My 55-year-old mom was standing in the open-air market when she started to have a breakdown. My mom is not someone to have a breakdown.
She’s always been a woman who speaks from a place of strength and self-assurance. I remember when Hillary Clinton was running for president in the 2008 Democratic primaries, the mom of one of my friends commented that my mom would give Hillary a run for her money. How could my mom reach the point of a breakdown?
Pursuing a doctorate degree at 50
In 1996, when I was a sophomore in college and law school wasn’t even on my radar, my mom decided she wanted to go to law school. She grew up poor and never felt like she had the money to invest in herself. She worked three jobs to put herself through college and that was extremely taxing. She and my dad finally had some extra funds to allow her to pursue her juris doctor, so, at the age of 50, my mom enrolled in a 4-year evening program. Her first three years were extremely challenging as she juggled six foster kids at home, three with extensive medical issues and two with extreme mental health challenges. By the end of her third year in June 1999, my mom was exhausted and needed a break. Our family had recently grieved the death of one of our foster kids whose little body could not win against the cancer that invaded it. I had just finished my first year of law school and I remember her saying, “I’m just not sure I’m supposed to be in law school right now. I need some time to grieve and focus on the needs of the remaining kids, so I’m going to take a break and reevaluate next spring.”
An Uncertain Future
During her year off, my mom remained close friends with one of her classmates who actually lived around the corner from her. She still loved talking with him about his classes and hearing how he was doing. As the summer began, my mom wasn’t sure she would finish law school after all. The special needs of her kids were still demanding her full attention. Her classmate celebrated his graduation and started studying for the California Bar exam, wishing that my mom was doing the same that summer. Then, tragedy struck again. Her classmate’s dear wife took her own life and now her classmate would take a year off to grieve before he would sit for the Bar exam. I’m not sure if that was the impetus for my mom returning to law school or if it was something else, but she re-enrolled and finished her last year of law school in May 2001, at the same time as me.
Studying for the Bar Exam
I spent two months in the summer of 2001 taking a course to prepare me for the Bar exam. I had a very rigid routine and outline I followed to prepare. My mom, on the other hand, did what she could to study on her own around the countless doctor’s appointment for her kids. She and my dad had welcomed in another foster child undergoing chemo therapy after a bone marrow transfusion. There were times when my mom would call me to ask a study question. I could hear paging over intercoms in the background and realized she was in a doctor’s office. I wished there was something more I could do, and admit I was concerned how she would obtain this dream of hers.
An Emotional Bar Exam
There are only a few testing centers in California, one of which was 30 minutes from my home, so my mom came to stay with me for the three-day exam. Each morning, as we would drive to the testing center, she would tell me that she had a dream about what would be on the test that day. There were a possible 24 topics and she would review the 12 to 14 from her dream. And each day, she was spot on with the topics. When we arrived on the first day, along with the thousands of other test takers, we were surprised to find that we were assigned to the exact same table to take our test, since by that time my last name started with a B and hers started with an R and we registered days apart. In the seemingly random seating amidst a sea of thousands, we sat just four feet apart taking the exam. It was surreal. On the third afternoon, our minds were fatigued as we sat down to write our final three-hour essay. Part way through the exam, my mom started crying. Of course, we could not talk with each other, so there was nothing I could do. I started to get stressed out and my mom got up and left the table. I later found out that the essay hit too close to home as it centered around a man with AIDS. Beginning in 1988, my parents started taking in foster children with HIV. Several of those children died of AIDS while living with our family. Their parents became like family to my parents and they, too, died. My parents worked closely with the AIDS community, which was quite small and close-knit at the time. The essay on that last day asked about the legal rights of a man with AIDS; it also had a policy question about how to help him. My mom couldn’t answer that question without thinking about the parents and children she fostered who were no longer on this earth.
The Bar Results
In 2001, the California Bar required us to log on a website at 6 p.m. on the Friday before Thanksgiving to get our bar results. My parents planned to be in Hawaii, so my mom gave me her login information as she wasn’t sure she would have internet in order to get her results. I logged in to get our results and we both passed! I was so excited and immediately called my mom. When she answered, I said, “Mom, you passed!” She was confused and asked, “I passed what?”
“The Bar exam,” I explained. “We both passed!”
There was silence. After a few seconds, I could hear some noise on the other end of the phone and, eventually, through a choked-up voice, I realized my mom was having a breakdown as she uttered, “I can’t believe it! God saw me during all those hours of studying in doctor’s offices and helped me recall the right information when it came to test day.” And that’s how my beautiful, strong mom came to have a breakdown in an open-air market.
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