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Five moments that changed their lives

By Moni Basu, John Blake, Daniel Burke, Wayne Drash and Jessica Ravitz, CNN
updated 8:35 AM EST, Sat December 28, 2013
Patti Berry with three of her children -- Nathan, 7, Abbey, 2, and Lily, 10 -- at their home in Decatur, Georgia.
Patti Berry with three of her children -- Nathan, 7, Abbey, 2, and Lily, 10 -- at their home in Decatur, Georgia.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Meet five people who faced crucial moments that changed their lives
  • Among them, a teen facing prison, a man who finds $45K, a woman who parts with her baby
  • Others include an exec trying something new and a woman who hears from the dead
  • As one year ends and a new one approaches, consider the moments we all face

(CNN) -- Change, for any of us, can happen in an instant. One decision, one twist or one unexpected encounter can shape a lifetime. We learn who we are and what we're capable of doing.

A mother parts with her newborn. A teenager facing prison learns to breathe. An executive takes a leap and finds laughter. A man stumbles on wads of cash and must make a choice. A woman hears from the dead and discovers her calling.

As the new year approaches, meet five people whose lives changed course in a crucial moment. Read their stories and consider moments -- big and small -- that have changed you. And take a minute to wonder: What might 2014 have in store?

A permanent solution to a temporary problem

Sometimes, Patti Berry shuts the door to her bathroom, thinks about a pivotal moment 15 years ago and cries for hours. It's been painful, especially at times when she has been pregnant.

She's given birth four times since that day and is due again in February.

Back then, she spent months preparing for the outcome of her decision. She erected mental boundaries that would soften the blow, like not naming the baby in her womb.

If she did, then it would become her child.

Instead, she referred to it as their child. It was their daughter. The couple even accompanied Berry to her doctor's appointments. They called her throughout the pregnancy.

When the baby was born, Berry went numb. She forced herself into denial about what she was about to do. It was the only way she could carry out the decision she'd made.

She let the woman cut the umbilical cord. Berry tried not to cradle the baby in her arms. She let the woman do that. The last time Berry held her, the baby was crying. Berry just got her another bottle.

And then the couple was gone. Berry's baby was gone with them to begin a life without her.

A nurse told Berry not to despair. At least she had another daughter at home.

But Berry knew a child could never be replaced. It wasn't like getting another car or a house. She knew she'd live with a hollowness in her heart.

She had made a most difficult decision, one borne from the desperation and darkness before her. How would she ever be able to care for her unborn daughter?

Every time Patti Berry is pregnant -- she\'s due again in February -- she remembers her most difficult decision.\n
Every time Patti Berry is pregnant -- she's due again in February -- she remembers her most difficult decision.

She was 20 and broke with one baby already when she found out she was pregnant. She and her 6-month-old daughter Hailey were living -- no, surviving -- in a room at her mom's house in Atlanta. A second child? Now?

A high school dropout with a GED, she'd managed to enroll in classes at DeKalb College. She worked occasionally at day care centers to get discounted rates for Hailey.

Hailey's father denied paternity and abandoned Berry during her first pregnancy. Her second child's father had also taken off. She would never see him again.

The public assistance she received came nowhere close to covering her expenses. How would she buy food, diapers, clothes for her children?

She could not see how she could claw her way out of poverty, especially with another child. Getting pregnant had not been by choice, but then she was forced to make a far more important one. She felt trapped.

She considered abortion. But she couldn't afford that either.

"All my thoughts were about how I couldn't take care of this child," she said, "and that someone else would do a better job than me."

Those thoughts led to the most painful moment in Berry's young life. She would give her baby to someone else -- someone who had the means to care for her.

She spoke with an adoption agency but rejected that idea. She felt it was too much like a baby business, that they were interested in making money off her baby.

She really wanted to place her child with a family member. Perhaps her mother's sister, who had been trying with fertility treatments to get pregnant again and wanted a baby girl. She was considering adoption.

"I offered the baby to my aunt, but after thinking about it she declined to take the baby because, in her words, 'Your mom will never let the baby be mine.'"

Berry offered her baby to a second cousin who had adopted two children internationally. But the cousin, too, declined, citing similar concerns as Berry's aunt.

Berry didn't know what her mother and aunt had discussed but she felt angry that she would have to go outside her own family.

I thought that was the best choice. It wasn't.
-- Patti Berry

She found the couple who adopted her baby through people at her dentist's office. They agreed to an open adoption, which allows for varying degrees of contact between a biological mother and adoptive parents.

But after the child was born, the couple cut Berry from their lives. They closed the adoption and their lawyer told her never to contact them. In Georgia, the final order of adoption terminates all legal rights and relationships of the birth parents to the child, including communication if the adoptive parents so desire.

Over the years, Berry, 36, managed to see photographs of her daughter through a relative of her adoptive family. She posted some of those pictures in a special album on her Facebook page and knows where her daughter lives. She plans to write to her when her daughter, now 15, turns 21 and it will be legal for them to have contact with one another.

But also over the years, Berry has been overtaken by guilt that she made a wrong decision, even though at that moment, it felt like the right thing to do given her financial woes. Berry feels now that she sought a permanent solution to what was a temporary problem and has to live with her decision for the rest of her life.

"I thought that was the best choice. It wasn't."

Berry takes heart in the good life her daughter has had with her adoptive family. Berry might not have been able to give her all that back then, though she probably could now. Berry earned a master's degree and works as a geologist at the Southern States Energy Board, a nonprofit environmental policy and economic development agency. After two marriages and two other failed relationships, she is planning to get married again, to the father of two of her children.

She will soon give birth to a seventh child, though sometimes she feels she doesn't deserve another baby. Since the adoption, she has had trouble bonding with some of her newborns.

"Should I be allowed to have another child?" she asked. "What mother gives away her baby? I must be a horrible mother."

In a way, she said, adoption is harder to cope with than death, which at least brings a sense of finality. The decision she made all those years ago still colors every facet of her life. And her grieving, she said, never ends.

-- Moni Basu, CNN

Escaping from the prison of his mind

Noah Levine woke up in a padded cell, his forehead bloody and bruised, his wrists raw from his latest suicide attempt.

The previous day, he had literally beaten his head against the wall of the observation cell at Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall in California.

Noah Levine was going nowhere fast, but a phone call from his father set him on a new path.
Noah Levine was going nowhere fast, but a phone call from his father set him on a new path.

For the past seven years, Levine had snorted, smoked, huffed, scarfed and drank every intoxicant he could get his hands on, from engine cleaner to heroin -- anything to numb his raging mind.

To pay for the drugs and booze, he had stolen money, assaulted people and burgled cars. He'd been in and out of juvie hall at least 10 times, by his estimate.

Now, after being caught stealing a car stereo, Levine was looking at a seven-year sentence. In the padded cell, his body racked by drug withdrawal, his mind terrified by the prospect of a long stint in prison, suicide seemed like the only way out.

A guard who Levine knew all too well approached his cell and told him his father was on the phone from New Mexico. Shamed and embarrassed, Levine shuffled off to take the call.

Levine's father, Stephen Levine, is a teacher of Buddhist and Indian meditation, well known and highly regarded for his work on grief and death. He listened to his son's raving for a while, then told his own story.

He, too, had struggled with drug addiction, and he, too had served time for his sins, Stephen Levine told his son. But Buddhist meditation had turned his life around, he said.

He gave his son simple instructions: Focus all your attention on your breath. Count each inhalation and exhalation. Let go of the past and forget the future. Let your mind rest in the present.

Stephen Levine had imparted this advice to thousands of seekers, but it was the first time he had offered it to his skeptical teenage son.

Noah Levine had never bought into the Buddhist thing. His parents had been heavy into meditation, and what had it gotten them? All he saw were broken marriages, drug addiction and suffering.

Instead, Levine found community and purpose in the punk rock movement. Its anti-establishment anger fueled his own rage; its hatred of hippies and 1960s spirituality mirrored his own mistrust of his parents' path.

I've always felt like my life is my best teaching tool.
-- Noah Levine

Then again, sitting in the padded cell, Levine had nowhere else to turn, nowhere to go but inside his own mind. He lay on his narrow bed and started to count his breaths.

"Right away, I was released from where my mind was trying to take me," Levine said. "My mind wanted to take me to the future or the past. But when I paid attention to the present, I realized that my mind had a lot of bad advice for me."

The kind of bad advice that gets you locked up at age 17.

Over the next several months, Levine kept meditating, turned 18 and moved to a halfway house for troubled teens. Back out on the streets, Levine deepened his Buddhist practice, hooked up with a noted teacher and earned a degree in counseling.

Some time later, Levine, now 42, went back to Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall, this time as a mindfulness teacher.

Even then, he got into a bit of trouble. The staff was not thrilled by his choice of education examples. (Comparing mindfulness meditation with the concentration needed to roll a perfect joint is not their favorite metaphor.)

"But I've always felt like my life is my best teaching tool," Levine said with a laugh.

Levine still considers himself a punk, but now he's a "Dharma punk," and one of the most prominent Buddhist teachers in the country.

In addition to founding the Los Angeles-based Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, Levine has created a Buddhist-based drug and alcohol recovery program.

Called "Refuge Recovery," the program integrates Buddhist teachings like the Four Noble Truths with modern psychology and meditation techniques.

Levine said it's an alternative to God-centered 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and puts a premium on living moment-by-moment, just as his father instructed some 25 years ago -- a piece of parental advice that Levine credits with saving his life.

-- Daniel Burke, CNN

From button-down to stand-up

Gregg Walker took to the stage of the New York Comedy Club. Fear had consumed him for much of the day. Fearing he'd stumble, fearing he'd dart off stage, fearing his jokes would fall flat.

"All of those fears were there," he said, "fearing that people would smell the fear on me."

Gregg Walker was the master of the boardroom, but trying stand-up comedy would test his mettle.
Gregg Walker was the master of the boardroom, but trying stand-up comedy would test his mettle.

Performing stand-up comedy marked a longtime goal. Two years earlier, Walker had set a goal of bench pressing his own weight and he had finally achieved it. Suddenly, he felt empty.

He needed something new to chase. On February 14, 2010 -- his 38th birthday -- Walker vowed he would next tackle stand-up comedy. He always liked the cackles of laughs a good comedian could draw. He watched comedians like Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy on television and saw Sinbad in person. He found them -- and their command of material -- fascinating.

What would it be like to stand in their shoes?

Walker spent the next few weeks writing jokes and doing open-mic sessions: afternoon practice runs in which comedians meet at clubs to try out new material and polish their presentations without an audience. Walker might've been a novice at comedy, but he was hardly a novice in life.

He was considered one of the nation's top executives under age 40. As a senior vice president for Sony Corporation of America, he had handled business transactions worth tens of millions of dollars. Crain's New York Business ranked him as one of New York City's "40 Under 40 Rising Stars" in 2010; that same year, The Root named him one of the most powerful African-Americans in the nation under 40.

Those accolades were wonderful, Walker acknowledged, yet they didn't put him any closer to checking off another goal on life's bucket list. Ambitious professionally, Walker said one needs other goals beyond work, even if slightly on the silly side, to stay grounded.

Walker's business experience had trained him well for comedy. Leading up to his moment on stage, fellow comedians told him he had a style that resembled a boardroom presentation. Most didn't know his background as one of America's top executives, and at first he took those comments as criticism. They reassured him: No, it's so unique we love it.

"I'm from Wall Street, where the currency is money, and money is finite," Walker said. "It creates an environment that can be cutthroat. In comedy, laughter is infinite. ... Comedians tend not to feel a lot of resentment to another who is getting a lot of laughter. It tends to be more inspirational."

Yet, that said, nothing could quite prepare him for his premiere. The gig started at 8 p.m. Walker arrived an hour early. Being nervous is natural. He just tried not to let it devour him. He sat alone, almost meditative. He convinced himself the audience would laugh.

I wanted to feel the exhilaration of the roar of that laughter again.
-- Gregg Walker

It wasn't billed as an amateur night, but beginner comedians just like him were mixed in with professionals as part of the show. Each had seven minutes for his or her performance.

As Walker's gig neared, he was hit with a sense of relief. "It was going to be over soon," he said, "the torture of the anxiety about whether I would fall flat on my face."

He stood in the back of the crowd to watch the comedian before him. There were laughs and applause, then Walker's name was called. "It's like an out-of-body experience. You find yourself walking up on stage as the person's announcing your name, but you're still not sure you're going to be able to pull this off."

Walker had a huge advantage. With receding hair, a trimmed beard, arched brows and light skin, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Tiger Woods. Six years earlier, he said, O.J. Simpson rushed up to him at the Kentucky Derby and shook his hand thinking he was the golf pro.

Now it was March 2010, and Tiger Woods' sex scandal was playing out in headlines, on late-night shows and around the water cooler. All this worked to Walker's advantage. He grabbed the mic.

Tiger Woods is nervous about going back to golf ...

The audience roared with laughter.

I'm nervous about Tiger Woods going back to golf ...

The crowd laughed more.

This confused Walker. He wasn't even to the punch line and he already had them laughing. He remained on stage for his seven minutes, with Tiger Woods a running joke throughout the gig. The crowd's laughs never abated.

"It was a really satisfying, wonderful feeling," he said. "That roar was addictive."

With his goal complete, he felt something unexpected. The desire to do it again, but even better. For the next three years, Sony's top African-American executive appeared almost weekly in comedy clubs around New York.

"I use the word addiction deliberately because that's what it felt like," he said. "I wanted to feel the exhilaration of the roar of that laughter again."

What was his biggest takeaway as businessman and comedian?

"I learned from my corporate world how to get up there and talk and not let the fear overtake you," he said. "I learned from comedy that most of us use too much set-up and not enough punch line. We can all work on whittling down the set-up."

Walker has stopped his comedy routine, for now, to focus on his next life goal, possibly his most gratifying: helping his son navigate the college application process.

-- Wayne Drash, CNN

A $45,000 test of character

Josh Ferrin's hands trembled as he fumbled for the phone. He started pacing the floor. He was so giddy from joy that when his wife answered, he choked on his first words.

"Tara," he blurted, "you're never going to believe this... "

Finding $45,000 in his new home changed Josh Ferrin\'s life, but not the way he first imagined.
Finding $45,000 in his new home changed Josh Ferrin's life, but not the way he first imagined.

Ferrin had just discovered $45,000 stashed in his new home.

There's a biblical parable about a man who found treasure hidden in a field. Ferrin found his in a dusty attic. For years, the author and illustrator had wondered what would happen if he struck it big. Would sudden wealth change him?

Three years ago, Ferrin got his answer.

His story began one Wednesday in May, when Ferrin was miserable. He was suffering from pneumonia and had been forced to take time off from his job as an artist at the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. But things were looking up. He and his wife had just closed on their first house, and Ferrin decided to take a private tour after getting the keys.

Ferrin moseyed back to the garage, where he noticed something odd: a scrap of carpet dangling from an opening in the ceiling. Grabbing a ladder, Ferrin tugged on the carpet and pulled back a celling panel leading to an attic.

When he climbed into the attic, Ferrin saw eight World War II-era ammunition boxes. He delicately pried one open, dreading seeing a grenade. Instead what he saw blew his mind: wads of bills held together by orange fishing twine. He started counting -- and kept counting until he eventually realized he had stumbled onto $45,000.

He called his wife, already envisioning how they could use the cash: remodel their new house, repair their car, maybe even adopt. But her first response chilled those plans. She told him to call the family who previously owned the house.

"I immediately knew she was right," Ferrin said. "As much as I wanted to keep it, I couldn't keep it. That just wouldn't be right."

The previous owner was Arnold Bangerter, a biologist with the Utah fish and wildlife department and a father of six. His wife had died in 2005, and after Bangerter died in 2010 his children sold the house to the Ferrins. It turned out Bangerter had been squirreling away money for years; some of the bills dated back to the 1970s.

Ferrin contacted Bangerter's children and gave them all the money.

Before he did, though, he had a little fun. He photographed his two boys, Lincoln, 10, and Oliver, 7, throwing piles of cash up in the air while he yelled it was raining money.

Not everyone thought it was a laughing matter to give back so much cash. Some people told Ferrin he should have kept the money, that he had a legal right to it because he found it in his home. For Ferrin, something could be legal, but that didn't make it ethical. How could he keep money intended for someone else?

"We always wonder to ourselves, if I struck it big would it change me?" he said. "Would I be a different person? It was hard to hand over ($45,000), but it was the right thing to do."

What sealed Farrin's decision, though, wasn't ethics; it was fatherhood. Ferrin thought about the devotion Bangerter had for his children, and he saw a kindred spirit.

"I imagined this guy, for years and years, collecting money and putting it away. I understand that need to think for the future and take care of loved ones. I can understand him as a dad."

I didn't want to be the guy who found something and kept something secretly.
-- Josh Ferrin

Ferrin said he, too, is trying to leave something for his children as they grow up.

"There's a big world out there and I try to teach them to be good young men," he said. "Sometimes I come short of that. They'll forget about all the lectures I gave them. But I think they will remember this one."

Ferrin left the Deseret News but is still an artist. He draws political caricatures and whimsical children's illustrations and has written a book, "Blitz Kids," about his grandfather's role with the University of Utah's improbable basketball championship team in 1944.

Ferrin's art and his book, however, are not just a means to earn a living.

"It's my attempt to establish a legacy that will last beyond me," Ferrin said.

Now Ferrin's deed is part of that legacy.

News of his selfless act spread across the globe. His story is preserved online. He has received letters from around the world. One guy in Australia said he would be honored to buy him a beer. Another person sent him a pocket knife with the engraving, "Honesty has its own rewards." Ferrin had to stop granting interviews after a while because it became too much.

He says today that what he gained from giving away his treasure is more than what he found.

"It was one of those moments that test your character," Ferrin said. "We are the sum total of our decisions. I didn't want to be the guy who found something and kept something secretly. I don't regret it at all. It made me a better person."

-- John Blake, CNN

Hearing from the hereafter

Grandma Babe offered comfort when Rebecca Rosen needed her most.

Rosen, then a 20-year-old college student, was fighting, and losing, a battle with depression. Months of therapy and medication failed to bring relief; in fact, she believed the drugs made her worse. She developed an eating disorder in which she'd sleepwalk and gorge on everything she denied herself during the day. She packed on pounds, grew increasingly sleep deprived and prayed for help.

Rebecca Rosen thought she was \
Rebecca Rosen thought she was "going nuts" until the voice she was hearing offered proof.

Then, one day while sitting in a bookstore where she was supposed to be cramming for a marketing exam, Rosen -- feeling miserable and stuck -- began writing in her journal. That's when her grandmother, who had wrestled with her own emotional demons, showed up. The thing is, Grandma Babe had killed herself 10 years earlier.

"I could hear her, speaking through my inner voice," Rosen explained. "She said, 'I'm here for you. Instead of self-medicating and stuffing down the feelings, I'm going to help you.'"

At first the help came in a flood of words Rosen said she transcribed involuntarily. The "automatic writing" went on for an hour and filled 25 pages. She cringed, wondering what the strangers around her thought as she frantically wrote, but she said she could not stop.

Grandma Babe "dragged my hand across the page," Rosen said. "She was telling me how much regret she had for not dealing with her own issues in life and when we die it all catches up with us. She told me not to make the same mistakes."

That was the first time Rosen communicated with the dead. Seventeen years later, her ability to connect with those "on the other side" is a gift the sought-after spiritual medium shares daily. (Full disclosure: I once sat in on a phone session my stepmom booked with Rosen and have attended one of her book-tour lectures.)

In the beginning, for 18 months, it was only Grandma Babe. She served as Rosen's guide, helping her move past depression. She offered life lessons and gave her granddaughter work to do to heal her mind, body and spirit. She also predicted the name and birthdate of the man Rosen would later marry.

Rosen, however, was initially skeptical -- "I thought I was going nuts," she said -- so Grandma Babe offered proof.

She told Rosen three things to pass along to her father, Babe's son. They were references only he would understand. Rosen would only share two of them with CNN; the third, she said, was too personal.

Babe asked Rosen to tell him, "My favorite pie is now peach, not apple." For years, Babe and her son -- unbeknownst to Rosen -- had baked apple pies together.

She also mentioned a white sheet, which Rosen came to learn Babe had spread out on the floor before she shot herself. Rosen's father was the one who found her body. That his mother, whom Rosen described as "Type A" and "superneat," would plan to minimize the mess was a detail he'd never shared.

I absolutely love what I get to do. It's never been a curse and never been a burden.
-- Rebecca Rosen

Rosen guarded what she was experiencing from most people. Some who learned about it thought she was crazy. Her father, struck by what she communicated to him, was immediately supportive.

By reaching out, Rosen said she believes Grandma Babe was able to redeem her own soul and "burn off some of her negative karma." And in return, Rosen emerged able to love herself. Her work done, Grandma Babe told her to go on and use her gift to help others.

"No way," Rosen remembered thinking. "How does that work?"

She was six months out of college, living outside Detroit and working as a nanny when she got her answer. Over sushi with a friend, the name and spirit of a "Papa Morrie" kept nagging her. Finally Rosen asked her friend if "Papa Morrie" meant anything to her. Of course, her friend answered, he was her late grandfather.

And that was it. "It's almost like I hung this 'open for business' sign on my hat," Rosen said.

Soon, she was doing readings for other friends. "I was blowing them away, and I was blowing myself away," she said.

Just as Grandma Babe had helped her, Rosen saw the healing power of connecting people with their own spirit guides. She said she communicates with the spirits who have crossed over and are at peace; they see the living not at peace and want to offer support. While she firmly believes everyone has the capacity to connect with their own guides -- the topic of her first book "Spirited" -- not everyone can work as a medium to help others make those connections.

Strangers began calling Rosen for readings after The Detroit Jewish News published a story about her in 2001. That's when she realized she could live up to Grandma Babe's request and use her gift full-time to serve others.

Spirits make "divine impressions" on her mind and body, she said, much like flashes in a daydream. And while they are always present, she has learned to create boundaries.

"Like radio waves, they're always in the air, but you choose to turn on your radio," she said. "I absolutely love what I get to do. It's never been a curse and never been a burden."

Now 37 and a divorced mother of two living in Denver, Rosen said there's a five-year-plus waiting list for personal readings. More than 4,000 people are in line. She does private readings, by phone or in person, for $1,000 an hour, or $500 for a half-hour. She also offers two-hour small group readings for $500 per person. And while on tour, promoting her latest book "Awaken the Spirit Within," she treats large crowds to public readings, often eliciting gasps and reducing audience members to tears, laughter and awe.

That said, she knows there are plenty of skeptics who immediately dismiss what she does. But that's not Rosen's problem.

"The work," she said, "speaks for itself."

-- Jessica Ravitz, CNN

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