Patricia Robbins '92 has had a myriad of careers throughout her life. But she will be the first to tell you that the most rewarding and most challenging role she ever inhabited was that of mother to her twin daughters. Her girls, Charlotte and Vanessa, were diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis at nine months. Patricia and her husband Jeff were faced with the fact that their daughters would die at a young age. But instead of letting the weight of this diagnosis overwhelm them, Patricia and Jeff decided to help their daughters lead the fullest, most joyous life they could. In a new memoir, In the Morning Light, Patricia combines interviews and writing done by her daughters before their deaths with her own recollections of life with her twins and the mourning period after they passed. I recently spoke with Patricia Robbins about the process of writing, her time at Rosemont College, and the lessons she believes everyone can learn from her daughters’ brief but impactful lives.
Is this the first piece of long-form writing you have attempted?
I worked in the Development field for more than twenty years, including my last position as Vice President of Development at The Chester County Hospital, so writing was something I did all the time. I have written my whole life starting with diaries, letters, short stores and poems… and still do. When I was at Rosemont, my professors did comment that they enjoyed reading my essays and that helped build my confidence as a writer in my professional and personal life.
How difficult was it putting your girls’ story down on paper? Was the act therapeutic? Would you recommend it to others who have experienced a traumatic event?
Writing never was a problem; it was making myself sit down to write that was the problem. I like to be active so sitting at the computer for long periods was not natural for me. When I did sit down, I never had to think about what was next or what to write. It was as if Charlotte and Vanessa were there with me writing our story. It just flowed out of me.
Writing was cathartic and I never questioned whether to continue, but it took twelve years, sometimes leaving it for a year or two. I would say the finishing the book was the hardest. Looking through thousands of photos strewn all over the house and finding more quotes from the girls was very sad for me after all these years because I was in a different place after twelve years and it brought back so intensely how much I missed them, seeing them so happy in the photos. It was a difficult winter.
Writing was a way to delve deep into myself and remember the joy and the sadness. It is important to experience the emotions and grieve. After their deaths, I quit my job and spent a year grieving, mostly by myself, but grieving never really ends, it just changes. For me to know that is important. I needed to go to the depths of sorrow to then come back and when I did feel life again, I felt the girls.
What is a lesson you learned from your daughters that you think everyone should know?
That life needs to be lived in the present and time is precious. As Vanessa said, "Take the time to be with the people you love, and take the time to tell them." It isn't money or things that make us happy; it is living and loving wholeheartedly, following your dreams, even when you are challenged in life. The girls lived each day to the fullest first as actresses, then writing and illustrating five children's books and traveling far from home. They didn't fear life and had much love in their lives.
Do you think there was any advantage to graduating college later in life?
I spent three years at the University of Missouri in my early twenties and studied weaving in Sweden. Going back to school when I was forty and focused was so exciting. It opened my life up to new opportunities, meeting such interesting professors and students, expanding my horizons and dreams.
How do you feel Rosemont prepared you for being a mother and a writer?
When I went back to school at Rosemont my daughters were thirteen years old. After a semester, I couldn't afford to continue so I spent the next semester at West Chester University, before being offered a scholarship at Rosemont, where I graduated Summa Cum Laude and received an award from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I cannot express how proud and grateful I am for the gift Rosemont gave to me. If I hadn't had the financial help, I probably never would have graduated and graduating from Rosemont enabled me to grow as an artist and pursue a career working at great institutions like the Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania. I never would have the confidence in life that I possess had I gone somewhere else. The experience continues to influence my life.
What distinct memories do you have from your time at Rosemont?
I will always be grateful for the warmth and caring of the professors, students and staff who helped find the means to make the college experience as rich and vibrant as possible. I loved just walking to class; the campus is so lovely in every season. At times in my life when it was so difficult, coming to class was a respite and joy, a place to leave my life behind and immerse myself in learning. One day I hope to be able to create a scholarship in Charlotte's and Vanessa's names at Rosemont as a thank you for all I received from them. I am eternally grateful.