
For instance, the next day after her father’s death, Mary Pat decided to go to school. She figured it would be the best distraction from the hurt. Amid walking onto the school bus, an “old crotchety driver” grabbed her wrist and asked her, “How’s your dad?” Fighting back tears, Mary Pat yanked her wrist away and tried to make her way to her seat. However, he grabbed her wrist a second time, and asked her the same question again, “How’s your dad?” Suddenly, all her bundled up anger came alive. She looked the bus driver straight in the eye and shrieked, “He’s dead, okay?!” She then stomped to her seat in tears. Being one of the communicators between her family and the outside world was in no way easy, but it had to be done; her family relied on her, even her mother.
“It was more than hard,” Mary Pat says, being the communicator. Yet, she recounts it was her father’s “figure it out” and “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality that pushed her through many hard times and made many of her aspirations seem possible. This new-found resilience after her father’s death not only “got her through,” but also propelled her to push harder for what she wanted. She wasn’t going to let her father’s death stop her from living the life she wanted to.
Mary Pat recounts the first time she truly felt her father’s passing pulling her back, and his memory pushing her forward. Not too soon after her father’s death, her mother told Mary Pat: “I’m very sorry only boys can go to college.” In her mother’s mind, that was the responsible thing to do. Being a woman of the early 19th century, she fell into the social conventions of her time. She thought it was the obvious decision to manage finances by promoting the education of men, not women. Mary Pat remembers being polite in response to her mother, but in her mind telling herself, “Wild horses are not going to keep you out of college.” She applied for scholarships upon scholarships, until she made her way to college and graduate school. In the end, all nine children went to college, showing the resilience of their mother and the family. Like most who have lost a parent, Mary Pat says it was the hardest thing she had ever endured in her life. However, that didn’t prevent beautiful things from coming out of her enduring such trials and tribulations. Mary Pat recalls that so much of her independence and drive that she has now originated from a mix of the struggles that she faced growing up and her father’s memory.
A clear example is her profession now. Throughout Mary Pat’s childhood she learned that communication is such an essential aspect of life. But she also learned how hard it could be, if say, you speak a different language than everyone else, or if you can’t hear the words others are saying. Mary Pat decided that in her life she wanted to in some way help people that are in the same position that her mother was.
So now 64 and with a family of her own, she still says her father’s memory is an inspiring and driving force in her life. “It takes the randomest things to bring tears to my eyes,” she admits. Yet, they’re not always tears of sadness, but also ones of fond memories. “The pain does subside with time,” she says.
Mary Pat says if she could reach out to all of us reading this who have lost a parent young, she would say to “cherish each memory with your parent, write them down and reread them.” The scariest memories are when you can’t picture your parent’s face, but the most comforting moments are when you can.