The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I used drugs virtually every day of my life: cigarettes and booze by ten, pot by thirteen, then psychedelics, cocaine, and pain pills. When my pill sources dried up, I switched over to heroin. In my final year of using, I consumed a fifth of cheap booze, a gram of heroin, and eighty-seven milligrams of methadone a day.
I was thirty-nine when I finally decided I needed some help. Weighing 130 pounds and not having bathed in a week, I stumbled into a drug-treatment referral service. I expected to be placed in a nice detox center with clean sheets and plenty of medication, but I landed in an emergency room, where doctors offered to put me in what they called a “social-model” detox. I asked if I’d get any medications. They said I’d receive “support.” I wanted to know if that was the new green pill I’d heard about.
I told them I’d go to the social-model detox, though I had no intention of doing so. My real plan was to rob a liquor store as soon as I left. But while I was signing my release papers, they confiscated my car keys and paid for a cab to take me to detox.
I went through withdrawal in a dingy rooming house that had been converted into a long-term recovery center. By the third night I was sweating, shaking, vomiting, and cramping. My roommate was a recent graduate of the center who had relapsed. He coughed and hacked and cried over and over, “I just wanted to try it one more time.” Why does he have to be in here with me? I thought. Why?
And then a quiet voice in my head asked, So, what about it, Jimmy? You want to try it one more time?
And I knew: I did not want to try it one more time. I saw that I’d needed all the pain I had visited upon myself to lead me to this point. And I saw there was a loving order to the universe that had delivered me to this broken state. With nothing to lose but my pain, I surrendered and let go. I haven’t used since. That was fourteen years ago.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I was born biologically female, but never felt comfortable in my body. As a child I was constantly mistaken for a boy and wished I could become one. At nineteen I came out as a lesbian, yet still I felt a nagging discomfort with my gender. People often mistook me for a man, to the extent that I was once threatened with arrest for using a women’s restroom.
When I was twenty-seven I saw a film about a female-to-male transsexual. He said sometimes you have to be willing to give up everything you have to get the one thing you have always wanted. I thought about this and began to consider transitioning from a female identity to a male one. The transition would involve hormone treatments that would significantly alter my appearance. When I talked with my girlfriend about it, she was furious. “I finally fall in love with a woman,” she cried, “and now you tell me you want to be a man?” Not willing to sacrifice the relationship, I told her I wouldn’t go through with it.
After we broke up, my desire to transition returned. My therapist didn’t know how to handle the issue and referred me to a second therapist, who said I must have a misogynous streak. Friends reacted nervously and told me I’d never find a partner. My parents were scandalized when a male acquaintance transitioned to female. My dad asked me, “You’re not going to do that, are you?” I assured him I was not.
Now, many years later, I find that the pull hasn’t waned. I’ve met others who have transitioned and are happy and complete in their male bodies. Many have partners and successful careers. Some have experienced hardship and lost contact with family members and friends, but none regrets his decision.
At almost forty years of age, I have finally made the decision to start testosterone injections. I worry that I might lose my job and my family and friends. I struggle with feelings of embarrassment and shame. Yet I’m finally willing to risk everything for the truth.
St. Paul, Minnesota
Early one evening in 1972 I borrowed my parents’ Ford Fairlane to drive my best friend to the “big city” — Indianapolis, Indiana — to celebrate her eighteenth birthday. While cruising downtown looking for entertainment, I turned onto a busy thoroughfare, and a speeding sedan slammed into the passenger side of the car. Thankfully my friend and I suffered only bruises, but the car was totaled. We phoned my parents, who were relieved we were all right and told us to take the bus home.
By the time my friend and I had filed an accident report, it was midnight, and the cavernous Greyhound station was all but deserted. We sat down to wait for our 4:15 a.m. bus. Two young men with long, flowing hair, each carrying an army-surplus duffel bag, approached us. They were hippies, strange and beautiful, hitchhiking from New York City to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and they asked if we knew where they could “crash” for the night. We explained that we were not from Indianapolis, and told them the story of how we’d already crashed once that evening. They volunteered to keep us company until our bus arrived.
My friend and I found them fascinating, so unlike the strait-laced Midwestern farm boys in our brutally dull and backward hometown. After a few hours of conversation about their travels and adventures, the hippie boys asked if we would like to go to New Orleans with them. We said yes.
I could hardly believe what we’d just agreed to. I thought about our high school and its rigid rules for behavior and dress. I thought about my paranoid-schizophrenic father and his years of unpredictable violence, followed by even more years of drug-induced stupor. I thought about how I’d considered suicide at sixteen because I’d felt like an alien in my family, my community, my own skin.
By chance I spotted a boy I knew waiting in line to purchase a bus ticket to our town, and I asked him to deliver a copy of the accident report to my parents. Eyeing the two strangers by my side, he hesitantly agreed. That’s it, I thought. That’s the last of my responsibilities. The four of us then marched to the freeway on-ramp and stuck out our thumbs.
I got pregnant the first time I had sex. I was nineteen and in college; Jeffrey was twenty and leaving soon for Vietnam. Under pressure from my parents, I went to live in a home for unwed mothers and gave my daughter away, believing it was best for her. I dealt with my heartbreak by imagining we would meet and become friends one day, after she turned eighteen.
She was thirty and had a daughter of her own when she finally agreed to exchange letters with me. She made it clear, however, that she did not want to meet. My heart broke all over again, but I thought that if I kept things light in my letters and showed interest in her life, perhaps she’d change her mind. I wrote about her birth and sent family photos to help her figure out where she got her looks. She wrote about her busy life as a new mother and a doctor.
After a while I saw that I would not win her over this way, and I decided she deserved to know who I really am. I wrote of my unconventional life, my activism, and my adventurous spirit. I told her that I fast and dance for hours to bring on visions, that I believe her birth was not a mistake but rather a deep karmic agreement made by both of us.
I have not heard from her since.
When doctors told my parents to quit drinking or die, my mother heeded the warning, but my father continued to drink and to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day for the next ten years. By the time he finally stopped drinking, the damage was done. He lived in a wheelchair and was dependent on others for everything from a cup of coffee to a bath.
My mother took care of him until she slipped and fell, breaking her back and knee. She was hospitalized, leaving my father home alone. I flew to California and assumed the role of his caregiver. I couldn’t stay forever, though, and I urged my father to move from their second-floor apartment to the nursing home where my mother now lived. He refused, insisting he’d take care of Mama when she returned.
If he was able to take care of her, I asked, why was I doing everything for him now?
“Because you’re here!” he bellowed.
“Fine!” I yelled. “Take care of yourself, then.” As I left, I thought, Arrogant bastard. We were both trying to adjust to the role reversal.
At the nursing home I told my mother I’d been unable to convince Dad to leave the apartment.
“I’ve been taking care of him for sixty-four years,” she said. “He’s never done anything for himself. He needs to come here now.” She called him from her hospital bed and in a soft voice said, “I need you to do this one thing for me. I can’t get well if I’m worried about you being home alone.” Her face remained cool and self-assured while she listened to his protests. I’d never seen her stand up to him before. “Rita can’t stay here and take care of you forever,” she said. “I know. I love you too.” She clicked the phone off. “He was crying,” she told me.
Two days later he moved into the facility with Mom. I sat with him on the patio while he drooled and chain-smoked. He tried to put up a good front, and so did I.
The day I was to return home, I found Dad fighting with his nurse; they’d confiscated his cigarettes and wouldn’t let him go outside at will to smoke.
I wrote the nursing home a note: “I understand that you have rules and safety precautions, but in the best interest of my father, I am asking that you let him smoke. He’s eighty-six. He’s in a wheelchair. He can’t read or write anymore. He can’t drink or even go out for a walk. At $160 per day, surely someone can help him out to the patio a few times each day for a smoke. It’s his only pleasure. He’s got nothing else to lose.”
Growing up in a little Louisiana town during the pre-civil-rights days of “separate but equal,” I wasn’t allowed to enter the library or sit on the first floor of the only movie theater. I graduated from high school on a Friday, and on Saturday I left the state. My mother stood in the doorway of our shack with tears in her eyes. I smiled, trying to cheer her up and to hide my pain. My father escorted me to the bus station, and I took the bus to New Orleans. There I would get on a train to the East Coast. A relative had given me enough money for my train ticket. Other than that, I was penniless. At least I had nothing to lose.
I went on to graduate from college and receive a master’s degree, and I return to my hometown often. It hasn’t changed much since the days of Jim Crow. Blacks attend the old (formerly all-white) public school. Caucasians have their private academy down the road. The main employer in town is a correctional facility. Many blacks are on welfare. Most Caucasians have left town to build their own enclave on the lake.
When I see news coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation in New Orleans, I know that many of the folks who drowned came from the little towns scattered across Louisiana. They left home penniless and landed in New Orleans. But no relative had given them money for a train ticket.
Rebecca P. Mixon
Driving home late at night after seeing patients, I listened to Janis Joplin sing, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” I wondered if she thought that having nothing was an advantage. There was something attractive about the idea of not going home, of driving all night away from everything.
Growing up with mental illness all around me, I’d desperately wanted a normal life. Now I had a loving husband and three beautiful children who showed no signs of mental illness. Sometimes, though, I’d start down that dark, imaginary road that ends with the familiar sound of the heavy steel doors of a psych ward closing. When I went there, I believed that they would be better off without me, and I would stop worrying about losing it all.
I didn’t drive all night, but turned down the path toward home, parked my car, and walked into my quiet house. The dog was so happy to see me that he peed on my shoe. I kissed each of my sleeping children on their sweet, damp faces. Then I crawled into bed, where my husband pulled me close and murmured something in a dream. I thought about Janis: if she was right, I hope I’m never free.
When I moved to Ghana, I was young, idealistic, healthy, and unburdened by marriage or children. I’d taken a job teaching journalism in a refugee camp because I thought I had nothing to lose.
More than forty thousand survivors of Liberia’s fourteen-year civil war lived in the camp and dreamed of returning home one day. Working with fledgling reporters on their stories, I felt deeply connected to them by our shared desire to tell the truth and change the world. But my life experience set me apart. I’d never seen my family massacred or fled my home with nothing on my back. I’d never been forced to move to a country where I faced discrimination and had to struggle just to survive.
Those writers truly know what it is to have nothing to lose.
For years I’d pleaded with God to relieve me of my sinful attraction to men. If I was gay, I’d lose my family, friends, job, and house, and I’d go to hell when I died. But I was already dying inside. My marriage was lifeless. My job performance was failing. My faith was ineffective.
Tired of the struggle to be righteous, I gave God an ultimatum: he had twelve months to cure me, or I’d do it myself — with suicide.
Twelve months passed, and nothing happened.
Or maybe something did. I finally asked the unaskable question: Could I really be gay? Could I stop denying my attraction to men? What did I have to lose?
My whole life I had avoided wearing a baseball cap backward, because I’d heard that it meant you were homosexual. One night I was painting our kitchen ceiling while my mother-in-law steadied the rickety stepladder on which I stood. I had on a ball cap to protect myself from drips. On that shaky ladder, suspended between heaven and earth, supported by a woman who would soon have nothing to do with me, I made up my mind. I set down my paintbrush, reached up with both hands, and spun my hat around.
When our mother died, my brother believed he deserved more than 50 percent of her assets, even though her will stipulated an even split. Almost forty years old, he’d always lived with her and had never taken responsibility for his own life.
I insisted on an equal share of her limited monetary assets, but let him have her car and the contents of her home. He remained in Mom’s house, angry that I hadn’t let him have everything, and told me he never wanted to speak to me again. I was actually relieved: I’d worried that he might expect me to take my mother’s place as his caregiver. I believed I had nothing to lose by his ending our relationship.
Yet there has been a void in my life these past seven years. In truth, my brother and I both have lost something.
Two years after the end of World War II, I was living with my Japanese-immigrant parents and enrolled at the University of Chicago. Tired of the hour-long commute to school on the dismal streetcar and unable to afford the dorms, I decided to get us an apartment near the university. I found three rental listings in the newspaper and asked my mother to look at them with me.
“Waste time,” she said. “No rent to us.” She had been in the U.S. since the early 1920s but still had difficulty speaking English.
“We have nothing to lose,” I argued. “Let’s go see.” After all, the war had ended two years before, and these apartments were in a university neighborhood considered to be a bastion of liberalism.
She reluctantly agreed to accompany me. I rang the bell of the first apartment, which had a prominent for rent sign in the window. An older woman appeared at the door and informed us that she’d already rented the apartment, but had forgotten to remove the sign.
At the second apartment, the landlord asked how many bedrooms we wanted.
“Two,” I replied. “Your ad said you have a two-bedroom.”
He told us that the apartment had only one bedroom; the paper had gotten it wrong. Sorry.
The last listing was a couple of blocks away. As we walked, I wondered if I could accept another rejection. The first one had hurt; the second had physically pained me. I decided not to risk further humiliation.
My mother never once brought up that wretched afternoon spent with her naive and stubborn daughter. Nothing to lose? Yes, but I gained new respect for my mother’s wisdom and her desire to protect her daughter from life’s cruelties.
In a drug-induced haze, I screamed for the store clerk to give me the money. I had nothing to lose and a drug habit to support. I took the $214 in the register, went to the dope house, and sank that needle into my vein.
When I woke up, I was on my couch at home, all alone, with no idea how I’d gotten there. Everyone I loved had left me: wife, kids, mother, friends, people from church. Then I realized they hadn’t left me; I’d driven them away.
I got off the couch, cleaned myself up, and posted notes all over the house: “Your wife and kids are gone because of dope.” “You’re skinny and look like shit because of dope.” “The people from church don’t come around anymore because of dope.” “Your mom is mad at you because of dope.”
I stayed clean for forty days and won back everyone I’d lost to my addiction. I was sober when I was arrested. The court convicted me and sentenced me to fifteen years.
I was wrong when I thought I had nothing to lose.
When the man I was living with ended our relationship of several years, I thought I’d lost everything. I bored my friends with woe-is-me soliloquies, barely managed to do my teaching job, and ate so poorly that I looked like a bag of bones.
When my ex-lover offered me our old sofa, I contacted Jerry, a friend of a friend who had a pickup truck, and asked him to help me move it. As soon as Jerry picked me up, I started crying. He asked if a drive to the beach might help.
On the way there, I talked about wanting to kill myself but not having the courage. I knew that Jerry’s ex-girlfriend had committed suicide the year before, and I realized that talking about the subject was insensitive. But I didn’t stop.
Jerry drove us to a high cliff overlooking the ocean. He asked if I really wanted to kill myself.
I shrugged. “Yeah, what have I got to lose?”
He put the truck in gear, released the emergency brake, and started accelerating toward the cliff.
“Stop! Stop it!” I yelled.
Jerry stopped just inches from the forty-foot drop onto the rocky shoreline.
I never saw Jerry again. I later heard he’d started using heroin, gotten arrested for selling drugs, and been stabbed to death in prison.
As for me, I moved to a sunny apartment, finished my doctoral dissertation, got a job teaching dance, and gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.
Santa Monica, California
At fifty-two, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. My father cared for her at home for ten years, but she eventually needed round-the-clock attention. We put her in a nursing home, thinking it wouldn’t be long before she died.
She lived another seventeen excruciating years, spending the last five in a catatonic state. I stopped believing in God during that time, since no deity could be cruel enough to allow someone to suffer so.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s tends to run in families, and I became convinced that I’d contract the disease by age fifty. I decided to live only for the present: no need to plan for retirement or anything long-term. I took expensive vacations and sought primarily to feel good, no matter what the cost. What did I have to lose? I expected to be struck down anyway.
Thirty years later, I still have not developed the disease. Instead I’ve had to face the consequences of my self-centered lifestyle. I’ve struggled with bankruptcy, alcoholism, gambling addiction, job losses, and clinical depression.
A few years ago I decided I had done a miserable job of directing my life. I also decided that maybe God does exist after all. I turned the responsibility for my life over to a higher power. There was nothing to lose.
After my children were born, I became terrified of flying. I had so much to lose, and every reason to cling tightly to life.
When our youngest child turned eighteen, she developed severe depression and became suicidal. My husband and I watched grief-stricken as our cherished girl, whom we’d home-schooled and supported so consistently, struggled with hospitalizations, self-mutilation, and hostility.
After an unsuccessful stay in a psychiatric ward, our daughter reluctantly agreed to go to a residential treatment center in New Mexico. On the plane trip there, she put her head down on the tray table, looking full of despair. I felt despair, too, realizing there was more agony, more cutting, more anger, more resistance to come. At that moment I had no concern that the airplane might go down. It was the most comfortable flight of my life.
Santa Rosa, California
At eighty-two, I was content with my life. I lived in the cottage behind the big house on the beach where I’d raised my children. (My oldest son’s family now lived in the house.) I had friends, books, hobbies, and many interests.
In one day Hurricane Katrina washed away all of it: both houses, the books, the spinning wheels, the piano, everything.
I’ve learned that material possessions are not important. It is the people who matter. I no longer collect books, but pass them along.
I’m now living with another son and his family many miles north of the beach. Recently we’ve had a drought. A few of us sat on the porch last night, watching lightning in the distance, hoping for rain, but also apprehensive: people around here are afraid of even the shortest downpour.
“We need a tropical storm to blow in,” someone said, and everyone laughed. The only person who could say that is someone with nothing to lose.
Helen Currie Caire
Pass Christian, Mississippi
When my husband and I married, we were both twenty-one, open-minded, and naively idealistic. Several times in the first five years, he asked me if he could have sex with people we knew. Initially I told him no, that we had taken vows. He argued: If he could be emotionally intimate with someone, why shouldn’t there be physical intimacy? Monogamy, he said, was set up to support societal structures, not healthy relationships. His position made sense intellectually, but I wasn’t interested in the emotional upheaval of a nonmonogamous relationship. We had regular bouts of insecurity and neediness as it was.
I became exhausted by the debate and began confiding in a friend about the strain it was putting on my marriage. The friend and I became close. My husband noticed this closeness and encouraged it, and before long the friendship developed into a sexual relationship. The affair was short-lived, but it changed everything. I could not forbid my husband to do that which I had done. I said to him, “Have sex with whomever you want, and I’ll let you know whether it feels OK to me.” What did I have to lose?
Three years passed. My husband experimented with threesomes and foursomes. We separated and reunited with the promise once more to be faithful.
Now he is asking me again to give him permission to engage in sex with others. It’s different this time. I have lived through this before and have memories of being quite happy living apart from him. I’m not willing anymore to hold on as my husband chases each new fantasy. I no longer believe that I have nothing to lose.
I recently had an MRI to check for a non-life-threatening condition. Yesterday my doctor called me at work to tell me I have a brain aneurysm. I was stunned to hear words like neurosurgery and sudden death. I’m only twenty-nine.
Next week I’ll have another MRI to confirm the initial diagnosis and determine the size of the aneurysm and how quickly we need to act. I should be rethinking my life, planning vacations, contemplating the what-ifs, but I haven’t done any of this. I’ve realized the truth: Any of us could go at any moment, and we’re likely to be caught off guard when it happens. A sudden death is better than a long, painful one. Death is a part of this life. We don’t control the timeline; there is no timeline. We have only this one moment.
My breasts weren’t exactly nothing. A triple-A in bra size, they grew to a B when I was pregnant and nursing. They did their job. By the time I was forty-three, however, they were tiny, droopy things that perked up only for sex. Then I had a mammogram that revealed something suspicious. A biopsy confirmed cancers in both breasts.
It’s hard to think rationally when you hear the word cancer. A radiologist told me that because the disease was bilateral, radiation couldn’t be used — it would damage my heart. “Cut the fuckers off,” she advised. When my surgeon recommended a bilateral mastectomy, she mentioned a silver lining: a plastic surgeon could make me any size I wanted.
The plastic surgeon, however, said he could probably “reconstruct” me as I had been but not make me bigger, because of my body type. I told him I didn’t like the thought of inserting silicone implants in my chest.
It’s been sixteen years since I lost my breasts. I have prosthetics that I wear when I have to dress up, but they are hot and sweaty and drive me nuts in the summer. Most of the time I leave them in a drawer and just wear loose shirts. The area where my breasts used to be is a dead zone. My husband says he misses them. I think about them every day. They were little, and they were mine. They were nothing, really, to lose.
While in college in Washington, D.C., I fell in love with my best friend from high school, who went to a university in Baltimore, Maryland. I wasn’t sure he loved me back, as we hadn’t come out to each other, but the relationship had become more intense, and I wanted to be with him every moment.
I had no car and no money for a train or bus ticket, so one weekend I decided to hitchhike to see my friend. A moving van stopped for me. The two men inside said they could take me to Baltimore, but I’d have to ride in the back of the truck. I wanted to see this boy so badly that I agreed.
After the men had closed the doors and I saw how dark it was in there, I began to worry. I peered through the crack between the doors at a sliver of highway. Accepting this ride was beginning to feel like a bad idea.
The only thing in the back of the truck was an upright piano. I was a music-composition major, and piano was my principal instrument. Several thoughts ran through my head:
I began to play. Forty minutes later, the two men stopped the truck in Baltimore and let me out. I had a lovely — though platonic — night with the boy I loved.
Six months after Hurricane Katrina, I traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi, to help. I put on a mask and goggles and joined a cleanup crew. The first house we came to had faded blue numbers spray-painted on the door. As we shoveled out the mud and broken glass, I asked what the numbers meant. The top one, I was told, was the date the house had been searched. The left one was the ID number of the search-and-rescue team. And the number on the bottom was how many bodies had been found inside. The bottom number on this house was zero.
On the way to the Salvation Army camp for lunch, I inspected the bottom numbers of all the houses we passed: zero, zero, zero. Painted on one house was a two-foot-high notice about a missing dog. Another simply said, “Help.”
For the next few days I continued to read the spray-painted marks. As we gutted the houses down to the subfloor and framing, we found videotapes, shoes, photographs, a child’s rain poncho. In each pile of debris were the pieces of someone’s life. Just when I thought everything had been destroyed and there was nothing left for anyone to care about, I saw red letters spray-painted on the siding: “No looting. Will shoot to kill.”
Mountain View, California
I ran away many times when I was a kid, but I never went far. I’d sit in a tree for hours, contemplating the middle-class, consumer-driven world I knew, with its thousands of advertisements telling me what I wanted, needed, and lacked. Sometimes I’d spend the night curled up in the crook of a branch.
My parents never knew where I went. Each time I returned home, they confronted me, and I vowed never to run away again. But eventually a restlessness I couldn’t explain would take hold of me, and I’d be off.
I was fourteen when my parents signed over custody to the juvenile-court system. My new home was an old farmhouse in rural New York: a holding bin for seven other problem teens and me. There was no running away, no sitting in trees, no relief from the constant demand to conform.
I rebelled. I bolted out the front door whenever I could, even in the winter, without shoes. (They were kept locked in a closet under the stairs.) The staff took away my weekly hour of outside time, then my right to talk to the other kids, then my radio and my hairbrush.
After one particularly nasty fight, I was placed on “the spot” for a week: I had to sit in a chair facing the wall for sixteen hours a day. My ass went numb; my shoulders slumped. I was surrounded by the sounds of people talking, doors slamming, and kids crying, but I was alone.
One afternoon, when the sunlight touched the edge of the third hole from the left in the tar-stained wall in front of me, I realized that having nothing left to lose was the same as having everything to gain. In that moment I found a measure of peace.
Webster, New York
© Martin Fishman
Growing up Catholic and being the only one in my family to take the religion seriously was not easy. I attended a Catholic girls’ school, and in first grade I kept track of my mortal sins, the kind that send you to hell: I didn’t go to Mass on Sundays. (My parents wouldn’t take me.) I ate meat on Fridays. (My parents would punish me if I didn’t eat what they served.)
Though in high school I strove to be a good girl and worthy of Jesus’ love, deep down I wanted to be like the bad girls who didn’t care what the nuns thought. In my senior year I rebelled: I skipped school, went to parties, and had sex. But there was still a way out of damnation. Every Saturday afternoon I went to confession, hoping I could restrain myself that night so I could take Communion on Sunday. Even when I got pregnant, I found a way out: marriage.
I went on to have three children, a beautiful home, and everything else that defined the perfect family life. Then, at the age of thirty, I got divorced. The Church dictated that marriage was a lifetime commitment and divorce was a mortal sin: no way out. If I was going to hell with no hope of a reprieve, I decided, I would taste every pleasure I could find on the way there. I was free.
Now, at the age of sixty, married for twenty-four years, I know that the judging of good and evil is the biggest sin. If I had stayed the “good” little girl, I would never have gotten to experience the vastness of God.
Within hours of being born at home, my daughter developed a fever, and the midwife told us to go immediately to the hospital. Against all instincts, we went.
Her fever was gone by the time we arrived, but her condition only got worse. My newborn lay listless in my arms. We were told her MRI didn’t look good, and her neurological exam showed a lack of reflexes. Doctors said her coma was caused by brain damage she’d sustained before her birth. We were urged to put “Do not resuscitate” on her chart. Even my mother told me to go home and forget her. I’d have more babies, she said.
But I stayed by my daughter’s side. What did I have to lose? I expressed breast milk every three hours despite the advice of the nurse, who thought that perhaps I hadn’t understood the prognosis. “She’s just a baby now,” she explained, “but think how her life will be in two years, in seven years.”
I don’t know why I dismissed their dire predictions. Perhaps because I could hear my baby breathing and feel her little lips close around my finger and take a few sucks — something the doctors had told me she’d never do.
I asked the doctors to release us from the hospital. They promptly agreed; it didn’t matter to them where she died.
Before we brought our daughter home, a nurse showed us how to put a tube down her nose and into her stomach to feed her breast milk. While the nurse was demonstrating, my baby coughed. She wasn’t supposed to have a gag reflex.
In two weeks she was nursing. After a month she opened one eye for a few minutes. Now, seven years later, she is still progressing steadily.
K. and I had been dating for a year and a half when I left him for another man. I was getting ready to graduate from college and looking toward the future; K. was going down a different road, one of late-night drinking and pot smoking. I wanted to be with someone who made me feel safe.
The man I left K. for is now my husband. He has provided a good life for me and loves me with all of his heart. But, thirteen years later, K. is still on my mind. There are times when I miss him so much I find it hard to breathe.
Four years ago I wrote to K.’s mom asking about him. She wrote me back that he was living in Colorado and had just gotten engaged. Although she and I remained in contact, I never heard from him. That’s it, I thought. It’s really over.
Then, four months ago, I received an e-mail from him: “M., if this is you, mail me back.” I did, and we progressed to talking on the phone. At first we pretended to be just old friends catching up, but eventually I told him how I felt about him. He said he felt the same way about me.
We have decided to meet. I know that once I see K., there will be no going back to my old life. Whatever the outcome of this meeting, I feel I have nothing to lose — or, at least, no more than what I’ve already given up over the past ten years.
In 1966 I worked to support my husband while he went to college. Together we started the first antiwar group on campus and organized buses to demonstrations in Washington, D.C. I also did all the shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, and ironing.
After he graduated, my husband said the marriage had been a mistake, and we separated. I wandered in a daze for three years, taking odd jobs and doing drugs. I hit bottom in New York’s East Village: depressed, penniless, malnourished. I got gonorrhea, and it quickly became pelvic inflammatory disease. On antibiotics and helplessly weak, I lay on a mattress on the floor of an acquaintance’s apartment, staring upward. The ceiling seemed to recede, and I felt as if I were at the bottom of a deep well. The thought How did I get here? floated across my mind.
Suddenly I saw everything: I was grieving myself to death for a marriage that was over, for a man who didn’t deserve me. I had never really grown up, and was waiting for someone to make my life begin again. If I didn’t straighten out, I was really going to die, and would never be loved. I knew in that instant that I had better grow up right now and make a life for myself.
To start getting well, I chopped vegetables at a macrobiotic restaurant in exchange for meals. With the hearty food and lively company, my health returned rapidly. I was offered a paying job at the restaurant and got an apartment. Within months I was pregnant, and by the time my baby was born, I had made a home and was ready to be a good and reliable parent.
I have never again felt depressed or helpless. I became a nurse, and found that one of the secrets of a good life is to care for other people’s needs as well as your own. I now have plenty to lose, but I’m not worried. As the Zen saying goes, “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”
When I entered the corrections profession years ago, the staff cautioned me about interacting with inmates who had life sentences or were on death row. The phrase “nothing to lose” was often used.
Through the years I’ve learned that few people truly have nothing to lose. Whatever the situation, people find something to live for.
Incarceration makes a person do some serious soul-searching. Family members and loved ones once taken for granted, neglected, or abused become a source of strength. Some inmates open themselves up to religion. Others make their bodies their temples, building their muscles along with their sense of control. Some find refuge in the world of literature, or take every class available, eventually becoming instructors to help their fellow inmates. Still others continue the “thug life,” hustling the forbidden commodities of drugs and sex.
I look at people in the free world with fresh eyes now. Many of us do not know the strength we have inside us. Our perception of ourselves remains largely untested. The occasional crisis may force us to reassess our values, but after the crisis passes, we once again take our lives for granted. What would you do if a wrong choice sealed your fate for life? Who would you be and what would you value inside those walls? What would you do with your time? What are you doing with your time now?