Whenever I spend any length of time with my mother, she complains about her feet. Her feet are swollen. Her corns and calluses are painful. Her soles are sore. It’s been this way for years now, as if all the burdens of her life have somehow lodged in her feet.
What once must have been soft, innocent baby feet have, over the years, become hard-edged and contorted. The sides of her feet are as rough as broken bark, and between her toes are great hard lumps, forcing her to wear special shoes that make her look like an invalid.
The last time I visited her, I had this brain wave. I’d give her feet a massage. I’d get some silky smooth oil and slide it over these crusty mounds so that they could feel a little loving kindness. I’ve had foot massages before, and my feet danced with delight.
When I suggested it, she was cautious. But I was her only daughter, and she obviously wanted to please me as much as I wanted to please her. So she agreed — nervously though. She’s always wary of anything new.
I sat her in the cane chair where she likes to watch television, often nodding off halfway through the evening news. A full glass of scotch and ice was on the little table beside her. Her stockings and shoes were off, and we’d finally dispensed with her endless apologies for the ugliness of her feet.
In my old jeans and a T-shirt, I kneeled before her on the floor, resting one of her feet on a small towel on my thigh. The oil was mildly warm, smelled faintly of almonds, and felt like liquid satin. Using both hands, I spread some into all the dry, neglected cracks and crannies. Then I tenderly smoothed it over the lumps, as tight and fierce as a fighter’s fists. Her skin lapped it up.
She started chattering. Then she took a swig of scotch. She talked about the disgusting man she had seen on the news last night, the stupid government that couldn’t control inflation, the vile woman up the street who was letting her lawn go to seed and ruining the neighborhood. It was disgusting, she said. Disgusting. She swallowed more scotch, and chattered on. Then she said that this foot business was very strange.
I continued rubbing the oil in, massaging the dried-out crusts of the worn old sole, the corns and calluses hard as bullets, the curves in the center of the foot, and then the toes, the crevices between the toes.
So there I was, feeling kind of like Jesus Himself, remembering how Jesus had washed someone’s feet and said we should all do the same as an act of love and humility. I knew that there was probably some primal spiritual virtue in this strange, simple act. I was quite enjoying it.
As I pushed my thumbs into the sole — an action I find delicious when my own feet are massaged — my mother told me that what I was doing felt truly wonderful. But really, didn’t I think I should stop?
“If it’s wonderful, why stop?” I asked her.
She muttered something about how it must not be very nice for me to have to touch such disgusting feet. Then, squirming with a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment, she said she really didn’t think I should be doing this to her, of all people. After all, I was her daughter. It just didn’t seem right. No one had ever touched her like this before, and she’d never heard of families doing this among themselves, and though she really liked it, it just felt wrong.
I tried to explain that it was OK to enjoy this, that it was perfectly wholesome and decent, that there was no reason to be ashamed. But she was already pulling her oily foot away, thanking me profusely, apologizing.
So I stopped. I realized that while I was idly imagining Jesus and His famous foot washing, my mother was fretting about the sins of pleasure and the imagined hint of incest.
I used the oil for my own feet in the weeks that followed, massaging them myself and wondering with amusement what my mother might think of that. Since then, I’ve kept a respectable distance from my mother’s feet. I’ve also let go of my desire to ease her pain — or even to come close to it — and we’re both happier that way.
New York, New York
We were performing cannonballs off the diving board when Stan told me he’d stolen money. He’d loiter in the damp dressing room till he was alone and then try locker doors until one popped open. He’d pluck billfolds from pants that dangled with gaping pockets. I suppose he told me in order to share the thrill. In the past he’d shown me sunglasses and pocketknives, and I was so dazzled by them that I never cared where they came from. But stealing money was different. I wanted to do the right thing. I was frightened, but felt on firm moral ground when I went to the police and told them what I knew. They thanked me, and said they’d take care of it.
A few days later two cops appeared at the pool’s edge. They talked to the lifeguard, who then pointed across the pool at Stan. Stan was the only one not watching them, and he pretended not to notice until the guard blew his whistle and motioned Stan to the side. I felt a surge of righteous victory. When Stan swam to the edge the cops reached down and pulled him from the pool. They all stood there for a moment, the heavy cops looking down at a small, shivering boy. They led him away, ignoring his concern about leaving his bike. I watched them put him in the back seat of the squad car. He was crying but our eyes never met.
I felt like Judas. I had wanted to do good but had turned into a rat fink. At that moment I lost that clear, youthful vision of what doing good was all about. I saw the face of evil, and it looked like confusion.
Fifteen years ago, I worked as an aide at a nursing home. The job was almost more than I could handle. There were only six aides and forty patients. Every morning, starting at six, we’d get them up, then onto the toilet, socks on, glasses on, dentures in, clothes on, hair brushed, then into wheelchairs lined up and down the hall, all before breakfast at seven. Somehow we managed to do it. What got sacrificed was humanity, as we worked fast and furiously.
After breakfast, I gave them their baths. This was my favorite part of the day, because I had more time to spend with them. One morning, only a week after I’d been hired, Jim, one of the residents I liked best, was wheeled in for a bath. Jim was a huge, red-haired man, well over six feet, and unable to speak after his stroke. In spite of his silence, something in his demeanor endeared him to people. I loved feeding Jim at mealtime because he seemed so grateful, in an utterly dignified way, and a job that usually bothered me became a kind of privilege.
That morning I gave him a good long bath. Jim was fastidious and really appreciated being clean. After the bath I had to get him back into his wheelchair. Because I was so new to the job, I didn’t realize that I was supposed to ring for help with lifting him. I hooked my arms under his armpits, slid him into the seat of the wheelchair, and watched in horror as the wheelchair slipped out from under him because I’d forgotten to lock the brake. He fell backward helplessly, and the back of his head hit the tiled wall with a terrifying crack. I fell to my knees in front of him, sobbing, “Are you all right, Jim?” — thinking I might have killed him. Slowly he pulled himself together, took an enormous breath, and said, “That hurt you more than me.”
He never spoke again during the year I worked at the home.
I wonder if it’s possible to do good in this world. Intentionally, that is. There are people who tell me I have done them good, but usually the good I did them was unintended.
Thoreau said if he knew someone was coming to his house to do him good, he’d be sure not to be there. There’s no one more arrogant, more repulsive, than a do-gooder. Even the Boy Scout helping a little old lady cross the street might very well get them both run over.
Most of the people who have done me good have been dead. They instructed me by means of books that they wrote for themselves, never thinking for a minute that I might be born, that I might consider their words and find them weighty. Those who have done me good while alive have done so by example, never by preaching. Sometimes those who have hurt me most have done me the most good.
Probably the best way to do good for others is to forget about good and just take care of yourself. The world is too full of people who believe they’re doing God’s work with a gun.
While I worked as a volunteer in the emergency room, I could never get the hospital smell off my hands. Was it the smell of soap from washing dozens of times a night, after changing soiled bed linens, picking up blood-soaked towels, gauze, and bandages, or mopping blood off the floor in the trauma rooms? Or was it the smell of my sweat mixed with the powdery lubricant inside the rubber gloves I wore? Was it antiseptics, urine, vomit, sweat? Or was it the smell of blood, almost metallic, like corroded steel, the smell of life spilled? I imagined fear had a smell, too.
I tried to do work that didn’t involve patients directly. I restocked the medical supplies, put new linens on the beds, removed the dirty laundry, stacked fresh towels in the closets, carried test tubes of warm blood to the lab, moved wheelchairs from the front lobby, and pushed metal food carts back to the kitchen. When I ran out of legitimate work, I walked the halls for miles. I walked around the outside of the building. I went to the bathroom every twenty minutes. I convinced myself that I was just getting to know the hospital so I could find places when called upon. I pretended to make important phone calls but actually dialed my own number, imagining the phone ringing in the empty apartment. I took the stairs instead of the elevator because I wanted to use up time. I wasn’t worried about efficiency. I just had to get through my shift.
In spite of my efforts, I could never escape the suffering. I saw four doctors hold down a large man who howled like an animal. I saw a motorcycle accident victim with the skin torn from his hips to his knees, a young mother who cried while her baby got stitches, a man with a dozen knife slashes across his face, the blood dried purple. I heard crying, nervous chatter, pleas, laughter, gasps, whispered prayers, and curses. I heard the sirens of the ambulances. I took patients home when no family could be reached. I helped them into hospital gowns, took them to surgery, moved them from stretchers to their beds. Once, I gave a terrified little boy some orange juice and he stopped crying.
I look back now and I believe that I was doing good. But at the time I couldn’t feel it. Mostly, I was just afraid and uncomfortable and surprised that it didn’t get any easier.
Steven L. Cantrell
Salt Lake City, Utah
I still remember the Christmas of 1959 when my two demonic brothers pulled the legs and arms off my life-size Kathy Walkie doll. Then they took their shiny toy dump trucks and cement mixers and leveled my life-size cardboard stove, china cupboard, and refrigerator. I took this all very well. I bundled up Kathy’s dismembered parts, laid the small heap at my father’s feet, and promptly went into hysterics.
“Make a big sacrifice,” my father consoled me. “Give it up for the poor souls in purgatory.”
I never did figure out what purgatory was until the fourth grade, when my Camp Fire troop attended Lieutenant Art Merring’s “Signal 3” TV show. We had been instructed to write down our names and hobbies on index cards and pass them to the ushers at the end of our rows. I fibbed a preposterous few lines about nursing wounded animals back to health and gave my card to a woman with big hair. The next thing I knew, Lieutenant Merring was calling my name on live TV in front of thousands of viewers.
“Well now, Melina,” he began as I stared down the barrel of a TV camera, “I have your card here which says you nurse wounded animals back to health. How pleased I am to have a good Samaritan like yourself on my program today! Would you like to tell the boys and girls and moms and dads out there just how you nurse wounded animals back to health?”
It was precisely at this moment I realized what purgatory was: a state of insufferable torment and misery. I fixed a petrified gaze on Lieutenant Merring, ad-libbed a ridiculous answer, and was immediately whisked off to a table where a miniature mock-up of suburbia was displayed. Long will I remember the question Lieutenant Merring fired my way: “When a pedestrian and a moving vehicle arrive at an intersection marked by a stop sign, who has the right of way, the driver or the pedestrian?”
I instantly realized this was a chance to redeem myself, to right the fib I had told, to finally do something impeccably good. Concentrating fiercely, I imagined the horror of strutting my fifty-five pounds across the street with a United Parcel truck barreling down on me. I flashed on my funeral, complete with wailing aunts and uncles, donuts and coffee. Lastly, I imagined my poor father, careworn and grief-stricken, muttering over and over, “How many times did I tell her to wait until there was no traffic before crossing the street?” Filled with confidence, I blurted out my reply. Lieutenant Merring covered his face with his hands.
For several weeks after this experience, I was heckled by classmates who never hesitated to remind me of how miserably I bungled the answer on live TV in front of thousands of intelligent and respectable citizens, including my own parents. My father, having given up this embarrassment for Lent, never brought the subject up in my presence. As for the You-Can-Spin-It globe of the world I won for being on Lieutenant Merring’s “Signal 3” TV show, it ended up in the hands of my brothers, who wanted to see how fast it could roll down Clifton Avenue. I didn’t snivel to my father about this. I didn’t even hide myself in the bedroom closet behind racks of clothes and yell my lungs out. I did, however, stick wads of chewing gum on the underside of every one of my brothers’ pillows. The rest I gave up for the poor souls in purgatory.
Melina P. Costello
Palo Alto, California
To do good, I speak to and yell at and in other ways humiliate people who abuse their kids in my presence.
Oh sure, I tried other ways. But what I realized finally is it’s first necessary that you stop doing it, and then we talk about your personal or social victimization.
I’m usually scared when I do it. I’m smaller than most of the people I try to stop. I have been a victim of this type of abuse, and of a worse sort than I’m likely to see in public. I don’t want to live in a world where, now that I’m an adult, people can hurt others when I’m nearby and get away with it. And I don’t think young citizens of my community should have to live in that world either.
I worry. I doubt myself. I doubt my motives. I doubt I am doing good. I put myself through the wringer about my ethics, my morality, and my rage. But I’ve realized I can’t do perfect good — that I have to do my own flawed good, with my own rage and outrage as my armor and shield.
So if you’re out there degrading kids verbally or physically, you should know that I’ll be all over you, right there in front of your friends and neighbors. I might just get in a real dumb “yes you are, no I’m not” yelling match with you. Or I might say just the right profound and poetic and elegant thing. But you better bet I’ll be there.
And another thing — it is too my business!
I’m dubious about doing good, although I’m a professional do-gooder. The problem with doing good is one feels compelled to tell people about it, and the rest of the world, which is doing bad, gets uncomfortable. I teach Judaism to retarded adults, and when I tell people this, you should see the looks on their faces! As if they just saw a cat run over by a sled! Tragic, concerned!
“And what do you do?” I am sometimes required to rejoin. “I’m an accountant for Privileged Realty,” the husband invariably answers.
“I bet you find your job meaningless compared to mine,” I am tempted to offer.
Of course, I never do, because I’m a goddamned do-gooder, and you can’t do good by wiping people’s noses in the pathos of their lives!
Oh, it’s terrible to do good — and the truth is, you don’t do that much good. I get paid, like everyone else. The retarded drive me crazy, like everyone else.
(But at least I’m not doing bad, like those suckers at Privileged Realty.)
New York, New York