Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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My brother, Teddy, and I stand side by side in the darkness outside the front door, dressed in our pajamas, waiting. The door opens a crack, and our mother sticks her arm through and hands us a pillow. A few moments later she returns to hand us a blanket and a mason jar filled with water. Finally she squeezes her thin body through and eases the door shut behind her.
We run to the old car in the dirt driveway. As our mother turns the key in the ignition, Teddy and I watch our small house, which sits in the middle of a pecan grove, for signs that our father is awake.
The car lurches forward, and at the main road our mother turns right. After a short distance she makes another right down a narrow dirt path through the middle of a cornfield. The car bounces over deep ruts. Parking in the middle of the field, she shuts off the motor and the headlights, leaving only the stars and the moon to see by.
Teddy and I cover ourselves with a blanket. Our mother reaches over to tuck us in, then leans her seat back. Crickets fill the warm summer air with their song. Frogs croak, and a light breeze rustles the tall corn. A dog howls in the distance.
I curl into a ball, trying to make myself invisible to the monster I imagine is nearby. I can’t see or hear it, but I know it’s there. I can feel it waiting to scoop me up into its powerful arms and carry me away into the dark, taking me from my mother. I snuggle closer to my brother and tighten my grip on the blanket.
My fear of the monster is exceeded only by the fear of losing my mother — a terror so profound it never leaves me.
This is not our first nighttime trip to a dark field, nor will it be our last. Our father is a binge drinker. Every two weeks or so he drinks nonstop for three or four days, and there’s no sleep for anyone in the house. Just as we settle into a period of peace and sobriety, he’ll walk in wearing a cocked hat and a shit-eating grin, and our mother will prepare for our next escape. We’re safe for the moment, but when dawn breaks, we will have nowhere to go but home.
Durham, North Carolina
After college I spent a year living at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. When I wasn’t working grueling hours in support of the science program, I explored the environment in the twenty-four-hour daylight of an antarctic summer. Midnight on New Year’s Eve 2000 found me on top of a small mountain, hollering at the sun hanging high in the bright-blue sky.
Before winter set in, the last plane left for New Zealand, taking most of the staff away. No more planes would come for eight months. This meant no fresh food, no mail, and no escape.
The final sunset of fall marked the beginning of an endless, star-filled night. For part of the winter there were a few hours of twilight each day, and we celebrated them with a plunge into the frigid ocean water through a hole drilled in the six-foot-thick ice. But the rest of the time it was dark.
On winter solstice I went cross-country skiing at noon under a full moon. There were frequent occurrences of southern lights (aurora australis), when the sky would be lit with flashes of bright green or white. During a full eclipse of the moon, the heavens were ablaze with them.
The other winter staff and I experienced changes in the functioning of our bodies and minds due to the lack of light. We sometimes had short-term-memory loss, we went through intense mood swings, and our dreams and reality started to meld. By the time the new summer recruits arrived with their tan skin and excited voices, our faces had grown gray and hollow. We moved slowly, spoke quietly and seldom, and were startled by bright lights or loud noises.
The day the sun came up again was profound. Just half of the shining orb could be seen above the horizon for only one hour, but it was enough to make tears stream down my face.
Arriving in New Zealand in the spring after a year on the ice was like entering a kaleidoscopic world of colors, scents, and sounds. The sun’s rays warmed my skin, the delicious breeze tickled my exposed arms, and blades of grass poked my bare feet. I felt reborn.
Nevada City, California
During my college years my best friend, Porter, lived in the basement apartment of an otherwise empty turn-of-the-century mansion with three floors and a spiral staircase. Porter worked at a framing shop and art-restoration business run by Emile, a German Jew and old-world master craftsman. Quiet and soft-spoken, Emile revealed little about himself, but he seemed to enjoy spending time with us young college students. One night we cajoled him into joining our game of hide-and-seek.
The mansion was lit only by the streetlights shining through the windows. The game went on for a long time, and we never found Emile at all, though we were familiar with every conceivable hiding place. Finally we gave up and called, “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Emile appeared, and we asked how he had avoided discovery.
He was silent for a while. Then he explained that when your life is at stake, you learn well how to disappear.
Emile never again joined us at the mansion, and a long time passed before we again felt like making a game of hiding in the dark.
In the middle of a long, drawn-out custody battle between our parents, my sister and I went to live with our father, an Army chaplain stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. On Career Day at the post’s elementary school, where I attended first grade, the students came to class dressed as what they wanted to grow up to be. Many of the other boys dressed in military camouflage or white doctor’s coats, but I went as a ballet dancer.
When we’d lived with my mother, I had watched enviously while my sister and stepsister went to ballet lessons. I wanted to join them, but because I was a boy, my stepfather had steered me toward gymnastics and karate instead. Now, in Kentucky, my father let me take classes with my sister. Not only that, he allowed me, at the age of seven, to go to Career Day on that macho army base dressed in my ballet attire.
I felt proud wearing my black tights in the car on the way to school, but once I arrived, my outfit elicited ridicule and sneers. The only person who would sit with me at lunch was Paul, who studied jazz and tap dance. The older kids pointed and called me “faggot,” “homo,” and “sissy.” I didn’t know what those words meant, but I recognized the hate in their voices.
Humiliated and ashamed, I decided never to take another ballet lesson. But I still loved to dance. So, late at night, when the house was dark, I would get out of bed and put on my tights, leg warmers, and ballet slippers, and by the moonlight coming through my bedroom window I would practice positions: first position, with my heels together and arms curved in front of me; second position, with my feet apart and arms outstretched. When I got to fifth position, the limit of my instruction, I’d break down in tears, crushed that I would never learn the arabesque or how to lift a lovely ballerina into the air.
The phone in my dorm room rang just after dark. When I answered it, all I heard was a song by the Doors.
It was March 1968 in Madison, Wisconsin. I had recently turned twenty, smoked my first joint, taken my first birth-control pill, and slept with my first antiwar activist. So when I got this mysterious rock-and-roll phone call, I thought, Why not? and stayed on the line.
Eventually a young man’s voice came on. He told me he’d called many people and played records for them, but I was the first who’d listened. He wouldn’t tell me his name or anything about himself. I pictured a lonely guy sitting in a dark room, phoning strangers. Is he crazy? Should I hang up? Should I be afraid? Maybe. But we kept talking, and I began to like him. He didn’t ask me for anything or make any sexual overtures. At the end of our conversation I agreed that he could call me again.
Over the course of that semester we spoke several times, and I learned that his name was Josh, he was a student like me, and he came from a nearby city. I didn’t tell my boyfriend about him. I didn’t tell anyone.
The Doors were Josh’s favorite band. (I was more of a Beatles fan.) My curiosity about him grew, and I suggested that we meet, but he said he wasn’t ready.
The semester ended, and I moved into my first apartment and got a disastrous job as a nurse’s aide. Josh got my new number by calling information and asked if I wanted to go for a ride in his convertible, but later he called back and canceled.
In the fall my boyfriend moved away, and the next time I spoke to Josh, I insisted that we meet. He finally agreed and gave me his address — only two blocks away. We set a date and a time for me to come over, but he made one stipulation: his place would be completely dark.
Ignoring the voice inside me that warned this might not be wise, I walked those two blocks that evening. Josh lived in an old house that had been converted into apartments. I entered through the unlocked front door, went up the stairs, and knocked. When he didn’t answer, I turned the knob and stepped inside.
It was so dark I couldn’t see Josh, but I heard him say hello. He was sitting in a chair. I sat on the floor in front of him and reached out to find his hands, his arms, his chest, his mouth. It felt dangerous and forbidden. We took our clothes off, and Josh guided me to his bed, where we made love all night.
As the sun came up, I saw him at last. He had beautiful dark hair and a long, slender body. He had insisted on the darkness because of a skin condition on his back. I couldn’t have cared less. When he confessed that this had been his first time, I was shocked — no one I knew was still a virgin — and also moved, because he had trusted me so completely.
Josh and I remained lovers for several months and friends for a while longer before we lost touch.
Today, if I don’t recognize a number on my cellphone, I don’t pick up.
By the time I was old enough to climb out of bed by myself, I was wandering down the dark hallway to my parents’ room. Frightened by a nightmare, I would stand by my mother’s side of the bed and wait for her to notice me. When she didn’t, I would give her shoulder a poke. She’d open her eyes and tell me to go to the other side and get in next to my father. So I’d walk around and nudge him, and he’d lift the covers to let me crawl in. In the morning I would find myself miraculously back in my own bed, the monsters of the night a fading memory.
I’m not sure why I didn’t go to my father’s side of the bed to begin with. Maybe it had something to do with his glass eye, which spooked me because the lid never closed when he slept. As a child I didn’t realize this eye was artificial. He told me that he kept it open to look out for me in the night.
My father was murdered when I was fourteen, long after I had stopped seeking solace in my parents’ bed. My nightmares grew worse after his death, and I began having full-blown panic attacks during the day. Even now I sometimes wake in the dark, heart pounding, and poke my husband’s shoulder. “I’m having a nightmare,” I whisper. Wordlessly he wraps his arms around me, and I can fall back to sleep.
My father’s early death didn’t allow him to impart many life lessons, but he did help form my image of a good man, the kind I ended up marrying.
When I was a year out of college, I went to the beach in Wilmington, North Carolina, for a week with my parents and the younger of my two brothers. We rented a place right on the water. Like nearly every other house along the shore, it was a boxy cottage covered with weathered shakes.
Back then I would run twice a day. One night I woke up at 3 AM and decided to go for a walk on the sand in the dark. When I got outside, there were no signs of life, so I thought, Why not run naked? I’d never done it before, and I wanted to experience the freedom of jogging in my birthday suit. I stripped out of my clothes and left them at the house.
After about twenty glorious minutes I turned to head back. That’s when it struck me: all the identical cottages were even more identical in the dark. And I couldn’t very well start picking places at random, because if I chose wrong, I was likely to get arrested. (Though, in hindsight, I’d say there was an equal chance I’d have been offered a beer.)
I decided to enter the water and remain in it until dawn. At the first hint of light, I made my way slowly along the beach in chest-high surf, hoping to distinguish our house from the rest. The fishermen and -women were starting to show up, staking out their territory and casting their lines into the ocean. If they noticed me, they didn’t show it.
Finally, just before the sun cleared the horizon, I was able to make out my father’s car. I waded in to shore and tore across the sand to our door. Fortunately nobody was up yet, especially not my mother.
When I look back on that night, I still think of it as the perfect run.
Silver Spring, Maryland
Our mother’s pregnancy seemed to last forever. My older brother, my two younger sisters, and I were all between the ages of seven and twelve, and each morning the teachers at the rural-Nebraska schoolhouse we attended would greet us by asking whether or not the baby had arrived during the night. Everyone in town knew Mom was two weeks past her due date.
One night I heard the commotion of my mother and father leaving for the hospital. I woke early the next morning, hoping to be the first one up to see our new brother or sister. We usually rose between 5:30 and 6:00 to do our chores on the family’s dairy farm prior to getting ready for school. At 5:15 I changed my clothes and went to greet the new baby.
I made my way through the dark house to the kitchen, where Grandma, Dad’s mother, stood at the sink, wiping the counter with a dishrag. I thought this strange, as Mom never went to bed without leaving the kitchen spotless. I pulled out a chair and sat down to put on my socks.
“Was it a boy or a girl?” I asked.
Grandma turned her head and said, in a flat, emotionless tone: “It was a boy, but your mother didn’t make it.” She explained that I wouldn’t have to go to school that day, but I still had to do my chores. No matter what happened, the cows needed to be milked, and the calves needed to be fed.
I flinched as if she had reached out to smack my face. But I did as I was told, closing the door to the porch behind me so she wouldn’t hear me cry. I had learned long before that it was best not to show weakness around my grandmother; she had lost her only daughter when the child was three.
Dressed in boots, heavy coat, hat, and gloves, I opened the back door, and the February air shocked me from my daze. I paused to wrap my hood tightly around my face so I could scream without anyone hearing me. Through my tears I saw the glow of the milk barn on the far side of the yard. How could Dad milk cows when Mom was dead? I walked toward that light, hoping the work ahead of me might take my mind off what had happened. Maybe that was how Dad could milk on this awful morning. If he could carry on, so could I.
The barn was bright and warm after the walk through the biting wind. In a different part of the building from where Dad was, I set to work mixing the formula for the bottle-fed calves, hoping he wouldn’t come through the door. I had no idea what I could say to him. Just as I was about to exit with my bucket and bottles, the door did open, but it was not my father; it was his father instead. Grandpa didn’t acknowledge me at all as he swiftly went about his business, and I left to do my chore.
The furry black calves welcomed me with their dark faces and low cries. They were always hungry. My usual annoyance at their slimy noses and relentless pushing vanished that morning. They made me feel useful, necessary.
After they were fed, I walked back through the snow to the milk barn to wash the bottles and nipples. Then I headed to the granary and filled a couple of five-gallon buckets with corn for the steers. Barely four feet tall, I had to bend my elbows to keep the buckets clear of the ground.
At some point along my walk from the granary to the pen, my older brother came out of the darkness and took my load from me. He almost never helped us girls, but he did that day. I followed in his tracks to the pen full of Angus steers. Our younger sister was already there, holding the gate. She had gone in to check the tank and make sure their drinking water wasn’t frozen. I took one of the buckets from my brother, and we disappeared into the press of six-hundred-pound animals to deliver the morning supplement to their hay. Somehow those gentle giants never hurt us.
Our chores done, the three of us stood for a moment outside the pen, our eyes puffy and red. Then we put our arms around each other and walked toward our house in the first light of day.
Robin M. Simanek
Morse Bluff, Nebraska
I was five years old and attending a sleepover party at the home of a wealthy kindergarten friend. Ten of us were spending the night to celebrate Kristen’s sixth birthday.
Everybody wanted to be friends with Kristen, and I was proud that I’d been invited. Even at that young age I already understood what it meant to be “in.”
As I sat at the dining-room table, gluing plastic diamonds to a wooden trinket box, three classmates rushed in to tell me that Kristen had somehow gotten stuck in her bedroom closet and needed me to come help her out.
I should have known something wasn’t right when I heard giggling as I walked down the hall. But I trusted these girls. Didn’t we play together at recess and sit together at snack time?
I was at the back of Kristen’s huge walk-in closet before I realized that she wasn’t stuck at all. In fact, she’d been hiding behind the door until I was deep inside, at which point she flipped off the light, ran out, and slammed the door behind her.
It was the first time I’d ever been alone in complete darkness. I didn’t cry, but I felt a panic rising up in me, an irrational fear that if I didn’t get out of that room right away, I would be trapped there forever.
I finally found the doorknob and escaped. What I didn’t realize yet was that I was walking into another type of darkness — the kind where your friends aren’t always your friends and people lie to you for reasons you can’t understand.
As long as I had been a prostitute, I’d never thought that I would connect with a “trick” on a personal level. That’s what I was supposed to call these desperate men, most of whom had wives and children. Every type that you can imagine came rapping on the door of room 312, which had become my home: fat men in cowboy hats and boots; clean-cut, handsome bankers in suits and ties. Whoever it was, I would greet him with a flirty smile.
On this particular night I was high and craving a few hours of sleep when my phone rang around three in the morning. I cleared my throat and put on my sexiest voice. Stumbling over his words, the man asked where I was and if I had an hour to spend with him. Of course, I said. Even though it would be around four or five in the morning when he left, it was worth it for a quick $250. I already had an idea what type of “john” this was: probably not experienced with escorts and more than likely a dopehead. I showered, made sure my hair and makeup were done, and coolly puffed on a joint while I waited for him to arrive.
When he knocked, I cracked the door and looked out. It took me a moment to assess what I was seeing and recover from the shock. Then I flashed a smile and welcomed him in.
He looked like a wax figure that someone had left in an oven. His ears were just small holes, and his nose was barely there. He was dark skinned, but I couldn’t tell what ethnicity. Alex was his name. We talked for a long time before I realized my clothes were still on. Follow the rules, I scolded myself. Money first, then straight to business.
As I began to undress, Alex stopped me. “No, no!” he said.
Startled, I asked what was wrong. He told me he just wanted to talk. No sex. No masturbating. No show. Just talk.
“OK,” I replied.
Alex told me how he worked from home and had many pets. I waited for him to reveal that he’d been trapped in an apartment blaze, or that his stepfather had tried to kill him, but he just talked about how lonely he was. And I sat there and listened.
Alex stayed until six in the morning. When he got up to leave, he pulled out his wallet, placed three crisp hundred-dollar bills on the dresser next to the door, and said, “You’re really a sweet girl.” I thanked him and stood on my toes to give him a hug before he walked out. That was the only time we touched. I told him to be sure to call me again, then closed the door and cried. I was lonely, too. I was an outcast, too. I wept as if he were me. He was me.
Like many Jewish kids born in the 1960s, I read The Diary of Anne Frank and The Upstairs Room, by Johanna Reiss, and I spent a great deal of time thinking about life during the Holocaust. At night I would lie in bed and wonder what I would do if, like Anne, I had to hide to survive. I even spent many nights sleeping in my closet to see if I could handle it. After a few months I moved on to the thornier question of whether I would risk my life to hide someone else. Then I graduated to ethical dilemmas of my own invention.
The rules were simple: I had to make a conscious decision each night between ending some horror in the world or getting something I wanted. For example, I would make myself choose between having peace in the Middle East and getting to make out with Richard Schiffer. I might grapple with this question for several weeks. After all, I didn’t know anyone in the Middle East, and I knew how good Richard Schiffer looked in jeans. Night after night I would (grudgingly) choose peace in the Middle East.
One dilemma I created for myself was especially diabolical: I had to pick between eliminating child hunger and having breasts like the actresses on Charlie’s Angels. This was not a trivial concern for me. In seventh grade I was very concerned about what wasn’t happening with my chest. But I was also upset that kids my age and younger were starving. Most nights I would choose the breasts first and spend a few happy minutes thinking about them, but before falling asleep I would change my answer to feeding the children. One night, however, I was so enjoying the thought of myself with Charlie’s Angels breasts that I didn’t change my answer. I threw the hungry children of the world under the bus in pursuit of better cleavage.
Later that week I saw a television commercial asking people to donate a nickel a day to combat child hunger. I had never seen the commercial before and worried that I was in some way responsible for its existence. Had I somehow caused children in foreign countries to get even hungrier by wanting to have a larger bosom?
Not long after that, my Yiddish grandmother did something that made me think she knew how I had betrayed the hungry children of the world: When we were alone downstairs, she got out of the shower, dropped her towel, and stood before me naked and dripping. Then she grabbed her breasts and held them up to my face. They weren’t large, but gravity had had its way with them. “Just a handful,” she said. “That’s all you need.” And she picked up her towel and walked away.
© Radek Cermak
In 1956, when I was twelve, my father lost his job, and we moved from Connecticut to Massachusetts. I was heartbroken to leave behind my friends, my cousin Jack, and my grandparents. And I would miss out on going to the brand-new junior high that had just been finished. My school in Massachusetts had a ten-foot fence around the recess yard and looked more like a jail than a school.
Not long after we had settled in, my mother became ill. No one said much to me about it, but she would often be in bed when I got home in the afternoon. Then came a series of hospitalizations.
When I asked my father what was wrong, he told me my mother had anemia and had to have blood transfusions. I figured the treatments would make her better, and the anemia would go away.
One morning, home from the hospital, my mother lay in bed propped up with pillows. I went in to say goodbye before I left for school. She was awake and smiled at me. “How do you like my turkey cut?” she asked.
“My hair,” she said, pointing to her bad case of bed head. “I call it my ‘turkey cut’ because it sticks up like feathers.” We both laughed. Then she pulled me close. “Have a good day, sweetie,” she said. “I love you.”
When I came home, my grandparents’ car was in the driveway. I was happy they were visiting but wondered why I hadn’t been told.
My grandfather opened the front door before I had even grasped the knob. He let me put away my books, then ushered me into the living room. I was starting to wonder what was up.
“Sit down,” he said, and I did. “Your mother is dead.”
My mother had not had anemia. She’d had leukemia. The doctors and the priests had decided that I — and she — should be spared this information. They had convinced my dad, who’d been totally overwhelmed, that this was the right thing to do.
I later learned that, just before the end, my mother had asked my father in a whisper, “Am I dying, Joe?”
At seventeen I went to Paris for a month to visit my former au pair in her beloved home city. She had invited me to come see her anytime, but I think she was surprised when I took her up on it.
The visit started well. We were like family, after all. We visited the Sorbonne, the Seine, and the Louvre. We walked the streets endlessly, then trudged up five flights of stairs to her tiny apartment. I met her mom, her sister, and her new boyfriend, a kind man with twinkling eyes who would later become the father of her children.
Did I mention how tiny that apartment was? It’s never fun to be a third wheel, but to be a third wheel so far from home, at an age when I was too young to venture out alone — well, we all ended up sometimes wishing that I would just disappear.
One night I settled into my sleeping bag on the floor as usual, and the lights went out. Only a flimsy partition separated me from them. It was quiet for a time, but then . . . Have you ever heard a Frenchman cajole a woman in bed? He was by turns urgent, playful, insistent, and funny, and I could hear every word. My au pair resisted for a time, but eventually their words stopped, and their sounds began. I felt terrible for listening, angry at being stuck there, and as alone as I had ever felt in my life.
Twenty-six years later, when my husband begins cajoling and I’m not sure our kids are asleep, I remember that night with a sigh.
In the warm coastal waters off Delray Beach, Florida, my husband, Bill, and I made our final dive to earn our advanced certification as scuba divers. Our young, shaggy-haired instructor was named Eric. As the sun began to set, the three of us slowly sank under the water with lights in tow. Uncertainty prompted me to stay close to Bill and Eric as our beams cut through the darkness. I was aware of the vast, unknown ocean lurking beyond the reach of our lights.
On our only previous night dive, I’d bordered on panic as I’d struggled to stay with the others and not drift up to the surface or crash into a coral head or a fellow diver. At some point, in a flurry of bright lights, tanks, and fins, I’d nearly kicked off one woman’s mask. I’d surfaced that night feeling exhausted.
This time, after my initial trepidation, I began to relax and breathe more deeply, growing comfortable in my neoprene-covered skin. At one point Eric cut off his light, and Bill and I did the same. Surprisingly I could see more of my surroundings by the glow of the nearly full moon. Eric showed us how, if we shook our hands, tiny bits of phosphorescence flew from them like stars shooting through a night sky.
At the end of the dive I was reluctant to emerge from the magical darkness of the sea into the cool night air. When I did, I nearly gasped at the sight of the ocean awash in moonlight.
Joan Advent Maher
My two-year-old son cannot fall asleep without someone lying next to him. Each night I read him Goodnight Moon and Good Night, Gorilla, then turn off the light and balance on the edge of his twin bed while he lies faceup in the darkness, eyes wide open. At times he will roll around, hug his stuffed animal, stroke my face, or chew loudly on his pacifier. After about an hour of fidgeting, he finally goes to sleep.
Sometimes I resent this lost hour as I lie there and go through my mental list of chores that need to be done. But on my better nights I remember that the time will come when he will tie his own shoes, walk across the street by himself, drive his own car, kiss someone other than his parents. Then I revel in the fact that my son needs me. I indulge him willingly, staying by his side until he falls asleep, reassuring him that my love remains even after the lights go out.
Tessa Silvestri Higgins
I usually take my showers in the evening with the lights off. Sometimes I burn a candle for just enough illumination to find the shampoo or soap, but more often the room is completely black. I wash myself quickly, then lean my head against the shower wall as the water washes away thoughts of work and chores and husband and children.
Alone for those twenty minutes, I let the water drip down my body, and the dark bathroom transforms in my mind into the low-ceilinged lounge twenty minutes away. That’s where I go some nights when I’m feeling discouraged about the mundane routine of my life. I can’t get away very often, and when I do, nobody knows my destination but me. The steam in the shower envelops me like the cigar smoke at the lounge. The water’s pitter-patter turns into the drumbeat of the band. The streams trickling down the glass remind me of his guitar strings. The energy of his fingers. The beauty of his flesh. For nearly a year this other man has seduced me with his music. The shower is the place I go to be with him, if only in my head.
Feeling overheated, I turn off the water, step out, and dry my skin. Then I slip into my pajamas and slide beneath the sheets next to the man I married. He’s the calm, rational one; the one who handles the major repairs and the bills and the dishes and the children at the end of a long day so I can have this alone time in the shower. He is already sound asleep, and deservedly so. I kiss his cheek, roll over, and face the wall. I will lie awake for hours, listening to his breathing and the sounds of the house settling, feeling guilty about keeping him in the dark.
During the turbulent sixties my nineteen-year-old high-school sweetheart and I were desperate to have sex with each other. As good, practicing Catholics, however, we believed premarital intercourse was a mortal sin, and dying in a state of mortal sin meant burning in hell for eternity. So we decided to marry in order to avoid the fiery pit.
Before our wedding night we had only ever touched one another from the waist up. We were both so anxious to do this right, but neither of us had enough basic understanding of the other’s anatomy to allow us to fulfill our desires. Our Catholic schooling hadn’t included sex education.
Luckily I had tossed my Boy Scout flashlight into my suitcase while packing for our honeymoon. (My intuition had told me it might come in handy.) Lying in bed in our darkened hotel room, we used the flashlight to illuminate our bodies and help us discern how various parts fit together.
We must have figured it out. Over the next three years we became the proud parents of three children.
In December 2011 my father learned that he had a quickly advancing case of congestive heart failure. Rather than spend his remaining weeks in the hospital, he made the decision to have an operation to try to prolong his life. But after a skilled surgical team constructed an artificial valve for him, they were unable to restart his heart.
His death brought back childhood memories that I’d forgotten. Lying in bed at night between the ages of eight and eleven, I would often awake to the sound of my older brother talking tearfully with our father about death: What happened to people whey they died? Why did we have to die? How could it be that people just never came back? My father would tell my brother that death was part of nature, and we had to trust that. He would point out that we didn’t remember where we were before our birth, and say that maybe death is simply a return to that state of nonbeing.
I never asked my brother if our father’s words helped him, but I assume his presence and his acceptance of my brother’s fears did. What I remember most is my father’s deep, calm voice as he tried to ease my brother’s anxiety.
My father never knew it, but he was comforting me too when I heard his voice at night. Maybe he didn’t really have a definite answer for my brother — how could he? — but he sat with him and helped him find peace in the face of fear.
East Lansing, Michigan
I’m watching you sleep, your hair in braids, Harry Potter book slipped under your covers. You are in that sweet stretch between early childhood and the teen years. I think back on the many moments of uncertainty in my life and wonder which ones you may encounter. Here is my advice to you, my daughter:
Don’t kiss your best friend’s boyfriend, no matter how dark it is downstairs in the cabin where you are staying, no matter how many wine coolers you’ve had, and no matter how powerful it makes you feel. You love her, and he means nothing to you. In the morning you will have to look into her questioning blue eyes.
Do sleep outside as often as you can. Go somewhere high in the mountains and stay up all night watching shooting stars. Be full of wonder and awe.
Don’t have sex for the first time with the boy from the school play just because you’ve recently learned to flirt and have been practicing heavily on him. You will feel as if you’ve given away a precious possession to an ungrateful stranger.
When you are sixteen and a vegetarian and take a trip to Peru, and your host family feeds you dinner in the dark, don’t turn on your head lamp to look closely at what you’re eating. That way you won’t see the cooked worms in your potatoes. If you do see them, please don’t squeal and freak out. It’s rude. Just silently pass them to the next person.
When you get a little older and think you might be in love with a boy, enjoy your time in the dark with him. Surrender to your body; be playful and daring; and make sure he tends to you lovingly. Don’t close off part of your heart to him out of fear that he’s trying to trap you. He’s not; he just likes you.
If you get a chance to kiss a girl, do it. It may be in a darkened sauna during a summer internship in Arizona, or in the cabin of a sailboat in the Northwest, or just on the lawn behind a crappy frat party, right after you’ve sworn off boys for a time. You may not get the chance again.
If you are alone in a guesthouse in India, and it’s dark, and you hear snickering boys in the hallway and suddenly see one of them trying to climb in the open window to your room, smash his fucking fingers with the wooden stool near the bed and don’t stop yelling, no matter who you might disturb.
If you ever find yourself feeling worried or anxious for no apparent reason, don’t listen to those meditation tapes that help you relax. Instead try to figure out what’s bothering you. Do you want to be an artist, but you’re scared? Do you long to jump off high rocks into mountain lakes the way you did when you were a kid? Are you happy in your marriage? Are you worried you can’t fit a turkey and two pies in the oven at the same time? All these things matter. Don’t minimize any of them. If you push them aside, they will just come back to you at night when you lie awake in the dark.
San Pablo, California