I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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My twelve-year-old son Alex was born with Down syndrome, an unfortunate name for his condition, for if there’s one thing my son is not, it’s down. He begins each day by rushing into our bedroom and joyfully hollering, “Good morning!” He greets his teachers with the same excitement and never fails to give them a hug. In fact, he hugs just about everyone he meets, seeming to sense which people are most in need of one.
You would be hard-pressed to find a less-threatening hugger than my diminutive, bespectacled boy, yet I am an outcast in the Down-syndrome community because I do not aggressively discourage Alex’s hugging. He will fall prey to a child molester, I am told. He must learn to behave like regular children, they say.
But he’s not a regular child. And child molesters don’t seem to have any trouble preying on regular children. Why should I deny him one of the greatest pleasures in his life? The best thing he has to give the world is his boundless, unprejudiced affection.
One afternoon, my two boys and I were walking downtown. A young man was coming toward us on the sidewalk. He was covered in tattoos and projected a fierce attitude to match. I went to pull my children out of his path, but Alex got ahead of me. I watched in horror as my son bellowed, “Hi!” and wrapped his arms around the young man’s legs. I waited for the man to push him away, or perhaps even strike him.
But the man, not much more than a boy himself, instead gave Alex a gentle pat on the head. His attitude softened, and he quietly replied, “Hi.” With a sweet, sad smile, he moved to the edge of the sidewalk so we could pass.
As a black man in America, I’ve been blessed. Really, I have no complaints.
I didn’t always feel this way. Hell, I used to complain about everything, though I had absolutely nothing to complain about. The only child of educated, well-to-do parents, I grew up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, attended good schools, went to college, and landed one great job after another. But something was missing, and I can’t tell you what it was. Maybe things just came too easy for me. For whatever reason, I destroyed, ruined, or abused everything good that crossed my path.
Now, at the age of forty-five, I’m a prisoner of the Florida Department of Corrections. Getting locked up was the best thing that ever happened to me. It saved me from myself.
No, I didn’t find religion behind bars. And I didn’t get scared straight. All I did was get enough rest to clear the drug-and-alcohol-induced fog that clouded my brain. I remembered how much I had loved reading, writing, fishing, animals, architecture.
I’m in my fifth year of an eight-year sentence, and I feel better than I ever did on the outside. I read three or four books a week. I write poetry and have even had some of my work published. I’ve completed a computer-drafting-and-design course and become a literacy tutor. I hope to get in about eighteen months of Spanish before I get out. I even have a relationship with my soon-to-be-seventeen-year-old son, whom I’ve never met in person.
Unfortunately, most inmates never see the light. In fact, many get worse. But I’m OK. I’m more than OK. Prison didn’t just save my life; it gave me a life to look forward to.
At forty-two, I woke in the middle of the night to find my hand resting on a one-inch lump in my breast. The family doctor said it was most likely a cyst. The biopsy said otherwise. Six months later, after surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, the oncologist told me there was a 90 percent chance the cancer was gone for good.
All my life I had felt vaguely unhappy and restless. Despite my success in school and work, all the good things that happened to me were never quite enough, and real happiness lay just beyond my grasp. Cancer seemed like confirmation that I was destined to be unhappy.
Nevertheless, I took the cancer as a sign that I needed to make some changes. I reduced the pressures in my life, volunteered for worthy causes, searched for someone new to love. Still I felt unsatisfied. Always the question lingered in the back of my mind: Is this all there is?
At my two-year checkup, my oncologist told me that the cancer had returned and spread rapidly throughout my liver. It was inoperable. “I can’t cure you,” he said, “but with chemotherapy you might live a little longer.”
So this is it, I thought. This is the way it’s going to be. I felt completely humbled.
Now, two years later, I’m beating the odds. I’ve given up my secure job, traveled the world, become a teacher of the self-healing practice qigong, and found love with a man who has never left my side, even when death seemed imminent. I couldn’t be happier.
The local masters track meet was scheduled for a few weeks after my fortieth birthday. At recent meets, I’d been struggling to compete with younger runners. Turning forty would usher me into a new age group, where I could once again dominate.
My daily training regimen took precedence over everything, even my first child, born only months earlier. I was so wrapped up in my quest for accomplishment that I missed out on my daughter’s earliest stages of development. I rationalized that, in the big picture, what I was doing was good for the baby. After all, I didn’t want them wheeling me across the stage at her high-school graduation.
The pain in my left foot started as a dull ache between the toes. Within weeks it had become a red-hot poker in the ball of my foot. I went to a local podiatrist, who diagnosed me with Morton’s neuroma. A surgical procedure would cure the problem. Recovery time was fairly short: about six weeks.
Six weeks. It wasn’t much to ask in the grand scheme of things, but I would miss the race for which I had trained so religiously.
I had the surgery, and several weeks later I was on my feet again and walking without a cane. I put the baby in her carrier and headed out the door. I walked slowly with her around a local lake, stopping occasionally to admire the ducks.
That was ten years ago. I have not trained for a race since. My daughter and I still take walks around the lake.
Rochester, New York
One minute I was crossing the street in Notting Hill; the next, I was lying on the pavement, having been hit by a delivery truck. I knew right away that my leg was broken below the knee.
I was rushed to a hospital in downtown London, where doctors stabilized the leg and kept me sedated. The next day they inserted metal rods and screws and told me it was fixed. My leg was bent at a strange angle, though. When I asked to see the postoperative X-ray, they told me there wasn’t one.
Back home in the Bronx, I arrived at Saint Barnabas Hospital with a high fever, a definite infection, and a leg that was totally out of alignment. I was soon sporting five metal rods, like tinkertoys, through the bone and skin of my right leg.
After a failed attempt at rehab, I was moved to a nursing home to recuperate among the elderly, the feeble, and the forgotten. Before my accident, I had been an ordained interfaith minister and a rabbinical student. Now I was a patient, unable to walk, unable to go home, unable to go to work, but very much alive in that place for the dying. I used the time to finish my rabbinical studies and was ordained.
There was a priest who came to the nursing home. There was a minister who came to the home. But there was no rabbi. I lit Shabbat candles in my room (an electric set, as candles were forbidden) and said my prayers silently to myself. One Friday night, a man in a wheelchair noticed my candles and came in to talk.
That’s how it started.
I am now mostly recovered from my accident, and I am the rabbi of Temple Orah, whose entire congregation lives in that nursing home. For me, returning there for services each Friday is like coming home. Everyone admires how well I am walking. I get to hug my old roommate and sing “Peg of My Heart” to her. Armed with a challah, a bottle of Kedem grape juice, and a Torah, I am answering God’s promise for me.
West Caldwell, New Jersey
Toward the end of my three years in seminary, I joined a support group that helped people with same-sex attractions to reclaim their God-given heterosexual identity. I’d just had a brief, barely sexual affair with a man (my first), and I was terrified. I had a wonderful wife, two hearty sons, and a beautiful daughter. I didn’t want to lose everything just because I was attracted to men.
I devoted myself to group meetings, received training as a leader, and coached other men with similar temptations. In public, I practiced being attracted to women, although that seemed a bit off base, since I shouldn’t be lusting after anyone but my wife. My wife was aware of my problem and even came with me to a few group meetings, where we shared with others what it was like to live with this dilemma as a married couple.
After I’d been with the group for three years, my twelve-year-old son’s hockey team entered a tournament in Colorado. I suggested that my sports-loving wife accompany him and even arranged for her to travel with another parent-son pair. The other parent was a father. I reasoned that my wife and son would be safer with a man along.
When my wife returned, she seemed oddly distant. She’s just tired, I thought. The next morning I asked about the tournament. Again she was strangely quiet. Finally I said, “I don’t know how to communicate with you. Sometimes I feel like you’re a can, and I’ve lost the can opener.”
“Why is it always me?” she snapped. Then she said quietly, “It’s over. I can’t go on.”
The marriage ended. I spent the next two years in a deep depression. What had happened? I had worked so hard.
A friend who had also gone through the ex-gay program offered to spend a few days with me, to help me deal with my depression. We wound up in bed together. I realized then how right my wife had been to end our relationship.
My mother is a lively, intelligent woman who plays the piano, studies ancient Greek, writes fiction, and volunteers at the local elementary school. Though she is not wealthy, she gives away thousands of dollars a year to charity, and once, when my husband lost his job, she wrote us a check for ten thousand dollars, no questions asked.
She is quick to anger, though, when people don’t conform to her high standards of behavior. I have incurred her wrath for hesitating to drive her places, for not inviting her out often enough, for being reluctant to print her e-mail on a weekly basis and mail it to her because she is too technophobic to learn to use her computer.
My mother shows her displeasure with cold shoulders and nasty remarks. Once, after several straight months of this treatment, I complained that she had hurt me deeply.
“Good,” she replied. “That was my intention.”
After each new infraction I committed, I would kick myself for being so thoughtless. How could I have let my poor mother down? Her requests weren’t many. What was wrong with me? I went out of my way to include her on shopping trips, dinners, concerts, and vacations. But even when things seemed to be going well, I knew that I was doomed to make a fatal mistake and prove to my mother once and for all that I was a selfish daughter.
Last summer, on a particularly hot day, she asked me to drive her to her piano lesson. (She usually takes the train.) I balked and snapped at her. I realized I was wrong, and of course ended up driving her, her silent anger filling the car. Afterward, I called to apologize, ready to endure half a year’s punishment for my lousy behavior: Pile on the guilt, Ma. I’m ready.
But nothing could have prepared me for her response. “You’ve hurt me too many times,” she said coldly. “I’ve decided that our relationship is now over.”
I was incredulous. Over? Just like that? Like flicking off a light?
She stood her ground. She didn’t want to be my mother anymore.
I was distraught. How would I cope? This was worse than having her die, because she was voluntarily removing herself from my life. Apparently, I was more awful than I’d ever dreamed.
After the initial shock wore off, though, I felt lighter and freer than I had in years. Her punishment was so ludicrous, so incredibly out of proportion to my crime, that I saw our relationship in a whole new light. All those years I’d thought it was I who needed to change.
My parents are Holocaust survivors who lost many family members, and the experience left them melancholic and overprotective. When I was a child, they would tell me stories about entire families reduced to ashes. It didn’t make sense to me that God would sit back and allow such vast numbers of people to perish in such a horrible way.
When I asked my teachers at my religious school about this, most dismissed my questions as immature. “You’ll understand when you’re older,” they said. One kind teacher, however, gently reminded me that it was impossible for mere mortals to understand God’s plan. But, with the proper amount of prayer, study, and acts of charity, he said, one might get a glimpse of the Almighty’s intentions. So every night before bed, I would pray for the souls of my dead relatives and ask God to allow me the barest glimpse of his master plan.
One day I came home after school to find my mother weeping quietly. In her arms was the only thing of value she had managed to salvage from her family home in Hungary after the war: a photo album. At the sight of my mother’s tears, my anger at the injustice of the world rose in me. I was losing faith in the idea of God’s plan.
I looked over my mother’s shoulder at a frayed black-and-white photo of a man I didn’t recognize. Composing herself, she told me how her first husband had been gunned down and thrown into the Danube while searching for her during the last days of the war. My father’s first wife, she said, had been shot because, being five months pregnant, she couldn’t keep up with the rest on the forced march to Auschwitz.
My mother wiped her eyes, hugged me, and with a sad smile said, “Imagine, if there had been no Hitler, you would never have been born.”
At the rehab hospital, I went to sleep early to escape the unrelenting noise of my roommate’s television. I never requested that she turn it off, because her family hoped it would help her regain her speech.
Like my roommate, I’d had a stroke in my early thirties. My speech and cognitive processes weren’t much affected, but I couldn’t walk to the bathroom alone. I had plenty of time to dream, though, and I reexamined my past and looked into my heart.
Because I went to sleep so early, I got up at two or three in the morning. I thought this a perfectly reasonable time to rise, given the circumstances. The nurses didn’t see it that way. They wrote in my chart, “Steroid-induced mania.”
I’d read about artists and writers who woke before dawn to create. They were sometimes called manic. I prayed that I, too, would receive early-morning inspiration. I lay awake in my hospital bed, eyes open and mind expectant, simply feeling what it is to be alive. Every so often, I would look expectantly out the window, waiting for first light. It was so beautiful, I wished everyone could see it.
I sipped ice water from the pitcher the nurses brought to my bed, and I ate dulse — a kind of seaweed — that friends had brought me. As I let the dulse soften in my mouth, I thought of the farmers in Maine going out early in their boats to harvest the flowing seaweed. I felt the bobbing of the boat, heard the sound of the waves, and the splashing and dripping as they lifted the shimmering deep red plants from the ocean.
One such morning, I woke up and found the room glowing, as if light were coming from all around. The air was heavy with something I can only describe as nectar. I sat up — quietly, so that the kind nurses would not worry about my “mania” — and breathed it in. It tasted sweet and a little damp, like the steam from boiling maple syrup. Everything vibrated, and I felt what I guessed a bee might feel flying among plants in full bloom: a heady, wild joy. I didn’t want it to end.
Two years out of high school, I married my first real boyfriend, a Vietnam vet. The early years together were full of fun. I took pleasure in doting on my husband and keeping a clean house. As we got to know each other, though, it became apparent that our personalities were quite different. He was outgoing, aggressive, and adventurous. I remained shy. He liked cars, motorcycles, and toys. I just wanted living-room furniture. Still, I let him control me. I was a good, complacent wife.
Then he lost his job. I worked all day at an office while he woke at noon, played handball, and indulged in expensive hobbies, adding marijuana to the household budget. Marriage was no longer fun. He was verbally abusive and sometimes pushed and shoved me. I could not live this way, but I kept making excuses, waiting for a time when I’d be brave enough and could financially afford to leave him. I no longer loved him, if indeed I ever had.
One day, we were arguing over some silly thing, and he hit me in the face with a right hook. The pain was even more emotional than physical. I would not forget it.
It took another two years for me actually to leave him. In the meantime, I became an expert liar. I opened a bank account in my name, using my mother’s address. I lied about the size of my Christmas bonus, told him gifts from my family were only half the actual amount, and inflated my grocery bills. The excess money I stashed away.
One cold day in February, I sat in my bedroom looking through the iron bars of the first-floor window, fourteen inches of snow piled against them, and I knew the time had arrived. I had to get out.
My husband came in and did his best to dispel my sullen mood, offering me food, or a walk in the snow. When he asked what was wrong, instead of giving him my usual lie (PMS), I responded, “I’m just not happy here.”
He flew into a rage and tried his intimidation routine. When that didn’t work, he picked up the phone and called my father: “Come and get your daughter. She’s ‘not happy here.’ ” I did not interrupt, as I would have in the past. I just sat quietly and hoped my father would get there soon.
By the time my dad arrived, my husband was threatening to kill me. Terrified, I ran to the car as soon as it pulled up. My dad told me to wait there while he went inside to talk to my husband.
Minutes later, my dad came out and asked me what I’d done to him. “I left him crying on the floor like a baby,” he said. “He’s begging me to talk to you.” I wondered what I should do.
It was the memory of that punch that gave me the courage to leave. Verbal abuse and shoves would have kept me with him forever, but that punch was with me every day.
Brooklyn, New York
When I was fourteen, the cool kids would party on the weekends in the woods near my house. I watched them drive by in their cars and longed to go with them, to live that wild, decadent life: the smoking, the drinking, the music, the sex — especially the sex.
My pronounced buckteeth, however, made me undesirable to boys. Although the cool crowd wasn’t particularly mean to me, I was never invited to one of those weekend parties behind my house.
I begged my father for braces, but he didn’t see the need. “Maybe your teeth are a blessing in disguise,” he told me. “People who are too good-looking have problems.”
I had a hard time imagining what misfortunes I was avoiding due to my unattractiveness. In hindsight, however, I think that maybe my father was right. One of the cool girls had a baby at the age of twelve, another at fourteen.
© Jean-Claude Lejeune
I had just gotten fired from my job — again. It was the usual story: “We get the feeling you aren’t very happy here.”
What could I say? It was true.
I went home in despair. How was I going to make a living? I had few skills and had barely managed to get my undergraduate degree. In desperation, I decided to consult a psychic.
I am a native New Yorker and a hard-boiled cynic. Going to see a psychic was about as natural to me as growing another head. That’s how desperate I was.
The psychic lived in an ordinary suburban neighborhood. We sat down at her kitchen table, and I told her why I was there. She looked me right in the eye and said, “You don’t need to find another job. You need to go home and get to work.” And then our session was over.
Strangely enough, I knew exactly what the psychic meant. I didn’t want to go out and find another job where I would be miserable for eight hours a day. What I wanted, more than anything else in the world, was to be a writer. But I’d always heeded the familiar advice: “Don’t quit your day job.” Well, I hadn’t quit my day job. My day job had quit me.
I drove home, went straight to my typewriter, and put in a fresh sheet of paper. I didn’t stop typing until I’d filled twenty pages. I realized I was working on a novel, though I had never written one before.
I worked on my book every day, and when I wasn’t working on it, I carried it around, clutching it to my chest. I finished it within a year. It was accepted by the first publisher that read it, and published a year after that. Since the day I was fired, I have had forty books published. I never went back to working for someone else.
We always thought my mom would die first. She has diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and is a hundred pounds overweight. Three years ago she almost died from pneumonia, and now she’s on oxygen all the time.
Though my father had heart problems off and on, he got around well enough and took care of my mother and the house. I sometimes imagined Dad and me, after Mom died, taking a trip to Europe together. We’d go to Germany to connect with our roots — and with each other.
So it was an incredible shock when Dad died first. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. My grief was mixed with concerns about my mother. Who would take care of her? How would she survive without her caregiver? My father, she acknowledged, had always spoiled her and tried to shelter her from family and business problems.
In the weeks leading up to Dad’s death, my mother had to do things for herself, and she clearly resented it. I was disappointed that she didn’t want to help take care of Dad. She wouldn’t even do his laundry. I mourned the mother I’d grown up with, who was always willing to help out, and always up for an adventure.
After Dad’s death I began to question my initial reaction: that things were not happening the way they were supposed to. What changed my mind was my mother. She did not wallow in self-pity but took an active role in the funeral arrangements. She seemed to be more alert and in charge than she had been in years. She was adamant that she didn’t want to be dependent on her children, though she would accept our help if she needed it.
A couple of weeks after the funeral, I returned to Wisconsin to help her with the will and financial matters. I spent ten days and nights with my mother and began to see her in a new light. For perhaps the first time in her life, she was an independent woman. In the months since my father’s death, she had gone from an invalid to a strong woman with a disability.
I’ll never know what it would have been like to travel with my dad to Germany or to relate to him as a person without my mother around, and this makes me sad. I do know, however, what sort of person my mom is without my dad.
San Francisco, California
There is dried mud on the floor in an exact pattern of the sole of my husband’s boot. Before, I would have angrily cleaned it up and said to him, “How many times do I have to tell you to take your boots off before you come in this house?” Nag, nag, nag.
Today I am just glad he is here to leave a trail of mud. His cancer diagnosis has changed the way I look at a lot of things.
Jacks Creek, Tennessee
My wife died of cancer a few years ago. Certainly, I could point to good things that came from her illness, but would I say cancer has been a blessing in disguise? For whom? For her? For her twelve- and fourteen-year-old sons? Absurd! It makes me feel sick to speak of it that way. I say cancer is chickenshit.
Though I bristle at the fundamentalists who take passages of Scripture and sharpen them into weapons for poking hapless nonbelievers, I consider myself a Christian. Here’s why: When my wife was living with cancer, Jesus’ name was the first thing that came to my mind, and to my lips, when I awakened each morning. And when she was about to die, her breath coming in great, deep sighs with longer and longer stretches of stillness between them, it was Jesus whom I asked to come and take her.
Cancer is an undeniably horrible thing, but I believe, somehow, that God took my wife’s cancer and traded it for something ridiculously beautiful, healing, mysterious, and altogether perfect. I still wouldn’t call suffering and death a “blessing in disguise.” I’d call it turning chickenshit into chicken salad. That’s what I believe God can do. And if he can do it with cancer, he can do it with all of us.
Ogden Dunes, Indiana
One day, after parking my white SUV behind my building, I noticed a number of dings on the passenger-side door. They were black, like my neighbor’s car, which was always parked next to mine. I was fussy about my car and hated dings. Since my neighbor wasn’t home, I wrote a note telling him he had damaged my car and asking him to stop parking so close to me.
When my neighbor got the note, he came over and yelled at me, insisting he’d done nothing to damage my car. Seeing the pain in his face, I stopped him in the middle of his rant and said, “I’m sorry. I thought it was you, but I guess I was wrong.” He accepted my apology and went back to his apartment.
The next day, while I was shopping, a greeting card caught my eye. On the cover was a photo of two children in kiddie cars who had crashed into each other. I bought it for my neighbor and wrote inside: “Just want you to know that, above all, I consider us friends. And if we fight again, I’ll consider us friends after that, too.”
I dropped the card in the mail and forgot about it. Two weeks went by. Then one day, as I walked to my car, I heard someone calling to me. It was my neighbor. He came over and grabbed both of my hands in his. With tears in his eyes, he said, “I got your card and I appreciate it. I did hit your car, and I just want you to know it will never happen again.”
I could have walked away in a huff. I could have never spoken to my neighbor again. I could have phoned ten friends and had them all agree with me.
But instead I stood there for a moment, holding my neighbor’s hands. Then I walked to my car, suddenly grateful for the dings.
My third-grade teacher gave us an assignment to write about “the person you admire most.” Most children wrote about historical figures, sports heroes, or movie stars. I wrote about my brother Zach. He was five years older than I, and I thought the world of him. If someone ever doubted Zach, I leapt to his defense. When he sneaked out late at night, leaving footprints in the grass beneath his window, I’d fluff the grass early the next morning before Dad could discover the prints.
Zach went to college but dropped out after his first semester and became a heroin addict. Despite the Southern heat, he wore long-sleeved shirts to hide his scars. Though he still lived in our small town with his girlfriend, Clare (also an addict), I hardly ever saw him. If we did speak to one another, the conversation felt forced.
One day, I received a phone call from Zach. “I’m going to be a dad,” he said quietly. I felt excitement, but also fear. Would the baby have birth defects from its mother’s drug use? How could these two ever be parents?
After the announcement, Clare moved north to live with her parents, while Zach stayed in town to earn some extra money. With Clare away, I saw more of Zach. He said this baby was his chance to start over. In preparation for loving this child, he gave up his old love, heroin.
Zach followed Clare north and got a job. Two months later, he proposed to her under a snow-covered bridge. He had asked Clare’s father for permission and purchased a diamond ring. He even got down on one knee. She said yes.
My niece was born healthy, six pounds, six ounces. Zach admits now that he worried every day about the health of his unborn child.
People often joke that they wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for their parents. I believe my brother and his wife might not be alive if it weren’t for their daughter.
Beaufort, South Carolina
It was January, and I was home from New York to help care for my dad, who’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer ten years earlier. The cancer had spread to his bones, and he’d recently begun to use a wheelchair. The doctors could do no more for him. I didn’t relish leaving behind my life in the city, but I felt I owed it to my father to be there for him.
In the months that followed, he would sit on the side of his bed, looking out the window at the land he and my mother had farmed for more than fifty years. I knew he was longing to be out there on his old red Ferguson tractor. One day Mom came and sat beside him, and they silently rested their foreheads together.
Dad kept us smiling. One time, he said to my mother, “When this is all over, I want you to buy a Cadillac and a box of cigars.” When the hospice nurse tried to take his temperature with a faulty thermometer, he said, “Guess it was tired of being slapped in the mouth.” The preacher came and asked Dad’s permission to pray with him. Dad agreed — but only if it was a short prayer.
One morning, about 4 A.M., Dad requested a drink of liquor. I told him if he mixed alcohol with his medications, it could kill him. “I’m ready to go,” he replied.
We spent hours thinking of ways to make Dad comfortable. I fashioned a large, doughnut-shaped pillow from my brother’s sleeping-bag mattress to prevent bedsores. It took all three of us to move him on and off the pillow, but, even after he’d been bedridden almost a year, he didn’t have sores on his back.
Dad was famous for taking trash to the dump and bringing home more than he discarded. We had a big red barn full of “perfectly good” doors, grocery carts, mop handles, and so on. He liked to make things from these salvaged materials. A piece of a grocery cart became a hammock hanger on the wall of the garage. Our tomato plants climbed heavenward on beautiful multicolored broomsticks. Each of his inventions was simple, brilliant, and worked exactly as he intended.
One afternoon when we were in the car, Dad asked me to drive to the dump and park. There were six huge bins, all overflowing with debris. He sat there gazing at them, seeing not junk but endless possibilities.
After he died, I was wandering around the barn one day and stumbled on a bucket hidden under the table saw. Inside were precisely cut, fragrant blocks of cedar. Some time before, I had spotted a perfectly good piece of cedar in the back of a truck bound for the dump. “Don’t throw this away,” I’d said. “Daddy can cut it up into little pieces, and I’ll put them in my closets and dressers.” Here was proof that, at some time when I’d been oblivious to all but my own pursuits, Dad had been thinking of me and doing something he’d known would please me, as he had countless times before.
I spent that year caring for him, thinking it was the last gift I would give him. But I was the one who received a gift.
Conway, South Carolina
The summer before my junior year of college, I took a southbound Greyhound to Richmond, Virginia, to see an old boyfriend. While I was there, we went with his family to the mountains, to escape the city heat.
The drinking began in earnest as soon as we arrived. I was a willing participant, but I also had a sense of moderation. I was particularly bothered that there were small children along.
When, on the third morning, I awoke to celebratory gunfire, I’d had enough. I asked my boyfriend to drive me to the nearest bus station, but he refused. Knowing I had alienated myself from his family, I began to walk back the way we had come. I hoped that someone would stop me, but my boyfriend’s father just shook his head at this flighty girl.
I hitchhiked from town to town, taking rides only in cars with women in them. At one point I learned that my early-childhood home of Staunton was not far away. My family had moved when I was in second grade, and I had kept in touch with no one there, but I wanted to see it again. I got a ride in a red convertible with a couple from Staunton. They even knew the Smiths, whose daughter had been my best friend. They delivered me to the Smiths’ large Southern home. I had always loved that house, and I felt safe standing in front of it, but also somewhat ridiculous.
When Mrs. Smith saw me, she screamed, “Bless the Lord, come right on in!”
She, her husband, and her son were enjoying a hearty lunch, and they quickly added a chair at the table. Within a few hours I had gone from avoiding the stares of unsavory men to eating with the best of people. I stayed several days, sleeping in the same bedroom I had occupied on sleepovers as a child. The Smiths shook their heads at my tales of that wild bunch up in the mountains, and with each shake I got that old boyfriend further out of my system.
Nancy K. Geyer
Hamilton, New York
The session with my therapist in Brooklyn had lasted longer than usual. Now I had less than an hour to catch a train at Penn Station. I live in Connecticut and was giving an important lecture that night in New Haven. The taxi I’d called for was late.
I was checking my options on the train schedule when a dirty gray taxi screeched to a stop ten steps away. The driver jumped out, and I struggled to open the back door. “No work,” he said, motioning me around to the other side, where I saw a huge dent on the opposite door, making the back seat virtually inaccessible. The driver held his door open, and I slid across into the passenger seat.
“I need to catch a train at Penn Station,” I said, “and I’m late.” We had maybe forty minutes. He nodded his head and responded, “Forty-second and Lex,” — the address of Grand Central Station.
“No, Penn Station’s on the West Side,” I said. “On Seventh Avenue. And I have a train to catch. I’m a teacher, and I have a class in Connecticut that I can’t miss. So, please, let’s go.”
“No! Not right. Penn Station, Forty-second Street,” he insisted.
The identification card mounted on the dashboard said his name was Mohammed.
“Look, Mohammed, I’ll direct you. Please, just go to Manhattan.”
He stomped on the gas pedal (I’d be willing to bet the tire marks are still there outside my therapist’s house), roared through a yellow light, and turned away from the bridge to Manhattan.
“Where are you going?” I yelled. “Manhattan is that way.”
Without a word, Mohammed took a U-turn that would have made Starsky and Hutch proud. As he wove in and out of the traffic, I reached for my seat belt and tried to make conversation to ease the tension.
“So, where are you from?” I asked.
“I come one year. Live Queens. I come Iraq. No like.”
That about said it all. “How long have you been driving a taxi?”
“Today, four days. Try make money, live better.” The yellow light in front of us turned red, and Mohammed continued on as if we were the only car on an open highway. I heard a siren and looked in the side mirror, which was shattered. The loud whoop from the police car behind us didn’t seem to faze Mohammed a bit. In fact, he continued toward the Brooklyn Bridge as if sirens behind him were an everyday occurrence.
“Mohammed,” I said, “you ran a red light. You’d better pull over.”
“No red light. Go,” he replied firmly.
“Pull your car to the side of the road,” the officer said through a speaker mounted on top of the cruiser.
“Mohammed, please pull over,” I said. “Don’t get put in jail over this. You ran the light, and the cops are not fooling around here.”
“No red light. We go Manhattan now.”
The police car pulled up next to us and forced us to the side. By the grace of God — or Allah — Mohammed pulled over. A very loud voice told us to remain in the car. The police approached, their hands on their service revolvers. They asked us to show our hands and get out of the car slowly. As we did, I wondered: Was Mohammed a terrorist? Would I be implicated?
After we’d convinced them of our true purpose — a simple cab ride to Manhattan — they asked Mohammed to produce his driver’s license, car registration, and insurance card.
He had the first two but could not find his insurance card. The cluttered glove box contained three city maps, four take-out menus, a pile of paper napkins, some straws, a comb, a deodorant spray, a pack of gum, a pair of pliers, crumpled gas receipts, business cards, a banana peel, and a dirty rag — but no insurance card.
“I got insurance card,” Mohammed muttered under his breath. “In here! Got week ago.” He banged the dashboard in disgust. “I got card. In here!”
I looked at my watch. I had very little chance of making my train at this point. Mohammed slammed the dashboard again, harder this time.
“Mohammed,” I said, “be cool. If you’ve got the card, you can give it to them later. Relax!”
He went through the pile of junk for the third time. “I have card,” he insisted.
“Mohammed, let me out, please. I need to talk to those cops.”
He opened his door, and I slid out. Making sure to keep my hands in plain view, I approached the police car. The cop cracked his window.
“Look, I’m kind of an innocent bystander here,” I explained. “I’m a teacher, and I really have to get to Penn Station to catch a train to New Haven. I know he ran the red light, but could you just give him the ticket so we can be on our way?”
“Get back in the vehicle, sir. We’ll return when we’ve finished filing the report.”
I should have taken the subway.
Mohammed opened his door and let me slide back into my seat. He looked over at me with suspicion and fatigue.
The cop appeared at Mohammed’s window and explained that he was issuing Mohammed two tickets: one for running a red light, the other for having no insurance card. He then warned Mohammed to be careful, reminding him, though not in so many words, that the present environment didn’t exactly favor drivers in turbans who ran red lights.
The police car pulled away, and Mohammed sat reading his court summons.
“Mohammed, please, take me to Penn Station. You can read that later.”
He crammed all the junk back into the glove compartment and peeled away from the curb.
As we took the ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge, the car bounced over a metal grate, causing the glove compartment to burst open and spill its contents onto the floor in front of me. I was gathering all the loose papers to shove them back into the glove box when I saw an official-looking white form with the heading “New York Automobile Insurance.”
“There!” he yelled. “I say I have!”
“Yes, Mohammed. Fine. Good. It’s gonna be OK.” I motioned for him to take the Thirty-fourth Street exit, despite his insistence that Penn Station was at Forty-second and Lexington. Unbelievably, we had seven minutes before my train would depart. I could still make it.
Then, out of nowhere, Mohammed asked, “Where you come from?”
“I’m an American citizen.”
“No. Before that, where?”
As a Jew, I was not exactly eager to tell Mohammed of my origins.
“I’m from planet Earth — just like you. We’re all brothers and sisters. One big family, sharing the same planet.”
He seemed unconvinced. “You’re a Jew, aren’t you?” he said. “You are a Jew!”
Oh, God, now what? I was hardly proud of what many Jews in Israel had done. I scrambled for a reasonable response. “I was raised in a Jewish family, but we weren’t very observant. I’m not really a Jew anymore.” I was digging myself deeper.
Eyes squinting, Mohammed said, “When go back talk to cop, you tell cop give me ticket. You make trouble me. You make get in trouble.”
“No, Mohammed, no! I just told them that I needed to get to a train because I had an important lecture to give. I didn’t make trouble for you, really. Hey, we’re brothers, man!” I said, patting his shoulder and hoping to get out of the car in one piece.
As we turned up Eighth Avenue, it looked as though I’d have four minutes to dash to the platform. I reached in my pocket for some cash.
“What do I owe you for the ride, Mohammed?”
“Cost seventeen dollars,” Mohammed said.
“I’ll give you twenty, OK?”
“Don’t want more money from you. Just want you answer one question.”
Baffled, I replied, “Sure, anything.”
Mohammed opened his door and stood aside to let me pass. I stopped in front of him, our hearts six inches apart.
“If you brother,” he said, “why you not help me?”
“What?” I said.
“If we brothers,” he said, putting his hand over his heart, and then touching mine, “why you no help me find card? You read better me. You no help me. You tell police give ticket. You no help me find card.”
I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know why I hadn’t helped find his insurance card. I had nothing to say. I passed him exactly seventeen dollars, as he’d requested.
“OK, go get train, teacher.”
I lowered my eyes and bolted to the track, stepping on board the train just seconds before the door closed behind me.
Once in a seat, I wept all the way home.