When I was a kid, my grandfather used to point out his dining-room window and say, “Look at the deer!” When I turned my head, he would take the dessert from my plate. He always laughed at my tears, saying I needed to learn to be clever, like him. He often mocked my father for earning only a meager teacher’s salary despite his college education. When I asked my grandfather where he had gone to college, he told me he’d graduated from the “school of hard knocks.”
To help support our large family, my father bought old cars, which he repaired and resold. My sisters and I were frequently pressed into service carrying tires and batteries, holding the flashlight, bringing him cups of hot tea, and handing him tools. Once, I asked my father where he’d learned to fix cars. “By the side of the road,” he said.
I graduated from high school at the age of sixteen and went to college on a scholarship. I got a summer internship after my sophomore year, and in the fall I decided just to keep working and not return to school.
Fourteen years later I was a single mother who had taken a lot of hard knocks and learned her fair share by the side of the road. I was working a minimum-wage job, driving a car with holes rusted in the floor, and renting a basement room for my son and me.
A friend encouraged me to apply to a program for nontraditional students at Smith College in Massachusetts. I was accepted and given a scholarship, and my son and I moved into a small apartment. I took him to day care on my bicycle — until it was stolen. Then I pushed him there in a stroller — until the front wheel broke. Finally I tucked him under a blanket with a hole cut out for his head and pulled him on a sled. I pieced together a variety of work-study jobs and got food stamps and a childcare subsidy. I couldn’t afford to buy textbooks, so I read my assignments in the college library between classes and work. At night, after reading my son to sleep, I wrote my papers on a typewriter at the kitchen table.
I graduated at the age of thirty-seven and got my first job that paid above minimum wage. I became a teacher.
I found out I was ugly when my best friend in middle school made me stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her before a mirror and proceeded to point out everything that was wrong with my appearance: my nose was too bumpy, my cheeks were too round, and my skin was speckled with moles. I can still feel the chill of her fingers holding my right ear flat against my head as she explained that people could get their ears pinned back. The carefree child in me evaporated. From then on, I kept my chin tucked down so that my hair covered my face like a curtain.
More than three decades later I woke up from brain-tumor surgery with facial palsy. The right side of my face sagged like a sock that had lost its elastic. I remember my eight-year-old daughter’s soft hands trying to mold my drooping cheek back into place. I would have given anything to go back to the way I had looked before.
At first I stayed at home, hiding my appearance, but I was already too familiar with how it felt to be trapped by the limits of my looks. It took facial palsy for me to finally recognize the things I liked about myself — the keenness of my brain, the strength of my muscles, and the twinkle in my eyes. Now, when I look in a mirror, I hold my chin up high.
Menlo Park, California
When I was pregnant with my first child in 1969, my husband was in the Marine Corps, which meant I could get free prenatal care through the clinic on the base. Appointments were first come, first served, and the other expectant mothers and I had to wait in line for each part of our visit: signing in, providing a urine sample, and so on.
When the nurses measured our blood pressure and weight, each number was called out so another nurse could write it in our charts. Everyone heard. There were strict rules for how much weight we were allowed to gain each month. Fifteen pounds was the limit for the entire pregnancy. Some women wept when they discovered how much they had gained since the last visit.
When I saw the doctor, I tried asking questions about what he was doing, hoping he could help me understand whether my pregnancy was progressing normally.
“Looks like we have a smart one here,” he said to his assistant. He completed his examination without answering me.
Every prenatal visit after that was the same. I cried when I was berated for gaining too much weight. I remained silent during the physician’s exam to keep from being belittled.
During the last month of my pregnancy I grew anxious and was determined to get some of my questions answered. I wanted to know how I would be treated by these authoritarian clinicians during my labor. I screwed up my courage and asked the doctor what he would use for pain relief.
“You don’t need to worry about that,” he replied. “I’m the doctor, and that’s my job, not yours.”
“Well,” I replied, “I’m having the baby, not you.”
Instead of answering my question, he wrote “Problem patient” across the top of my chart and reported me to his supervising physician, who called my husband to his office and told him to “get control” of his wife.
During labor the only pain medication available was spinal anesthesia, which would have made me unable to move the lower half of my body. To keep what autonomy I could, I declined it.
I had my second baby at home.
I had just received my driver’s license and was eager to use it, but my dad was quick to point out that the eight inches of snow outside meant rookies should not be on the road.
After he left for work, I drove to a friend’s house anyway. I would be back by lunch. I’d be careful. Dad would never know.
On the way home I got in an accident at an intersection: I braked, slid thirty feet, and rear-ended the car in front of me. No one was hurt — though I had the distinct impression I would feel some pain after I told my dad what happened. His discipline usually took the form of spankings, tongue-lashings, and banishment to my room.
I called him from the nearest pay phone. He asked if everybody was all right, then said he was on his way.
The right front fender was bent against the wheel, preventing it from turning. When my dad arrived, he used a crowbar to pry the crumpled fender away from the tire.
“I’ll meet you at home,” he said tersely. “Drive straight there.” I nodded, worried my fender was in for a crumpling.
To my surprise he raised neither his hand nor his voice as he rendered his judgment: “I will order a new fender this afternoon, and you will pay for it. You will remove the damaged one now and put the new one on when it arrives. Get to work.”
I remember lying on my back on the concrete floor of our unheated garage that wintry afternoon, trying to loosen the bolts holding the bent fender in place while my hands cramped and my skinned knuckles stung. When I struggled with the most stubborn, rusted nuts, my dad lay down next to me, took the crescent wrench, and bloodied his own knuckles removing them.
No punishment he ever gave me was as effective as the mercy I received that cold January day forty-six years ago.
Writing the first five-thousand-dollar check to my live-in boyfriend was easy. So was the second a few months later. It was a loan, after all. I was helping him pay his college tuition so that he could graduate, earn a decent salary, and pay his fair share of our household expenses.
Then I broke up with him.
When I contacted him about the debt, he promised to pay me back, but I received only a hundred dollars. I called a collection agency and learned that they would need my ex-boyfriend’s Social Security number, which I didn’t know. I raged at my stupidity.
Less than a week later, I was packing up my house to sell it and move in with my parents when I found a document that included my ex’s Social Security number. It was as if the universe had cast a vote in my favor.
A few days later the collection agent told me my ex had filed for bankruptcy. Shortly after that, I received a notice saying I could appear at his bankruptcy hearing to stake a claim. When my name was called in court, I asked the judge if he could garnish my ex’s wages. The judge gave me an apologetic no.
For the next ten years I scrimped on luxuries, skipping movies and meals at restaurants. I bitterly wondered if my ex was doing the same.
Three decades later my finances are restored. My trust in love and relationships? Not so much.
I entered ninth grade as an honor-roll student, but by the end of the first semester I had a D-minus in algebra. The teacher explained that my grade should have been an F, but he hadn’t wanted to fail me. When I started to cry, he put his arm around my shoulder and said, “It’s OK. Girls can’t do math. Just don’t take any more math classes, and you’ll be fine.” Relieved, I followed his advice for the rest of high school.
Years later my husband lost his job, and I took an entry-level position at a small manufacturing company to help support our three children. When the purchasing manager left, I got promoted to his position. I was concerned there might be math involved, but I had learned the inventory and thought I could follow previous purchasing-history patterns to order new parts.
Very quickly I realized there were no set patterns for orders. Each one was different. After my family went to bed at night, I spent hours drawing pictures and making charts. I managed this way for about three months before becoming overwhelmed. I was constantly afraid I would make a costly mistake by ordering too few or too many parts. I was also having trouble understanding the terms the owner used in our meetings: ratios, percentages, forecasting.
Embarrassed and afraid, I went to him and revealed my lack of math skills. I even shared the story of what my ninth-grade teacher had told me, hoping the owner would understand and maybe let me go back to my old job.
He sat in silence for a very long while, then got up, saying he needed a cigarette break. I went back to my desk, sure I was about to be fired.
An hour later he asked me to come back to his office, where he told me he couldn’t believe a teacher could be so ignorant and that the ability to do math had nothing to do with gender. He was going to teach me and would structure my education around the ordering needs of the company.
Over the next six months I learned to manipulate numbers and formulas as I developed a broader way of thinking about our purchasing practices. I began to propose ways of saving money, and I built strong relationships with suppliers and customers, now that I was able to speak the language of numbers.
Shortly after our tutorial sessions ended, the owner promoted me and gave me a raise. When I expressed my gratitude, he told me I had given him a gift, as well — that of being a willing student.
Pleasant Garden, North Carolina
I never thought I would have a baby. My own childhood had been chaotic, and my relationship with my parents was tenuous at best, contemptuous at worst. I also had a deep aversion to both noise and messes. So it was a shock to find myself, at the age of twenty-eight, giving in to my hormonal drive to become a mother. I’d never even held a baby, yet I felt pulled toward motherhood. People do it all the time, I told myself. Friends and family assured me that I would experience a love like no other.
On the day my son was born, I did experience a love like no other, but the years since have not been so wonderful. It’s not my son’s fault. He is the kindest, most compassionate child I have ever met. The truth is I do not enjoy being a mother. The duties of the job are tedious and boring. I take no pleasure in constantly caring for another person, and I greatly look forward to the time when I no longer have to. This discontent feels separate from the love I have for my son, but I suspect he catches glimpses of my resentment, try as I might to cover it up with affection.
I do not regret having my son. I just wish I didn’t dislike being a mom.
During high school in the 1960s my friends and I spent our summer days at the beach in Santa Monica, California, surfing and listening to the Beach Boys. Some of us had cars, but Lolly and I took a bus that dropped us off in the parking lot.
One Saturday we were heading to the bus stop to go home when Lolly came up with an idea: We could hitchhike to our friend Gina’s house a few miles away and get her to drive us. Kids hitchhiked all the time, we reasoned, and the bus was such a drag.
In our flip-flops, bikini tops, and cutoffs, we stood on the edge of the Pacific Coast Highway and stuck out our thumbs. It wasn’t long before a red Chevy Impala convertible stopped. Giggling with excitement, we ran to meet the car.
Inside were two handsome guys who looked like college boys. They asked where we went to school and where we were going. We asked if they could drop us off at Chautauqua Boulevard.
“Sure,” the driver said, but when we reached our destination, he didn’t stop. Lolly and I looked at each other with panic in our eyes. The boys didn’t respond to our pleas to be let out. Lolly started to cry, but I was frozen. It wasn’t long before we reached the Santa Monica Mountains.
After about five miles the driver pulled over on the dusty roadside and turned the engine off. Both guys turned around.
“Do you have any idea how dangerous hitchhiking is for girls?” the driver asked. “Do you know how many weirdos are out there? We both have younger sisters, and we’d kill them if we found out they were hitchhiking.” The boys had decided to teach us a lesson. “Get out.”
“But how are we going to get back?” I asked.
“You can try walking this time,” the driver replied. Lolly and I had barely closed the door before the Impala sped off.
It took an eternity to walk back. About two blocks before we reached the beach where we’d started, we saw a woman collecting her mail and asked to use her phone. We called Gina to come get us, then sat on the lady’s porch to wait, too exhausted to talk. Besides, there was no need to say what we were both thinking: that neither of us would try hitchhiking again.
I was close to finishing a graduate degree in engineering at Stanford when I received my first job offer. Thrilled, I stopped by my graduate adviser’s office to tell her the good news. I’d been the last in my social circle to secure a position.
“Where are you going?” she asked, guessing firms that had just hired my friends.
I named a national laboratory near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State.
Normally my adviser maintained a signature “inscrutable” Asian face, like mine. But on hearing my response, she raised her eyebrows. I feared I had disappointed her, and I didn’t know why.
She leaned in as if to share a secret. “Have you accepted the job? Because you know . . .”
“That town is pretty remote.”
I was puzzled. Then I realized she was telling me something she wouldn’t have told a white student. “You might not feel comfortable there,” she added.
She wasn’t talking just about geographical isolation. She was talking about the isolation I would feel as a minority woman working with mostly white men in a conservative town in the 1970s. She was warning me of an environment that would feel nothing like Stanford, where women and men demanded equal respect. She was saying there would be no Chinese food or culture, nothing to make me feel at home.
But where was I ever comfortable? All my life I’d struggled to fit in. My dad had taught me to ignore differences, real or perceived, and simply plow through. I felt that I should take the job offer and be grateful that someone wanted me.
Two years later I knew I was wrong.
I got herpes from the first guy I slept with. In the decades since, the virus has never physically bothered me much. Outbreaks are rare and not nearly as rough as my sciatica.
The brutal part is telling a prospective partner. One might think it becomes easier with practice, but it doesn’t. Sometimes I just want to have a one-night stand without having to assume the level of trust that this disclosure requires.
I’ve been rejected a handful of times. More difficult have been the men who agreed to sleep with me, but only with caveats: Like the one who would never remove his boxers during sex, instead offering me his condomed penis surrounded by paisley-printed fabric. (My doctor rolled her eyes and suggested I stop seeing him.) Or the one who, after sex, would jump from the bed to scrub himself raw rather than enjoy some postcoital cuddling.
A few guys do stand out: Jason, who assured me that herpes would not stop him from wanting me; Red, who stayed up all night to counsel me through my worries when the diagnosis was still new; and Stu, who already had the virus and was as relieved as I was.
I’ve tried to explain to potential partners that living with herpes isn’t a big deal, but it’s hard to do this without sounding like I’m minimizing the risk in order to get into their pants. And I do worry about possibly giving herpes to a partner. I don’t want to be the reason someone else has to live with the social stigma.
Herpes forced humility upon me at an early age. I don’t know if I’d be able to summon as much compassion for other people if I didn’t have this vulnerability.
When I was ten years old, my parents let their friend Robert, who had fallen on hard times, sleep in my dad’s study for several months. I was in the habit of stealing change from a basket in my father’s study to buy candy at the corner store, and I didn’t let Robert’s presence stop me.
I also wrote in my diary about taking the money. One day when my mom was cleaning my room, she found my diary and read the passage about stealing from “Robert’s room.” She told my dad, who was horrified. He’d always held his children to a high standard of honesty.
My dad repaid Robert what he thought he was owed — although really I think it was an excuse to help him out. I’d been clear that I’d taken the money from the spare-change basket, not from Robert. My punishment was to go to church every Sunday and put a dollar of my own money into the poor box. Much worse, I had to confess to Robert what I had done and apologize for my actions. My dad laid it on thick, telling me how I had stolen from someone who couldn’t afford it.
I sat across the kitchen table from Robert, hiding my face in my hands while tears of shame streamed down my cheeks. He was a kind man, and he patted my shoulder and said he knew I hadn’t meant to hurt anyone. I think he was aware I hadn’t stolen from him, because he kept telling my father nothing was missing, but by then we were all bound by my dad’s agenda. As soon as I finished, I ran upstairs to my room and sobbed.
Did I learn a lesson about stealing? Yes. But I also learned a bigger lesson: never leave my diary out in the open.
El Sobrante, California
You’d think losing consciousness during a walk would have convinced me that something was awry. Luckily a man driving by witnessed my blackout and managed to rouse me. I woke confused as to why I was lying in the road, looking up at a stranger, and experiencing a ringing in my ears.
Even more annoying than the ringing was the screaming siren of a rescue vehicle pulling up beside me. A team of EMTs began buzzing around. It seemed like a lot of fuss over a middle-aged woman who had fainted on a quiet street.
Against my wishes I found myself in the ambulance. How many times did I have to explain to the medics that they were overreacting? I felt fine. Couldn’t they take me home and call it a day?
The EMTs weren’t buying it. They raced me to the hospital.
As it turned out, something was wrong with me. I just didn’t know it — or, more accurately, I’d decided not to acknowledge that I’d been feeling “off” for the past couple of months. Being ill didn’t fit into my lifestyle.
The doctors told me I had a severely blocked artery, and I’d passed out due to a lack of oxygen to my brain. I was given a stent. Next came six weeks of rehab alongside a handful of old folks in sweatpants. This absolutely, positively cannot be my life, I thought, sweating through a twenty-five-minute mile on a treadmill. I noticed I was the only person having a pity party, feeling ego-bruised and humiliated. The others looked grateful just to be vertical. What was I missing?
Eventually I realized that my morning walk could have turned out much worse. If that man hadn’t stopped to help, I could have had a stroke or died. I now listen to the messages my body gives me.
After I moved to coastal Maine in the late 1970s, I got in the habit of smoking pot to handle the stress of running a business. Pot allowed my mind to slip into a state I called “la-la land.”
A few years later I realized I was becoming psychologically addicted. I always needed to have a stash available. Smoking also interfered with my ability to give attention to my three young children. I joined a twelve-step program, but I didn’t take it too seriously. I’d always assumed pot was a harmless drug that didn’t really impair my decision-making or cognitive functions. Its worst effect that I could see was that it gave me the munchies.
That summer I chartered a forty-foot sailboat and invited some friends with limited sailing experience to join me. We traveled along Maine’s coast for a couple of days, ending up in Frenchman Bay, an area with a cliff-lined shore and big swells.
A few miles from us I saw a fleet of boats that had “reefed” — shortened — their sails, something often done in strong winds. It seemed a little strange since there was only a light breeze, but I didn’t think much about it. I was more focused on going into the cabin to have a joint. I left one of my friends at the wheel.
As I was getting high belowdecks, I felt the wind come up strongly, and I rushed to the cockpit. My friend had allowed the boat to turn into the wind, causing it to stall.
The boom started to swing wildly. Another friend, Tom, tried to catch it. The next thing I saw was the boom launching Tom into the ocean in what was now a real squall. He was quickly swept away from us.
My stomach felt like someone was pulling a fishhook out of it, and I berated myself for not having acted when I’d noticed the other boats reefing their sails.
The crew of a nearby boat was able to pick Tom out of the water. There’s no telling how long he would have been able to survive in the freezing bay or whether we would have been able to reach him in time.
I went back to my twelve-step program aware that sobriety can be a matter of life and death — my own or someone else’s.
As much as I wanted to stay in the house and play my guitar, I thought it would seem strange if I didn’t join my wife, Angelica, in the garage for the consultation with the foundation-repair guy. Not that my presence would add anything. She was the one who’d spent the last few weeks studying our foundation problem and researching companies online. Still, I felt I should at least feign interest.
I didn’t understand a word of his proposal, but he seemed to know his stuff. Angelica asked what sounded like a good question, and I thought how lucky I was to have her to handle this.
As the foundation guy launched into his answer, his eyes slid from Angelica to me. I squinted and nodded thoughtfully, an expression I’d often used to fool people into thinking I understood something.
OK, that’s long enough, I silently told the foundation guy. You can talk to my wife again.
But his eyes stayed trained on me. Suddenly I realized it was happening again. Why was it that mechanics and repairmen thought they needed to direct their answers to the “man of the house”? Didn’t it occur to them that there are men like me, who don’t have a clue?
I figured this guy had about ten seconds to return his attention to my wife before he lost the job. Maybe then he’d learn.
The day after my father was admitted to the hospital with complications from COVID-19, my mother called me. “I kept telling your dad, ‘You need protein. Grass-fed beef.’ But no — he insisted on oatmeal. Oatmeal won’t help fight this thing!” She began to cry.
When the vaccine had become available, my parents had said they were going to wait and see. Their decision was less political than it was personal. My mother’s fertility had been ruined years ago due to hastily approved pharmaceuticals, and they distrusted modern medicine in general. Food, they believed, could be medicine — one that didn’t pose such danger.
Though I didn’t make the same choice as my parents, I don’t begrudge their right to make it. In an imperfect world, risk is inevitable.
I’m married to a doctor who worked in a COVID-19 unit during the pandemic. When my father was admitted with the virus, my husband sat by his bedside for hours after each shift, massaging his back and beating on his chest. When my father began to improve, my husband brought him cups of coffee and stacks of books.
Now, months later, my father is home but still requires supplemental oxygen. He bemoans his decision to delay getting the vaccine. Being vaccinated might have let him spend the past year chasing his grandchildren on the lawn rather than sitting hooked up to a metal tank.
Huntington, West Virginia
The smell of garlic wafted from the Tupperware container in my hands. The dishes my second-grade classmates had brought to our cultural-celebration day were enticing, but I was sure they couldn’t compare to my parents’ signature Korean barbecue ribs. I couldn’t wait for the other kids to taste them.
I watched my classmates swarm over the other offerings while my dish grew cold in the corner. My excitement dissolved into jealousy.
Then I heard a kid exclaim, “Somebody brought poop for lunch!”
The children crowded around to inspect the brown mush in the container. Mortified, I watched some of them take whiffs and pretend to vomit while others tried to identify the mysterious poop-bringer. Any lingering hope that my dish would be praised disappeared.
When I brought home the untouched food, my parents tried to comfort me by reheating the ribs for dinner, but I was too upset to eat them.
After that day I began to distance myself from my culture. I refused to phone my grandparents because I despised speaking Korean. I begged my parents to pack me lunches with bread instead of rice. I began to hate the smell of garlic, the foundational flavor of Korean cuisine. I tried to heal the pain in my heart by shedding my Korean identity, but the hurt only grew deeper.
A few years later my family vacationed in Korea. I experienced total culture shock: Everyone looked like me. Everyone ate the foods my parents made at home. I didn’t stand out. Finally I felt comfortable with the identity I had struggled to understand in the U.S.
When we returned, I tried speaking Korean with my family. I brought rice again for lunch at school and even started eating kimchi. I began sharing parts of Korean culture with my friends: K-pop, Squid Game, and popular street foods.
I also want them to know about Korean history: how Koreans have endured Chinese and Japanese influence; how my ancestors escaped North Korea before war broke out; how I may have family there I don’t know about.
I’ve learned that my identity is what I want it to be, not how others perceive me. To be Korean means to be gritty, ambitious, and proud. One day I’ll make my own recipe for Korean barbecue ribs and share it with my friends, proud of the smell of garlic on my hands.
Los Altos, California
In my mid-twenties I quit a boring job, bought a 1960 Volkswagen Microbus, and, with my bride, infant daughter, and dog, launched a ten-thousand-mile, three-month exploration of the U.S.
In my mid-thirties, dogless and no longer married, I made another cross-country trip, this time with my daughter and son in a Ford F-150 with a camper shell.
In my seventies and retired, I yearned for more road trips. Memory embellished the highs of my long-ago journeys: the sandstone buttes in Utah’s Monument Valley; the sandy Florida beaches; the rugged beauty of Acadia National Park. Crossing Lake Erie on a ferry. Marveling at Mount Rushmore. I eyed ads in travel magazines that showed RVs in bucolic settings without another person in sight.
My wife, whose previous camping experience was in a thirty-foot Airstream (the Cadillac of RVs), supported my purchase of a used, eighteen-foot travel trailer. Although small, it offered more comforts than the VW bus or camper shell I’d had before.
On our first trip reality hit. We were both older than we’d been the last time we’d done this. Towing a trailer, even a small one, is stressful. Crawling over each other for nocturnal bathroom trips is not conducive to a good night’s sleep, nor is the purr of a water heater under a bed two inches too short for my six-foot-two frame. On hot nights we had the choice of running an air conditioner that sounded like a jet plane on steroids or opening the windows to the noise of crowded campgrounds. Our geriatric dachshund did not like the inconveniences either.
After spending only six nights in the trailer over a span of three years, I sold it to a much younger adventurer who fantasized about a carefree life on the road. When my wife and I travel now, we stay in hotels.
Central Point, Oregon
When I was in middle school in the 1950s, I had a paper route. Apart from buying a five-cent candy bar a few times a week, I saved my money, and after two years I had five hundred dollars. I heard there were one-acre lots for sale on the hill across the railroad tracks from my house. I didn’t know how big an acre was, but I imagined an almost infinite grassy slope.
Having no idea how to purchase one of the lots, I asked my father for help. He told me not to do it, saying the land would never be worth anything. Unsure how to proceed on my own, I passed up the opportunity.
Those lots, with their views of the San Francisco Bay, now sell for $1.5 million.
When my father died in 1997, I received a small inheritance and decided to invest it in a land-development scheme. I was working an hourly job and thought I deserved some easy money.
After a few years of struggle, the development was ready for market on July 1, 2005, just as real-estate prices reached their peak. By July 4 prices plateaued, and soon they were collapsing like a sandcastle at high tide. I lost everything I had invested.
The developer told me, “My father always said wisdom is what you get when you don’t get what you want.”
Never again did I try to make money just for the sake of more money. Now, at the age of seventy-seven, I have a loving family, a beautiful home, and lots of wisdom.
Santa Rosa, California
My husband and I divorced after his drinking ruined our relationship. He was driving drunk, getting into accidents, harassing me at work, and threatening my children from a previous marriage. My lawyer in the divorce could not believe that I had married my husband in the first place. He implored me to make a new life without this man.
Later, after my ex had lost everything — his car, his friends, his clothes, even his glasses — he called me for help and said he was ready to get sober.
He went to rehab, and we resumed life together as a family. It was wonderful at first. Our four-year-old son thrived now that his dada was finally home. We bought a house and got remarried.
But I was not prepared for how some people act when they give up drinking. My husband didn’t go to AA or get counseling. Instead he became a “dry drunk,” still exhibiting all the meanness and emotional turmoil of his drinking years. This was heartbreaking because I could no longer use alcohol to excuse his behavior.
A year and a half into our second marriage I found out he was talking to another woman and had told her he was separated. When I questioned him, he said he didn’t love me anymore and wanted a divorce.
During the mandatory 120-day waiting period, I did everything I could to get him to stay and not destroy our family. I begged him to go to counseling, and he did attend a couple of sessions, but when the going got rough, he walked out. We went through with the divorce.
We settled into our separate lives, and men started calling me. As soon as my ex found out, he said he had made a mistake and wanted me back. Being a single mother with no help was hard, and he was familiar. He talked me into marrying him again. I thought maybe the third time would be a charm.
It wasn’t. He kept vacillating and left me a few more times. I would always take him back, out of fear of being alone.
Finally one night, while I was doing the dishes, he told me yet again he didn’t love me anymore, and I told him he had to leave. He moved out, I filed for divorce, and a wonderful man showed up in my life. For four months I knew how it felt to be with someone who actually cared about me.
When my husband found out about the other man, he decided, again, that he couldn’t let me go. He began counseling and begged me to let him come back. Our son was struggling without his father, so, even though it broke my heart, I ended the relationship with the man I had been seeing. I cried myself to sleep for weeks, wondering if I had done the right thing. Then my husband was diagnosed with throat cancer. I felt I had no choice but to stay with him.
He survived. Everything between us seemed as good as it had ever been, and I learned to adjust my expectations. Eight years later he was diagnosed with lung cancer, which was caught early and treated with surgery.
His doctors recently gave him a clean bill of health. A week after the good news, he told me he doesn’t love me anymore.
I am now seventy years old and living on Social Security. In spite of my age and the financial repercussions, I am determined to finally let him go.
I wish I had listened to that lawyer the first time.
About a year ago, at the age of eighty-nine, my husband collapsed and was taken by ambulance to a cardiac unit. He was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation and came home needing many medications. Each day he got worse, to the point where he started calling friends to say goodbye. He told me he’d made peace with dying.
For decades he’d maintained our eleven-acre property, fixed everything that broke, and done all the shopping and cooking. This had freed me to work at my interests: gardening, playing the fiddle, fabric collage, and photography.
Now it was my turn to take care of him, but I had to learn from scratch. I worked at it nonstop. I researched his medications, found the right doctors, and took him to appointments. I froze and dehydrated food. I shoveled snow all winter so I could quickly drive him to the ER if he had a stroke.
Then my own health fell apart. My husband was enjoying each sunny day, reading, watching TV, and cooking, but I could barely sleep or eat. “Did you know that patients often outlive their caregivers?” a friend asked me.
I had to admit I couldn’t do it all. I’m learning to ask for help and to forgive myself for not being able to care for my husband every hour of the day. That’s the hardest part.
Lewisburg, West Virginia
I grew up in a poor Black family. Though my parents were far from middle-class, they still provided my siblings and me with tutors and 4-H, love, and home-cooked meals. We took vacations to Miami and Savannah, shared funnel cake at the Georgia State Fair, and went on Christmas-shopping excursions in the family station wagon.
My mother and father prided themselves on being the best parents they could be. They didn’t shirk their responsibilities just because they were thirty-year-olds with four teenagers.
I wanted to raise my own children in a similar two-parent home. When I became pregnant with my first child, a son, I asked the baby’s father to move in with me. Less than three years later I gave birth to our daughter. By then the babies’ father had become an alcoholic. Unable to keep a job, he served as the children’s primary caretaker. Over and over I would plead with him to wait until I got home before he started drinking or to take the children to my mom’s place. He tried his best, but the alcohol consumed him.
When our daughter was eight months and twenty-six days old, he beat her to death. I have been incarcerated for seventeen years because I “failed to act to protect” her.
I tried to be the best mom that I could. I just didn’t try hard enough. I will always live with that.
My adolescent afternoons were often spent in detention: feet planted on the floor, hands folded on top of the desk, eyes looking straight at the blackboard. I was forbidden to move my head. Punishments were tough in my Catholic school. The worst was two textbooks slammed on the top of my head in succession. My offense that time was rolling my eyes at Sister Mary Francis after she chastised me for picking up my books prior to dismissal.
One day Mother Agnes entered my classroom and pointed to me. I was in trouble again. I remember her towering height as we descended the stairs to her office. I shrank into a chair, hoping to make myself less visible. When she asked whether I had drunk any beer prior to the school dance, I said yes. She gave me a thrashing, then stamped EXPELLED on my school record.
A few days later I transferred to another Catholic high school. Within weeks I was caught skipping class and told to wait by a fountain in the school’s courtyard for Mother Ann. I sat there, anticipating her wrath.
When she arrived, she sat down next to me and calmly said, “Please do not do this again.” That was all. Astonished, I thanked her and returned to class.
Those simple, nonjudgmental words stirred something inside me. I never got in trouble at school again.
I’m now a school counselor. As I walk the halls, I pass bulletin boards adorned with phrases like “You are special” and “Kindness matters.” My days are focused on treating students with dignity and respect and hopefully imparting a few words that might help them along the way.