The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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In the early 1990s B. and I were both thirteen years old and in love. Because she was African American and I was white, our classmates would stare at and taunt us when we walked down the hallways at school holding hands. One time I called B.’s house, and her brother answered the phone and said she wasn’t allowed to date “crackers,” and I shouldn’t call again. When I saw B. the next day, she cried and said she still wanted to be with me; we would just have to keep our relationship a secret.
One night B. told her parents she was going to the skating rink with her friends, and then she met me at a local park instead. We were kissing next to a slide when her nineteen-year-old brother and his friends happened to see us. B. told me to run, but I stood my ground as the older boys approached. One of them punched me, and soon I was on the ground, being kicked from several directions as B. shouted for them to stop.
The next day B. called and said her mother wanted to meet me. I was afraid of B.’s family, but I cared more about our relationship, so I went to B.’s house. Her mother offered me a glass of sweet tea and asked B. to leave so we could chat.
She seemed weary. She apologized for the beating but admitted that she had told her son to keep me away from B.. In her experience, she said, no good ever came to black women who dated white men. But B. was determined to see me, and if she couldn’t stop us, she would rather her daughter not sneak around. So we had her blessing.
B. and I dated for a few more years. During our time together she taught me the importance of standing up for what you believe is right and fighting injustice, no matter who is responsible for it.
Twenty years later we’re still close friends, and she continues to inspire me. In fact, I spoke with her a few days ago, while she was on her way to protest the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. I can still hear the willfulness of that thirteen-year-old girl in her voice as she says no to another injustice.
Columbia, South Carolina
When I started teaching English in a Chicago high school in the 1960s, I was also in charge of the senior drama class, which put on a musical comedy each semester. I was trained in theater arts, but musicals were not my strong suit.
For our first production a group of female students persuaded me to do Oliver!, the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist. Casting was easy except for the title role. The boys in the class all looked too mature, so I narrowed it down to two petite girls: Judy and Jennifer. Apparently confident that she would be cast, Judy got herself a boyish haircut. She looked the part, but she could be feisty and adversarial, so I chose Jennifer.
Judy was livid and let me know it by refusing to play any part I offered. She sat in the back of the classroom, ignoring me and doing homework for other classes.
The production was a success. I gave all the students involved an A, but since Judy had done nothing, I failed her.
The next day I was called to the principal’s office for a conference with Judy’s outraged parents. They tried to convince me that it was unconscionable to prevent their smart, capable daughter from graduating with her class and going on to college, but I refused to give her a passing grade. I don’t know what became of Judy. I never saw her again.
I have never forgiven myself for not ensuring that Judy participated in the class, and for not making the consequences of her actions clear to her. I’ve rationalized many times that she might have learned an important lesson from failing and even become a better person because of it. But all I know for sure is that, although I regret her behavior during that time, I regret mine even more.
Forest Knolls, California
One summer, when I was between teaching positions in the city, I took a job waitressing at a popular brewpub in a small tourist town. That’s where I met Donny, a local. As I delivered food and pitchers of beer to customers, I could feel him watching me from where he sat with a group of friends. I couldn’t resist glancing his way, and each time I did, he was staring at me with those intense blue eyes.
A co-worker warned me that Donny had a reputation as a hothead who had hurt his past girlfriends, but I dismissed it as gossip. When Donny asked me to meet him the next night, I agreed. We hung out at a bar, and I drank way too much. I ended up going home with him.
We went out to dinner the next day. I figured there was no harm in having a summer fling since I’d be leaving town in a few weeks. Then Donny invited me to a family event and offered to buy me a new dress for the occasion. I should have refused, but I didn’t. When it was time for me to move back to the city, Donny cried and told me he loved me and promised to visit every weekend. I should have ended it right there, but I felt sorry for him.
A few months later he proposed. I wasn’t in love with Donny, but I couldn’t say no. He seemed to need me, and I didn’t want to hurt him. Not long after I said yes, we had a huge fight, and Donny shoved me around. I’d never seen him so angry. Frightened, I took off the engagement ring and told him I wouldn’t marry him. The next day he pleaded for forgiveness and begged me not to leave him. I should have walked away, but I thought maybe I could help him. I went through with the wedding.
When I found out I was pregnant, I knew right away that I didn’t want to have the child, because it would bond me permanently with Donny. I sat in the bathtub, crying and praying for a miscarriage.
That marriage is long over, and my daughter is now a beautiful, intelligent, compassionate young woman. So many lives are the better because of her — including her dad’s. Sometimes I think she’s the reason I didn’t say no to Donny.
As a college freshman I maintained straight A’s but was sometimes reckless in my social life. One night I went to a frat party, where fraternity brothers shouted encouragement for underage women to take shots of liquor. The friends I was with disappeared into other parts of the gigantic house. I was dancing drunkenly in a crowd of students when Mark, the fraternity president, began to focus his attention on me.
I hadn’t felt attractive in high school, but in college I was finally learning what it was like to be desired. When Mark asked if I’d prefer to go someplace private with him, I nodded.
Once we were behind the closed door of Mark’s bedroom, though, he stopped being charming and grew aggressive. I screamed, “No!” repeatedly, but no one heard me over the booming music. I was sexually assaulted.
Afterward I left Mark’s room and managed to find one of my dorm-mates at the party. She saw the look on my face and asked what had happened. “Nothing,” I lied. Unconvinced, she brought me to the emergency room. A nurse and a person from the Rape Crisis Center asked me some questions that, despite the women’s kindness, made me feel worse. A female police officer arrived and asked if I’d been raped. “No,” I answered.
For many years I believed I had led Mark on and was largely responsible for the assault. But now I understand: the no that I yelled at Mark was heartbreaking, but the second no — the one I spoke to the police officer — damaged my psyche even more.
My father had bone cancer, and my siblings and I knew this would be the last time we checked him into the hospital. We took shifts staying with him. His bones were brittle, and he lived in constant fear of choking.
One evening when I was with him, an aide arrived and asked that I step out of the room. As I waited outside the door, I could hear her lowering the bed and my father saying he was in pain and pleading with her not to bathe him. In a matter-of-fact tone she tried to reassure him. I wanted to go in and tell her to stop, but I’d been raised in a strict Catholic household and taught to obey authority. She was the expert. After she left, my father trembled for a long time, and I cursed myself for not having stepped in.
Ten years later I brought my six-month-old to the emergency room because he had a respiratory virus and was having trouble breathing. After a doctor examined him and left, a nurse appeared with a syringe containing 10 cc of steroids. The dosage seemed awfully high for my son’s age and size (he’d been born premature), so I asked that she double-check with the doctor. The nurse said she was certain this was the correct dosage and moved toward my son. Remembering the experience at my father’s deathbed, I took hold of her arm and said, “No. I want you to go back to the doctor and make sure that’s the right amount.”
When she returned, her face had lost its color. The syringe had held ten times the dosage the doctor had prescribed, which could have induced cardiac arrest, even death.
Overland Park, Kansas
I was raised by Depression-era parents in the 1950s. My father worked in a factory, and my mother was a homemaker. They didn’t have much money, but they still paid my brother and me a weekly allowance for doing chores and sometimes included cash with our birthday and Christmas gifts.
On Friday nights our family would drive downtown to shop at the five-and-dime or the local toy store. Sometimes I would see a toy or game I wanted to buy with the money I’d saved, but my dad would say, “Let’s wait, and if you still want it next week, you can get it then.” After a few days my interest usually would wane, but if not, my dad would keep his promise and take me back to the store to buy the coveted item.
Even after sixty years I find myself hesitating to make major purchases, asking, Will I still want this next week? I make myself wait three days before buying anything for more than a hundred dollars. It reduces the likelihood of buyer’s remorse and helps me to live comfortably on a modest income. I appreciate that my dad didn’t say no to my impulses, but rather, “Not right now.”
Murrells Inlet, South Carolina
After my daughter Rachel was killed by a drunk driver, I was murderously angry. Every detail of the incident only increased my rage: The drunk driver was a former emergency medical technician. She had been out drinking with her police-officer boyfriend, who had failed to stop her from driving. While Rachel lay dying, the driver lied to authorities, saying Rachel was at fault for the crash. Afterward the drunk driver posted crude photos and obscenities online that evinced no remorse.
The law required that the coroner lay my daughter’s naked body on a cold metal table and cut her open to perform an autopsy. I imagined doing the same to the woman who’d killed her — only while she was alive. I fantasized macabre scenarios in which the woman would die a slow death. I found her house on Google Maps and looked at it from several angles, familiarizing myself with the surroundings.
Predictably the drunk driver was playing the legal system, trying to squirm out of taking responsibility for her crimes. I would show the world how to do it right: I’d commit murder, confess my guilt, and accept the consequences.
Of course I didn’t go through with my fantasies. My wife and son were grieving and needed me to help them survive the ordeal. And, however temporarily satisfying it might have been, murdering Rachel’s killer wouldn’t have brought Rachel back and would only have compounded my problems. I decided to let justice take its course in the courts.
After a lengthy investigation the woman was charged with second-degree murder. Free on bail, she fled. A year later she was located in Mexico and returned to the U.S. to stand trial.
Before the proceedings began, her defense attorney wanted to negotiate a plea bargain. For Rachel’s sake, and for the sake of potential future victims, my wife and I were opposed to any plea deal. We wanted the case to go to trial — and for this woman to be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
The jury found her guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter, and the judge handed down the maximum sentence for the crime: ten years in prison.
Four years have passed. The woman who killed Rachel is still incarcerated but will probably be released soon. I continue to think we were right to refuse to compromise with her attorney, but I also recognize that what happened was a tragedy not only for us but for the woman who was convicted and her family. As a Christian, I wonder what role forgiveness should play in all of this and, in the end, how much “justice” is really just revenge.
One snowy evening when I was eighteen, I worked late at my job as a social-work aide and caught the last city bus home. I was the lone passenger, and the driver offered to take me to my front door. So I gave him my address. About a block from my house he pulled to the curb, sat down beside me, and kissed me hard on the mouth. Without a word he went back to the driver’s seat and took me home.
Things like this happened to me a lot. Once, I was taking a walk on a summer day when I noticed a man on his porch playing a guitar. Before the sun had gone down, I had slept with him — and his roommate. That experience, although pleasurable, left me feeling guilty and conflicted. I also had many that bordered on assault — like the time I was hitchhiking cross-country and fell asleep in a guy’s van. When I woke up, we had left the highway. He drove to a secluded spot, where he had sex with me. Afterward I wandered in a dark field naked and crying.
For a while I lived in a commune. One man there had such curly hair and thick whiskers that everyone called him “Dog.” Dog lived on the front porch. He never bathed, spoke, or came in the house. He just sat on the porch like a sphinx day after day. When we put food out for him, he’d stuff it into his mouth and then lick his greasy fingers. He was probably mentally ill. I paused to greet Dog one day, touching his arm lightly, and he broke his silence long enough to ask if I wouldn’t mind giving him a blow job. Accustomed to mercy sex, I kindly obliged.
Maybe it was my father’s absence — he left when I was seven — that fueled my unhealthy attachment to men. More than the sex, I craved their attention and affection. I projected vulnerability and lacked the will to refuse them. Sex was the spell I cast to capture men, but beneath it all I was terrified of abandonment. It would be years before I began to realize that I couldn’t really say yes until I could say no.
Saying no to authority figures was never my strength. Then, two years ago, my husband’s recovery from open-heart surgery took a bad turn: he hemorrhaged, and the surgeon reopened his chest to massage his heart. After thirteen hours of anesthesia my husband arrived in the ICU in a state of delirium, unable to recognize or respond to anyone. The doctors regarded his condition with curiosity and dismay — which was disconcerting, to say the least.
The next morning a group of physicians examined him. They didn’t look at me and didn’t want to answer my questions about the delirium, which by then I’d researched.
“Are you in the medical field?” the ICU director asked.
No, I said, I was a sixty-four-year-old clinical social worker who had over forty years’ experience in and out of hospitals. And I was this man’s wife and held his power of attorney for healthcare.
After ten days with no change, the surgeon recommended sending my husband to a long-term-care facility.
“Over my dead body,” I said. I knew my husband would die languishing in that institutional setting.
I reached out to everyone I knew for help, and a doctor friend connected the surgeon with the critical-care neurologists in the system, who should have been called on day one. Their research gave me some hope, and after they changed my husband’s medications and routine, he slowly recovered.
During his recovery doctors continued to seem annoyed by my questions about lab results, my criticisms of their infection control (my husband’s chest wound became infected, which required three more surgeries), and my resistance to their treatment recommendations, which conflicted with the neurologists’.
I realized that I’d lost my fear of saying no to my “betters,” because my husband’s life was at stake.
After seven and a half weeks in the ICU, my husband was scheduled to be discharged in a few days when a new group of doctors came by on their rounds. I got up from my chair and stepped into their circle.
“Are you joining us?” the attending physician asked. He was not happy.
“Yes,” I said. “Of course I am.”
Carol Coven Grannick
In the summer of 1969 I was a rising senior at a women’s Catholic college, and my longtime boyfriend was an Air Force pilot — a “fly boy,” my father called him. He returned from flight training in time for my twenty-first birthday, only to tell me he had become engaged to someone else. Betrayed and heartbroken, I soon met a gentle, long-haired guy on a weekend getaway to Cape Cod with my college roommate. I saw him frequently that fall, and in November I was horrified to learn that I was pregnant.
When I told my parents, they were upset but not angry. We all knew what was expected. This was the decade before Roe v. Wade, an era when the norm for unwed pregnant women was either to marry the father or to secretly give the child up for adoption. But every time I uttered the words “I plan to give up the baby,” I was numb. I had no idea what it would mean to relinquish my own flesh and blood.
My baby’s father kindly proposed marriage, but I didn’t want a husband I’d known just a few months. I said no. Then for three months I lived in a Catholic Charities residence with thirty other girls, fifty miles from home. The nurse, Sister Jean, was cleareyed and focused on her mission. She reminded us at every opportunity that if we had decided to surrender our baby, we should not hold it in our arms. “You hold it, you’re a goner” was her mantra. The girls all talked incessantly about whether or not they intended to hold their baby before being forced to give it up.
On the day my daughter was born, Sister Jean checked me into the hospital and left me to labor behind closed doors, utterly alone. The next morning I walked to the nursery to see my daughter. The nurse held her up, gesturing for me to come hold her. I pressed my hand against the window, shook my head, and walked away.
It took me years to realize that I had been made to deny one of the most elemental human desires: for a mother to embrace her newborn child. I left my daughter in the hospital, begging the doctor for a tranquilizer before leaving. He said no; I’d have to learn to live with what I’d done. Incapable of signing the final adoption papers on the spot, as was expected, I agreed to place my child in a foster home. I was sobbing as a nurse wheeled me through the lobby to my parents’ car, and I wept all the way home with my mother.
Many of the pregnant girls had parents who’d warned them, “If you keep that baby, you are never to return to this house.” But not my parents. They were bewildered and distraught as they witnessed my agony. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I only cried, often deep into the night.
Twice I went to the social-services agency to sign the final adoption papers and couldn’t do it. On the third visit the social worker asked if I was ever going to sign. My parents had said they would support whatever decision I made.
“No,” I said. “I’m not going to surrender.”
My daughter came home with me, and her grandparents gladly welcomed us. It’s been forty-five years since that day. I will always be grateful to them.
I smoked for twenty-eight years, from 1964 to 1992, not counting the butts I sneaked from Dad’s cluttered ashtray beginning in 1958. I quit twice, once for thirty-one days and again for just four days. In 1992 I was admitted to the hospital for respiratory failure and put on oxygen.
Back home I struggled daily against the urge to smoke: with each sunrise, each cup of coffee, each telephone call I wanted a cigarette. One night I dreamed that I was at a smoke-filled party where I was the only one smoking. I woke with a jolt and felt relieved that it had been just a dream.
Almost a year after I’d quit, I faced my biggest test: Once a month I cleaned my friend’s house while he was at work, and on that day he had left his cigarettes on the kitchen table. I felt exhilarated just seeing them. I took one from the pack, grabbed a lighter, and went to the back porch thinking I could have just a drag or two, and no one would ever know. But then I realized that I would know.
I recently celebrated my twenty-third year without a cigarette.
© Cris Ritchie
I was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and adopted by an American couple when I was eighteen months old. My new parents were taking me to Athens, Greece, where my Army-officer father was stationed. At the crowded airport I wandered away from my parents, and my mother didn’t find me until several minutes later, at a candy stall, where I’d gobbled a handful of chocolates. I grinned at her, she says, the lower half of my face a sticky brown mess.
It was the beginning of a lifetime of binge eating. Whenever I’m anxious, depressed, or even vaguely uncomfortable, I experience an overwhelming urge for sweets, sometimes gorging on them until I feel sick.
In my twenties and thirties, terrified of becoming fat, I began to purge after bingeing, making myself throw up or swallowing large amounts of laxatives. I went back and forth between being relatively slender and borderline obese for more than twenty years. I felt ashamed whenever I put on weight, and exhilarated whenever I slimmed down and men began paying me more attention. (I couldn’t say no to them any more than I could to sweets.)
Thanks to a couple of six-week stays at a treatment center in my forties, I was able to give up purging, but I continued eating whenever anxiety struck and gained nearly seventy pounds. I would lose that weight and gain it back repeatedly for the next two decades.
Five years ago I began seeing a therapist and taking antidepressants, a combination that has helped me stop bingeing, shed weight, and feel more grounded.
Seven months ago I returned to the small Midwestern city where my mother and I had lived with my grandparents for two years during the 1950s, while my dad was stationed in Korea. I hadn’t been back in more than forty years and was surprised to find that our wood-frame house was now home to a college sorority. One of the young women who lived there offered me a tour. As we moved through the rooms, I felt both nostalgia and growing anxiety that I did not want to acknowledge. When we climbed the curving wooden staircase and approached my old corner bedroom on the second floor, I couldn’t help recalling unpleasant memories I’d tried to forget long ago: The room across the hall had been rented by a male college student when I was five. For months he had come into my bedroom at night and sweet-talked me into doing whatever he wanted sexually. I hadn’t been able to say no — or even known that I should have.
After returning from the Midwest, I had bad dreams for several nights and began bingeing on cake from a local bakery. Since then, I haven’t been able to stop for more than a week or two. I’ve packed on thirty-five pounds. I hope I can find a way to stop bingeing again — and someday, perhaps, to be able to eat just one slice of cake without feeling shame.
In my freshman year of high school, some friends warned me that a nerdy girl was planning to ask me to the Tolo dance — a school event to which the girls invited the boys. The girls also paid for everything, including matching T-shirts.
I played football and ran track. In my young mind it was unacceptable for an athlete to associate with one of the brainy kids. Even though I thought this girl was pretty in a plain way, I worried what others would think. So I avoided her, averting my eyes and keeping my distance.
One day I was standing in the courtyard, waiting for the bell to ring, when a friend looked over my shoulder and said, “Don’t turn around. She’s walking up behind you.”
I felt my face flush and wondered how I could turn her down gracefully. Was it even possible to reject a teenage girl without humiliating her?
“Will you go to Tolo with me?” I heard her ask, and my friends broke out laughing. I turned and saw her looking mortified, but I said nothing. She ran off; I felt horrible.
Throughout the next two years I watched that girl transform from a plain, shy nerd into a beautiful, outgoing cheerleader. When I ran into her at a party, I apologized for not going to the dance with her, and she said it was no big deal.
In the fall of our junior year she asked me to the Tolo dance again, and this time I said yes. She had a friend who needed a date, so I set her up with a buddy of mine. On the night of the dance I went to his house to wait with him for the girls to pick us up. Eight o’clock came and went. I called the girl’s number but got no answer. As the hours passed, I wondered if they had gotten into a wreck. Finally I went home.
The next day I heard that she and her friend had gone to the dance together, wearing matching shirts that said, We stood our dates up. I was mad, but only for a few moments. I had to admit, she’d at least shown some creativity, which was more than I’d done when I’d so clumsily rejected her.
I have finished two years of medical school and am finally authorized to work with patients. One of my first is Mr. G., a sixty-four-year-old man with colon cancer.
Mr. G. has completed chemo and radiation treatments and had surgery, but his cancer is back, and the outlook is grim: there is a 95 percent chance he will die within a year.
Daily I draw Mr. G.’s labs, review his X-rays, and confirm his pain medication. I also perform a physical exam, assess his pain intensity, and track the growing, uneven lumps on his liver, documenting the advance of his cancer.
Mr. G. seems lonely, so I find myself stopping by his hospital room every so often and chatting with him about his dog, his illness, and the surgery that my team is recommending.
“I know I am dying,” he says one day. Despite all my medical training, I have no words to reply to this.
“I don’t want to have that surgery,” he tells me. What he really wants, he says, is to get on his motorcycle with his girlfriend and just go on a road trip for however much time he has left.
My responsibility is to advise Mr. G. that the surgical procedure would be in his best interests (by whose standards?), would relieve his symptoms (and possibly create new ones), and would extend his life (in the hospital). I’m supposed to tell him that the entire surgical team (most of whom have never met Mr. G.) recommends moving forward with the procedure. But what I say instead is: “That sounds pretty nice.”
After thirty-one days of caring for Mr. G., I must outline my treatment recommendation for my colleagues. Standing at the podium of the hospital conference room as a fledgling member of the team, I describe Mr. G.’s condition. At the end I pause, glancing with trepidation at the head surgeon and the other doctors. Then I say that I believe the optimal treatment for Mr. G. is to discharge him from the hospital with sufficient pain medication and let him ride off on his motorcycle with his girlfriend.
The room grows quiet. Someone coughs. I see a smirk or two. The head surgeon says, “Another fucking psychiatrist,” and walks out.
My medical practice — my effort to really take care of my patients — has begun in earnest.
When my daughter, Mila, was five, I brought her with me to a family meditation retreat led by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. I had been a practicing Buddhist for twenty years, but I had never done a retreat with him. He arrived with dozens of monks and nuns to tend to the children while he guided the adults in meditation and discussion sessions. Everywhere I looked, I saw monastics with bald heads and flowing, coffee-colored robes.
The next few days were filled with tranquillity. I was able to engage in meditation without worry, knowing that Mila was off doing crafts and learning songs. At mealtimes the chaos of being back among the children was jarring, but I attempted to approach it as more fodder for “cultivating freedom,” as Thich Nhat Hanh taught.
One day, after lunch, Mila and I were holding hands and heading back to our dorm to rest when she bolted from my grasp and careened in the direction of two monks walking ahead of us. Just as I was about to shout, “No running!” she crashed into the backside of one of them, burrowing her face into his robe and stepping on its hem.
The monk stopped walking and turned deliberately to my daughter. That’s when I saw that Mila had run right into Thich Nhat Hanh.
He didn’t utter a word but placed his hand atop her head and smiled down at her, his eyes filled with kindness. Then he turned to continue walking with the other monk.
I stood there wishing that I could parent as mindfully as that.
I was nineteen the first time I did heroin. A boy named Chris came over to the apartment I shared with three friends and asked who wanted to try it with him. I was the only one who did.
We went into my bedroom, and Chris pulled out a cellophane bag stamped with a red spider. He dumped the pale-brown powder onto a textbook and cut it into lines with his student ID.
Since it was the first time I’d done it, he warned, I would probably throw up, but it was worth it, he said.
He used a short straw to sniff up two lines and then, wiping his nose, handed it to me.
I had smoked pot countless times. I had done cocaine at fraternity houses. I had dropped acid and eaten mushrooms. I had taken Ecstasy and danced at music festivals. I had drunk myself into oblivion. I had even taken cold medicine when I couldn’t find anything else. So I felt no apprehension about heroin. I wasn’t even shooting up.
I leaned down and inhaled the first line. It tasted bitter and dry. I did the other line.
Then a heavy sensation came over me, followed by absolute euphoria, like the greatest feeling I’d ever experienced multiplied by a thousand, a moment of clarity in a world of darkness.
I didn’t throw up. I didn’t feel sick. I wanted more.
A year later I was dating a boy, and we’d been snorting heroin together on a regular basis. Each time, we needed a larger amount to get high. One day he casually suggested we try injecting it, and I immediately said no.
Later, when I came home from class, he showed me two small glass needles. We should try it, he said in the tone he used when I was being unreasonable. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have to do it again.
Our friend Smitty came over to show us how. My boyfriend went first, inserting the needle into his own arm, but he missed the vein, and a bubble formed under his skin. I didn’t want to inject myself, so Smitty helped me. He tied off my arm and told me to pump my fist while he tapped on a bulging vein. My boyfriend watched intently so he would know how to do it the next time.
Smitty slid the needle into my vein and pulled back the stopper until the bright-red blood entered the chamber. Then he smiled and pushed the plunger down.
It was even better than the first time. I was hooked.
I eventually managed to stop shooting up, and I haven’t done heroin in more than seven years, but I’m always chasing that high it gave me. Sometimes I will smoke enough pot that my limbs go numb, or I’ll take two hydrocodone and chase them with two Ativan, because it makes my legs feel like sandbags, and my whole body finally relaxes.
When I’m dying, I hope I can find someone to sell me a cellophane bundle of heroin and one of those tiny needles. Then I’ll tie off my arm like Smitty taught me, slip the needle in, and wait for that wave of happiness.
Auburn, New York
I was in love with my boyfriend, and we had a healthy sex life. One night, after we’d gone to bed, he began nuzzling me in a way that signaled he wanted to have sex. I was going to give in, as I’d always done, but I didn’t feel well. So I kissed him and told him not tonight.
He didn’t plead, or get angry, or promise that it would be great — all of which I had heard before from other men to whom I had quietly, reluctantly yielded.
Instead he simply kissed me back and said he understood. He hoped I would feel better and asked if there was anything he could get me. Then he lay down next to me and read his book, occasionally touching my arm or leg comfortingly.
I was thirty-five, and it was the first time I hadn’t been made to feel guilty for saying no.
Santa Rosa, California
John wasn’t yet forty, and he was dying from cancer. I was a volunteer hospice caregiver at the hospital where he was spending his final days.
When I entered his room for the first time, he was seated in a wheelchair with his back to me. Lanky, with a head of disheveled, sandy-colored hair, he seemed to be staring out the window. My manager had told me he was from Texas, where my parents are from. I introduced myself and asked if he wanted a visitor. He spun around and said, “Sure. It would be nice to have some company.”
I saw a large black swastika tattooed on his left forearm, and a wave of nausea hit me. I started to back out the door, saying that I’d just remembered a promise to bring some juice to another patient. I could come back later if he wanted.
“I would really like that,” he said with a smile. “Thank you.”
For the next month and a half I continued to avoid John during my weekly hospital shift. I felt ashamed, but how could I forget that 6 million Jews had perished in the Holocaust?
Aware that John had little time, I finally gathered the courage to return to his room and listen to his story. But he had died that morning.
I sat beside his still-warm body on the bed. Daisies had been placed on his chest along with wooden rosary beads. I stared at the swastika and traced its outline with my finger. I had been trained to help everyone, and I regretted that this time I hadn’t.
San Francisco, California
When both my girls were in high school, I began talking to them about sex. Those were tough conversations. Sometimes one of them would stop me in midsentence and say, “Too much information, Mom.” But I knew that ignorance was more dangerous than knowledge, so I kept talking.
What I feared most was an unplanned pregnancy. I told my daughters that whatever the woman did in that situation brought grief: adoption would take the baby out of her arms; abortion would end the baby’s life; keeping the baby and raising it on her own would likely mean financial hardship. It was one of the most difficult choices a woman could face.
Finally I told my girls my story: When I was twenty-seven and single, I learned I was pregnant. That spring I would finish my sixth year as an English teacher in Montana. The idea of being a single parent overwhelmed me, and I wanted to avoid the scrutiny and criticism of conservative community members. My lover insisted he wanted to have children with me, but not right now. He made it clear that if I chose to have the child, he would not be a part of our lives.
I decided to terminate my pregnancy. During the procedure my blood pressure plummeted, and I lost consciousness. I didn’t know the sex of my baby, but while I was under, I dreamed of a young boy swirling away from me and out of sight. Ever since, I’ve thought my baby was a boy.
Afterward I struggled with grief. I also feared that, because of the abortion, I wouldn’t be able to have a child when I wanted one. I pushed my lover away because of my guilt and anger toward him.
My baby would be twenty-eight this year. I continue to try to forgive myself for saying no to that child. But I did eventually make up with my lover, and we married and had two wonderful girls.
When my daughters asked whether, if I had it to do over, I would make the same decision, I told them yes, I would — even knowing all the sorrow it would bring.
My mother had always been opposed to being kept alive by machines at the end of her life. In the late stages of Alzheimer’s she lost the ability to swallow properly and had a severe choking episode. At the hospital her doctor told my three sisters and me that the only treatment was to insert a permanent feeding tube.
We looked at our mother lying there, more fragile than we had ever seen her. The expression on her face unmistakably said, Get me out of here!
She agreed to ride home in an ambulance, but not before making a fuss and asking why we couldn’t just drive her home.
That was the last time my mother complained. For the next week, with great difficulty, we honored her decision not to eat or drink. We made her as comfortable as possible and gave her popsicles when her mouth got dry. We bought her new nightgowns to wear when visitors came to say their goodbyes. She often stared out the window at her favorite view, a stony beach and the water beyond it. One day she sat up in bed and said, “Let’s sing.” So we did, and she remembered all the words to the old songs. Then we read her some of her favorite poems and stories. She leaned back on her pillow with a look of peace and satisfaction.
My mother died early the next morning, while it was still dark. It was late summer, and all the windows were open. As she took her last breath, there were no nurses scurrying around, no glaring fluorescent lights, no machines sounding an alarm — just her four daughters, the crickets chirping outside, and the waves slapping the beach.
Indian Hills, Colorado
I had arranged to rent a cottage on the island of Ustica, off the coast of Italy. The owner was in Ireland, where she was from, but she said that her son, Matteo, would pick me up at the dock and take me to the house.
Soon after I stepped off the boat, the other passengers all disappeared into waiting cars, leaving me alone. I approached some fishermen and, unable to speak a word of Italian, repeated Matteo’s name. Finally one of them gestured as if to say that he would take me to him. I got into his car, and he drove recklessly along narrow roads into the hills, laughing when he noticed me clinging to the door handle.
He dropped me off on a bluff overlooking the ocean with just two houses in sight: the one I was renting and another next door. A lone donkey stared as my ride drove off.
A man with a barrel chest and matted white hair emerged from the second cottage and began to speak rapid Italian to me. He had wrinkles around his eyes that made it seem as if he were always flirting or laughing. (I would find out later that he was the husband of the Irish woman who owned the house.) He seemed shocked that I spoke absolutely no Italian. (“Niente?”) Embarrassed to be such a typical tourist, I nodded and smiled.
He invited me over to his house — for dinner, apparently. He had slabs of raw fish on the table, and he pointed to a calendar on the wall with a picture of a swordfish on it. He dipped each fish filet in olive oil and then rolled it in bread crumbs. “Due,” he said (do-ay): two swordfish filets for each of us. Cats cried at the window, and a mongrel puppy rubbed against my ankles.
The man cooked the fish outside, continuing to chatter away. When I repeated Italian words back to him like a four-year-old, he beamed, pinched my cheek, and poured me a glass of Prosecco.
Once the fish was ready, we began eating and “talking,” with lots of pantomime. There seemed to be no end to the thick slabs of bread, the slippery eggplant, the olives, the tomatoes, the grapes, something that looked like sardines, the swordfish, and of course the Prosecco. I ate until my stomach was painfully distended, only to be offered more. I kept repeating, “Finito,” hoping it meant what I thought it did, but nothing would stop the man from refilling my glass and heaping more food on my plate. He’s trying to kill me with food, I thought.
Around 11 PM, drunk on the wine, I dropped any pretense of politeness and told the man flatly: no more food.
He ceremoniously picked up a single slice of peach and dipped it into my glass of Prosecco, splashing a little over the rim. Then he held the peach aloft and began chanting and making the sign of the cross. From years of attending Catholic Mass as a girl, I recognized that he was consecrating the Host.
When he reached to place the slice of fruit directly in my mouth, I hesitated.
What do you do when someone blesses food and tries to feed it to you as if it were the body of Christ, but your stomach is beyond full?
You open your mouth and eat the peach.
Los Angeles, California
Bravo to Renee Boss for her courageous stand on behalf of her patient while facing the scorn of the head surgeon at her medical school [Reader’s Write on “Saying No,” November 2015]. Unfortunately I predict Boss will face more of the same as she progresses through her clinical years. American medical-school faculties are made up overwhelmingly of specialists, who often regard an interest in primary-care medicine as a sign that a student is substandard, even though our country needs more primary-care physicians.
Having taught family medicine for twenty-five years, I often counseled students with an interest in primary care about the rewards of getting to know your patients and helping them make decisions about their health.