Writing her own next chapter in the Peace Corps

She worked on the corporate side of the aerospace industry for 30 years. She intersected and dialogued and facilitated. She drove a Realtor's champagne Cadillac CTS. She raised three sons. She kept her family together as her husband drank himself to death.

Karen McCarthy mulled over her accomplishments as she drove home from her mother's nursing home in Hemet one night last spring. Her mom's mind was evaporating in the final stages of Alzheimer's. Seeing her lose title to her life's narrative brought McCarthy to consider her own.

She pulled onto the 91 Freeway and headed west into the orange city glow. In the hermetic silence of the Cadillac, her mind hurtled through old memories and dreams ahead. She wanted to make an impact beyond work and family.

She had coasted out of her youth, swirling in the eddies past so many opportunities she would jump at now. By the time she took a hard course as an adult she was already hemmed in by the rugged circumstances she had drifted into.

Now she was retired at 57. Her sons were grown. Her greatest love and torment was dead.

The terrain was wide open. She needed to set out beyond comfort and protection.

She just needed a path. Corporate organizational development managers -- retired or otherwise -- do not wander aimlessly. For years she strode into conference rooms at Raytheon Corp., flip chart in hand, urging teams to set "identifiable goals."

Now one kept running through her mind -- not so much the ultimate destination but the first step.

By the time she pulled up to her little home in Torrance, her mind was set. She would join the Peace Corps.

Karen Pettyjohn was eating a burrito on the floor when John McCarthy and his dog walked into her friend's beach shack in Hermosa that day in 1970. He was strong and rollicking, wearing long hair and a torn Army fatigue shirt with a pack of Camels in the pocket. He pulled the tab off a can of Coors and the party began.

She was spellbound. He was the one.

Karen was an insecure 20-year-old emerging awkwardly from a sheltered youth in Thousand Oaks.

Her mother was a fastidious archetype of the 1950s, so fanatical about having the perfect household that she did Karen's homework to ensure it was just right. Karen came out of high school with a phobia of classrooms and uncertainty about her intelligence. She didn't dare have any opinions. Her father, an executive in Howard Hughes' upper-middle ranks, got her a job in accounts payable at Hughes Tool Co.

Her career goal was to be a perky, hardworking secretary like Susie in the 1950s sitcom "Private Secretary."

McCarthy blew that to pieces.

He hailed from a loud, liberal Irish family in fractious South-Central L.A. He was smart and curious, read the newspaper front to back every day. Once they started dating they were rarely apart. She loved listening to his stories and takes on the world.

She quit her job at Hughes to protest the company's making of helicopters for the Vietnam War, and within a year, they were married.

They rented a triplex with a big communal garden on Border Avenue in old Torrance. He started driving tractor-trailers between L.A. and San Luis Obispo. She rode shotgun. In the evenings, a motley assortment of friends and neighbors gathered with their dogs around the big drum barbecue in the garden. John was always at the center, manning the grill with a Budweiser (having dismissed the Coors family as a bunch of reactionaries).

The McCarthys had two boys, and Karen had to go back to work to pay the bills in 1976. She called Hughes Aircraft in Culver City and got a job making employee security badges for $4.76 an hour. They bought a little home on West Clarion Drive in Torrance, had another boy.

John was a devoted, funny, affectionate bear of a father. He coached Little League and always took the boys out in nature.

But as the 1980s rolled on, there was no way for Karen to ignore his drinking. He was always loaded to some degree, and erratic. There were nights he came home late, flat-out wasted, or didn't come home at all.

With a mortgage and three boys, his dissipation forced her to take command.

Karen propelled her way into middle management at Hughes as her marriage fell apart. John stopped working regularly. When she learned he was spending her earnings on pints of Smirnoff vodka -- and, to a lesser extent, crack cocaine -- she cut him off. He holed up in the extra bedroom for two years, in depression, until he started getting government disability checks and could drink again.

John became a ragged, drunken specter who came and went. He was bloated and dirty. Karen couldn't bear his smell.

Her feelings for him were a messy snarl she would rather ignore than try to untangle. She was livid that he just couldn't get himself together. She resented how his morose presence sucked the air out of her home. And her heart broke to see how pained he was knowing he let his boys down.

When she let herself, she missed him. They had tender moments of friendship now and then. He still had his glint of humor. When she asked him why he wasn't out drinking one New Year's Eve, he told her, "This is amateurs night, and I'm a professional." When his brother found him in a hotel in San Pedro with all his clothes in a grocery bag, he declared that it was his "San Pedro Samsonite."

But mostly, Karen just moved on. The corporate track awoke an ambition inside her, and she didn't have time for distractions.

One day in 1995, she was preparing to give a lecture to engineering students at UC Berkeley on the business management strategy Six Sigma. When the students asked her to send her bio, she was mortified. She had never taken a college course.

She ignored the request, but she knew she had to deal with the calcified phobias of her childhood.

She signed up for Harbor Community College. Her first classes were basic English, pre-algebra and a speech class. She was so nervous that she had her oldest son, John, take her around campus before the first day to find all of her classrooms.

She studied obsessively and as the semester came to an end, she realized she wasn't so dumb. She would forever remember her math teacher doing an equation on the blackboard, glancing at her and saying, "Karen, you'll probably get this. . . ."

She pictured her husband's death. Perhaps her youngest son, Kevin, would call her at work to tell her the news. She would rush home to console her boy and convince him of her sadness.

Then one night in May 1996, Kevin, 17, found him lying in vomit and blood in the bedroom.

John was confused and caked in dried blood. His face was swollen. Karen dreaded that he might need to go to the hospital. She didn't want her car to get dirty and couldn't bear to be seen in public with him.

Karen demanded that he wash off his blood.

John tried to clean his clothes. He stared at the washer-dryer and put his bloody shirt in the dryer. He stumbled to the bathroom and sat on the toilet.

His body suddenly stiffened and started shuddering. Karen called 911. Kevin ran from the room, horrified that his dad was dying. John keeled over and slammed onto the bathroom floor.

Karen rushed to him. The seizure stopped. She touched his chest and told him how sorry she was.

She hadn't touched him in years.

She thought about the retirement plans they used to have.

"I'm not ready for you to die," she said.

That turned out to be just the first of John's seizures. When he got out of the hospital, Karen told him he could no longer live at her house. He would come by for Christmas and birthdays -- and when Karen was at work, just to see his boys. He slept at his brother's house, on the streets and in grim hotels.

Karen got her associate's degree, earned a bachelor's degree in business management from the University of Redlands and then started a master's in organizational leadership at Chapman University in Orange.

She bought a cabin in Running Springs, and she took the family to the mountains as often as she could. Sometimes, she took John.

One day the two of them decided to trek to an old fire watchtower on a ridge.

They came upon an anthill on the side of the dirt road. They both squatted down to inspect the giant black ants.

Where are they going? Who is the leader? What do they eat?

They did not disturb the colony, simply stood watching it and talking for nearly an hour.

Karen thought how much she missed these moments. She felt so comfortable with him. Who else would just stand there with her like that and contemplate the world?

And then on a night of torrential rain, Feb. 12, 2003, John walked out of a flophouse in old Torrance to get a pint of Smirnoff at the liquor store and was hit by a car.

The nurses in the trauma ward didn't let Karen see John right away. By the time they did, he was unconscious, hooked up to oxygen and IV tubes. They said he was dying.

"Please stay with us until Kevin can get here," she said to John.

Karen asked to be alone with him.

She grabbed his hand. His body looked so small and pale. She had so much to say. She bore this shard of guilt: Perhaps she marginalized him by taking over the household, emasculated him in a sense, accelerating his slide into oblivion.

She whispered in his ear.

"You are the love of my life," she said. "I owe you so much. Please forgive me for the mean things I have said to you. Please forgive me for not doing more to understand your pain, and to help you. I love you. I will miss you every day of the rest of my life."

That night last spring, when Karen got home from Hemet, she pulled out her laptop, got on her bed and started filling out the application to join the Peace Corps.

The agency is trying to enlist more baby boomers -- to draw from their life experience.

Writing an essay about herself, she thought more about her mother, whose intensity boiled over in frustration as a housewife. Karen would have been her mother if it were not for John's failings. She would have been the sidekick to the charismatic husband, staying home to raise children.

Instead, McCarthy not only got her master's but was also teaching business management at Harbor College. And before she retired from Raytheon in 2005, she founded a women's network -- to address women's concerns and needs in a company and industry where they were historically isolated. Giving them a voice became her proudest professional achievement.

"I was married for 32 years," she wrote. "My husband, now deceased, was an alcoholic. He wasn't just an ordinary alcoholic. He was the kind of alcoholic that people see panhandling at the freeway entrance. . . . He was the person who is invisible to the public, who smelled, and was shooed away from business establishments."

She felt, in a way, that John had sacrificed himself for her to rise.

Of course, he did not drink for her sake. But she believed in a certain harmonic equilibrium to the universe. Energy cannot be destroyed or created, just transferred from one object to another. Watching him waste his life sent her caroming in the opposite direction, out of the muddled middle she was in.

"I learned far more from my husband than I learned from my formal education, my career, or anything else in life," she wrote.

"I'm not just looking for a couple years in the Peace Corps. I'm looking for that couple of years to jump-start a new life and open up opportunities for me to build my vision of meaningful volunteer work. Passion drives me forward. I believe the Peace Corps experience would keep the fire burning within."

And so, like some fresh college grad with a limitless future, McCarthy, 58, will embark today for two years in an impoverished neighborhood on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia -- before she figures out what she wants to do with the rest of her life.