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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He sat by himself in the back row on the first day of class, slouching in his seat and never making eye contact with me. He mumbled when he introduced himself. This was the first English-composition class I’d ever taught, but I could tell Mario was not a typical college student. He looked more like a gang member. His head was completely shaved, and he was dressed in a simple white T-shirt and baggy pants with a bandanna tucked in his back pocket. He treated everyone with suspicion.
Mario’s anger was obvious in the first essay he wrote: a single, four-page paragraph riddled with grammar and spelling errors. In that long, unfocused ramble I discovered the source of Mario’s rage. Gang life had seemed his only option growing up in LA. His two brothers had been in gangs, and one had been stabbed to death in front of him. Mario also wrote about knifing a rival gang member and feeling no remorse. Finally his aunt had given him a choice: remain in LA and get killed, or move to Orange County, where she would pay for his education.
I tried to guide Mario to become a better student. I told him it sometimes takes numerous tries to arrive at a final version and offered to look at his rough draft. But he continued to hand in disorganized work, and his grades suffered.
At week nine of the semester I met with Mario to talk about his progress. He was angry about having gotten another D-minus. I’d realized by then what Mario’s problem was: he had too much to write. I told him he didn’t have to express all his thoughts in one essay. He had the rest of his life to share these stories one at a time.
Mario got quiet then. He told me how, just months prior, he’d been unsure he would make it to his twentieth birthday. This was the first time he’d felt he might have a future.
Several years later, after I’d left that university and been hired at another, I received an e-mail from Mario. He told me that he had just completed his master’s degree in marriage-and-family therapy and was about to start interning with an organization that helps troubled teens in LA.
Laguna Beach, California
On a bright, humid morning in May 1968 my father walked out the front door of our Dallas home, headed to Houston on business for the day. Later that afternoon he phoned my mother to let her know he’d be catching an earlier flight back so he could take her out to dinner.
His plane crashed into a meadow just outside of Waco. When my mother answered the door and saw Father John from Saint Patrick’s standing there, she slammed it and ran screaming down the hallway. I was three.
Two months later my mother threw out all my father’s belongings except his comb, his three-ring journal, and his sky-blue 1962 Corvair. She also got rid of her wedding dress, the one she’d worn in 1954 when she and my father had married in Sasebo, Japan, where he’d been stationed as a young Navy officer.
In 1970 my mother, my two older siblings, and I boarded a flight to Honolulu, Hawaii, where my mother planned to start her life over. There she began her search for a man who would love her as my father had, and who would be a good father to her children. I always knew when she was going out on a date. I could smell the frozen dinners heating in the oven — Salisbury steak, green beans, mashed potatoes, and cherry cobbler. I’d sit on her bathroom counter and watch her get dressed, and I’d spritz a little of her perfume on my wrists and behind my ears. The smoke from her cigarette would spiral up to the ceiling.
Within two years my mother married a widower with four children of his own, but she never got over the loss of her first husband. On many occasions, after five or six glasses of wine, she would talk in front of my stepdad about just how much she loved and missed my father.
Mom’s second marriage lasted thirty-five years. At Christmas dinner, a year before my stepdad passed away, my mother drank too much and insisted that everyone share his or her favorite Christmas memory. Hers, she said, was her first Christmas with my father in 1954. Across the table my stepdad stared silently down at his slice of pie.
San Diego, California
As I browse the Internet, I often see snapshots of middle-aged men smiling out at me from ads for Match.com. Couldn’t one of these smiling men, the ads ask, be the One? All I have to do is click to find out.
If only it were that easy. I’m in my forties and have dated men from all walks of life: a teacher, a factory worker, a truck driver, a poet, a mathematician, a carpenter, several computer programmers. I’ve dated sweet men who struggled with demons they couldn’t shake. I’ve dated a man with five unhousebroken dogs. I’ve dated a recovering addict who relapsed while I was celebrating the end of my breast-cancer treatment.
I’ve tried to stop looking, but when I see a man on an elevator or at the gym, I can’t keep my eyes from darting to the ring finger of his left hand. My body tells me that it still wants to be with someone, to feel a man’s hairy legs and prickly beard against my skin, but my head isn’t so sure. After almost two years without a date, I don’t know if I’m willing to try again.
My husband and I stared at the ultrasound monitor in the corner of the examining room. Within the hazy image was a distorted outline in the shape of a bean.
“That’s your little brother,” my husband said to our one-year-old son.
“Or sister,” I interjected.
Our excitement soon turned to despair when the doctor couldn’t detect a heartbeat. Although we’d endured three miscarriages prior to the birth of our son, we couldn’t believe it was happening again.
At eight weeks there is no outward sign of the pregnancy, so it’s hard for others to understand the depth of the parents’ pain. As soon as I’d seen the two lines on the pregnancy test, I’d begun picturing a baby girl with the same wavy hair and bright eyes as her brother. I’d envisioned our son hugging his sister and helping me throw away her dirty diapers. The miscarriage was more than the death of a nameless, faceless embryo; it was the death of a child I had already pictured as a part of our family.
Two weeks later I said a quiet, tearful goodbye to our baby as a nurse wheeled me into the operating room. I’d decided to have a D and C rather than wait to miscarry naturally. That night someone asked how the procedure had gone. I told her I felt surprisingly well physically and was not in any pain.
“It’s good that you decided to do that,” she said. “Now you can move on and try again.”
I knew she meant well, but the implication was that the life we’d lost was easily replaceable. I didn’t bother to correct her assumption. I just changed the subject.
At eighteen I became infatuated with a hairdresser who worked in the same mall that I did. When I had a break at the grocery store, I would walk past her salon on my way to the doughnut shop, and every time I would look to see if she was working. Sometimes we’d make eye contact, and my heart would leap like a puppy. I felt sure that she had noticed me and looked up on purpose when I’d passed.
Though I was burning to meet this hairdresser, I was too terrified to introduce myself. One day, after finishing my shift, I set out with the intent to win her over. I passed the hardware store and the pet store and the cinema and the diner. The closer I got to the salon, the more difficult it became to breathe. I had no clear plan. What if she was cutting someone’s hair? Even if she wasn’t busy, could I just march into the salon and ask her on a date in front of her co-workers and customers? I felt the strong possibility that I might pass out.
So I did what I usually did: I walked by and glanced inside to see if she was there. She was, and our eyes met. This was surely a sign that I should act, but fear gripped me, and I continued on until I reached the glass exit doors of the mall. Because it was dark outside, I could see my reflection in them, and I could also see the hairdresser exit the salon behind me and enter the restaurant next door to it. This was my chance.
I turned around and walked back to the restaurant, my heart hammering as if there were renovations going on inside my rib cage. Through the window I saw her buying a drink to go. As she emerged, I approached and attempted to tell her that I’d seen her each time I’d walked by the salon, but adrenaline short-circuited my brain, and what came out didn’t even sound like English.
“What did you say?” she asked.
I made another attempt at speech, and somehow this time I got the words in the right order, but instead of blushing and telling me she’d been waiting for this moment, she looked baffled. “I’ve never seen you before in my life,” she said.
The hammering in my chest ceased. Resisting the urge to sprint away, I sputtered an apology and turned to leave.
I looked back. The pity in her expression was worse than bafflement, or even contempt. It was a knife to the heart for this romantic adventurer.
“It’s OK,” I said, and I walked away, feeling her pitying eyes watch me go.
That was more than twenty years ago. Never again have I been able to introduce myself to an attractive stranger, but I’m starting to think it’s time I tried.
Vancouver, British Columbia
I walk into my high-school language-arts class feeling excited because we’re going to get our grades on the stories we turned in last week. Mine is about a teenage boy with an abusive stepfather. The boy finds a magic guitar and becomes a famous musician and never sees his cruel stepfather again. The bell rings, and the teacher stands up from his desk.
“I am going to share with all of you the worst story that I have ever had the unfortunate task of reading,” he says.
As he starts to read, I realize the story is mine. I look down at my desk, hoping I don’t start crying, and think of a day when I was nine years old:
When I got home from school, my stepdad’s truck was there; it must have been his day off. I walked into the smoke-filled living room, where my mom sat in one recliner and my stepdad sat in the other, wearing his steelworker’s uniform: flannel shirt, Levi’s, steel-toed boots. He was holding his usual day-off drink, a Jim Beam with a splash of Coke. (On workdays he drank vodka.) Laughing at the television, he ordered my mom to get him another.
I followed her to the kitchen, where I told her about my day. Our teacher had asked what we all wanted to be when we grew up, and I’d said I was going to be a teacher.
My stepdad was standing in the doorway with a smirk on his face. “You’re too stupid to be a teacher,” he said. His words stung more than any of the bruises he’d given me.
My high-school English teacher finishes reading my story. He never says whose paper it is, so nobody else knows it’s mine. When class is over, I leave school and never go back.
That was twenty-five years ago. I have often wondered what my teacher was thinking that day. Was he trying to motivate me with embarrassment? Had my story hit a nerve with him? I’ll never know.
As for my stepdad, my mother divorced him when I was eighteen. He apologized to me a couple of years ago for the way he’d raised me, and I forgave him. He told me those cruel words he’d said to me were the kind he’d heard from his mom. He had wanted to be a car designer and had even been offered a scholarship from the Ford Motor Company, but he’d been too scared — or scarred — to accept it.
Now I’m returning to school at forty-one. Today is my first English class as an adult student. When I enter the classroom and look around at all the young faces, my fear gets the better of me. What am I doing here? Then I remember: I’m here because I want to become a teacher. I take a seat in the front of the class. I’m going to believe in my students so that all of them will have at least one person in their lives who does.
While on summer vacation in Montreal, Canada, my partner, Michael, and I walk down a cobblestone street in the Old City. With its quaint brick buildings and horse-drawn carriages the area is reminiscent of another century. Well past middle age, Michael and I have our own histories: punishing childhoods, failed marriages, dead-end relationships.
We are arguing as we walk. Michael accuses me of hiding the severity of my leg injury from him. (An old joint problem has reasserted itself, making it difficult for me to get around on foot.) “You’re ruining our vacation!” he shouts. “We could have canceled and rescheduled.” He says that I am just like his father: never quite telling the truth about anything.
The anger in his voice reminds me of my own father’s tone. His intolerance recalls my deceased mother. “You’re mean and inconsiderate!” I snap back.
We maintain an icy silence on the train ride back to New York. Try as I may, I can think of nothing that will keep this relationship afloat, and finally I tell him so. Michael agrees that we are no longer a good match; we only disappoint each other. I take a deep breath, feeling a combination of relief and panic. “Should we break up?”
His mouth is a stubborn line. “No, let’s try again.”
In the weeks and months that follow I teach myself to keep quiet when Michael makes a mistake. I learn not to contradict him or to take his suggestions as criticisms. I try not to let his impatience raise the ghosts of my parents. He extends similar courtesies to me. It is hard work. When Hurricane Sandy deprives us of heat and water, we turn on each other, forgetting our new equilibrium. Yet we regain it.
Spring is here. We walk along the Hudson River holding hands. Trying again has become our way of life.
I take a seat on the cold bottom step in the basement laundry room, the bowl of dog food behind me. Bhumi stares up expectantly, but I do nothing yet. I’m waiting for us both to relax.
I’ve been employing a new training technique for this anxious rescue dog, who typically dives into her food bowl as if it contained the last morsels on earth. I’ve started presenting her kibble to her in increments, with pauses in between. I place the bowl in front of her and let her gobble from it, then pull it away and wait until she shows some measure of ease. When she does, I reward that with another portion of food.
I share Bhumi’s propensity for nervousness. In my early twenties I was diagnosed with anxiety and panic disorders. I’m constantly on edge, hypervigilant, self-protective. I don’t believe it’s safe to let my guard down.
These mealtime training sessions have become a sort of meditation for me. As I wait for Bhumi’s nervous twitching to subside, I watch my breath, relax the tension in my body, and resist the siren songs of my habitual thought patterns. Meanwhile Bhumi moves with a sigh from standing to lying down to almost placing her head on the floor. Each time her head starts to lower, however, she realizes what’s happening and snaps back to attention, and I snap back to my normal state of brittle agitation.
The alarm on my watch beeps: time to take my shower and start my morning. I give Bhumi the rest of her food and rise from the steps. We will go about our fraught days and try again at dinnertime, both of us.
The man was my age but looked many years older. He was an Army veteran. He was also homeless, cold, and hungry. I could see that he had tried to wash up before coming to the Social Services Department to ask for help: his face and hands were clean, but his clothes were filthy. And though he claimed not to have had any alcohol that day, the smell of it seeped from his pores.
I wanted to get him into rehab, and I asked if he was ready to come in off the streets.
“No, ma’am,” he said. “All I’d like is a few dollars and some bus tickets. If I can get sober enough, they’ll let me into the shelter across town.”
That shelter had fifty beds — cots, really. The homeless were admitted at night and forced out at dawn to eat breakfast at a nearby charity. Fifty beds and nearly a thousand homeless in the city.
Winter here in Northern California means cold rain and mud. Even though this man and many like him slept under bridges to keep dry, the dampness penetrated everything. His clothes and the bedroll he’d placed on the floor smelled moldy. The pages of a book he carried were swollen.
I asked how many times he’d tried rehab.
Two or three, a long time ago, he said.
“Maybe it’s time to try again.” I explained that I had a client who had gone through the program seven times before it took. “Besides,” I said, “we’re months away from warm weather. What else have you got going on?”
I watched his face as he considered my offer. I thought I saw a flicker of hope in his eyes, followed by a shadow of doubt. He’d tried before. It had been hard, impossibly hard. But so was living on the streets.
Finally he lifted his head and looked at me.
I reached for the phone. “Shall I?” I asked.
He barely nodded yes.
An hour later I handed him over to a recovering alcoholic, also a veteran, who would drive him to one of the best rehabilitation facilities in the county.
“Come visit me when you graduate,” I said as they left.
I barely recognized the man when he came into my office six months later, so tall and handsome, smelling like the outdoors, and holding a huge bouquet of flowers.
Santa Rosa, California
On our first date D. told me he was interested only in women who were unavailable: married women, lesbians, women who were about to leave the country. I laughed. I was five months pregnant and single. “I couldn’t possibly be more available,” I told him. We agreed to be just friends, and for a while it seemed to work. When my mother came to visit, D. invited us all over for dinner. When my daughter was born, he bought her pink overalls and baby-sat for me.
That summer D. invited us to an outdoor music festival. The sun was shining. The music was great. D. pushed the baby stroller through the crowd like a proud father, and I felt as if we were a family. But each time D. ran into someone he knew, he introduced my daughter first. “This is B.,” he would say, “and this is B.’s mother.”
Then he disappeared for months. One day I ran into him at the health-food store. We sat on the floor in the produce department, and I told him how angry I was. He asked if we could try again.
I agreed, but this time I decided to pursue him. If he didn’t answer my calls, I showed up at his door. I surprised him with a kiss. After we made love for the first time, I bought roses and baked cakes for him. On Valentine’s Day I wrote a letter professing my love and delivered it to his house. I waited anxiously for him to respond, thinking this might be the end of our friendship. Finally he called and asked, “Can I come over?”
We have been together ever since.
I had a bachelor of arts from Brown University but couldn’t find work. I’d been writing but couldn’t get published. Lately I was tired of trying. So I decided to kill myself.
I left my mother’s house in a pouring rain and walked to the bridge. This was it, I thought. I had to do it. But as I approached the railing to jump, I heard someone call my name. I turned and saw an old friend in his car. He’d come looking for me.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I lied.
And he took me home.
I later attempted suicide two more times but survived, the second time with a crushed left heel.
Still stuck at my mother’s house and now handicapped, too, I gave writing another try. I wrote a memoir, and an agent took it on. My mom got me Social Security benefits, and I found a subsidized apartment. I shopped, cooked, and cleaned for the first time in ages. I put thoughts of suicide behind me and accepted each day on its own terms.
A woman who worked for the local Catholic archdiocese had befriended me while I was suicidal, and now she invited me to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Although I hadn’t socialized in years, I put on some good clothes and joined her. After that I asked her out to dinner — nonromantically — and we ate at a Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant. I was feeling like a person again.
But I tried too hard. I wrote this woman more or less daily for a year and a half. I stalked and harassed her. Finally she had me arrested. I pleaded guilty, spent sixteen months in jail, and did five years’ probation. I lost my apartment and had to return to my mom’s.
Still I got up again. I started treatment for my mental illness. I obtained housing and resumed my efforts to live a normal life. I found a job, and when it lasted less than a year, I found another. I took master’s-degree courses. I wrote two short novels that I haven’t submitted anywhere. I’m currently working on a poetry manuscript that’s more than two hundred pages long. I’m struggling to stay stable. I may not have come far, but I’m trying.
“Let’s try one more time,” my mother said to me. I’d made only a couple of mistakes, she pointed out. Maybe I wouldn’t make any this next time. Wouldn’t that feel good?
Night after night she and I sat at the long table in our family room with my schoolwork. I couldn’t read or write nearly as well as my fourth-grade classmates. My teacher had told my parents they should just accept that I wasn’t very bright, but my mother didn’t believe him. Now she prepared to read to me one more time the short dictation exercise I had brought home from school.
I looked in dismay at the pieces of paper covered with my handwriting and my mother’s corrections in red. “I’ve already written it five times,” I said. I assured her I’d do fine at school the next day. Couldn’t I just go listen to the radio? I hated these dictation sessions and hated her for insisting on them.
“You can do better than this if you try hard enough,” she said. “I know it.” She began to read slowly again, and reluctantly I picked up the pencil and wrote. When we were done, I checked my work and then slid the paper across the table to her. She looked at it, and her smile disappeared. I’d made more mistakes than the last time! She said I just hadn’t put enough effort into it.
But I had put all my effort into it. I threw the pencil across the table and yelled at her and ran off.
It went on like this for years. Unable to believe that I was stupid, my mother concluded that I was lazy instead. She eventually lost trust in me.
My dyslexia wasn’t diagnosed until I was in sixth grade. A neurologically based difficulty with reading and spelling, the disorder was not well-known in 1962. My mother found a tutor who helped me to read and write properly despite the aversion I had developed toward schoolwork, but the broken bond with my mother was a disability I would never overcome.
The week after high-school graduation I packed my car and headed for LA to become a movie star. It proved to be more difficult than I’d imagined. Acting roles weren’t plentiful, and paying ones were almost impossible to come by.
My first show-business job was “costumer’s assistant” for a burlesque show: I stood offstage, and when the sweaty dancers exited, I helped them change out of their sequined, feathered costumes, which were held on with Velcro, and into new ones for the next act. For the finale I spread gold body paint all over the lead dancer, which required her to bend over so I could apply it between her butt cheeks. I dreamed of being the one onstage, but with my A-cup bra size and mouth full of braces, I was an unlikely candidate.
Next I landed a job as a tour guide for a motion-picture studio. At least now I’d be in front of the audience. For minimum wage I endured the scorching heat in a polyester uniform, reciting Hollywood history to tourists, many of whom were from Japan and couldn’t understand a word I said, though they occasionally asked me to pose with them for photos.
After that I talked my way into a full-time job answering phones in a television-production office. The building was air-conditioned, and the pay was better, so I chose to view it as a step up. I was sure a producer would recognize my talent, but the only time producers noticed me was when I accidentally disconnected an important caller.
By my late twenties I’d found a decent-paying position in postproduction, scheduling the use of editing rooms and video equipment. The job put me face to face with real industry bigwigs, but my clients were mostly over budget, behind schedule, and short-tempered. Instead of recognizing my star potential, they saw me as another obstacle keeping them from finishing their films.
Finally, at the age of thirty, I landed my first bona fide acting gig. Disney was casting for an extravagant Christmas musical to be produced at a theater on Hollywood Boulevard. I was chosen out of hundreds of actors who’d auditioned for one of five roles as Santa’s elves.
Backstage during dress rehearsal the lead elf whispered to me, “I can’t believe our luck! This is the best pay I’ve made all year, and it’s not even union.”
“Luck?” I said. “We’re talented actors. Luck has nothing to do with it.”
He told me I shouldn’t kid myself. The main requirement for the job was to be under five feet four inches tall. Another quarter inch, and they wouldn’t have cast me.
A few weeks later my professional acting career was cut short when the show closed early. The day after Christmas I sat in the unemployment office. When my name was called, I stepped up to the counter, and the clerk asked my profession.
“Actor,” I answered.
© Roger Pfingston
A couple of years ago I made a rookie counseling mistake: when a family member, David, asked my professional opinion about his partner, Marie, I told him in an e-mail that he should end the relationship. Marie read the e-mail without David’s knowledge. Enraged, she told him I was the crazy one, and she wanted nothing more to do with me. I could imagine the deep hurt underlying Marie’s anger, and I felt guilty for wounding her. I wanted to apologize, but David said it would only make things worse, so I held off.
Months went by. Their relationship continued to be volatile, making it hard to find a good time to apologize. Finally I composed a letter addressed to both of them. I waited a week to send it, rereading it each day, and I said a prayer before dropping it in the mailbox.
At first there was no response. Then David thanked me for writing and said Marie was working on a reply. Three months later it arrived: a seven-page e-mail making it clear my apology was neither welcome nor accepted. I responded that I would not continue to seek a relationship, because I didn’t want to keep hurting her, but that my door would always remain open. David said my reply only angered her more.
My relationship with David means a great deal to me, and my estrangement from Marie has kept me from seeing him and their children for a year and a half. I’ve talked with close friends and my therapist about the situation, and they all tell me I’ve done everything I can and that I need to stop carrying the guilt I feel over my initial mistake. I move back and forth between letting it go and thinking that I should try just one more time.
Knitting clothes by hand is expensive. The cost of the yarn can range from three to twenty times what you’d pay for the same garment in a store. Knitting is time-consuming, too: making a scarf, hat, or sweater can take dozens, even hundreds, of hours. Which is why I stopped knitting for my husband — that and the fact that after ten years of marriage we’d grown to hate each other.
I blamed him for our childless status; he blamed me for his lackluster career. Every time I knitted him an item he’d requested to get him through another six-month northern winter — an earflap hat, a pair of felted wool mittens, boot socks — he’d raise his eyebrows and declare it “too big,” “too tight,” or “too froofy.” Or he’d wear it once and “forget” that expensive Italian wool can’t be washed in hot water.
We finally had a daughter, and we moved to a subtropical backwater so we could afford for me to stay home with the baby. Things should have been great, but the stress of the birth, the radical downsizing, the cross-country move, the culture shock, and the isolation had reduced our communication to monosyllabic grunts. I worried the marriage was ending, and sometimes he went so far as to pack his bags.
One day my husband — in a rare attempt at pleasant conversation — gestured toward some fancy Japanese wool on the sofa and said, “I wouldn’t mind a hoodie made out of that.”
I shrugged and changed the subject. A sweater’s worth of that yarn would have cost more than $250 — an unthinkable expense on our new austerity budget.
I don’t know why I began knitting that hoodie. In the warm climate he’d never have a chance to wear it. Maybe I did it because knitting a few stitches here and there in between feedings and diaper changes was my sole recreation. Unable to afford all the yarn at once, I waited until I ran out to order more. I also found ways to shave pennies elsewhere in our budget.
On Christmas Day I handed my husband the package without fanfare, expecting the usual response. As he lifted up the sweater, he looked me in the eye, cleared his throat, and said, “It’s perfect.”
That was seven years ago. I hate to think how much time we wasted behaving like each other’s worst enemies.
I took a yoga class in my senior year in college because I needed a phys-ed credit to graduate, and it seemed like a way to fulfill the requirement and catch up on sleep at the same time. The class met in an upstairs room at the college athletic center. The other students and I worked hard to keep straight faces as the instructor lit her candles and tried to get a bunch of self-absorbed college kids to take this ancient practice seriously. When she led us in chants, we dissolved into fits of laughter. At the end of class, as we lay in meditative silence, I dozed, sleeping off late-night parties and cram sessions.
Almost twenty years later, as a stay-at-home mother, I was nursing a bad lower back that would go into painful spasms as I pushed my children on the swings. A neighbor recommended yoga and mentioned a studio in town. I signed up for a beginner class that met two mornings a week. Here we go again, I thought. More chanting and candles.
But this was “power yoga,” taught in a humid, dark room heated to ninety-six degrees. My muscles shook, and sweat poured off my face as I wobbled in precarious poses. I wasn’t smirking; I wasn’t dozing. My back pain retreated, and I even walked a little taller. But something else happened: I learned how to quiet the incessant chatter of self-doubt in my head.
I now understand why yoga is called a “practice.” We don’t get it right all the time. Some days I can’t maintain my balance. Some days I bark impatiently at my children. Yet each failure can also be an opportunity to try again. After four years I still faithfully roll out my mat in that dark room a few times a week. To end each class we lie in Savasana, or “corpse pose,” and then roll into a fetal position, signifying rebirth.
My adult daughter has flawless white skin, red hair, and hazel eyes. At her father’s funeral she was the picture of an Irish lass, wearing a floor-length skirt and cable-knit sweater with her long hair flowing down her back.
Two weeks later she had a massive stroke at the age of twenty-eight. A neurosurgeon operated to save her life, but my daughter awoke unable to speak or move on her right side. We had to remind her that her father had died and that she’d delivered a baby boy a month earlier. We were told she would never speak again, never walk; that she would be a “passive observer” in life. We refused to accept this.
At a rehabilitation center in Boston her days were filled with demands: “Try to take a breath.” “Try to say, ‘Ahhh.’ ” “Can you bend your right knee?” I remember the first time she walked the length of the hallway. We stood at the end cheering her on.
When she came home after four months, she could speak only one word and could not use her right arm, but she threw away her cane. She was able to get around her house and to help care for the baby. I worked with her every morning, teaching her to read again with children’s books.
Today my daughter is still unable to use her right arm and is essentially blind in her right eye, but she works; she raises her son; she cooks, gardens, and rides a tricycle around town; she shops and uses her computer and balances her checkbook. Her son is fourteen and taller than she is. Her husband left her six years ago. He told my daughter that she was not trying hard enough and had “no goals.”
A year ago my daughter discovered she had a rare bladder cancer. She had surgery to excise the tumor, then four months of chemotherapy, followed by another surgery to fully remove her bladder and build a new one from her colon. She recovered. She even learned to self-catheterize the bladder with one hand, every three hours. She smiles and gets through it all with laughter.
There’s only one problem we haven’t overcome: my daughter has been unable to meet a new life partner. She has tried several online dating services and always says in her profile that she has had a stroke. But her speech is sometimes convoluted, and her syntax gets mixed up, and once men realize this, they stop corresponding with her.
I try to tell her that she needs a man with compassion. A simple, loving man with nothing to prove. Someone who understands about infirmity and physical challenges. But she’s a stubborn Irish girl and reaches out only to the men who are handsome, successful, adventurous. She wants the kind of man she’s always found attractive. She wants a man like her ex-husband.
My husband and I moved to the shores of Lake Victoria in Africa to help open a community-development and health center. The work was hard — obtaining government approval, building the structures, and hiring and training local staff — but it was trivial in comparison to learning the local dialect and grasping the magnitude of the differences between our cultures.
For example, food. Every meal it was the same: fresh fish from the lake and locally grown beans and vegetables. Our occasional shipments of canned foods and spices were a curiosity to the locals. While we cooked our imported fare, our friends enjoyed fish stew, collard greens, and a doughy bread made from cassava root night after night.
One “exotic” dish we made was whole-wheat pasta covered with a sauce I concocted out of tomato paste and water. (I did not bother with any spices.) After a few months we invited our African friends to sample our “spaghetti.”
We all took a bite, and after a few minutes I asked one guest, “How is it?”
Pausing to swallow, he gave a slight smile and respectfully answered, “Try again.”
I took him in when he was fourteen. He’d already been in foster care in Illinois for eighteen months by then. His mom, a distant relation of mine, had hooked up with a crack addict, dumped her husband, and gotten evicted from her home. The mother’s boyfriend would take the kid on 3 AM drug runs and taught him how to steal items from K-Mart and then return them for cash. One time the boyfriend kicked him out of the motel room where they were staying, saying, “Don’t come back till you bring me some money.” The boy was living on the streets when he was picked up by Child Protective Services.
I learned all of this later, after I took him in. All I knew at first was what they’d told me in foster-parenting classes: that it would be a challenge, that I could make a difference (maybe), and that the monthly stipend wouldn’t be enough.
When he was sixteen, he called his social worker in a fit of anger and told her he didn’t want to live with me anymore. So they let him come back to Illinois. He left thinking he was going back to a foster home filled with old friends, video games, and good times. After a couple of months I visited him in the lockdown residential-treatment facility where they’d placed him. That’s when I began the process of becoming his legal guardian.
When he was eighteen, I officially adopted him. I kicked him out a few months later because he’d used drugs in my house, but I gave him another chance. I kicked him out yet again after he came home high and put a dent in my car with his foot.
I let him back in one more time because he was doing well and taking classes at the junior college. He gave me money toward household expenses for two months, then stopped. When I suggested he get a job, he became a motorcycle courier for an online medical-marijuana dispensary, and my basement became a warehouse for the “product.” The third time I asked him to leave, he wouldn’t. Because I had called his contribution to the household expenses “rent,” he had tenant’s rights, he said. I had to evict him. After I began the process, he left.
I’ve seen him only once in the past two years. He won’t talk to me and gets angry when I attempt to contact him. I am a “failure as a mother,” he says. I still wonder how he is. I consider trying again.
My wife picked me up at the airport upon my return from a five-city, ten-day business trip. As we headed home, she announced, “I’m getting a divorce.” Just like that. I’m getting a divorce. We’d been married for sixteen years, had two daughters, and lived comfortably, but she wanted more.
And so she left. The girls, thirteen and nine, joined me in keeping house as best we could, their mother having moved just about as far away as possible. My own parents had divorced, and I’d vowed never to raise my children in a broken home. Now I’d failed to keep that vow.
Then I met Clare, who was twenty years my junior. Our backgrounds were as different as I could imagine. Impossible, I told myself. It would never work. I was old enough to be her father. Besides, I was a failure at making a family.
Thirty-three years later, Clare and I continue to grow together. She claims that if I ever leave, she’s going with me.
My mother says the doctors have found a mass on her lungs. As usual, the information she’s willing to provide is spotty. She revels in minor details when they don’t matter, then withholds them when they do. I can hear her fear over the phone as she asks to talk to my husband instead of me.
She tells him that she wanted to look her best for the trip to the hospital tomorrow, so she tried to cut her own hair, but she made a mess of it. Could he come over and fix it? She pretends this is the real purpose of her call. I listen to his side of the conversation, my stomach slowly dropping. When he hangs up and tells me what I’ve missed, I want to pound my fists on the floor. I’m so angry with her — not for being sick, but for treating me as if I were still seven and would believe that my canary had flown away to live in the trees and hadn’t been eaten by the cat.
Then I calm down and realize she’s frightened. She needs someone to tell her it will be OK. I call her back and say, in a voice I hardly recognize as my own, that we will all be coming over, the children included, and I will fix her hair.
At my mother’s house everyone is more animated than usual, talking and laughing. I wonder what sort of friendly spirit has taken over my body. This is not like me, especially at my mother’s house, where I generally sit quietly and wait for her to start acting like a parent. (She never does.)
She sits on the stool in the kitchen, ready for me to begin. I know nothing about cutting hair, and the intimacy of touching my mother’s feels peculiar. In recent years we’ve exchanged only quick hugs and pecks.
Her hair is thick and coarse and shot through with gray. I fight back a rising panic. I want her to take charge, to tell me how to do this: how to cut hair, be a grown-up, watch her age, let her die. I start to snip and feel locks of her hair falling onto my toes. I shouldn’t have worn sandals.
And then it’s done. Her hair is fixed, but her eyes still look like she wants something more. Is there something I’ve forgotten to do, something I’ve missed? She doesn’t say. Maybe it’s all right. There’s always next time. Isn’t there?