This column appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald in February 2006.
“It’s okay to tell my name in your column,” she told me. “My life has been full of hardship, and though I may fall down, I know what makes us weak makes us stronger."
And so begins the tale of a 26-year-old resident of San Joaquin County whose name is best kept silent, and whose broken heart led her last week to leave a job she loves and move to Las Vegas to live with a half-sister she barely knows.
Before we learn of her heartbreak, let’s meet her: “When I was 3, I cracked my head open on a carnival ride called the Tilt-a-Whirl,” said this young woman, whose smile and easy laugh reveal nothing of the challenges she’s faced in life.
Because her father and mother were traveling carnival workers, she didn’t get the stitches removed until after they’d grown into her head. Then they had to be removed surgically. “I have a scar that looks like a railroad track,” she said, her fingers trailing through her hair.
She and her family, which included an older half-brother and half-sister—all three children from different fathers—traveled up and down the state working carnivals.
Though she considers herself lucky to grow up with “a constant playground in my backyard,” life on the road could be dangerous, with gangs sometimes interfering with the carnival. She remembers watching her father get stabbed. “Fortunately, it wasn’t too serious,” she said. She also recalls when the girlfriend of a booth worker was killed while under a ride that was started up.
The family first worked for Foley & Burke, a carnival company that was bought out by Butler Amusements, owned by Butch Butler. “Uncle Butch was always dear to the kids who were living with the carnival,” she said. “The Butler staff treated everyone as family, and made sure at night the kids were in bed or with an adult.”
Her family settled in Tracy when she got old enough to go school. Her father continued to work for the carnival, coming home every few days. Her mom became a waitress.
Even then, on weekends, if the carnival was within driving distance, the family would meet up with their father to work.
She was 8 when she got her first job cleaning up after games at the booths. “At that age I learned the benefit of working hard for what you want in return.”
What she wanted was to please others, a trait she has to this day. “I never bought candy or toys for myself,” she said. “Instead I bought gifts to make my family happy.”
Then, life took a turn shortly after her parents divorced: At 11, she moved to Idaho with her father and his new wife. At 13, she went to live in foster care in Tennessee. At 17, she moved to Florida for 6 months with her mother’s boyfriend, while her mother drove trucks around the country to make ends meet. Later that same year she moved back to San Joaquin County with her mom.
For a time, life settled down, but in the past few years she’s faced more than her share of hardships: In 2002 she lost her cocker spaniel of 13 years to cancer. A month later her father was killed in a motorcycle accident. She lost a grandfather and both grandmothers.
In 2004 she was diagnosed with Chrones disease, only to discover after months of treatment and losing patches of her hair that the diagnosis was incorrect. She was then diagnosed with endometriosis, which may preclude her from having children.
Fortunately, during these years she got a good job in the financial services industry, and she made many close friends.
And before her father passed away, she learned she had another half-sister. "She’s my dad’s daughter,” she explained, “but even my dad didn’t know about her until my grandma’s funeral a few years ago.”
Through it all, through the many homes and broken families, through the deaths and sickness, this young woman refuses to feel sorry for herself.
“Being bitter would only make me weak,” she said. “I know there are kids who’ve had it worse, with no one to love them. I made a promise when I was little to always be grateful for what I have and to spend my life giving others the love I know they desire.”
But with love can come heartbreak.
A little over a year ago, she met a young man and fell deeply in love. Though she and her boyfriend moved in together and spoke often of marriage, he began an internet correspondence with a younger woman from Russia.
Still, she still loved him and stayed with him, and at one point he agreed to break off the internet relationship. “He called the girl in front of me,” she said, “and told her we were engaged and getting married.”
But the online relationship continued and a month ago she finally had enough. “I spoke a truth he didn’t want to hear,” she said. “He spit in my face and threw me out of the house.”
She was devastated. And yes, heartbroken.
Then, amazingly, a week later, he came to where she worked and proposed marriage. “I loved him with all my heart,” she said, “but I told him no. I told him if we were to get married, it had to be for real love.”
When she learned a few weeks later that the Russian woman was coming to America to marry the young man, her broken heart told her it was time to move.
And so last week she did.
Today in a new home with her half-sister, she keeps the promise she made when she was a little girl. She refuses to be bitter. She continues to love even those who’ve hurt her and to embrace her sorrow as a stepping stone to strength.
It’s what a life of hardship has taught her, and perhaps what she has to teach us.
"If only everyone knew it’s not the end of the world when you hit rock bottom,” she wrote in an email from Las Vegas. “It’s only a new beginning.”