There’s No Fate, But What We Make for Ourselves

Sarah Connor from The Terminator

Was Sarah Connor right? Do our decisions determine our fate? Or, are we at the mercy of fate, responding only to its stimulus? The Greek Philosopher, Epictetus schooled in the thought of Stoicism, would probably argue the latter. Meaning, we should engage with what is within our circle of control…and accept what isn’t.

Pushing Paper

So there I was. Spring 2013. No longer confined to a classroom, but back behind a desk pushing paper. I’d come full circle, but I felt anything but in control.

Yes, I had more time to write, but I wallowed, licking wounds. I’d regained a lot of weight that I’d shed three years before. Being surrounded by powerful women in sharp suits with impeccable manicures teetering on their Manolos kicked my inferiority complex into overdrive. I’d started running again after finally getting the all clear from the physio after busting my ankle the previous summer; spending months in a cast and walking boot. I was determined to get healthy and, no longer being overwhelmed by the demands of teaching, meant more time to think: I realised was sick of being single.

Once more, my brother stepped in – such is the job of older brothers – another of his tough-love talks. Another ultimatum. Get my backside on the dating sites again or he’d do it for me. So I did.

Then someone sent me a wink.

I won’t bore you with the details, but messages were followed by a coffee and a date. Suddenly, I felt seen. I felt special. This man could see past the weight I carried, which others had failed to. (Thankfully!) His belief in me made me more determined to get healthy and stay healthy. It also sparked a desire to build a life together.

Personally, I was blissfully happy. Professionally, not so much.

The Phone Call

Then, one day, whilst staring blankly at my computer screen, I received a phone call. It was from a former colleague, then a Deputy Head and she wanted me to get back in the classroom. There was a maternity role that needed covering. She had been a mentor and came with an exciting proposition which could see us working together again, and without the tyrant Head we’d both suffered under.

I was torn.

But a decision was needed. So, thinking of the money and dreaming of planning a wedding, I took the offer.

But what about being an author? How was I to make that dream come true? I hadn’t given up. I wouldn’t.

Arms holding up books

I was once more back in the confines of a classroom. The money was good, but the workload wasn’t. And neither was the commute. Long days put a strain on Mum and Dad who were doing their best to look after my new crazy dog, Jessica, having lost my beloved collie Ben at the end of 2012, right before I resigned.

As exhaustion approached, and familiar warning signs returned, I searched for a supply role closer to home. Closer to Mum and Dad.

Mum had become very frail; I didn’t see just how frail.

Shattered

In the September of 2014, having moved in with my soon-to-be fiancé, I started a new role. One with the potential to become a Phase Leader and move up the pay scale (and, undoubtedly, the stress scale). I hated it at first. What had I done? I felt so alone, but as usual, I put a brave face on. Just think of the engagement, the wedding.

Then, just six weeks before the planned proposal, my entire world crumbled.

Mum died.

I type these words six years later and still the pain slices my heart afresh. A tender, fragile wound.

My soul and my heart were shattered. Pieces remain unrecovered. Lost forever. A hollowness had been carved with a blunt blade. I wanted to crawl into the darkness and vanish. I couldn’t comprehend anything. All I wanted was to be with Mum.

How do I live in a world she wasn’t part of anymore?

And, if that loss wasn’t enough, it became screamingly apparent that Dad was now too unwell to live by himself. Dementia had kicked in on top of ten years of diabetes taking its toll on his once strong body. For weeks my brother and I tag-teamed, sleeping on a pull-out at Dad’s bedside as we began searching for a nursing home, planning a funeral and clearing a house.

Having to put Dad in a care home was one of the hardest decisions we’d ever had to make. I carried immense guilt, believing I had abandoned Dad in his hour of need.

How had it come to this?

But we put a brave face on. He was desperately sad and now alone in a nursing home surrounded by strangers with no wife, no pets, and no freedom.

If Mum’s death had been startlingly fast, Dad’s was to be quite the opposite.

To Grieve or Not To Grieve

After the wedding the following summer, which Dad had been too unwell to be part of, having deteriorated considerably, and now on the cusp of turning 40, I knew I needed something else to focus on.

Keep busy. Just keep busy, I told myself.

Man holding a camera lens up to look through.

Losing Mum had forced me into a reckoning once again. In addition, I now looked at life through a grief filter. And sometimes, that filter burned my irises to the point of blindness.

But one thing was evident. If I was going to become an author, it was now or never. I had to have an exit strategy out of the teaching profession. I was stifled, smothered, caged.

Until I could trigger an exit strategy, I’d found a coping mechanism: writing.

I finished Hannah and the Hollow Tree and had sent it out to agents once more, determined to get published. Like J K Rowling, I received many a rejection letter. It was like all those teaching interviews all over again.

Shortly after, following the suggestion by a dear friend and fellow writer, I followed in her footsteps – having seen her flourish – and so, on my 40th birthday, I returned to Leeds Trinity and began a Masters in Creative Writing.

This was it: my way out of teaching. I just needed to get the MA under my belt, improve as a writer; gain a level of respect and accreditation. Surely then, I could secure an agent and get published?

After weeks and weeks and what I refer to as “dodging a bullet” with a small local independent publisher (the contract was horrendous), I decided to go “indie” and retracted my submission from the final agent I had approached.

Freedom. Almost.

The Kindle was changing publishing and being an independent author was fast becoming the way to go. The more I learnt about being an “indie” the more excited I grew. Complete freedom and control. I dived in head first and consumed every single scrap of content I could from the right people at the right time.

Being back at Trinity made me feel alive. I loved the MA and made some lifelong friends there. One of which (and her wife) would even end up as characters in a book! I could, at long last, see a pathway from the classroom to the author life I’d craved for a long time. Each Wednesday I would fly out of the classroom, knowing I had the support of my wonderful Co-Heads and close colleagues whom I’d grown to care deeply for; racing to Trinity, buzzing with excitement and inching ever closer to my dream.

I revelled in having a purpose beyond marking books, assessing data, preparing resources, filling forms, doing risk assessments, completing online trackers and reports, writing plans, typing up minutes of phase meetings, planning and holding assemblies, CPD courses and managing Curriculum based roles, attending staff and management meetings, dealing with behaviour issues or reading SEND reports, dealing with parents, resolving conflicts. Oh yeah, and teaching. Don’t forget the actual teaching and day-to-day management of the class.

Running

But as I ran towards graduating with an MA, I soon realised that I was running away from something, too. My grief.

I would go for drives, blast music in the car, scream and cry and sing at the top of my lungs just to get a release. I took my running seriously and trained hard in the gym.

J A Browne running the Cheshire Half Marathon

But, I was about to hit a brick wall. Just not whilst driving.

The truth was, I couldn’t accept that I had to live in a world where Mum didn’t exist. Even with the support of my family, who I adore with every ounce of my soul, I still couldn’t fathom a future without Mum.

Half way through the MA, grief came at me like a tidal wave. Fearful of having to give up on another MA, I took action and sought grief counselling. Once more, with the full support of my Co-Heads. The six weekly sessions helped put a barrier between me and the tidal wave, but that barrier was fragile.

And little did I realise, that barrier was about to be obliterated.

At the Leeds Author Event

Having worked so hard on the degree and how to publish as an indie author, the stage was set. In October 2018, having partnered with a small indie publisher who would literally build the book and get it printed and developed a wonderful co-creative relationship with my illustrator and now dear friend, I launched Hannah and the Hollow Tree – Book One in The Earth Chronicles series.

I had done it!

Holding my paperbacks in my hand for the very first time was exhilarating. It was coming true. It was no longer a dream. I could officially call myself a published author! And, I was about to graduate with an MA from my beloved Trinity. This was it!

Graduation. The Second One.

I mentioned previously that both graduations for me had been pivotal moments in my life. Five days before my graduation, the nursing home rang.

Another false alarm?

You see, Dad had pulled through infection after infection and, unbelievably, several bouts of pneumonia. But that was Dad. A fighter. He never gave up. He had a purpose. To help others. A sportsman all his life, he loved living and gave life all he had in everything he did every damn day.

Once my hairdresser had rinsed the colour out of my hair and roughly dried it, I raced across Leeds and met my brother. The nurses were clear. There would be no pulling through this time. They expected him to go in under 24 hours, but Dad being Dad, it wasn’t going to happen that way. My brother and I spent the next four nights sleeping next to him, just like we had after losing Mum.

On my graduation day, I woke up exhausted. Then, kissed Dad goodbye and whispered in his ear to wait; that I had to go graduate and that I’d be as fast as I could.

Once more, I put on a brave face. A mask I was used to wearing. I pulled on my gown and waited to receive my certificate. Briefly, I shook hands and smiled, posed for photographs with my aunt, my husband and my in-laws, then left.

The drive back was a blur.

I sprinted into the care home. My brother there to meet me…

He had waited.

Dad had waited for me.

Two hours later, he died cradled in mine and my brother’s arms.

Breakdown

Spun into a sharp grief cycle, I attempted to return to work after the Christmas holiday. But the mask was slipping. My entire being had been hollowed out, a dark cavity left gaping wide. I was falling to pieces. That Spring I had a total breakdown. Even the grief filter cracked.

I left school unsure if I would ever return.

I did the only thing I could. Write.

I poured my soul into Book Two. It allowed me to escape. Some days, only my characters could help me. Other days, I couldn’t get out of bed. School arranged grief counselling, which helped me face the realities I needed to.

Mum and Dad were gone.

Brink

And so, for the second time in my teaching career, I resigned.

I would spend the end of 2019 as a part-time class teacher covering a colleague’s maternity post with the aim of undertaking supply teaching afterwards. This would allow me to cover my outgoings and fund my author dream. Exactly one year to the day from publishing Hannah, I published Book Two, Gaia’s Revenge. The book that brought me back from the brink.

J A Browne holding Gaia's Revenge Book Two in The Earth Chronicles fantasy series

Do I miss the classroom? Not one bit.

But I shall treasure the memories of behaviour battles fought alongside colleagues, survival chats and hugs, and the laughter. It wasn’t all bleak!

What followed, no-one could have imagined. Well, maybe only an author. The events of 2020 would ensure I’d never set foot inside a classroom again.

Maybe therein lies the appeal of the Stoics.

Missed Part One? Read It Here.

8 Comments

  1. Awww Jane, I have really enjoyed reading this. Made me emotional knowing what you went through but also how you battled your way through such a difficult time. You are a wonderful lady and I’m so happy that you are part of our family. Keep going with your dream, be proud and stay strong, Di and TT xxxx

    1. Thank you my lovely. I’m cherished to have married into a beautiful family and to have you and TT in my life. It always stings that hubbie never got a chance to know Mum and Dad more and have more time with them. They loved him. xx

  2. You, my dear friend, are an incredible lady! To have such determination, passion, and perseverance in the face of anguish, is truly remarkable. You are astounding, and you inspire those around you: to be better, to do better, to make the world better. Massive love to you both! Xxxx

    1. That’s so kind. Honestly, I’m so glad I did that MA because it meant you became one of my dearest friends. You’re a treasure. xxxx

  3. Well written Jane, like you I’ve lost both parents, it is very hard, but as every day passes it does feel less painful.
    My mum gave me inspiration to write a book when I was in my teens but only got round to publish it when I was 60, which I’d done it sooner.

    I only hope I can be as successful as you.
    Take care,
    Marian (Max Magpie’s Unusual First Year)

    1. Thank you, Marian. That’s really kind.
      It’s very hard. It still often feels very raw, but it eases and isn’t as “sharp”. Sounds like we’re very much alike in that sense.
      Aw, thank you. Just doing everything I possibly can to make my dream come true and be a modern Beatrix Potter! Lol!
      Take care,
      Jane xx

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