Michelle Giovanni was out running errands on a cold February day in 2002. Her brother was babysitting her two boys, ages 1½ and 3. But when she returned home, her life had changed.
As she pulled into her driveway in Saugus, her mother came outside in tears. Her father was inside, on the phone with the coroner’s office in Florida.
She learned that her 35-year-old husband, Tim Galvin, who was away on businesss, had died of a heart attack. She was left with two young children, a mountain of bills, and no job or education.
“It was sudden,” said Giovanni, who now lives in Danvers. “You’re just in shock, really. How do you tell your children that their daddy will never come home, that you’ll never see your daddy again? And that was very difficult for me.”
There were times when she questioned whether she would make it, she said, always “treading water in a dark place.” She even feared that her family could become homeless.
Eleven years later, her life has turned around, and she credits the profound love for her two boys, Brendan, 15, and Timothy, 12.
Giovanni, 45, put herself through school at night and on weekends for eight years at North Shore Community College and Lesley University , earning a bachelor’s degree in human development. She will receive her master’s degree in special education from Lesley next week.
“I thank God for my children, because they kept me going,” she said. “They kept me getting up every day. They kept me laughing. They kept me active. I cooked for them. I took care of them. They were my main priority.”
During her worst moments after her husband died, she hid her pain. She didn’t want her emotions to have a negative impact on her children, she said. But regardless of how low she felt, she always got back up.
“She had no choice,” said Tracy Barber, 44, who has been a friend of Giovanni for more than 30 years. “You don’t have the luxury of curling up in a ball in your bed and wanting to die. . . . I don’t know where she’d be today if she didn’t have those boys.”
Giovanni remarried in 2011, and her new husband, Chip Giovanni, does for her boys what any father would do for his sons, she said, including coaching baseball games, going to doctors’ appointments, and staying up with the boys at night.
Giovanni’s mother, Carmella Garten, said she doesn’t know if she could have done what her daughter has done under such circumstances.
“She’s been a super mom, super wife, and super daughter,” Garten said. “She was down and she picked herself back up again and she made it her business to graduate and become something. It would’ve been so easy for her to give up, but she didn’t.”
During her years of studying, she would come home from a teaching assistant job in Danvers at 3 p.m., do some homework, cook dinner for her family, then continue her homework or go to class.
“She was given two pretty stark choices,” said Steve Garten, 42, Giovanni’s younger brother. “One would be a life of sorrow and self pity, or two, dig deeper and work harder than you could’ve ever imagined. . . . And she chose number two. I undoubtedly believe that those boys saved her life. They were her north stars.”
When Brendan was in third grade, Giovanni noticed that he kept himself apart from other children. She began doing some research into possible social behavior abnormalities.
After several tests at North Shore Children’s Hospital, Brendan was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.
Giovanni said she was relieved when she found out.
“Everybody has family problems,” she said. “I guess I was just happy to have a diagnosis of my son because I had some doctors try to tell me he had this, he had that, and I’m like, ‘No, no you’re wrong, let’s move on to the next doctor.’ I was advocating for my son and really believing in what I knew as a mother. . . . I knew what my son needed, and he was going to get it.”
Brendan gets specialized assistance at his Danvers school when necessary, but otherwise participates in regular activities with his peers.
Currently a freshman in high school, Brendan has also inspired his mother to pursue a career in special education and become an advocate for autism awareness.
Barber, who went to high school with Giovanni at St. Mary’s in Lynn, agreed that Giovanni’s children have been the inspiration for everything she has accomplished.
“Her son having Asperger syndrome inspired her to take the path that she took,” Barber said. “Her kids are basically what kept her going. You still have time to cry, but you have to go on with your life.”
Today Giovanni said she is happy and grateful for everything she has in her life.
Now that her degree work is completed, she is looking forward to having more time this summer for simple pleasures like gardening, shopping, and reading.
“I’ve always enjoyed life, but you know what — I’m going to enjoy it more now,” Giovanni said. “Anything is possible. When you think you can’t do something, you really can. You just do it.”