You think fate has dealt you a lousy hand? Do you just never catch a break? Is life just not fair? Spend some time with Caryn Sullivan’s superbly written book and you’ll put your personal pity party on hold — maybe permanently.
In “Bittter or Better: Grappling with Life on the Op-Ed Page,” Sullivan tells the hardship story of her life, one tested by fire with a mother who married and divorced twice, smoke marijuana, moved the family from Baltimore to Puerto Rico back to Maryland and then to Utah, contracted colon cancer in her forties and died when the author was 23.
You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.
Sullivan’s luck doesn’t turn around once she marries her “trophy husband,” as she called him. The first child they have together — Ted Sullivan had two children from a previous marriage — seems to be unable to hear. The boy turned out to be autistic. Learning to accept Jack for his gifts — and that autism is a condition, not a disease — is a lesson that doesn’t come easily.
Then there was breast cancer to deal with, and a double mastectomy. And a 10-year-old daughter who developed a rare, genetically acquired disease that required a bone marrow transplant — from her older brother.
“I’d been consumed by autism and illnesses for so long I scarcely recalled anything else,” Sullivan wrote. “The relentless crises were besting me. I often felt like a boxer being pummeled in the ring. Jab. Cross. Hook. Uppercut.”
Then her husband had a heart attack at 54 and died.
These Dickensian events alone make for can’t-put-it-down reading, but it’s actually what follows that makes “Bitter or Better” exceptional. How Sullivan coped through all this, how she listened to the advice of Father Joseph Johnson, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who said she had the choice that became the title of the book, and how she followed that advice, will make you begin thinking about who you know who you should buy this book for.
It’s a book that’s part memoir, to be sure, but it’s just as much an advice or how-to book. The life lessons that Sullivan learned are spread throughout, but many come in the latter pages, where Sullivan shares commentary columns that she originally wrote for the daily newspaper in St. Paul, the Pioneer Press.
The journalism here shines. Sullivan tells inspiring stories, injecting the wisdom that came from being “pummeled like a boxer in the ring,” absorbing the punches and moving forward to better.
What pours out is her own humility, the ability to deal with crisis after crisis, and maybe the key to having that capacity.
She writes about the hours and days spent at the University of Minnesota’s Children’s Hospital and the other parents there with youngsters whose lives are hanging by a thread, and her response?
“As difficult as our experience was, it was not as bad as what many others endured. Everything in life is relative. And we were blessed.”
Who do you plan to send a copy of “Bitter or Better”?