Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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I wake with an impressive string of drool from my mouth to my pillow — a side effect of the bite guard I wear at night — and know that, despite having two hours to get ready, my kids, my husband, and I will barely make it out the door.
I don’t want to get up, but then I overhear my children asking each other in not-so-quiet voices whether magic marker is permanent or not, and I launch myself from the bed (or sometimes the couch, depending on spousal snoring levels). I stumble to the coffee maker wearing an expression that says, Don’t talk to me.
Children are herded, markers capped, kisses and hugs given. My husband and I grunt amicably at one another as we tend to whatever mini-crises develop over breakfast. Careful not to bang my shin on the open dishwasher door, I pour milk and explain that, no, we do not have doughnuts, and, no, we’re not getting them.
It wasn’t always like this, of course. Once we were newlyweds. Then we had children.
I glance over at my husband, who is mixing pancake batter as he answers riddles and reminds the kids of their daily schedule. His hair sticks out in three different directions. I catch a glimpse of my own reflection in the microwave door and see what looks like a pile of dirty laundry come to life.
“Daddy and I married each other for our looks,” I say to the children, who are used to my precoffee jokes.
“How will I know who to marry?” our daughter asks. It’s 6:30 AM, and she wants a life lesson.
My husband answers while expertly flipping and plating pancakes that, due to a child’s help, will have crunchy eggshell in every bite: “You should marry the person who is the first one you want to tell good news to, and the person you want a hug from when there’s bad news.”
I maneuver around the dishwasher door to kiss him and smooth down his hair. He pours me a second cup of coffee.
My eighty-three-year-old father had cancer. A few months before he died, he and I were playing Scrabble when he said, “You probably know the story about your mother.”
My parents had been divorced for close to forty years, and she had passed away less than two years earlier.
“I’ve heard rumors,” I answered, trying not to give away what I knew.
“About the affair?” he asked.
“I heard there was a possibility of one,” I replied, still not sure how much I should admit to knowing.
My father then told me the story of how he had come home from work early one day in 1961 to find his brother pretending to be asleep in the recliner while my mother emerged from their bedroom, straightening her apron. He didn’t want to believe my mother had been unfaithful, but he suspected something. Nine months later I was born.
“So.” He looked away. “If you want to have a blood test to see if I am really your father, I’d be willing to do that for you.”
My dad didn’t often show emotion. I knew it was difficult for him to have this conversation. Although I was reeling from the possibility that my uncle could be my biological father, I replied, “You have always been my father. I don’t need a blood test to prove that.”
The corners of his mouth turned up slightly, and we returned to the game.
Long Beach, California
I teach elementary school. My sense of success (and my paycheck) is often tied to my students’ performance on a single test given at the end of the year. I fill my lesson plans with test preparation, hoping to help my students do well, but sometimes I question whether spending so much time on test preparation is really what’s best for students.
Nine years ago, fresh out of college, I spent a summer in Atlanta working for Teach for America. As part of my training, I taught students who had failed their third-grade standardized reading test. One of them, Andrea, was a bright, inquisitive, hardworking child. She and I stayed in touch through letters and texts for a few years after I moved to North Carolina.
Several months ago Andrea’s mother messaged me on Facebook. She said that Andrea was about to graduate from high school and had been trying to track me down to invite me to her graduation. I was shocked that this student still remembered me, let alone wanted me at her graduation. But I drove the four hours to Georgia to attend. Andrea was valedictorian of her class and gave a moving speech at the ceremony. She will be attending college this fall on numerous scholarships.
Andrea’s mom told me that, after Andrea had failed the third-grade standardized test, she’d felt defeated. She credited me with restoring her daughter’s confidence.
“You were so excited about everything,” Andrea said. “You wouldn’t just give us a book to read; you would make it come to life.”
Seeing Andrea’s eyes light up, I realized that when I rely on a test to measure my success, I’m selling myself and my students short.
Charlotte, North Carolina
My wife and I built our own log home in the woods of Maine. We cleared the land, felled the trees, and peeled the bark from the logs. We scrounged materials from an abandoned house nearby. I collected castoff flooring, windows, doors, plumbing fixtures, and wiring from my remodeling jobs. (I was a self-employed contractor.) It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that we touched every piece of material that went into our house.
One day, when I was building our back porch, I noticed my young children walking barefoot across a pile of tongue-and-groove boards that were destined to become the porch ceiling, and I scolded them for getting footprints on my expensive lumber. When I couldn’t get the boards entirely clean, I was even angrier, and I made sure they knew it.
My wife and I spent thirty-seven years in that beautiful, isolated setting before moving to a small city on the coast to be closer to “civilization.” Of all the things I remember about our former home, those little footprints on the porch ceiling are what I miss the most.
The moon turns blood red. In the midst of rushing wind, dark storm clouds, thunder, and lightning, Jesus appears in his white robe and sandals to separate the sheep from the goats — the Christians from the sinners. It all happens in the twinkling of an eye.
This is how the evangelist in the big tent described the end of the world. On a warm summer night, with a thunderstorm raging outside, he painted a picture of the pain and torment sinners would endure in the fiery furnace.
I was six years old and afraid of going to hell. My Sunday-school teacher had said we are all born sinners. The path to heaven meant “joining the church” — my mother’s way of saying getting saved. Because I hadn’t yet answered the altar call, I wasn’t a full member of my parents’ fundamentalist congregation. The women and girls in their church had to wear long dresses, black stockings, and a distinctive white head-covering. I imagined dressing like this in public school and how my classmates would laugh and bully me — which would have been hell on earth for a girl who liked to fit in.
At night I sometimes couldn’t fall asleep for fear that Jesus might return suddenly and condemn me to hell. Soaked in sweat from tossing and turning, I’d call for my mother. “I don’t feel right,” I’d sob. It wasn’t a lie; the dread in the pit of my stomach was a physical discomfort. I didn’t tell her why I felt such fierce anxiety, because I knew what remedy she’d propose: join the church.
At the age of twelve I finally did it. During the annual revival meeting, while the congregation was singing “Oh, Why Not Tonight?” I gripped the back of the pew in front of me and stood. I joined the church. I would be saved.
Unexpectedly I felt nothing. Where was the blinding truth of Jesus? Where was the certainty, the overwhelming relief? Where was the light that would show me the path to God, the surety that Jesus walked with me?
After the service people approached me to offer their blessings. My best friend had also “stood” that night, and all I could think was how glad I was that I had gotten up before her, so I didn’t look like a copycat.
I didn’t feel like a sinner anymore, but I didn’t feel properly saved either. Doubts about the existence of God crept in. I wanted desperately to take it all back, to undo what I’d done, but how could I? My parents would have suffered deep disappointment. I continued being a church member and wore those hated clothes.
Within a week of my high-school graduation, I drove to our young minister’s house and told him I wanted to resign from the church immediately. He and his wife presented the usual arguments about heaven and hell and asked me to join them in praying for God’s guidance, but I refused. What mattered most to me was that I remain faithful to myself.
I was working construction, and I remember falling. I had fallen before and been fine, so I wasn’t worried — until I hit the ground and couldn’t feel my legs.
That was two years ago. At first I fought in rehab to walk again. Now the fight is against the limitations within myself.
The physical pain has ended; the emotional pain has not. Every curb or set of stairs, the nightmares, the drunk woman at a bar who says, “You’re good-looking . . . for a guy in a wheelchair” — it all takes me back to the fall. Most of the world sees me as unfit, incapable, broken.
At night I dream of running. The dreams are so vivid I can feel the ground under my feet. Sometimes, in a half-asleep state, I try to get up from my bed, but my legs tangle like pretzels, and I fall in a heap on the hardwood floor. I lie there, looking up at the ceiling, and cry.
I’m not good at talking about my disability. Being vulnerable is hard, but I’ve learned that it also heals. The people who have helped me the most are the ones who are vulnerable with me.
Here’s what else I’ve learned: That being resilient does not mean pretending this is easy. It isn’t. But it’s only when we do what is hard that we open ourselves up to the pain and the joy.
As a child I frequently watched my mother prepare dinner. I would stand on tiptoe at her side, eyes at the counter’s edge, and watch her work at the cutting board. It wasn’t long before she invited me to help. I started with simple tasks like fetching the ingredients from the fridge and cupboard. Under her direction I learned to read a measuring cup. She taught me the fundamentals of cooking in the oven, the slow cooker, and the skillet. I remember stirring everything with wooden spoons.
The food ready, we’d sit down to eat at a perfectly set table with plates on top of place mats, glasses filled with water and ice, and knives, forks, and spoons laid over napkins.
When I had a family of my own, I followed my mother’s example. I found that I enjoyed cooking for others. There’s something about watching people take their first bite of a dish I’ve prepared — the way their eyes shut and they sigh and smile.
These days I cook mostly for myself, because I’m in prison. I have to measure everything by eye. My ingredients are pulled from a locker and cooked in a microwave. No glasses, no silverware. If I invite guests, they show up with their own plastic bowl, “spork,” and cup. The space quickly grows crowded: a few men on the bed, one on the locker, another on the toilet.
In a room smaller than most bathrooms, five men sit elbow to elbow, mouths full and heads nodding in approval. When I first came to prison, I felt that the tradition of sharing a meal had disappeared from my life. But I’ve found it again.
Buena Vista, Colorado
“Patricia!” I called from the bathroom. After she entered and saw the comb full of hair in my hand, we held each other and sobbed.
Over the weeks of chemotherapy I would lose my mustache, my eyebrows, and even my eyelashes. My skin would grow pale and my eyes sunken. I would turn into the generic image of a cancer patient.
In addition to losing my looks, I lost my strength. Two naps a day became the norm. I began forgetting things: conversations, names, to turn off the stove. The treatments gave me blurry vision that prevented me from reading or driving. At times I could do nothing but curl up in bed or on the floor.
Every three weeks I planted myself in a recliner in the infusion lab for six hours while toxic chemicals dripped into my veins. Afterward I had to wear rubber gloves when I used the bathroom, so that the chemicals leaving my body would not touch my skin. I took heavy doses of steroids to counteract the side effects. My blood-cell count and kidney function were monitored closely to make sure I would survive the treatment.
My wife and I met other patients in the infusion lab, young and old, liberal and conservative. I saw people break down upon learning what chemotherapy would entail. I made new friends. Some are still fighting cancer, some are cancer free, and some have died. There is no predictable pattern to this disease. The common themes are suffering, endurance, and love. They cross cultural boundaries.
During treatment I didn’t have the energy to go out or the desire to be seen in public. I didn’t know how to explain my changed appearance to people I knew. So I became reclusive. My siblings and children came to our house and took over the cooking and cleaning. They asked nothing of me and often sent me off to rest. Friends showed up with flowers and food, though I could visit with them for only five or ten minutes.
Mostly I sat and watched the bare branches of the cherry tree in our yard swell with buds, then burst with color. I watched the bees pollinate the flowers. I watched the bleeding hearts open. I saw birds carry twigs to nesting spots. I saw the cherry blossoms turn to fruit. I marveled at how the elongating buds of the wisteria unfolded.
Cancer has redefined what matters to me. Today I showered and ran a comb through my short but growing hair. I took a deep breath and reminded myself to appreciate the love of friends and family and the beauty of the natural world.
I felt strange pulling up in front of Sue’s house in my dad’s fancy car, wearing a tuxedo. I wasn’t the type to get dressed up or go to a formal dance. I grabbed the corsage and hurried up the walk before anyone could see me. Sue’s mom answered the door.
“You look so handsome, Jim,” she said. “I didn’t recognize you.”
“Thank you,” I muttered, embarrassed by the attention and not sure this was a compliment.
When Sue’s stepdad, Jack, saw me, he laughed — not the reaction I’d been hoping for.
Sue’s mother went to help Sue get ready while Jack got the camera. If I had known that anyone was going to record this moment on film, I would have told Sue to meet me at the restaurant.
Finally Sue was finished getting dressed. I picked up the corsage and stood for her entrance, aware that she had spent a month scouring the western United States for the perfect dress. I’d always loved how she looked in cutoffs and her stepdad’s white shirts. Surely all this preparation would make her even more beautiful.
I’d never been so wrong.
Sue resembled a pomegranate, her petite body engulfed in shiny pink material. I wondered whether there would be enough room for her and the dress in the front seat. Her blond hair, which she usually wore in a cute ponytail, was done up in tight curls, maybe a thousand of them all sprayed into place. Whenever she moved her head, they bounced like broken springs.
Sue’s mother grabbed the camera and prompted me to put my arm around Sue. I wanted to, but I was afraid of stepping on the hem of the dress. I’d agreed to take my girlfriend to the dance, and instead I’d gotten a cake decoration. My only hope was that we’d get in a fender bender between her house and the restaurant, and the evening would be canceled.
I wore sunglasses at dinner to conceal my identity, and we ate without saying more than a few words to each other. At the dance the band played upbeat surf music, so it was possible to gyrate while keeping a fair distance from your partner, but Sue stuck close to me.
The band took a break, and she and I went outside to cool down. Sue and some other girls got into a discussion about the scandal of the night — two girls had shown up wearing the same dress — while I joined a group of my male classmates, all of us in the same tux. Watching Sue laugh with her friends, I thought about how I’d been acting, and a wave of shame came over me.
Sue always overlooked my shortcomings. She just wanted to be my “belle of the ball.” And what had I done? Passed judgment on the way she looked. Not only that: From the first time she’d mentioned the formal dance, I’d acted as if she was dragging me along to do a “girl thing.” I’d spent a month looking for an excuse not to spend the money or wear a tux or act grown-up. The truth was, I was scared that I couldn’t pull it off. I wasn’t good at dressing up or being well-mannered. And I’d blamed her for my discomfort. I felt horrible.
“Can I talk with you?” I whispered in Sue’s ear.
We pulled two chairs together for privacy, and I apologized for what a jerk I’d been. Sue forgave me. “I know you’d rather be doing anything else,” she said, “but you came for me, and it means a lot that you’re here. I love you.”
I was seventeen years old, and no girl had ever said those words to me. I didn’t know what to say, so I kissed her. Then I stood and offered her my elbow and walked her back inside, feeling proud and a little grown-up.
The band started playing a slow song by Gladys Knight & the Pips. I bowed to Sue and said, “May I have this dance?”
“Yes, you may,” she said.
At first I was afraid of crushing her dress, but then I stopped caring. Sue looked up at me, curls bobbing in time to the music, and smiled. “I love you,” I said.
I grew up in a segregated black community. My father, a teacher, frequently expressed his distrust of white folks — or “crackers,” as he often called them. Though he rarely talked about his experiences with racism, his diatribes suggested they were too painful to talk about.
Despite his private denunciations of white people and their behavior, my father sometimes invited them to our home and was friendly and engaging. This paradox confused me as a child.
I’ve come to understand that my father felt justified in not trusting white people due to the discriminatory policies and practices of the mostly white, male leadership in Raleigh, North Carolina. Before the city’s schools were integrated, my father had taught mathematics at a high-achieving, all-black high school. He was known for his ability to teach calculus, geometry, trigonometry, and algebra to even the most difficult students. After the schools were integrated, my father was assigned to teach general math — a basic course. The higher-level math courses were all given to white teachers. According to my dad, he was never even consulted about the decision. Something within him retreated after that.
I have not forgotten the example of how my father treated white guests in our home, though. I know that white people may perceive me with wariness and preconceptions, as I do them. But increasingly I am able to let my distrust subside, so that I can approach these interactions with openness. Only when we are able to see others clearly can we discover their humanity — and our own.
Last fall my seventeen-year-old son was struggling to come to terms with his sexual identity. Admitting he was bisexual made him deeply uncomfortable, to the point that he was cutting himself and considering suicide. His father and I were happy to accept our son as he was, but he felt strongly that being bisexual was not right for him.
He fell into a deep depression and was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder (which, once it was pointed out, we saw had been present all along). He entered therapy and tried medication, but ultimately he took himself off the pills and self-treated his depression with long hours — and even days — of uninterrupted video-gaming. It was terrible to see him numbing and isolating himself. There was so much I wanted to ask but couldn’t, because if I badgered him with questions, he would quickly withdraw. The problem was beyond anything that I could fix or help manage.
One day, as we sat on the couch, I offered to massage my son’s arms. His skin was smooth, the scars from his cutting barely visible. He began to ask me for arm massages after that. I was glad to have something I could do for him.
My son made it through that terrifying darkness. He is himself again and spent this spring taking courses, tutoring other students, and traveling to Europe.
“What does it matter if we’re married or not?” Kenny used to say whenever I brought up the subject. “What really matters is that I’m here, aren’t I? I choose to be with you.”
For ten years I let him have his way. Then the accident happened. The doctors pronounced Kenny brain-dead and put him on life support. I was in shock. His mother and siblings arrived. As the hissing machines kept Kenny alive, his family members began to argue over who would get his belongings — many of which he and I had bought together.
Fortunately my cousin was an attorney. At the county courthouse I was declared Kenny’s common-law wife.
A few days after the accident, Kenny’s life support was removed, and he died. The next three years were hell. The grief was difficult to bear. It was only made harder by my inability to define for other people my relationship with Kenny. Was he my “boyfriend”? My “high-school sweetheart”? At a grief support group I called Kenny my husband, because technically he was, but I felt like a fraud. He’d never wanted me to call him that. My grief wasn’t fully acknowledged because Kenny and I didn’t have a piece of paper that proved our commitment to each other.
When I met my current husband and we began to get serious, he suggested we move in together. I told him absolutely not: if he loved me enough to live with me, he could damn well marry me.
© Linda Smogor
When I became a mother, I began visiting my father once a year with my new baby. I wanted him to know his granddaughter and for her to have a relationship with him. I lived in Chicago, and my father was in Oregon. One year, before my visit, I asked if there was anything he wanted me to bring him from the city. Bagels, perhaps?
“Why would I want Jew food?” he replied.
I felt like he had slapped me in the face. How had I not realized my father was a bigot? Childhood memories came back of him using the N-word and shutting down certain topics at the dinner table. I’d looked up to him as a child, but I was no longer a child.
Though seeing my father for who he really was upset me, I continued to visit him. I didn’t want to shut him out of my life.
A few years later, when my father was diagnosed with colon cancer, he told me he would not be doing chemotherapy or radiation. I cried and begged him to reconsider for the sake of his six-year-old granddaughter: “We need every moment we can get with you.” He ended up getting chemo and lived another five years.
Shortly before my father died, my spouse and I decided to adopt a baby boy from Guatemala. I hesitated to show pictures of the child to my father. Finally, just a month before his death, I did. He was lying in a rented hospital bed in his living room. When he saw the photos of a smiling, healthy infant with dark-brown skin, he said, “I guess it’s all about love.”
Once, I fell in love with a man who hated my body.
Jeff and I met online, and we chatted for weeks about our shared appreciation of books, art, and irreverent humor. I made sure he knew I was fat. (It was my greatest shame.) “Hey, remember, I’m still really chubby!” I’d type, ending the sentence with a smiley face. But it didn’t seem to deter him.
I flew from Oregon to California to meet Jeff in person. I know: this was hardly safe. Yet there I was on a flight.
Jeff texted me a description of his car and said he’d pick me up outside the airport — a less-than-romantic start. He’s practical, I told myself.
When he saw me, I detected a flicker of disappointment in his eyes, but he hid it quickly and gave me a hug. For the rest of the visit he was a good host, if a bit distant. When he dropped me off at the airport at the end of the weekend, I figured this would be my only visit. I politely thanked him for not murdering me.
I was surprised when he wrote later that he wanted to see me again. I convinced myself that I hadn’t really seen disappointment in his eyes; I’d only been projecting my own crippling insecurities onto him.
Jeff and I dated for two years, but he never got over my weight. I could tell by the comments, the slights, the casual way he’d drop my hand when we ran into someone he knew. He would criticize how my arms looked in a certain shirt or how my thighs took up too much space when I sat. Every meal we ate together felt like a test. I ate so many goddamn salads with no dressing. So. Many. Salads.
I did lose weight. I worked out twice a day. I restricted my calories in ways that weren’t healthy. I slept a lot — because you can’t eat while you’re asleep, right? I was miserable. I stayed with him anyway.
The relationship ended in a booth at an Italian restaurant. The waiter handed me the dessert menu, and I made the mistake of looking at it. I didn’t order anything, but the damage was done. Jeff broke up with me that night, saying he knew I’d never take dieting seriously. Clearly what mattered most to him was my cellulite and stretch marks. I was heartbroken.
That was four years ago. No, I’m not thin now. My body remains the same. And no, Jeff hasn’t begged me to take him back. Facebook reveals he’s dating a yoga instructor, and they spend their weekends doing extreme sports, the kind involving helmets.
But I have found someone new to love: me. Some days it’s a struggle to look with affection on my fat thighs, my soft arms, and my full hips. I’ll catch a glimpse of myself in a store window and have to go home and hide. But other days I’ll pause and think, Damn, girl. You look good.
Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin
A large, dead insect has been lying on the floor of my living room for more than a week now. It’s noticeable only from the exact spot where I sit to nurse the baby. Amazing what you see when you’re forced to sit for long stretches. (Dust, for example. So much dust.) I never imagined I’d be too tired to pick up and throw away a dead insect, but at this stage in my son’s life, my hands are almost always full with him. And when they aren’t, I’m rushing around trying to take care of his older brother and then eat, pee, and bathe myself before the baby wakes up again. And so the insect is forgotten until the next nursing session. My infant son will drift off to sleep at my breast, and I’ll drift off with him, thinking, I must do something about that bug.
I’m just so tired. My body aches from carrying my ever-growing child. My knees hurt from kneeling to change him. The extra twenty-five pounds I gained during the pregnancy have refused to go away. (Will I ever lose the weight?) Sometimes, in the car, I allow myself to cry if I need to. But then I glance in the rearview mirror and see my infant son and his older brother both fast asleep, and my heart swells.
Back in my usual nursing spot, I feel as if the dead bug is taunting me. Who knows how long he (she?) will lie there? That spot by the window may be this insect’s permanent resting place. Meanwhile I must shower. And I need more baby wipes. How are we doing on diapers? What will the toddler have for dinner? Will he even eat? What kind of mood will he be in after his nap? Will I fold laundry after they go to sleep or just fall into bed myself?
Many years from now you won’t find any dead insects on my floors. The laundry will be folded and put away fresh from the dryer. I may even go for an early-evening run, if my knees aren’t shot by then. But today my baby just laughed for the first time. Right now I’ll sit. Everything else can wait.
When I was six years old, authorities took me from my family and put me in foster care. At the time I couldn’t comprehend why this was happening. I lived with an elderly couple who kept foster children. They were good people, but when I begged them to tell me why I was there, all they would say was “Your mom is busy, and she asked us to take care of you. You will see her again.”
By the time my foster parents adopted me, I was twelve and knew that my mother had gone to prison. She was an alcoholic and a drug addict who could barely take care of herself, let alone a child. She had chosen that life, I thought, despite every opportunity to make better choices.
My father, too, was an alcoholic who had decided to give up all rights to me. He’d never made a lot of time for me anyway. It was no surprise that he’d chosen the bottle.
I consider the couple who adopted me to be my real parents. They may not be my biological mom and dad, but they have done everything a mom and dad should do. They taught me how to tell right from wrong and how to treat everyone with respect. They taught me to value honesty and fairness and not to let the past define my future.
I’m starting my freshman year in college and plan to pursue a career in criminal justice. My biological parents’ mistakes are my motivation. What really matters to me is that I don’t end up like them.
My husband, Jack, was going to die. He had hepatitis B and needed a liver transplant, but his insurance company refused to cover the procedure. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The virus would only have attacked the new liver, killing him eventually.
Jack was a doctor and continued to see patients every day despite his illness. A difficult man, he barked at his staff and took pride in being a curmudgeon. As his health failed, his anger about dying increased. I was a convenient target.
I finally told him I couldn’t take it anymore. As hard as it was for me to do, I would arrange to stay with a friend. “I will come back the minute you need my help,” I told Jack. “I am not abandoning you, but I have to take care of myself.”
My decision only made him madder, and he followed me from room to room as we argued, his feet pounding the floor. But my mind was made up. The time away would help me rebuild my strength so I could be there for him in the last phase of his life.
I slept at home that night, and the next morning Jack rushed to the bathroom and knelt in front of the toilet to vomit. I ran to discover the water in the bowl was bright red. He was hemorrhaging — a side effect of hepatitis B, which weakens the veins in the esophagus.
We rushed to the emergency room, where the physician cauterized the vein to stop the bleeding and admitted Jack to the hospital. The hemorrhage was a sign that the disease had progressed.
The next day I lay in bed, stunned and depressed. I did not eat. I did not shower or get dressed. The bleeding had changed the situation. Jack was nearing the end and would require more help, but I still needed a break from his fury. I had to decide: him or me. I stared at the ceiling. Then I said aloud to the empty room, “When I look back on this at the end of my life, which decision will I be proud of?”
The answer was clear. I got out of bed, threw on some clothes, and drove to the hospital to be with my husband.
When my oldest child was in fifth grade, his class read The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman. That same year the film version was released in theaters. My son’s teacher, Mrs. H., decided to take the class on a field trip to see the film, and I came along as a chaperone.
At the theater my son sat with his friends, and I sat beside Mrs. H. The lights dimmed, and the movie began. About a half-hour into the film Mrs. H. poked me in the side and whispered, “This is important.” I hadn’t read the book and was glad to know that a key scene was about to take place. A bit later I felt another poke and heard her whisper, “This is really important.”
Mrs. H. continued her poking and whispering throughout the movie. At first I found it annoying, but after the film was over, I realized that, thanks to her, I had come away with a good understanding of the plot and themes.
Sometimes I wish I had Mrs. H. next to me at crucial moments in my life to poke me in the side and whisper, “This is important.”
Peterborough, New Hampshire
I worked as a child-and-family therapist serving poor families in rural areas. Initially I was appalled by some parents’ behavior, but I learned that demonstrating respect for all family members helped them be kinder and more respectful toward each other.
Later I worked in an urban hospital with patients who were contemplating suicide. They sometimes screamed at nurses, smoked contraband cigarettes beside their oxygen tanks, and stole hospital laptops. But they also displayed great strength.
I met a mother who was so depressed she could barely get out of bed, yet she sent her kids off to school with a kiss and then went to work herself. I met a seventy-four-year-old man with crippling arthritis who shoveled his driveway in subzero temperatures, just in case his troubled grandson wanted to come by. I met a sixteen-year-old girl who consistently showed up to work even though her boss treated her with contempt. I met a woman who regularly went to the hospital cafeteria and dissolved six packets of sugar in a cup of water — the only “meal” she would have that day. I treated them all with respect.
We are surrounded by people who are quietly struggling. Respect and small kindnesses are what really matter.
The Readers Write on “What Really Matters” [April 2018] reminded me of teaching college twenty years ago. I would ask my students what, at that moment, was the most important thing in their lives. Their answers were similar to those shared in Readers Write: A hug from a loved one in the face of bad news. Remaining faithful to myself. The love of friends and family and the beauty of nature.
After allowing this musing to go on for a while, I would suggest we all take a deep breath and hold it for as long as we could. Everything we had listed, I would tell my students, paled in comparison to the air flowing into our lungs. Next on the list was water, which all life-forms need to survive. And water nurtures everything that, in turn, feeds us.
Air, water, food. As Michael Soule points out [“We Only Protect What We Love,” interview by Leath Tonino, April 2018], what we tend to take for granted is what really matters.