It was New Year’s Eve, and my spry, healthy, eighty-eight-year-old grandpa had been left rather loosely in my care while my parents were out of town. Grandpa lived alone and, in reality, took care of himself, though I was on call should something go wrong.
Grandpa’s wife of fifty-six years had died only two years before, and he already had an attractive new girlfriend. The family was rather surprised by the situation, but he appeared to be madly in love with Edna, who was battling cancer. She was eleven years younger than him, and her reddish hair made her look younger still. (He would grin at me and whisper, “Of course, that’s a wig she’s wearing, you know.”)
My boyfriend and I had plans to attend a New Year’s party and were anticipating a glittering, splashy evening when the phone rang. Grandpa was on the line. He was feeling very ill, he said, and would I mind taking him to the hospital? We rushed over to his house. It was just my luck, I thought, that this virile, healthy man would suddenly fall sick while I was the only family member in town.
When we arrived, though, Grandpa was all smiles and invited us inside. He even had his bag packed. “Have I ever shown you my sword collection?” he asked my boyfriend. As Grandpa recounted the history of each blade, I wondered just how sick he really was. He insisted he was miserable, however, so we escorted him to the car.
Once at the hospital, Grandpa brushed me aside and didn’t appear to need our help at all. I gave him a concerned look, and he responded with a wink, then shooed me away.
When I called my mother that evening, she said I’d been right to be suspicious. It turned out Edna was already checked into that same hospital. Grandpa had used me, his naive granddaughter, to get to his mistress. After all, just how difficult could it be for an eighty-eight-year-old man to get a room in a hospital? He’d even arranged to be just a few doors away from Edna. I was a little put out with him, until I heard that Edna died two days later.
Kansas City, Missouri
While working on my doctorate at the University of Michigan, I stayed in Ann Arbor during the week. My family was in Highland Park, about an hour away. I spent Saturdays and Sundays doing things with the kids and completing projects around the house. My wife and I were moving apart around this time, and the distance was good for us.
Still, I wanted to see if reconciliation was possible. Maybe we could work things out if we could get reacquainted. The graduate students were having a Halloween party, and I decided to invite my wife to come up for the weekend. Instead of just calling her up, I wrote her a letter. I told her how lovely Ann Arbor was in the fall and, as a final enticement, enclosed a maple leaf, all golden and red. She declined the invitation. (Years later, she told me that she was not only unimpressed by my letter, but turned off by the “childish gesture” of the maple leaf.)
At the party, I met a woman. We became involved. Several years later, I divorced my wife and married the woman I’d met at the party. We are still together after fifteen years. Not taking the last chance I offered her was one of the best things my ex-wife ever did for me.
George A. Gilliam
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
When barely old enough to menstruate or even think about kissing boys, I became a junkie. In middle school I was cooking up translucent fantasy worlds in my bathroom, hunched over the candle-warmed spoon for the third time that day. Whenever I came home high on some illegal substance, Mum would tell me this was my last chance. I guess I never took her seriously — even when I ended up in the hospital puking charcoal-colored bile and trying to escape the deathly white walls. I was thirteen. The doctor told me I had OD’d.
I spent the next three weeks and six days in a lovely yet maddening rehabilitation center that was supposedly near the beach, though I never saw any waves, only white jackets and pills. Unfortunately, Mum told them about my casual suicide attempts, and I was diagnosed with a dissociative disorder, which opened up to me a whole new world of prescription drugs. I learned how to express my “bottled-up frustrations,” channeling them into tyrannical rages, until the nurses locked me in the TV room with a nice, big shot of Thorazine. All in all, rehab wasn’t too bad if you took advantage of the never-ending supply in their medicine chests.
After my so-called rehabilitation, I went to boarding school for two years. When I got home, Mum told me once again that this was my last chance. I laughed to myself, then went into the bathroom and cooked up a generous dose. Life is like the weather, I always thought: you try to predict it, but nobody really knows when the storm will come.
After a couple more months of being dragged through the system and forced to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings for young addicts, I had a rather unfortunate accident with the sleeping pills that were supposed to be helping me with my “anxiety problems.” I’d OD’d again, and was sent to another institution, where I spent the next four weeks drinking lukewarm decaf coffee and talking about my childhood. But this time I came out with one clear thought: If I go on like this, I’m going to die.
I hurt myself a lot while I was using. I hurt a lot of other people as well. I’ve got no regrets, though — just the scars that are left behind, constant, painful reminders of what I am: an addict. The other addicts at my meetings have a saying that drives me nuts and makes me feel better all at the same time: “You’re right where you’re supposed to be.” And they’re right. I’m not better, I haven’t gotten over all of my addictive behavior, and I still slip up once in a while, but I’m living. I’m almost eighteen years old. I don’t know if this is my last chance, but I do know that I definitely want to live.
I was supposed to be rational about these things — I was the nurse in the family — but I couldn’t accept the fact that my fifty-nine-year-old mother was dying. The doctor had given me the pathology report to read, so I could let everyone else in the family know what to expect. I read about how her cells had mutated, how the cancer had metastasized into her liver, but the words didn’t sink in. I was still clutching at hope.
I got books on healing from the library, and found the shiatsu pressure points for the liver. Rather than say the things I’d always wanted or needed to tell my mother, I massaged her neck and shoulders while we sat in the den watching Johnny Carson. I even waited until I was late leaving for the airport to say goodbye. She sat on the toilet, racked with painful intestinal spasms, a cigarette between her lips, and told me I was a good daughter. I didn’t know it would be my last chance to tell her she was a good mother.
My own children were grown and independent by the time I met my current husband. When he informed me that he had a four-year-old daughter who lived with him part time, I didn’t think too much about it. Instead, I focused on him. During our whirlwind romance, his daughter drifted in and out of my awareness. Occasionally, I would read her a story or talk with her, but it was nothing special. I didn’t feel comfortable with the role of surrogate mom, although I did teach her how to plant seeds, how to pee standing up, and how to express her angry feelings with a hammer.
Before long, I became official stepmom to this now five-year-old girl, and, strangely, I began to yearn for a baby. This puzzled me. I’d already raised two children. Why would I want to do it all over: the sleepless nights, the colic, the diapers? It had never been easy. Yet there had been those piercing moments of tender emotion, especially the late-night nursings, gazing into their wide, trusting eyes.
Though I was older now, and busier than ever, the baby thoughts kept popping up, even sneaking into my dreams. I’d wake sweaty and moaning from a dream about labor. I went so far as to research having my tubal ligation reversed. A specialist scraped and probed me. I changed my mind repeatedly.
Then one afternoon my stepdaughter and I were in the shower at the local pool. She and her father had quarreled, and she was shaking with sobs. She climbed onto my lap and wrapped her thin, wet arms tight around my neck. “Don’t leave me,” she cried, and I felt something split open inside my chest. In that instant, any dream of having another child vanished, and I realized I was holding my last chance.
Edgewood, British Columbia
At the age of five I was oblivious to Mama’s mastectomy. Nor had I noticed the thinning of her hair from the chemo treatments. But I will never forget her deep sobs as she begged God to spare her life, or my grandfather standing there in his best black suit, asking Jesus to have mercy on his baby girl.
The last time I saw Mama alive was atop the hospital observation deck. She acted as if she had never seen nature before: the pigeons lurking on the guardrail, the smell of fall settling in, the breeze that flowed through the palm trees lining the street. Even when my two younger sisters and I ran around the rooftop in our good Sunday clothes, Mama didn’t seem to mind. She just sat there smiling through tear-filled eyes. Then she pulled me to her missing breast, and I smelled the familiar scent of Jergens lotion on her soft, pale skin and for the first time felt the scar.
The trip back to her room was silent except for my asking Mama when she was coming home. “Soon, baby,” she said. “Mama will be home soon.” As we prepared to leave, she began to cry again, and she pressed her soft lips against each of ours, saying, “Mama loves you. Be good.”
Five days later Mama lay in a white cloth-covered casket wearing a pink chiffon dress and white lace gloves. Her face was all made up, and her lips were covered with ruby red lipstick. My baby sister attempted to wake her, but Mama never said a word. I didn’t know it was my last chance to see her. I wanted to rush home and watch cartoons on television. When I saw my sister playing with the flowers, I warned her that Mama would get her when she woke up.
As a young single mother, I was weighed down by a great sense of responsibility. My daughter was so new, so untouched, it seemed that everything I did could change the course of her development. It was never easy to figure out what to do in a given situation. I could do what came naturally, but was it right? How would I know? Sometimes an inner voice would say, “You can’t control everything. She’ll turn out OK.” But then I would think that there were some things, which my parents had done, that I wanted never to do, and other things I wanted to be sure to do. The responsibility was always with me.
One day when my daughter was four, she ran to where I was reading and cried out, “Mommy, Mommy, we’re going to die!” Somehow she had just become aware of this.
I knew I had to say something, and that whatever I said would frame her understanding about life, this world, and her place in it. What could I say? I hadn’t even come to any conclusions about death myself. Whatever I said, I knew that this time it had to be right.
Casting about for an answer, I told her, “If it’s OK to live, it’s OK to die.”
My daughter nodded, smiled, and ran off to play.
San Francisco, California
Recently I left my second husband for another man — not just any man, but a prisoner who wrote me seeking a pen pal. I’ve become one of the women I used to read about in Ann Landers.
I’d received letters before from prisoners who fit the Ann Landers description — cons trying to take advantage of lonely women. It’s not easy to take advantage of me. Jim was the first prisoner to write me who actually admitted to his crime. Though I was impressed, I wrote him back to tell him I couldn’t be his pen pal. He wrote me again anyway. Despite what I’d said, I responded, and we kept on writing. He was funny and interesting and became a true friend.
When I began to fall in love with Jim, I couldn’t understand it. I’d never been in love, didn’t believe in it. And of course my rational mind kept screaming, Are you crazy? This guy is in prison, for God’s sake! I had him call me. I thought if we talked it might undo my infatuation. But the more we talked, the more sure of my feelings I became.
Three months after we began writing, Jim was paroled. We continued to talk on the phone. One night, my husband overheard our conversation. We argued, and I asked him for a divorce. Then I rented a car and, against all advice from everyone I knew, drove two hundred miles to meet Jim. I thought if I met him, I might find I wasn’t really in love with him. Instead, we had an affair. It was as if I were making love for the first time.
By the end of the three days, I knew beyond a doubt that Jim was the man I’d been searching for my entire adult life. This was the love I’d thought didn’t exist.
I went home and threw my husband out of the house. A friend told me I was having a major midlife crisis. My sister said I was “in lust.” Everybody, including myself, thought I’d taken leave of my senses. For the first time in my life, I was following my heart instead of my head.
I have moved into an apartment to be near Jim. (His parole officer would not let us live together.) I love this man more than I ever thought possible. And he has told me that if he had to choose between never seeing me again or going back to prison for four more years, he’d choose prison. I don’t know what will happen in the long run, but I have to live this out. At forty, I can’t pass up a second chance at love. It may be my last.
When I was little, my father and I would sometimes spend a day just driving the back roads, seeing what we could find, or searching the dump for returnable bottles and other good junk. Or he would take me fishing and act so proud when I caught a two-inch brook trout.
As I got older, though, we began not to get along. At first we just had tiny arguments. I was becoming a young woman, and my father was starting to embarrass me. He would always complain about not feeling well, yet refused to go to the doctor. I found this extremely annoying.
Then, about two years ago, my father finally saw a doctor. Blood tests showed that my father has hepatitis C and severe cirrhosis of the liver — so severe, in fact, that he needs a liver transplant.
I am still a teenager, and my father and I still fight — a lot. I get mad when he chews with his mouth open, or farts or burps and doesn’t say, “Excuse me.” After each fight, I realize that this could be my last chance to say I’m sorry. But I don’t. I feel so guilty, but I can’t.
To say I loathed high-school gym class is an understatement. When it came to making excuses to get myself dismissed, I had no shame. I claimed cramps every Tuesday and Thursday. My grandmother died five times. I’d crawl into the gymnasium dragging my leg, swearing I’d just broken it. I was joined by four girls who shared my sentiments. The gym teacher spent a great deal of class time hunting for us around school.
Midway through the semester, our gym instructor forced us to play volleyball. We were entertaining ourselves by hitting the ball into the balcony whenever we served. Each time, the instructor would have to leave the gym floor, go upstairs, unlock the door, and get the ball. Around the tenth trip, she snapped. Trembling with anger, she informed us that if we did it one more time, the five of us would flunk gym for the semester, a first in school history.
The next time one of us served, the ball flew sideways and hit the instructor in the face. Head-on. Hard. There was silence. Then we cracked up. Holding back tears, the instructor told us to leave. We had flunked.
None of us dressed for gym again that year. We went to class and gossiped. Gym wasn’t a requirement to graduate, so flunking wasn’t a big deal. I alone went all the way, however, never dressing for gym again through all four years of high school.
Des Moines, Iowa
As a teenager, I became smitten with David, a charismatic older man. He was far smarter than my school chums, almost as smart as I thought I was. Tall and impassive, David was always making cryptic remarks that to me seemed mysterious and deep. I began following him around. He never said or did anything to encourage me, but he never told me to go away, either.
David spoke arcanely about poetry and God, about love and anger and forgiveness. I listened hard, trying to decode the meaning of his words. Although I didn’t dream of marrying David — that seemed silly and impossible — I believed that our enigmatic conversations amounted to a spiritual connection of some sort.
Several years later, I was home visiting from college when I ran into David at a friend’s house. For the first time, he seemed to notice my existence. We chatted on my friend’s overstuffed sofa, the summer sun streaming in, red geraniums blooming on the windowsills, my heart pounding. Then he hinted, very faintly, that he might not be averse to getting together again sometime.
To my surprise, anger welled up in me. All those years I’d followed him around like a sick puppy, and now he wanted to be friends? Not knowing what else to do, I pretended to be suddenly engrossed in the newspaper, and responded in monosyllables to his further attempts at conversation. At this, David seemed to get angry, too, and he abruptly left.
For a long time I regretted that moment of temper and berated myself for not accepting the friendship he seemed on the verge of offering. Now I think blowing my chance to have a relationship with him might have been the healthier thing to do.
In the dream, Daniel tells me, he is being taken to his execution. He is escorted into the death chamber and strapped down on the padded table, arms outstretched. The IV is inserted and then started. The guard leaves the room. The curtains over the witness windows are raised. Daniel’s opportunity to speak his last words has arrived.
On one side of the execution chamber is the window behind which sit state representatives and the victim’s family. But in the dream there is nobody there, as in reality there probably wouldn’t be. Daniel’s is not a case the state or the media are interested in — a fight between two men in prison in which one of them died. The man he killed was estranged from his family; likely, not even the victim’s mother would come to witness Daniel’s death. So there is nobody for him to apologize to, nobody to tell how sorry he is, nobody to ask for forgiveness.
Behind the other window would sit anyone Daniel has invited to be with him at his death, but there is no one there, either. When, at nineteen, he was sent to prison for robbing a convenience store, his family cut him off, and in the fifteen years since then his old friends have all abandoned him. Other prisoners are not allowed to witness executions. So there is no one for him to tell goodbye, or thank you, or, “I love you.” This is his last moment on earth, and there is no one at all, neither enemy nor friend, to hear his last words. Time and again he has had this dream, and each time he has awakened crying.
Last fall, Daniel’s death sentence was overturned. He told me recently that he’d had the dream again, but this time he saw me behind the friends’ window.
Despite his hard life and the things he has done, Daniel is an intelligent and affectionate person. It has been my good fortune to get to know him through our correspondence. When I think of Daniel strapped down on that table, as clearly might have happened, I do not see a criminal being executed, or justice being served. I see only a human being, one who would not have had a single person to listen to his repentance or to receive his last words of love.
Last Fall, after the fishing season had ended and gray November had begun, I found myself slipping into a life of near total isolation. Jobless and friendless, living off disability checks, I passed the dreary days reading, drawing, and walking. Gradually I got used to my new life as a hermit, and even enjoyed the regularity and peace of it. Perhaps I didn’t need other people, after all.
In the course of my walks, I often ran into an outspoken little neighborhood girl named Alyssa. She was seven years old, and had one mother, three fathers, eight grandmas and grandpas, and “about a thousand friends,” she said. She told me she tried to keep the neighborhood cats from fighting, but that “some of them cats are really mean.” Once, she showed me a dead mouse she had found. “He’s so cute,” she said. I told her not to worry, that there were millions of mice just like him who were alive. She paid no attention to this, but instead fetched a fallen leaf to cover the mouse. “This is his blanket,” she said. Then she gathered sticks and twigs and arranged them around the body, saying, “Now I’m making him a little house.”
Around Thanksgiving, a big coastal storm blew in, bringing high winds, heavy rain, and even a few wet snowflakes. While the winds were at their highest, I heard a timid knock on my door. It was Alyssa.
“The grown-ups are having a party,” she said, “and they don’t want me around.” Her clothes were wet, and she had obviously been crying.
I took a deep breath. I wasn’t looking for anyone to relieve my solitude. Seeing that innocent child shivering on my doorstep, however, I realized that if I couldn’t let her in, perhaps I’d never be able to let anyone in again.
“Alyssa,” I said, “it’s cold and stormy out there. Come inside.”
When I told Allen I wanted to spend summers in an experimental community at the east end of Long Island, he wasn’t thrilled. “If you and the kids are living out there,” he said, “who’s going to take care of things at home?”
“We both could use some time away from each other,” I suggested.
We arrived at an uneasy agreement: I would move to the community with our three children for the summer, and he would come out on the weekends and any other days he could take off from work.
One Saturday afternoon in August, I was walking in the community garden, assessing the generous harvest, when Allen came roaring up on his motorcycle. “We have to talk,” he announced. “We can’t go on like this.”
“We can’t talk around here,” I said. “Let’s take a ride to the bird sanctuary.”
Sitting on the back of Allen’s bike with the breeze humming past me and the sun warming my shoulders, I thought, Maybe we can work this out. Maybe this summer’s experience has helped him to see things a little differently. When we reached the dirt road into the sanctuary, Allen skidded to a stop, cut the engine, and jumped off. As I climbed down from the seat, my calf brushed the hot tailpipe, and I felt a searing pain. “I burned my leg!” I cried, hopping in anguish.
Allen glared and said, “You should know better than to get on a bike in short pants.”
Brooklyn, New York
When our mother died, my sister and I lived with our grandmother for nearly a year, our father having abandoned us long before. Grandmother was a strong-willed woman, but she seemed to give up after the death of her daughter. Within months of the funeral, cancer invaded her body, and she had to take an early retirement. During the day she would lie on a cot outside the kitchen just to be near us.
Grandmother was laid in the ground before grass had covered our mother’s grave, and my sister and I were deposited in an orphanage as quickly and effortlessly as you might scrape remnants from a dinner plate.
The search for our father began without our knowing it. No one ever asked us if we wanted him found.
“If they give us a choice to stay here or go with him,” my sister said coolly, “I’m staying.”
We’d had this conversation a hundred times already, and it made me nervous. My decision was dependent on hers. I couldn’t very well go live with our father and leave her there in that dungeon. After all, we’d been through everything together, from having the mumps, to learning to roller-skate, to picking out caskets.
“And then what?” I said. “Do you know how long we’ll have to live here if we don’t go with him? No one else wants us. This is our last chance to have a family and a normal life, like our friends.”
“I’m telling you,” my sister snapped, “he doesn’t want us either. He’ll only be taking us because he has to. He never loved us. Never. Remember how he used to yell and slap us around?”
I did. But those memories faded when our father stood before us, calling us his “little girls” (though we were already teenagers and had experienced a lifetime’s worth of hardship). As we slowly walked toward his outstretched arms, I believed that there was a God, because he had brought my father and me together again. I believed that the nightmare of the past was over, and might even make sense one day. I believed our father was a good man who had come here because he loved us as much as I was ready to love him.
In the years that followed, he would claim it was precisely because he loved us so much that he had to scream and beat us.
My fortieth birthday is just two months away, and I am tormented by the belief that, if I am out of shape when I turn forty, the rest of my life will be a dull passing of time. People won’t notice me. Sex will be a thing of the past. I will start to fade into the background.
For the last three years, I have set goals for myself: I will lose ten pounds by Christmas. I will lose fifteen pounds before my next doctor’s appointment. I will lose twenty pounds before my vacation. I’ve missed them all. A few months ago, some friends told me of a new diet they were on. It recommended a lot of meat and vegetables and grapefruit juice, but no starches, and no sugar. Ugh, I thought. I couldn’t do it. Pasta and chocolate are my two favorite foods. Then last week my sister told me she and her husband had started the same diet. He’d lost seven pounds in ten days, and she’d lost five. I asked for a copy of the book.
It arrived yesterday. As I studied it, I worried about the misspelled words, the lack of explanation for some of the requirements, and the repetition of the statement “You must follow this diet exactly for it to work.” It was touted as the prescribed diet for patients who needed to lose weight fast before heart-bypass surgery. Reading the amount of high-fat foods on the list, I wondered how a heart patient could survive it.
This morning I went shopping for groceries. I pondered the meat case for a long time. I’m not a vegetarian, but I don’t like meat very much, and have an especially hard time cooking it. My husband assures me the red liquid that runs off isn’t blood, but I’m not convinced. Buying sausage, bacon, hamburger, steak, and chicken, I felt as if I were shopping for a football team.
I have just eaten my first dinner on the diet. I stuffed myself with broccoli, steak, and grapefruit juice, and I’m feeling a little sick. But my fortieth birthday is just two months away, and this is my last chance to get thin and face the world as a middle-aged woman without shame.
I was an awkward twenty-year-old, lacking in self-confidence, particularly around men. Although I was clueless about how to behave in front of them, inside I knew clearly what kind of men I liked: men of substance and soul.
At a summer university program, I met Robin, another social misfit like myself, and I sensed a deep kinship between us, a heart connection I had never before felt with a man, but my insecurity kept me from expressing my feelings. At one point I asked a more experienced woman if she thought I’d have a chance with Robin. “No way,” she said. “He’s got a layer of defenses as thick as a brick wall. Don’t waste your time.” And so, trusting that she was an expert on matters of the heart, I didn’t try to take the friendship any further.
As the program came to a close, Robin mentioned that he would soon be traveling through my hometown. Expecting to see each other again shortly, we skipped the formal goodbyes. Several weeks later, I got not a visit but a letter from Robin. He told me that he was going away to find himself and to make room in his life for love. He credited me with showing him what he was missing. I still regret passing up my last chance to tell him what he meant to me.
One winter, we visited my aunt and uncle in the Midwest. While we were there, I wet the bed, and the next night my dad made me sleep on a pile of newspapers on the cold cement floor of their basement. I wanted badly not to wet myself again, because my cousin Butch was coming home early the next morning and was going to wake me to walk the dog with him. Butch had been away — no one would tell me exactly where — and would be home for a week. He was my idol, and I loved him.
To keep myself from wetting, I tied a shoelace tightly around my penis. During the night I peed anyway, and when I woke up, my penis was purple and I couldn’t get the knot out of the shoelace. The pain was unbelievable. I hid in the corner of the basement because I didn’t want Butch to see me that way.
Soon the basement door opened, and Clay, Butch’s old hunting dog, came dashing down. Butch was at the top of the stairs whispering my name. I kept still and tried to stifle my sobs and whimpers, but Clay came over and licked my face, giving me away.
“Hey, buddy,” Butch said, “why are you hiding?”
I didn’t know what to say, but the pain was unbearable, so I told him what I’d done.
“Jesus,” he said, “you’re just like me. I did the same damn thing one time.” Then he pulled a knife from the pocket of his fatigues and gently cut the shoelace loose. “Come on,” he said, rubbing my hair. “Let’s go walk Clay. He’s getting so old this might be our last chance.” All I could think was I’m just like Butch! He said so!
I threw on my clothes and ran out into the snow, forgetting about the lingering pain. I held Clay’s leash, and he dragged me on my stomach through the snow while Butch ran alongside laughing, trying to help me to my feet again. “I guess old Clay ain’t ready to go yet,” he said. “He’s still got some fight in him.”
A few days later, Butch held me in a bear hug and said goodbye. He promised he’d write me. I waited for his letters, but they never came. When I asked my parents why Butch never wrote, they said he must have been busy. I thought he’d stopped loving me.
Years later, it all made sense as I stared at his name on that long black wall in a park in Washington, D.C.
I know I have another drunk in me, but I don’t know if I have another sobering up. Getting sober and staying that way is not easy. I quit drinking twenty-one years ago, and I still attend a recovery program that helps overly sensitive, complicated, self-centered, fearful people like me realize that drugs are not essential to life.
In recovery, we say the door swings both ways, in and out of the program. People test their limits, not knowing which chance will be their last to get sober and have a decent life. At sixty-six, I suspect that I do not have another chance at sobriety.
A wise man once wrote that, given six months to live, he’d go on hoeing his garden. Another said that, given fifteen minutes to live, we’d all telephone our friends and family to tell them we loved them. I wonder what I would do: Hurry on one more errand, to one more meeting? Take one more trip, one more walk on the beach? Write one more letter, leave one last instruction? Sit after supper and watch the swallows dart across the evening sky?
My sister Cathy was thirty-two when she was diagnosed with bone cancer. The tumor in her hip made it difficult for her to walk. As her condition worsened, Cathy longed to take one last trip to the beach. We decided that she and I and our husbands would go to Hawaii. I made arrangements for her to lie down on the flight and to receive chemotherapy on the island. I even bought her yellow and turquoise vacation clothes embroidered with parrots.
When Cathy saw the outfit, her face lit up. She tried it on in front of the mirror, her belly swollen, legs thin as a bird’s. “Not bad,” she said wryly, “for someone who’s sick.”
Days before we were to leave, Cathy announced that she couldn’t go; she was too weak. She turned away from me in bed to hide her tears. When Cathy told her husband how much she had wanted to lie in warm ocean water once more, he decided to build her a hot tub. For a week he worked on it. Cathy commented to me more than once that he was so caught up in the project he rarely came to be by her side. The day before the hot tub was finished, Cathy died.
It is midafternoon and I am frustrated that the twins are not napping. I keep going into their room to settle them, tuck them in, make threats. This time I find they have pulled all their clothes from the drawers and have discovered their sister Julia’s dress-up basket: Noah has on a necklace and a gold crown, and Ezra has taken off his diaper and is draped entirely in scarves. They are wide awake.
Out of desperation, I put the boys in the car, intending to drive them around until they fall asleep. I keep looking in the rearview mirror to see if they are napping yet. In the front seat, Julia is going on and on about the kids at school. I turn on the radio and concentrate on the road ahead, not noticing the trees, the lake, the sky. Noah falls asleep, but Ezra is awake and talking: “Mommy, my purple ball broke. Mommy, Noah is sleeping. Mommy, I see people.” I am so tense, I feel my head is about to burst.
Pachelbel’s Canon in D comes on. I turn it up and tell Julia to listen to how the different instruments’ voices merge, how the music rises to a crescendo. With the canon swelling like an ocean of sound, I drive through a blast of sun-speckled fall leaves, and suddenly I stop focusing on the road and look around me. I’m driving through gorgeous countryside with my three sweet children to keep me company and the sun peeking through the foliage and the music soaring, and I think, What is wrong with me? Why am I so tense? Look at this picture: violins plucking away their steady rhythm, the colors of the changing leaves, Julia telling me that making music sounds like hard work, Ezra rambling on, Noah in dreamland, and the sun shining down. Suddenly, I’m not thinking, How long do I have to do this? but, How long do I get to be here?