By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Last night the power went out. We heard a loud pop as a transformer blew, and then the house went black, and we scrambled for flashlights. Of course the new, bright LED one hadn’t been recharged, but we found battery-powered lights and lanterns and one large candle, which were enough to get by.
I couldn’t do laundry, couldn’t work on my computer, couldn’t see to do the dishes. The kids couldn’t watch TV or play video games. So we all gravitated toward the living room, where we sat and talked. We talked about dreams and their meanings and how writing them down helps you analyze them. We talked about our cousins who are trying to adopt a baby from overseas. We laughed about the two-year-old daughter of another family member who thinks she needs to ride a “potty train” before she can stop wearing diapers. The cat joined us, lying upside down in my lap and watching the light from the candle flame bounce around on the ceiling.
Except for our voices, the room was silent — no television in the background, no hum from the furnace. Without the usual distractions we could actually pay attention to one another.
Finally the house started to get chilly, and the promise of a warm comforter and a soft bed became irresistible. We turned off our flashlights, blew out the candle, and said good night.
The ledge of sand where I sit is even firmer than I hoped: solid enough to hold my weight, high enough to allow me to regain my feet when I’m done resting. It’s a relief to be still. I urge my husband to walk on, to keep looking for shells and sand dollars and starfish. I assure him that I feel OK.
My bare feet dig into the warm sand to reach the cool dampness beneath. I hunker deeper into my brown corduroy jacket, tighten the strap on my hat, bow my head, and close my eyes, waiting for my breathing to calm, for the pulse in my ears to slow. Soon I hear only the fury of the surf, the screams of gulls, the wind. My shoulders relax. My neck loosens. I open my eyes.
Just beyond my feet a crab darts across the sand, then stops. I look up, searching for possible predators, but no terns or gulls are flying directly overhead. When I look back down, the crab is gone, an hourglass hole in the sand the only proof he was there. I respect his caution. You think you are vigilant, but suddenly danger can swoop down from out of the blue.
When we left the hotel room thirty minutes ago, we didn’t know how far I’d be able to walk. When we left home early this morning, we didn’t know if I would tolerate the three-hour drive. When we leave here, we don’t know when we will be back. Nor do we know when I will be strong enough to resume chemotherapy, or if it will even be worth it. We simply know what is right now, this moment.
My husband is still walking, the promise of some special shell just ahead. He would no longer hear me if I called out. The wind would whip my words away. Yet every few minutes he turns to see if I am still here, still OK.
The sun is a pale yellow. White foam fringes gray-green waves, and tattered bubbles trace their rapid retreat. The ocean is beautiful and terrifying, calming and thrilling. For right now I am still here. And it is enough.
Durham, North Carolina
In the summers I work for the U.S. Forest Service at a backcountry work station, thirty miles into Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. As part of my job I have to hike long distances. A twenty-mile day is nothing; it’s not until you hit forty miles that anyone takes note. Sometimes I put my head down and walk as fast as possible, barely noticing the landscape around me, but more often I’ll take a minute to kick the bear scat on the trail or poke a mushroom on a log. I have added hours to hikes by stopping to eat huckleberries or observe cloud formations.
One afternoon I climbed a small hill by the station. As I was walking back, I decided to pause and take everything in for five minutes. I saw many birds, bugs, and squirrels and admired how the leaves moved in the breeze. The smell of dirt and green wood filled my nostrils. I noticed animal tracks on the trail and a fungus I had never seen before.
I was ready to start walking again when I saw a mule-deer doe, completely immobile and blending into her surroundings. She had been standing there the entire time, watching me.
My brother remembers me as the big sister who always took care of him. He is wrong.
In December 1978, when I was nine and he was two, we had an overnight snowstorm. Saturday-morning cartoons could not compete with six inches of untracked white powder in our backyard, and we prepared to venture out.
“I need you to watch your brother’s cheeks for signs of frostbite,” Mom said as we bundled up. “If you see any white circles, come back inside. . . . Annette, look at me! This is important!”
It was so cold that day my nostrils stuck together when I sniffed. I remember Mom’s face at the kitchen window checking on us as we built a snowman. She’d wave, and I’d wave back with my red mitten, assuring her that I was doing my job. I wasn’t.
My brother got white circles the size of dimes in three places: twenty cents on his left cheek and ten cents on his right. I ignored them on purpose because I wanted to see what would happen: Would they get bigger? If he touched them, would the skin rub off? What was underneath?
Mom came and got him before I could find out. She rushed him into the kitchen and tenderly applied washcloths to both cheeks. Once his skin warmed, he was fine. No permanent damage.
I stayed outside on the porch, watching them through the window on tiptoes. I didn’t even feel ashamed.
I didn’t want the job of taking care of my brother. I didn’t even want him. When he was born, my mom stopped paying attention to me.
Whenever my father helped me with my high-school algebra homework, I cried. Sometimes I cried because I found the problems confusing, but more often I cried because my father wanted me to solve equations his way instead of using my teacher’s prescribed method. I was afraid of losing points for doing the problems wrong, even if my answers were right.
My father had earned a degree in electrical engineering on the GI Bill in the 1950s. To him math described how the world works. He was bothered that my homework problems weren’t teaching me what I could do with math, and he tried mightily to help me see how the equations were relevant to life. “Do you get the big picture?” he’d always ask.
Sometimes I understood what he was telling me, but the why didn’t interest me much. I just wanted to finish my assignment and keep my A average.
Throughout my teen years, no matter the topic under discussion, my father would often ask, “Do you get the big picture?”
I did not go to medical school as he had hoped. Instead I became a reference librarian. My tendency to focus on details has served me well in my profession, but with age I’ve come to realize that I sometimes ignore the larger context and end up missing the point.
One day, while reminiscing about my childhood with my seventy-nine-year-old father, I mentioned how he used to ask me if I got the big picture. I wanted to tell him that now, finally, I do.
“Did I?” he said. “I don’t remember saying that.”
Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
East Lansing, Michigan
The other graduate students and I at the University of North Dakota drank a lot of coffee. Whoever drained the last few drops from the thirty-five-cup coffee maker would discard the used grounds and, using a long-handled brush that we found on the wall in the men’s restroom, scrub the inside of the percolator.
We were satisfied with how this system was working until the day someone saw the janitor cleaning urinals with the brush.
Fergus Falls, Minnesota
Week after week I sat in the classroom and drifted off into a reverie. It wasn’t from lack of interest in what Professor Reich was saying; I found his course on contemporary civilization stimulating. The problem was that I had only limited hearing in both ears. I had been dealing with it in school for years by sitting in the first row of every classroom, but Professor Reich had such a thick German accent that I was still unable to understand anything he said. I read the required texts, studied ardently, and got As on all my exams, but whenever the professor called on me to answer a question, I’d sheepishly respond, “I don’t know.” He’d glare at me and move on to another student.
One day Dr. Reich asked me to come speak with him in his office. I walked in, anxious and hesitant. He wanted me to explain how I got As yet was unable to answer a single question in class. Was I cheating?
I began to cry. My brother was profoundly deaf, I explained, and for my parents’ sake I’d always been determined to have normal hearing, but I couldn’t hide my impairment any longer. The professor took out a piece of paper, wrote something on it, and handed it to me. I was to take it to the head of the Speech and Hearing Clinic at the college, he said.
The clinic director administered a series of audiological exams. In years past I’d managed to cheat on such tests by watching the face of the person conducting the exam, but this time I played it straight. The doctor informed me that I had a profound loss in one ear and a moderate loss in the other, and that I needed to wear a hearing aid.
At first I would wear my hearing aid only to class and then remove it. It took several years for me to wear the device openly and comfortably. I am forever grateful to Dr. Reich for his wise intervention.
Smithtown, New York
Sometimes you have the sense that something bad is about to happen — say, when you’re speeding, and you know you’re going to get pulled over just before you see the blue lights in your mirrors. Sometimes you get this feeling, but you don’t pay attention to it, and later you realize you should have.
This is what happens one night when you come home around ten, and you’re sitting in your car, fishing around in the glove box. It’s dark, and you don’t live in the best neighborhood, and you think about how your mother always tells you not to linger outside at night. But you shrug off the thought because you’re tired of constantly hearing her voice in your head when there’s nothing to worry about.
You can’t find what you’re looking for, so you give up and get out of the car, still fighting the thought that you shouldn’t have been sitting there so long. You walk to the door a bit quicker than usual.
Once you’re on the porch, you hear someone coming down the street. He passes by your house, then turns, as if looking for someone behind him. You struggle with the key and think about how irrational you’re being. And then you hear a noise, and you turn around, and he’s running up the steps toward you. Afterward you’ll never feel the same again.
Kansas City, Kansas
Though I’d had several knee surgeries, I was unprepared for total knee replacement: intense rehab, painkillers, and three days using a walker.
Among the many unexpected gifts of the surgery are the friendships I’ve developed with the physical therapists in rehab. (I joke with them that it is “Stockholm syndrome,” wherein prisoners befriend their captors.) During one session they retaught me how to walk and pointed out how off kilter my gait was as a result of years of compensating for a bad knee. Without knowing it, I had developed a limp. I worked hard that day to correct it, but as I was headed out the door, I had already reverted to limping out of habit. “Hey, walk right!” the trainer yelled.
I wondered if anyone else had noticed my impaired stride before the surgery, so I asked a few friends. They all said I’d been walking that way for years. Amazed that I had so little sense of my weaknesses, I asked my friends to let me know of any other “limps” they saw in my life. It was a little frightening to trust them to reveal my broken places, but I knew they had my best interests in mind.
A few weeks later one of those friends took me up on the request: I had shared something with him in confidence, and he called and said he felt that my need to keep the issue quiet was a sort of limp. I knew what he said was true. Pride and ego were my reasons for silence.
I have since asked other friends, my wife, and even my children to say, “Walk right,” to me if they notice a bad habit.
I’m looking forward to working out a few more limps.
My husband and I have no kids, no debts, not even any pets, so we save up enough for a sailboat, quit our big-city jobs, and head south, leaving the U.S.A. in our wake.
For two years we are attuned to every nuance: every rise and fall of the tide, every shift in the breeze, every peso we spend, everything we carry in our backpacks. We won’t be caught sleepwalking through life, wondering where the years went.
Twenty years later we do it again, this time with our seven- and twelve-year-old sons. We home-school on board the boat. Every moment is teachable. But the weather is always demanding our attention; a shift in the wind could put us on the rocks. And the boat always needs work.
Occasionally we’re brave enough to admit to each other that we sometimes wish we had made more conventional choices, so that we could go to work and the kids could go to school. At the end of each day some money would have been made, some learning would have happened. It would have been routine, but would that be such a bad thing? Sleepwalking through at least part of the day might be, you know . . . restful.
After four years of travel our eldest wants to go to high school and continue learning Spanish. We move into a house near the capital of Costa Rica, which allows me to return to my telecommuting job. My husband and I look forward to receiving an actual paycheck rather than squeezing interest income from the sale of our last home; to whole nights of rest without any need to check the wind direction; to a bed that’s big enough for both of us.
All the comforts turn out to be lovely, and yet . . . The view from our windows is of concrete walls and iron spikes for “security.” The rain no longer blows through the open porthole onto our faces. We don’t see our kids all day. They’re gone at dawn.
Heaven help us.
Whenever my husband talks to his mother, brother, or sister — on the phone or in person — he sits down. This irritates me because I wish he would multitask. It also makes me jealous because I wish I came from a family of people who gave each other their full attention.
My father traveled a lot on business and left the raising of my sisters and me to our mother. A consummate multitasker, she’d pack meat for the freezer while helping one of us compose a school report. In the middle of talking to us, she’d trail off: “Get me the . . .” The radio or TV was usually on, tuned to a talk show.
As an adolescent I wished that my mother would pay more attention to my changing body. When the other girls in the locker room made fun of my hairy underarms, I had to teach myself to shave. (I lost a lot of blood.) And she figured out I needed new bras not from noticing in person but from looking at a vacation photo of my sagging boobs.
Now I live hundreds of miles from my parents. My sisters and I are all just like our mother: multitaskers, especially when talking to each other. I have tried to give them my full attention, but whenever I talk on the telephone to my mother or one of my sisters, I hear the sounds of chopping garlic, or typing, or a running faucet, and I start my own dinner, or check my e-mail, or rinse my dishes in retaliation: If I can’t have her full attention, I’ll be damned if she’s going to get mine!
Recently my mother called me in despair over her deteriorating relationship with one of my sisters. I could see lots of dead heads on my potted flowers, but I forced myself not to pinch them off. “I know you’re busy, and there’s so much to get done,” I said, “but the next time she calls, instead of running the food processor, what about just sitting down and listening? Maybe then you’ll be able to figure out how not to say the wrong thing.”
My mother promised to try, but I doubt she has. The last time I called, my parents had installed a speakerphone, and I could hear the sounds of her cooking more clearly than her voice. She is seventy-seven years old. My father is eighty-four. I wonder how many more conversations I’ll have with them. Meanwhile my daughters are both teenagers. I’m trying hard to pay attention.
Gigi Maniscalchi Edwards
Saunderstown, Rhode Island
Reb Isser, the sexton at my synagogue, had a keen insight into what makes people tick. He could intuit your problem and suggest a solution before you were even finished telling him about it. So when I encountered a marital issue that had me stumped, I went straight to him.
“There’s trouble at home, Reb Isser,” I said. “My wife claims I’m spending too much time here at the synagogue.” By the time Shabbos was over on Saturday night, I told him, it was too late to take her out to a movie or dinner.
He nodded, looking as if I had awakened an old memory. Then he dipped into his shirt pocket, brought out an old photograph, and handed it to me, asking me to be careful and hold it by the edge.
I was afraid of what was coming.
“This was Rivka, may she rest in peace,” he began, pointing to the image of a slight woman with delicate features. Her hair was up in a bun, and she appeared to be at a family picnic. “And these,” he continued, his forefinger trembling, “are meine kinderlach.”
He pointed to a boy about six years old and described how he used to wind his side curls around his finger, then to a girl with red ringlets that fell to her shoulders. “Do you see this spot?” he asked, pointing to the hem of his daughter’s white dress. “It’s a grass stain. She fell down running in the park that day.”
I couldn’t look anymore.
He told me how his wife had thought that he was working too much and wanted him home, but he hadn’t listened. Then the Germans had overrun their village, rounding up the men for forced labor and taking away the women and children by cattle car. He never saw them again.
“Go home to your wife and children,” he said.
Alan D. Busch
When I was seven years old, I often felt uncomfortable around my father, who had a bad temper. He never hugged me, and when we were together, he seemed preoccupied, as if he were thinking about some important issue rather than the mundane duties of being a father.
One beautiful summer afternoon I was walking with him in Bronx Park, across the street from our house. As usual there were long silences between us. At one point we stood on a small cliff, and I suddenly realized that I was too close to the edge. Seeing the ground about thirty feet below, I felt terrified of falling, unable to speak or move. The thought went through my mind: My father doesn’t see me.
Then I felt his strong hand on the back of my pants, half lifting, half tugging me to safety. My whole body tingled with relief, and my father smiled, happy that I was safe. I realized that he did love me. He’d been paying attention at that crucial moment. Decades later I can still feel his hand pulling me away from the edge.
“Mommy, Mommy, watch this,” my four-year-old sings as she skips back and forth across the kitchen. I attempt to observe her while keeping an eye on the garlic sizzling in the skillet. “That’s great, honey,” I say, glancing at the recipe again.
She stops short and puts her hands on her hips. “Mommy, don’t look at the food. You’re ignoying me.”
Ignoy is a word she has coined to describe when someone is annoying her by ignoring her. The third child in a busy family, she works hard to get my attention. I can relate: I was the third child too. There were four of us, and my mother was a single parent, so her attention was stretched pretty thin. I didn’t hold it against her, but I swore that when I became a mother, I would listen — really listen — to my children.
I started off on the right foot, but as our family has grown, I’ve found it harder and harder to clear my mind of the ever-growing to-do list and simply attend to my children. That’s not to say I don’t tend to them. I spend much of my time washing clothes, filling out forms, cooking meals, helping with homework, and chauffeuring them to activities. But that’s entirely different from attending to them.
My four-year-old knows the difference. She has developed a number of strategies for ensuring that she has my undivided attention, which she seems to want most when I am least able to give it. When I’m talking to someone, for example, she will climb into my lap, put her hands on my cheeks, turn my face so that I’m staring directly at her, and say, “Only talk to me, Mommy.” When I tell her that it’s rude to interrupt, she furrows her brow, clamps her little hand over my lips, and says, “Stop talking.” It’s surprisingly difficult to remove that tiny hand from my mouth.
At bedtime she is a master manipulator. She knows I’m a sucker for books and can rarely refuse her pleas for “just one more.” She draws that last one out as long as possible, asking questions about each line of text and expounding upon each illustration. At times my mind starts to drift toward the e-mails I need to answer, the story I’ve been working on, the dishes piled in the sink. Then I hear her voice repeat a line from the book with the exact intonation and cadence I use, and I realize just how closely she has been paying attention.
Jody calls it her “vitamin”; Cole, his “M&M”; James, his “focus pill.” It’s the medication they each take every day so that they’ll pay attention in my sixth-grade classroom. Thanks to drugs, these students are able to sit in their seats while I train them to pass the high-stakes statewide tests they’ll take in April. Given the issues many of them deal with outside of school — neglect, poverty, violence — it’s a wonder they can listen to a word I say.
I teach formulaic responses to essay prompts they’ll encounter on the state exams, then hand out practice tests and drill them on how to answer multiple-choice questions. My classroom is more factory than learning environment, but I have little choice. Legislators are proposing that the students’ scores on these tests be linked to my job security. If you were to ask me if I wanted my entire class on medication, I’d say yes.
If a student starts acting out or is unable to sit and focus, I’ll suggest to the parents that they obtain from their pediatrician an ADHD checklist, which I’ll use as I observe the child’s classroom behavior. Occasionally a parent will argue about the wisdom of medicating a developing child. I’ll listen patiently, then pull out the child’s practice scores or mention the prior year’s test results, perhaps even risk a prediction about how he or she will do this year. It’s tough to argue with numbers.
Once armed with the checklist, I’ll watch the student for signs of “impulsivity” and “distraction,” check the appropriate boxes, and before long that child will be medicated too.
After thirty years of teaching I know how hard it is for any twelve-year-old to pay attention for long stretches of time. Being impulsive and getting distracted are as much a part of early adolescence as pimples and growth spurts. But these days I try not to think about that. I have to do whatever it takes to keep my job.
© Matt Kollasch
My father was seventy-six and had suffered several heart attacks when his doctor told me that he shouldn’t be living alone. I moved in with him the next day, explaining to my boss that I would need to cut my hours so I could care for him.
My father had been an alcoholic and had smoked two packs a day for most of his life. After my mother had died two years earlier, he’d begun to lose weight. He just didn’t feel like eating, he said. So I began a campaign to fatten him up. For the next year I woke at 5 AM and made us both a hearty breakfast. I put cream in everything and nagged him to eat more. He kept telling me I didn’t have to work so hard; he was glad just to have me there with him. Every day he told me he loved me. He wanted me to sit with him and talk, but I was too busy cooking and nagging.
One morning when I got up, he said he couldn’t breathe and thought he was having another heart attack. Ever the considerate patient, he had been up for two hours but hadn’t wanted to wake me.
He refused to let me call an ambulance, so I raced him to the emergency room, where he was admitted immediately. I sat in the waiting area for four hours. Then a doctor came out and said they were having a little problem with my father: he wouldn’t let them check him into the hospital.
I went back to see him, angry that he would be so stubborn. I asked my father what the problem was and, before he could answer, told him how much trouble he was being.
My father looked me in the eye and said, “Joanne, listen to me. I want to die in my own bed.”
All of a sudden I heard him, really heard him. And I was ashamed.
I checked him out against the doctor’s advice, took him home, and put him to bed. He died an hour later.
I will always regret that I didn’t sit with my father more, or tell him I loved him more, but I’m glad I paid attention to his last request.
I am the sort of person who can spend an hour in a place and not notice a single detail. This shortcoming is especially evident when I visit my mother, who loves to decorate. Every time I enter her home, there is some change: new drapes, a reupholstered chair, a painting moved to another spot. “Do you notice anything different?” she’ll ask, and I’ll scan the room, trying in vain to recollect what it looked like before.
My mother’s home is not the only place my lack of attention is evident. A year ago the head of my department gave a lunch to thank my colleagues and me for the long hours we had put in on a project. As an icebreaker we played a game called “Whose Cube?” He named various objects that he had seen in people’s cubicles, and we had to identify the owner of each. I distinguished myself by being unable to guess a single one.
This morning at the coffee shop I got my order from the counter and sat down. I have breakfast there at least once a week, but I realized I had no idea what the place really looked like. How was it decorated? Who was sitting at the tables nearby? What music was being piped in?
I made myself stop and look around. A woman at the table across from me was focused intently on a friend’s words. At another table a young man with a day’s growth of stubble was bent over his laptop, headphones insulating him from the outside world. A Bob Dylan song played from speakers in the ceiling. I took another bite of my half-finished breakfast and really tasted it for the first time. Then I realized I had picked up somebody else’s order.
Peter A. Howell
My daughter is sixteen, the youngest of three. She needs no makeup and cares little for what’s in style, wearing T-shirts from the colleges her older brothers attend. She pulls her long hair back into a messy ponytail. She’s a wisp of a girl, pure and fine. She radiates happiness.
We get along, but she doesn’t share everything with me. That’s OK. I just don’t want her to shut me out completely. When she tells me about her day, I don’t judge. I pay attention. I notice how her friends treat her. I listen for the names of boys in conversations.
I remember being sixteen, feeling powerful yet vulnerable, impatient yet uncertain. Perhaps she can sense that I understand her, and it makes her feel exposed. Maybe she wants both intimacy and independence, and this is confusing to her.
People say the bond between mother and daughter is strong and eternal, but I think it is as fragile as the dandelion necklaces we used to make together. A thoughtless comment or an insensitive laugh from me, and it’s broken.
Soon she’ll be gone, and I won’t be able to keep her safe. So I’m careful with her heart. I listen. I pay attention.
I’ve been a master plumber all my adult life. Years ago I realized that, because of home magazines and the Internet and cable-TV shows, my customers knew more about new plumbing products than I did. Embarrassed, I decided to keep up with changes in my profession. I subscribed to the magazines and attended every trade show I could. Within a short time I was up to speed, and my customer base increased. They liked that I was paying attention to them and their needs. I worked so hard that it took a physical toll on me, but I didn’t care. I was at the top of my profession and proud of that fact.
Now I am retired. More specifically, I am disabled. I have fused vertebrae in my back, more rotator-cuff surgeries than a pro pitcher, and a new knee, and I am probably looking at replacing the other knee as well as both hip joints. I am only fifty-eight, and I need help to get dressed every day. I was paying so much attention to my customers’ needs that I didn’t have the time to pay attention to mine.
Stephen D. Shearer
I didn’t really learn to pay attention until I had children.
Yesterday my four-year-old son, Elias, wanted to play “I Spy.” We were outside, and the sun was setting. “Mommy,” he said, “I spy something black.” I guessed the telephone wire. “Nooo.” A crow. “Noooo. Mommy, the trees are black.” He was right. In the fading light they were no longer deep green but truly black.
My twenty-month-old baby girl, Anika, will pop up off the couch at the first few notes of any song. Not until I see her twirling do I realize there is music playing on the television.
Elias will pull me down onto my knees so I can peer into his shoe box to look at his rocks, leaves, and feathers. “See how pretty this one is. It has purple in it.” He hands the rock to me so I can look at it more closely. “See, Mommy, this feather is from a turkey. Don’t let Anika get my box. These are my treasures.”
When I am having a hard time feeling devoted to my husband, I try to stop and listen to how they say, “Daddy,” with affection. I listen to their giggles and screams as he wrestles with them, and their laughter as he conducts vehicle races down our long hall.
But sometimes I get busy and preoccupied. Elias wants me to look at his Lego creations for the umpteenth time, and I still haven’t washed the breakfast dishes. Anika pulls on my leg and asks to breast-feed again when I want to do the laundry, call my girlfriend, or check my e-mail.
One day I am sitting and reading in the living room, and from the corner of my eye I see Elias run outside in his pj’s to get a closer look at the yellow and white daffodils that have just popped open.
He flies back in and says, “I know what color daffodils are your favorite.”
“What color?” I ask.
“The white ones. I know because you love snow so much.”
I kiss his hair and pull him onto my lap and tell him he is right. I do love snow.
I decided to become a hospice volunteer after seeing how hospice helped my mother in her final months with colon cancer. She’d died peacefully and nearly pain-free.
I felt nervous walking into the nursing home to visit my first patient, Emma, a woman in her early eighties who was dying of cancer. The hospice trainers had warned me that some patients wouldn’t be receptive to visits, and in that case I should leave. When I walked into Emma’s room and introduced myself, she said, “I don’t need any missionaries. You’re wasting your time.”
As I turned to go, I said, “My mom was a colon-cancer patient too.”
Emma looked up. “Did she die of it?”
“Yes,” I said.
“What was it like for her in the end?”
“It was peaceful,” I said. “She was lucid, and we talked together every day before she went into a coma and never woke up.”
“Did her religion help her?”
“Yes and no,” I replied.
Emma half smiled. “That’s the same for me.”
Each time I came to see her, Emma had more questions. I went from visiting once a week to two or three times. I’d been told she had only a couple of months to live, but she continued to be my patient for more than a year. She told me that she’d been a court reporter all her life, had never married or had children, and had many regrets about friends she’d dropped along the way because she was “too busy.”
One day Emma asked, “So, where are you going after you leave here?”
I sighed. “To the grocery store. I absolutely hate grocery shopping! I’ve been doing it for forty years, and I’m so tired of it.”
Emma looked out the window. “Oh, I’d give anything to be able to get out of this bed, put on real clothes, make a list of what I want to eat, walk out that door, and drive to the store.” She described how she’d pick whatever she wanted and go home and cook it herself and maybe invite a friend over to dinner. Listening to her made me aware of how much I took for granted.
When I returned a few days later, Emma’s bed was empty. A staff member told me she’d died just hours earlier.
Grocery shopping has never been the same.
Palo Alto, California
After my husband died suddenly from an arrhythmia, I lost the ability to see color. The world appeared as a faded black-and-white photograph. I wanted desperately not to pay attention to anything.
I heard the clichés we’ve learned in our culture to assuage our own discomfort with death: You’re lucky he didn’t suffer. At least you have the children. My friends were different, saying words that reached inside me and steadied my breathing. “I can’t see colors,” I said to a friend one evening, and he said, “The colors will return.”
He was right. The loss of color was brief, as if a passing dizziness after a fall. What remains is a brilliance that illuminates what I love: the waves that crash near my home, my children, my friends, the dead that visit me every morning. The surprise is not love outlasting death, but this steady light that has stayed through suffering, through loss, through things not being the way I’d hoped.
He came into my high-school math class every day with no assignment, no book. My encouraging words were met with a dagger stare and a “Fuck you” under his breath. Silently I labeled him an “S&F” (sit and fail) student. He had obviously made up his mind not to learn, no matter what I did. So I ignored him.
When a colleague of mine passed away suddenly from leukemia, I wore a bracelet in his honor and ordered a sticker with his name on it and “Remembered Always” written underneath. I hung the sticker in my classroom window. As the rest of my students were busily factoring trinomials, I noticed Mr. S&F staring at the sticker.
“Do you like it?” I asked.
“Can you get me one of those?” he said.
I noticed he was wearing a bracelet like mine. He must have played on the team my colleague had coached. Talking to Mr. S&F, I learned that a friend of his had passed away from kidney failure a few months prior, and the previous summer he’d witnessed another friend’s death in a motorcycle crash.
I got Mr. S&F a sticker. He put it in the window of his Jeep. He still doesn’t turn in his assignments, but he’s a good listener and has aced all my tests. And I thought he was the one not paying attention.
I’ve been in the garden for an hour now, sitting on a bench or crouched behind the Indian grass and boltonia, my camera slung around my neck, 300 mm zoom fully extended and ready. I take picture after picture, hoping to get just one good image of the two monarch butterflies that flit around me. But the majority of the photos are a square of blue or a white haze. The best I can get is an orange blur in the bottom right corner.
The monarchs twist and slide across the sky in double-helix patterns like leaves caught in an updraft. Where’d they go? There they are, on the other side of the garden. I assume one is male, the other female, and he is trying to tire her out. A few weeks ago I caught a butterfly couple that had landed in an iris, their abdomens stuck together like digits in a Chinese finger trap. But today these two monarchs never connect. They split off and dive and then climb into the air, sometimes colliding with other butterflies in the garden. It seems a restless life.
I give up until after dinner. But when I return, I am clumsy and lumbering, my finger on the shutter too slow. I set the camera down beside me on the bench and burn this moment into my brain: the warm air smelling of mint, the sun on my back, the summer flowers in full bloom about to go to seed. The monarchs come closer, then land beside me.