Life filled with pain becomes book filled with hope

| July 14, 2015 | 1 Comment

BitterBetterCoverA priest Caryn Sullivan met in 2010 changed her life. She met him not long after her husband of 20 years, Ted, died in December 2009.

The priest, Father Joseph Johnson, then rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul, offered her one spiritual sound bite, which she grabbed onto like a lifeline.

His words became the title of a book she recently released, “Bitter or Better: Grappling with Life on the Op-Ed Page,” published by RockPaperStar Press. Its 256 pages outline how she dealt with the loss of her husband and other challenging events in her life.

And, the brief — and only — encounter with Father Johnson, now pastor of Holy Family in St. Louis Park, is outlined in one of the book’s short chapters. Naturally, the chapter’s title is “Bitter or Better.”

“I was at St. Thomas Academy [in Mendota Heights]. . . . I was there with my friend Ann McDonald, whose husband, John, had died on Feb. 28 of 2010,” said Sullivan, 56. “We went to this event at St. Thomas and a friend introduced me to Father Johnson. I sort of poured out all my troubles onto this very kind priest on a Saturday night. I was really struggling.”

Father Johnson listened, then leaned in to give her one life-changing tip.

“He said, ‘Caryn, I can’t tell you why all these things have happened to you and why you’ve had so much adversity in your life,’” she recalled. “‘All I can tell you is that in the face of adversity, we all have a choice. We can be bitter, or we can be better.’ And on a Saturday night, this person who I’ve only met once and probably wouldn’t recognize if I saw him again, gave me an incredible gift that I call my North Star. It’s up there and I just watch for it, and it guides me when I’m feeling angry or frustrated.”

Sullivan’s book has some material from her eight years as a guest columnist for the Pioneer Press newspaper in the Twin Cities. It also includes chapters about people she finds inspiring, including local Catholics Mary Jo Copeland, who founded Sharing and Caring Hands to serve the poor in Minneapolis, and Vince Flynn, an author whom she met before he died of cancer in 2013 and who wrote her an email she used as the book’s foreword.

In writing the book, Sullivan reveals intimate details of her life that she had previously shared with few people and hadn’t detailed in her newspaper columns. She describes her early years, starting with the day her mother left her father and took 8-year-old Caryn, and her siblings on what was labeled a long vacation. The “vacation” was permanent, and her parents eventually divorced. Her dad later died when she was 13, and her mother died when Sullivan was 23, both of cancer.

Local author and Catholic Caryn Sullivan writes about losing her husband and raising a son with autism in a recently released book, “Bitter or Better: Grappling with Life on the Op-Ed Page.” Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Local author and Catholic Caryn Sullivan writes about losing her husband and raising a son with autism in a recently released book, “Bitter or Better: Grappling with Life on the Op-Ed Page.” Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Sullivan was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, and her youngest daughter, Julia, was diagnosed with a rare blood disease not long after and under went a bone marrow transplant in 2005. While all this was going on, Sullivan dealt with the daily trials of having a special needs child. Her son, Jack, now 24, was diagnosed with autism in 1993.

It was Jack who inspired her writing career. She had gotten a journalism degree in college, but turned that aside to go to law school and become an attorney, which is how she met Ted.

The itch to write came back in 2006 when she decided to chronicle her experiences in an essay, which was published in an anthology written by parents of special needs children.

Then, while on a trip back home from Wisconsin for a celebration of Jack’s 16th birthday, she was inspired to take a crack at writing a newspaper column. The drive gave her time to reflect on seemingly simple things like the fact that Jack was not going to get his driver’s license like other kids his age.

“It was one of those moments of feeling the despair and the loss of having a special needs child whose life was never going to go in the direction of his siblings or his peers,” said Sullivan, who had two children with Ted, plus two stepchildren from his previous marriage.

“And, I got home and I sat down and I wrote this essay just relating our experience about how there’s a constant state of vigilance that’s required when you have a special needs child,” she said. “And unless you’re living it, it’s really hard to appreciate it. I sent it to the Pioneer Press, heard back within a couple of hours from the editor, and he ran it.

Then, we got all these emails from people saying, ‘Thank you for telling my story because I’ve been trying to explain to my loved ones and the people in my life what it’s like to have a child with autism, and you did it for me.’”

Some of those same people later said to her, “You should write a book.”

So, she did. Her goal was to inspire readers and to make it easy for them to get through the book. Most of the chapters are three pages or less, which is by design.

“I wanted it to be something that busy people could find time for, like if you’re waiting in a doctor’s office,” she said. “If you’re at the airport and you’re waiting for your flight, you can read it and put it down. If you’re in the carpool line at your kids’ school, you can read a little bit. Or if it’s a cloudy Sunday, you can make yourself a cup of tea and sit down and read the whole thing and maybe make some notes in the back.”

Sullivan tries to give people an honest look at the real struggles she has faced, and continues to face — including her faith. Her Catholic upbringing was cut short as a child when her mom  She still hasn’t resolved some key issues, but a kind priest helped her see that there is definitely a spiritual light in her soul.

“My dad died when I was 13, I had breast cancer when I was 44,” said Sullivan, who attends Mass at several local churches. “I’ve had all of these things, and I don’t believe I could have survived them if I didn’t have some kind of faith. It’s not a faith that I have found inside a building, but it’s a very significant part of who I am.”

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Category: Faith and Culture