Anne Horrigan Geary: Against all odds

Saturday May 4, 2013


The struggle for survival continues day and night. From my window, I see it everywhere. The earthworm struggles to tunnel through the dense, muddy soil while the robin seeks to pluck him from the safety of the garden and gobble him up. The woody canes of an overgrown rosebush bob in the wind, their tips all brown and lifeless. Yet along the greening stems leaf buds are unfolding, angling toward the rising sun, anxious to get the chlorophyll factory working again to supply food to the starving plant.

In hospitals across the greater Boston area, survivors of the marathon explosions are struggling to heal and learn to walk again. Families of the four victims are choked by unspeakable grief, trying to come to terms with sudden loss under tragic circumstances. It’s difficult to understand the pain of all these families; but imagining the sorrow of a father who has lost an 8-year-old son while his daughter and wife are seriously injured seems impossible.

The Bible story of Job comes to mind. How can one person endure such grief? But we know from all the published follow-up reporting that legions are friends, community members, and total strangers are working to support the survivors in physical, emotional, and monetary ways. We all hope it’s enough to keep them going.

I never think about survival stories without remembering my own family’s struggles. Some of my ancestors were forced by starvation to flee their Irish farms and board stinking ships for a tumultuous Atlantic crossing.

Many of their companions perished on the so-called "coffin ships." There is an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, east of Quebec, which is the final resting place of thousands who almost made it.

The lucky ones who survived the voyage were met with new struggles, including persecution for being what they were -- immigrants and Catholics. "No Irish need apply" signs were common. Their determination to survive and thrive despite all odds was unstoppable and its results are seen all over New England and beyond.

Subsequent waves of immigrants, including my mother’s mom and dad from Eastern Europe, also climbed and clawed their way to acceptance and eventually citizenship. Family lore tells that my grandfather was anxious to get away from pending conscription into the Austrian army in the years before World War I, so he got himself to Germany and onto a ship. He worked in the mills in Northern Berkshire County, tended a garden, and was known to produce some "white lightning" during Prohibition. He was still working in the mills at age 71 when he died, grateful for the opportunity for honest work and the freedom to live his life without looking over his shoulder.

During World War II, my Uncle Everett -- known to the family as "Babe" -- was grievously wounded in Italy. He survived his injuries, but walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life. I always remember him joking and laughing; he had a great laugh. He worked a full-time job and sold insurance on the side; he died at 52.

Survival must be encoded in our DNA. Why else would we crawl out of the bed each morning and salute the sun? We strive against the pains of aging, economic hardships, and the constant barrage of political bickering and partisan vitriol. Then along comes a real crisis and for a time we work together. Like horses hitched to a wagon, things go more smoothly if we pull in the same direction.

We can pull in the same direction too. We can join others and overcome great obstacles to our collective survival. Remember the ants and the rubber tree plant? We, too, have high hopes, and great abilities to overcome all odds.

Anne Horrigan Geary is a regular Eagle contributor.


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