My daughter, Laura, sits down opposite me at the kitchen table, which doubles as my desk. At seventeen she’s traded school for work, but found that life isn’t any simpler behind the deli counter than it had been in the classroom. I can see that she’s tired: one eyelid droops slightly, and her shoulders slump. She rests her elbows on the table and cups her chin in her hands. “I almost quit today,” she says. One of the other employees steals her tips and takes breaks when the place is busy. Another is kind but old and forgetful, and burns the toast or else forgets to put it in the toaster.
I ask what I can do.
“Just listen,” she says. “Don’t give me advice. Don’t tell me to talk to the boss. I can’t and I won’t.”
Laura doesn’t have the option to quit. She’s moving into her first apartment in a few days, and her last paycheck was swallowed by the deposit and half the advance rent. The next check will pay the balance.
“After this month, it’ll be easy,” she says. “I’ll be able to stand anything at work because I’ll have my own place.” She looks up at the kitchen cupboards. “I guess once I move I won’t be able to come home and help myself to whatever I want.”
“Oh,” I say, “I think you can still do that for a while.”
She’s gotten a one-bedroom apartment a block from work, with a view of Tuck Inlet, where the freighters anchor and wait their turns to load logs and grain. “I’m happy for you,” I say, looking into her weary eyes. We’ve argued enough about her quitting school. Now it’s time for encouragement, faith, and praise. I get up to refill my coffee. “Want some?” She shakes her head. What else can I offer? My purse hangs on the doorknob. I search through it for a piece of gum, but instead find my hairbrush. Laura’s hair is still damp from the shower. I begin brushing it with long, gentle strokes. She leans back in the chair.
In the past two years, Laura’s hair has been black, blond, blond with black streaks, black with pink streaks, auburn, and grape. She has crimped, braided, and permed it, caught her beautiful hair up in barrettes, plastic clamps, and, once, a colorful pair of underpants. Now her hair smells of papaya and a trace of garlic from the deli.
“This is better than anything I could think of,” she says, her face at peace, eyes closed.
I keep brushing — long, lazy strokes starting at the temples.
“If I ever get rich, I’m going to pay someone to brush my hair,” she says. “This is just the best. The best.”
It would have been better years ago, all those years when I thought I was too busy. But now is fine, too.
Prince Rupert, British Columbia
A lifetime ago, as a newly licensed registered nurse, I worked nights in a small hospital on the bald Canadian prairie, where we lit kerosene lamps when the electricity went out and listened nightly to the coyotes’ serenade.
In those glory days of socialized medicine, before the advent of hospices, most terminally ill people were admitted to the hospital at the time of their initial diagnosis and stayed until they died. I became intimate with the process of dying — so much so that I could predict the time of death by the number of times a patient had been turned and the amount of morphine he or she had received.
Like most of my patients, Mrs. P. had lived on a farm almost all her life. When her last child had left to live in the city, she and her husband had sold the farm and moved into town. Mrs. P. had breast cancer, but had ignored the symptoms until the cancer bloomed like an evil rose out of her left breast. Though the pain must have been excruciating, she rarely complained. Most nights, when I came on duty at eleven, her husband was sitting at her bedside, holding her hand. When I entered the room to check her vital signs, he would get up, kiss her on the cheek, and say, “Good night, sweetheart,” and then turn to me and say, “Take good care of my girl.”
I imagined that Mrs. P. would die quietly and easily with her husband at her side — during the day shift. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to see it. For all my bravado, I was getting heartsick of death.
But one night, making rounds at 2 A.M., I saw that she wouldn’t survive another turning. The last dose of morphine, at midnight, had depressed her breathing, and she didn’t have the strength for one more move.
I called her husband, but there was no answer. They lived only three miles from the hospital, and there was nowhere else for him to be at night in that small town. The bar had been closed for hours, and besides, he wasn’t a drinker. I tried him again. No answer. I had the operator try. Still no luck.
I was beginning to panic when I heard the hospital doorbell ring. There was Mr. P., standing at the door.
“I’ve been trying to get ahold of you,” I said. “Why didn’t you answer your phone?”
“I heard her knocking at our bedroom window,” he told me, “so I got up and came.”
She died moments later, holding his hand.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
For as long as I can remember, my father has been a last-minute kind of guy, always jumping on board the train, racing to catch the bus, getting there just in time. He thrives on the excitement of skin-of-his-teeth near misses.
Once, when I was seven, my whole family raced along a platform to catch a train, but we were too late; the train began to pull away, picking up speed, its cars flashing by. “Looks like you missed it,” a porter told Dad, shaking his head. But then, unbelievably, the train ground to a halt and backed up for us. Dad was in his glory.
Then there was the time Dad was seeing the rest of us onto a train in Philadelphia, but didn’t make it off in time. He had to ride all the way to the next stop, in Delaware. “I was kidnapped!” he used to say with delight.
Now most of Dad’s traveling consists of three-hour car trips to the oncology center. The radiation is only to relieve his pain; Dad’s rare muscle cancer is expected to be fatal. Last week, I drove him to his treatment, following an unfamiliar route. I got confused and ended up on the wrong road. We arrived with barely a minute to spare. But Dad wasn’t complaining. “Just in time!” he said with pleasure. And I was glad I’d gotten lost, glad to have given him that small joy.
By the time I reach the bottom of the steps, the man I saw fall is sitting in the middle of the cement plaza, his legs jutting out in front of him. He struggles to get up, but makes it only as far as his knees before he collapses forward, his forehead knocking hideously against the concrete. I roll his heavy body over. He is wheezing, and his face has begun to turn purple. His eyes are open but vacant. I can find no pulse.
It’s been five years since my lifeguard training. Unsure I remember what to do, I look up at the gathering crowd and ask, “Does anyone know CPR?” They stare silently back at me.
Searching my memory, I kneel beside his head and tilt it back. I scrape phlegm from his open mouth, pin his tongue against his jaw with my thumb, and lean in close to try to kiss this stranger back to life. How many chest compressions between breaths? Keep a firm seal on the lips. The pavement hurts my knees. His sweaty forehead keeps sliding out of my grasp. I cannot breathe for him. I can only offer his body the example of how it’s done.
Another man joins me, and in tandem we pump and breathe, pump and breathe. We are failing. The man’s face grows clammy, and his skin turns the dark purple of a bruise. His swollen tongue feels like a slab of meat beneath my thumb. His chin falls, his throat closes, and his stomach bloats with air while the lungs remain empty. His heart is silent. Still we pump and breathe.
After what seems like years, the ambulance screams up to the curb, and the paramedics take over: oxygen tank, adrenalin shots, defibrillator — all of it too late. I help them lift the body onto the gurney and roll it away.
His mother calls the next morning to thank me. Her son is dead at thirty-eight, yet for some strange reason she is grateful. In the next week, everyone wants to talk to me: the sister, the police, the newspaper reporter, the insurance-claims adjuster, the lawyer. I recite the facts for them but keep some details to myself: the slick forehead, the skin that stiffened as it cooled, the sensation of his dead lips on mine. For a long time afterward, I cannot stand to be kissed. I soon quit my job and leave the city.
Many months later, I begin to understand his mother’s gratitude. That I helped when others would not. That I tried. That I arrived in time to help him breathe his last breath.
In high school, I had the earliest curfew of anyone I knew: 10 P.M. It was embarrassing. Because I didn’t have a car, my friends would have to leave early to get me home on time. I was missing all the fun. No one else even wanted to go out before 8 P.M., so I’d end up with a mere two hours of independence every Friday and Saturday night. I tried to convince my parents of the injustice of my curfew, but the topic was not up for debate. I had no choice but to live with my father’s rules. If I didn’t make it home on time, I’d be grounded for several weeks.
The least I could do, I thought, was make the most of my two hours, so I refused to come home early. One night, I returned at ten till ten and spent the extra few minutes standing outside, looking up at the night sky. I walked in the door at 9:59. Immediately, Dad pounced on me: “What are you doing coming in this late? Your mother and I have been worried!”
Confused, I pointed to the clock on the wall: ten o’clock exactly. “What do you mean ‘late’?” I said. “I’m just in time.”
“That’s cutting it much too close! You’re grounded for two weeks!”
If I got grounded for coming in on time, I argued, exactly how early did I have to be to avoid getting in trouble? But this only made him angrier, and he sent me to my room. Case closed.
His reason for grounding me had little to do with the clock. What he really feared was losing control of his children, seeing us grow up and become independent. He wanted me to stay at home on the weekends and watch Disney movies and eat popcorn forever. He could have simply told me this, but that wasn’t his way. I was the child, and he didn’t have to explain his reasons to me. Besides, it would have meant showing more of his feelings than he cared to reveal.
Once, I hugged him in a sincere apology for something I’d done. It was an uncomfortable hug — given, not shared. I left the room feeling it had been a stupid idea, knowing he disliked that sort of display.
Later, my mother told me that, after I’d left, he’d stood there and cried.
Chagrin Falls, Ohio
When the Nazis attacked Yugoslavia in the spring of 1941, I was a seven-year-old living in Belgrade, the capital. My parents and I fled to my grandparents’ small town to escape the bombing. The fighting lasted only three days, after which German tanks and soldiers occupied the country. Troops were quartered in private homes, and my grandparents were assigned two captains and a lieutenant, who turned out to be cultured and reasonably decent men. Though we were Jews, they showed no animosity toward us. In fact, they brought us food whenever possible, indulged me with chocolates and souvenirs, and talked openly with us about their families and the political situation. All of this changed abruptly a couple of weeks later, when the Gestapo arrived.
“You must get out now!” the officers warned us.
“But where can we go?” my grandfather asked plaintively.
“To America,” one captain said. “It’s the only place where you’ll be safe.”
Soon after, all three officers left, and, as they’d predicted, the situation worsened. I was expelled from school for being Jewish. Gypsies and political opponents of fascism were rounded up. A strict curfew was imposed, with instant death the punishment for any violation. All Jewish businesses were boarded up. Atrocities of various kinds became routine.
Despite this, my grandparents refused to leave, saying they were too old to start over; the situation would return to normal in time, they assured us. My father, however, found a way to cross over to the Italian-occupied zone, which was governed with a lighter hand. Within a few weeks, he arranged for my mother and me to join him. We caught a westbound train in the middle of the night and were hidden by the conductor. The next morning, as we were reunited with my father, all Jewish males in the Nazi-occupied territory, irrespective of age, were seized and transported to the concentration camp at Jasenovac.
Scaly Mountain, North Carolina
After almost fifty years of marriage, my husband and I hadn’t had a civil conversation in a very long time. One morning, a week before I was due to enter the hospital for heart-bypass surgery, I left a bottle of juice out in front of the light switch in the kitchen, and my husband knocked it over while reaching to turn on the lights. He roared at me, and I roared back. That spark fueled our mutual hostility throughout my surgery and recuperation.
About a year later, with relations still rocky between us, he had a recurrence of prostate cancer. He was having a difficult time with all the tests leading up to radiation therapy. One evening, we were sitting in front of the TV, watching a documentary reenactment of the sinking of the Titanic. On screen, some wives stood arm in arm on deck with their husbands, refusing to leave them behind. I commented to my husband that I knew how they felt; I could never leave him standing on that deck.
“You wouldn’t?” he said.
“No,” I said, “how could I float off and leave you behind to drown?”
I could see that he was surprised.
We went through his radiation therapy together, seldom raising our voices and enjoying each other’s company as we hadn’t in years. We even renewed our wedding vows on our fiftieth anniversary in March. That day, I overheard my husband tell one of our children that the change in our relationship had occurred because of my fear that I would lose him. But he was wrong. It was his realization that I wouldn’t abandon him that had actually made the difference.
Douglas City, California
During the hot summer of 1973, the mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, decided to meet the energy crisis head-on with (am I the only one who remembers this?) a two-hour time change called “extra daylight savings time.” My life was already far out of whack. My marriage was breaking up; I was holding down a full-time job in addition to attending graduate school; and my three kids, eight, ten, and twelve, were having a contest that summer to see who could get the most stitches. Having to cross a time zone to buy groceries really threw me.
Mornings were the worst. It wasn’t just dark when I went to work; it was the middle of the night. I couldn’t afford to rent a regular parking space, and the department store where I had been parking was threatening to tow my car. So I was forced to park five blocks away and walk to my office.
One morning, I just lost it right there by my car. I started to sob, and the tears were so overdue that, once I’d started, I couldn’t stop. I was afraid someone would call the authorities and have me committed. The crying finally ceased, though, and I took a long drink from a water fountain, then started to walk to work. The city streets were dark and still, and every shadow seemed a hiding place.
Halfway there, I saw two cleaning women getting off work come out of an office building in front of me and amble toward the bus stop. As they walked, one said something that tickled the other, who started to giggle. The first one laughed at her friend’s response, and they began to feed off each other’s hilarity. Every time the laughter would die down, a small chuckle would surface, and they’d lose control once more. When they noticed me walking behind them and realized how silly they must have looked, it only set them off again. I shook my head in mock disapproval of their scandalous behavior, and that struck them as even funnier. By the time I reached my office building, I was laughing as hard as they were — and I hadn’t even heard the joke.
All that day, I felt renewed, relaxed, refreshed. I loved this world, I loved those two women, and I loved my life.
In the early seventies, we lived in the small Iranian village of Bandar Abbas, on the shore of the Persian Gulf. The village was the penal colony of Iran, and walking through the bazaar, I’d see people with no hands or feet or eyes — all victims of corporal punishments for crimes against Muslim law.
One evening, while showering, I discovered a lump on my left breast. Because of our remote location, there was no doctor available. In a panic, I struggled to decide what to do. Rather than return to the United States or fly to Europe, I opted to fly to Tehran, the capital, and see an American doctor in the U.S. Embassy.
The airfield in Bandar Abbas was secured by Iranian Air Force privates whose orders were to shoot to kill anyone who approached an aircraft without permission. I and the thirty or so other passengers boarded an old bus for the ride across the runway to the plane. As we started out, I heard a private yelling in Farsi, “Halt! Halt!” The bus driver ignored his command, as we had permission from a general to board the plane. Then the soldiers began to fire at us.
Lying on the floor of the bus with bullets whistling over my head, I thought, Which is the better way to die: a gunshot or cancer?
After we’d been lying there for ten minutes, expecting to be shot at any moment, they stopped firing, and we were allowed to get on the plane.
The next day, in Tehran, I went through a mammogram, a biopsy, and other tests, then was told the results wouldn’t be back for seventy-two hours. I would have to stay in a hotel, alone, and wait. I spent the time planning what I would do first if they told me I had only six months to live.
Finally, I walked back into the doctor’s office at the U.S. Embassy hospital. The doctor shook my hand and asked me to have a seat. “Mrs. Cox,” he said, “I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but we found this biopsy to be positive. I think you should consider having a lumpectomy at the earliest opportunity.”
I just sat there, my mouth so dry I couldn’t speak, thinking, How will I tell Don and the children? I would have to fly back to Bandar Abbas, break the news, and then decide where to have the operation.
The next morning, I got on another bus to ride out to where the plane was sitting. No shooting this time, for all the difference it made: I was going to die anyway.
As I was boarding the plane, I heard someone calling, “Mrs. Cox, please stop!” It was a young man in a lab coat, running across the tarmac waving a white sheet of paper. I went back down the ladder and approached him. “I’m so glad I caught you,” he said. “We discovered we mixed up your records with another lady named Cox. Your tests were all negative.”
Barbara J. Cox
Powder Springs, Georgia
Things are tense. I’m pregnant again. We’ve moved three times in the last four months. Work is up in the air. My three-year-old son is unsure of everything. My husband chain-smokes and acts suave. This is probably not such a good time to be pregnant, but I am happy and excited anyway.
I’m also sick with vomiting and diarrhea, and I’m worried about a pain in my belly. My regular doctor is not available, but his partner on call tells me the intestinal flu is going around.
We’re moving into half of a beautiful old house, almost in the country. So far, we’ve plopped down our mattresses and some chairs. I’m still not doing so well. I am standing in the entryway we share with the owners, talking to my mother on their kitchen telephone, the cord stretched out as far as it will go, when I feel a fierce, stabbing pain in my left side. It doesn’t go away. Somehow, I make my way upstairs to our mattress. My husband looks in to see what’s up, then goes on with the business of settling in. My son comes to nurse himself to sleep, as usual. I am too adrift in a sea of pain to resist his claim upon my breast, which now seems unattached, not really a part of me.
The pain grows up into my chest, my shoulders, down my arm. I am making moaning sounds. “Shut up. You’ll wake the kid,” my husband says. I crawl to the bathroom and lie there, unable to move.
In the morning, my husband calls our friend Bobbie and tells her he thinks there is something wrong with me because I am pale and don’t get up. “Bobbie says I should take you to the hospital immediately,” he tells me.
Within minutes of arriving at the emergency room, I am rushed into surgery. I have an ectopic pregnancy, and the fallopian tube has ruptured. The blood has started to fill my chest and abdominal cavities. After the operation, the doctor chastises my husband for having almost allowed me to die.
That spring, I admit for the first time, to a friend, that I am unhappy in my marriage.
I can remember what gunmetal tastes like. The only reason I’m still around to remember is that, when I was sitting there with the barrel in my mouth, the phone rang. Not wanting to arouse suspicion, I answered it. And the person on the other end, without ever knowing what was happening, changed my mind about pulling the trigger just by extending his friendship to me at that moment.
Linda, one of my oldest friends, was visiting me in southern California, and we had a long, late-night talk about my family. I told her I’d finally forgiven my mother for her failings and now realized she’d done the best she could raising me.
Early the next morning, I got a call that my mother had died of a sudden heart attack. Later, I told Linda that I was happy I’d forgiven my mother in my own mind before she died, but was sad that I’d never gotten the chance to forgive her in person. Linda said, “What makes you think she didn’t know?”
Granada Hills, California
When I was twenty-one, I gave birth to my only child, Amy. I fell madly in love with her and wanted to do everything right so that she would grow up to be a happy, healthy, well-adjusted person. I read all sorts of child-psychology books to help me avoid mistakes. But mostly I tried to introduce Amy to as many different interests as possible, so she would be able to choose for herself when she grew older. I provided lessons in swimming, gymnastics, and ballet. I sent her to day camp, where she learned origami and other crafts. I took her to the theater and the circus. She even tried horseback riding.
Before I knew it, Amy had grown up. The summer before she went away to college, we drove around to a few prospects to check them out. At one, the dorms were locked, so I lifted Amy up for a peek in the windows to see what the rooms looked like. We bought everything she would need for her dorm room: posters, a hot pot, sheets. At the end of the summer, Amy’s dad and I helped her move in. We hung the posters, assembled cardboard dressers, and made the bed with the new linens. Then it was time to leave and go home — without Amy. I cried for hours.
After a few months, Amy seemed to be adjusting to living on her own. So was I. Then, in December, I was driving to work one morning when a truck failed to stop for a light and slammed into my car. The accident left me a quadriplegic, unable to drive, walk, dress, or do many other things.
I cannot help thinking about the timing of my injury. It didn’t happen until I’d had the chance to do everything I’d planned for Amy. She even had time to experience living away from home and to become more independent. Now, almost seven years later, Amy is married with a master’s degree and a teaching position. She drives me around. I am very proud of her. She has turned out just as I hoped.
Monroe, New York
I was eighteen when I took my first and only trip to Paris. I had just decided to take some time off from college, and had closed the door on a relationship with someone I loved but knew I could never marry. Before leaving, I exchanged some harsh words with my parents, who didn’t want me traveling alone. I didn’t know what would happen to me in Paris, but I was sure it would be exciting.
And it was, at first. As the days passed, however, a change came over me. One evening, while strolling down the Champs-Elysées, I felt the full weight of my aloneness. The future seemed terrifying rather than exciting. I noticed how big the shops were, how large the price tags on the dazzling merchandise. There was no one I knew or loved within thousands of miles. I was adrift in a gigantic city filled with wealth that would never be mine and people I would never know. For this, I’d left a wonderful man who, by some fluke, had loved me more than anyone else ever would. I was inherently unlovable. What an idiot I had been to think that I could break even one link in the chain that bound me to my parents; I was truly their offspring, incapable of taking risks, of grasping happiness. I was a little girl from Brooklyn who didn’t belong in this great European city, among all these radiant beings.
In the midst of this attack of self-hatred and loneliness, I plowed straight into a fresh dog turd. I was wearing sandals and only realized what had happened when I felt a soft, warm substance oozing between my toes. Shit! What a perfect climax to my sad soliloquy.
The excrement was unusually soft and yellow, and I gagged at the smell of it. Fortunately, I had a paper towel in my bag. I stopped to wipe my foot beneath a street lamp in front of yet another shop displaying dresses I’d never be rich or sophisticated enough to wear. Then, somehow, between my muttered curses, my disgust, and my certainty that I was the butt of some malicious joke played by the universe, I began to smile. I even laughed out loud. Shit! The cool evening air settled around me, and I could feel again the chilling mystery of being on my own far across an ocean from all that I knew.
During the forty-minute trip back to my hotel for a shower, I ravenously took in all the sights and fell in love with several young men, in particular a blond, baleful flutist from the Netherlands, whose music I listened to while awaiting my train in the Métro, the pungent dog shit drying between my toes. I was a stranger in Paris on a night — in a life — filled with possibilities.
R. Q. Leibowitz
In 1993, after many years of struggling with AIDS, my friend Bill began to show signs of odd behavior, abrupt mood swings, and withdrawal, the latter especially unusual for someone who prided himself on being the life of the party. I began to hear from worried friends and relatives who had written or called Bill and gotten no response. I went over to his apartment to check on him.
Bill was surprised and confused to see me. He couldn’t tell me if anything was wrong, but the piles of unopened mail and flashing answering-machine light made it clear that he was having some kind of breakdown. After making sure he had been eating and taking his medication, I left and called his doctor. The doctor insisted on medical tests and psychiatric exams, but Bill refused to leave the house. Every appointment required a painful, strenuous effort on my part to convince him it was OK. Finally, he was admitted to a psychiatric ward. AIDS dementia had set in.
Over the next few months, Bill was in and out of the hospital as his behavior became more and more erratic. I hired a nurse to check on him, and he fired her. For a week or so, he responded to medication and became almost familiar again, but then he descended deeper into confusion and paranoia. He stopped answering the doorbell and sat staring blankly at me when I used my key to let myself in. He took to his bed and remained there day and night. When he stopped getting up to use the bathroom, I called an ambulance and had him admitted to the hospital.
Bill was unresponsive, and they fed him intravenously. His mother came to see him, but he did not acknowledge her. His doctor, his family, and I talked about whether to pursue experimental therapies. (Bill had very good insurance.) After several long discussions, we all agreed simply to keep him as comfortable as possible and accept the fact that he was dying.
For the next month, Bill remained largely catatonic as his body slowly disintegrated. I began the arduous process of settling his affairs: clearing out his apartment, making cremation arrangements, paying his bills, and notifying his friends. Many people visited him at the hospital, but he was simply not “there” anymore. His breathing was intermittent and shallow, and he had not had any real food in close to two months. When I could not visit him, I called the nurses’ station for an update. Every day it was the same: a little weaker, a little closer to the end.
Then one morning, after I had completely emptied his apartment and given away most of his clothing and belongings, the nurse called me and said, “Guess what — Bill is wide awake, seems completely alert, and wants to see some of his friends!”
Exhausted from the constant stress of caring for Bill and then having to sit helplessly by as he wasted away, I responded not with joy or relief, but with shock — and horror at the thought of him coming home and finding all his possessions gone. I rushed over to the hospital, and, indeed, Bill knew who I was and graciously thanked me for all the care I had given him. He even ate a little pudding and drank some water. The doctors were utterly mystified.
For the next twelve hours, as friends rushed to see him, Bill held court, reassuring everyone and offering thanks for favors and friendship, all the while being quite clear that he was on his deathbed and would not be around much longer. (It was the first time he had even acknowledged that he was going to die.)
That evening, after his last visitor left the hospital, Bill went to sleep and didn’t wake up. He stopped breathing early the next morning, just before dawn.
Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco, California