Challenge, resilience and hope: Gretchen Ryan '97

Nancy Doolittle
Gretchen Ryan '97

Visitors to the McGraw bell tower know her as chimesmaster, and students as a source of wisdom and caring; her friends jokingly compare her to Hermione in the Harry Potter books: pursuing knowledge, seeking social justice and overcoming all obstacles with strength and perseverance.

At the Soup and Hope event Jan. 30 in Sage Chapel, Gretchen Ryan ’97 – widowed at age 28, overcoming her own health concerns in her 30s and now wife to Leah O’Connor and mother to twins – told an audience of about 175 that, in her life, “hope has become intertwined with challenge and resilience.”

Ryan’s childhood in Louisiana was “magazine-perfect,” with swim practice, piano lessons, a two-story house and plenty of food, Ryan said. “For the most part, life has been amazingly grand and fairly easy and I’ve been able to be optimistic and happy-go-lucky.” Ryan graduated Cornell with a “positive sense of self and a boatload of confidence,” she said.

But a decade ago, her partner of four and a half years was diagnosed with cancer and died nine months later. “We spent our last months together attempting to live life fully,” Ryan said. “My goal was to help her die as pain-free as possible, with compassion, love and a lot of humor.”

At the time, Ryan was the residence hall director of Ecology House. She found support in her dog, work colleagues and friends, she said, but she was often lonely and she struggled with her identity as a young widow.

Her students and her job gave Ryan purpose and focus, and she found she could empathize with students who were in various stages of struggle or grief, “in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to do previously.”

She also took up biking and became a chimes-master. “The physical challenge of playing provided a healthy way for me to let off steam – I could make music from what I was feeling, and in the end, my body would be tired and my soul would be a bit more fulfilled,” she said.

Biking mixed coping and redirecting mechanisms: “I noticed that I was doing some of my best thinking and feeling on my bike rides. I could grunt and groan up a hill and not only was I letting go of the hill when I reached the top, but I was also letting go of all that was bothering me.”

Happiness, hope and purpose began to return. Ryan changed jobs, moving to the financial aid office, met O’Connor and together they bought a house. About a month later, Ryan confronted her own medical crisis, requiring surgery and a recovery process.

Ryan coped by calling up two visions: one the view from her bicycle seat upon reaching a hilltop, and the second of holding a baby.

Recovery came, and so did the second vision, when O’Connor gave birth to twins. “Talk about a source of hope!” Ryan said. The twins “stole my heart completely.”

In spite of the sleepless nights, laundry and baby-food making that came during the twin’s infancy, Ryan has learned that life is “precious indeed.”

Recently, the boys’ great grandmother moved in with them. “These months have been some of the sweetest months of my adulthood,” Ryan said. She enjoys watching the generations interact, having the twins learn rhyming ditties and having an older and wiser person to consult with.

“Sometimes life hangs in the balance,” Ryan said. “I have learned to free-fall into the more difficult and unknown times, hoping for the best, but acknowledging the possibility of the worst. And I have learned to celebrate the great times.”

Ryan said she is thankful for her family and community – and added, “I’m also thankful that even Hermione grows up and settles into a much less dramatic life in the end.”

Soup and Hope participant
Soup and Hope participant
Soup and Hope participants
Soup and Hope participants listen to Gretchen Ryan '97
Soup and Hope participants
Soup and Hope participants