The checkout clerk cleared her throat. “I’m sorry, ma'am. That card didn’t work."
She looked up from behind the cash register and feigned a smile. She was acknowledging the fact that this was the third card she had tried, while still trying to avoid an awkward situation.
That’s when Joanne started to cry
She’d debated whether it was even possible to show her face to this clerk another time. That same clerk had tried to check her out the previous week. What were the chances that she was just a few dollars short in net worth of what was needed for her and her two kids to eat that week, again?
“Excuse me ma'am, is there another card you’d like to try?” Customers behind her in line were beginning to look onward uncomfortably.
“I’ll just put a few things back,” she managed to say.
The cashier politely returned the card. “I’ll move your things to the side and let the other customers check out?"
Joanne looked back up at the cashier’s eyes, straining to make contact. She could tell that the young girl really was sorry. But this only turned her heart to anger. Not out of the pity displayed but because in this cashier’s mind, Joanne was a woman unable to provide for her children.
“I’ll be right back,” Joanne said, holding back tears as her face flushed red.
“I can also just have our bag boy put it all back for you if that’s better, ma'am."
“I’ll be right back,” she repeated. “I’ll be right back."
Over the next four years, my sister and I would require somewhere in the ballpark of 14,600 full meals, not counting additional snacks or what we needed to buy from the cafeteria at our high school. Our mother didn’t let us miss a single one.
At one point she would work from 6 in the morning until after we had finished a full school day and swim workout and would then make her way to her second or third job depending on the day, at the local Macy’s or a resale store down the street. She would sometimes come home after we had been asleep for hours.
Today, I’m an American record holding swimmer, started a successful 501c3 nonprofit, performed magic with David Blaine, attended Harvard and Berkeley, started a student run venture capital firm at Harvard, launched an angel funded edtech company, and was invited to speak at my high school’s graduation just four years after my own.
When I had the bold idea sophomore year of high school to use my card magic to build an organization that performs and teaches magic to local cancer patients, she found a way to pay for our website and setup costs without hesitation. I still don’t know how.
She always came right back.
When we were short on food, she worked with friends, family, and local churches to make sure I was fed, largely without my knowledge.
When the roof of our rented house started to leak and could have collapsed she climbed alone in the snow above our house and spent almost a full day shoveling, so that I was warm and safe while I studied all night after workout. I graduated at the top of my class and won the US junior national swim championship my senior year.
If you are a mother, most of these things might not sound that crazy. Of course there are women who don’t have this trait, but I believe that the majority of mothers are willing to reject their own reality in honor of their child's. Not because they want recognition. Because refuting their current circumstances is the only way past them.
I believe we can learn from this. It is our duty as creators of this world to refute reality into order to create our dream. It can be stronger than any drug. A natural sort of caffeine.
In order to accomplish anything meaningful to this point, I’ve had to push past my current reality.
The worst part about not having a father I wish to know is having known him at one point. When someone close to you changes permanently for the worst, how do you convince yourself that you won’t end up like them?
How could you assume that you could swim faster than anyone had when you see no food in the refrigerator?
How could you raise money to start a company when you never had more than lunch money in your bank account?
Things like this didn’t stop me. This isn’t about ego or strength or resiliency as you might want to believe. This is about guilt.
In what universe would I be able to look my mother, not to mention the friends and family who have built me in their eye and say, “I failed.” How could I look at that cashier and tell her I wouldn’t be coming back?
So I build
If my mother figured out a way to pay for the rest of her groceries, how can I possibly give up on an Olympic dream?
If my mother found a way to work three jobs simultaneously and still raise two children, I can find a way to sponsor my swimming with my own successful company, or two.
If my mother found the friends and family that helped her get me anything I needed, then I can find a way to get my ideas and visions in front of the right people.
I’m not suggesting that I’m special or different. I’m not. There’s no doubt I had to get through some difficulty to start building my dreams, but you can do the same and likely already have.
If you want to design your own reality you can’t sit back and hope that things work out. You have to become Sisyphus and push the rock more times than the gods are willing to watch. You need the ferocity of the mother who lifted the car off her children to save their lives.
Your startup ideas, or full time profession, or your secret passion - that’s your child. These things won't save themselves. They need someone to feed them.
You can’t just assume the groceries will end up in your cart.
That means relocating across the country with just a suitcase if that’s what you believe will help you reach your goals.
That means selling your coffee even when you didn’t know the first thing about coffee.
That means spending hours on a single email until 3 in the morning with the knowledge that nothing may ever come of it.
Because when something does come of it, and you get that promotion, close that deal, raise that funding round, then you’ve metaphorically figured out a way to buy all of those groceries...
“I’ll be right back."