Click here for the May 2021 Featured Selection by Michael Ditchfield.


It was 2:47 AM when my cellphone rang and I saw “County Jail” on the caller ID. That was the moment I finally admitted that I live with a drug and alcohol addict.

He had come home drunk before, but he had also held down a good job and loved our daughter deeply. At one point I’d thought he was having an affair, because he regularly called to tell me he was working late to meet a deadline. The night of his call from jail I learned that, although those excuses were sometimes true, more often he was drinking at a strip club. I also learned that he frequently followed an alcohol binge with cocaine.

Instead of a trial, he opted for a court-ordered rehab program: a year of mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, community service, and drug testing. His employer found out about the arrest and fired him. He changed the background on his phone to a picture of Alcatraz to remind himself of what was at stake. He worked hard to stay sober. And I worked hard to rebuild my trust in him.

After he completed the rehab program with no slip-ups, the judge expunged his record but warned him not to get overconfident, lest he relapse. Months went by without incident. Then I overheard a neighbor ask him for the name of the wine they’d shared the night before. He told me he had just been drinking socially, to prove to himself that he could, but I soon found bottles hidden around the house. And then I found him drunk again.

He begged me to forgive him and promised to see a counselor, but he refused to go back to AA, claiming it wasn’t the meetings that had kept him sober but his own willpower.

He’s fallen off the wagon twice since then, with months of sobriety in between. I know most people would leave him, but when he is sober, things are good. He’s funny and charming most of the time. He’s a good father to our daughter, and I don’t want to tear our family apart. His addiction is an illness, and I promised to be with him “in sickness and in health.” So I stay, and on the nights when I wake up at 2 AM to find the bed empty beside me, I sit up and wait to hear the front door open — or the phone ring.

Name Withheld

When we stopped at the yard sale, Dad told us to stay in the car. My little sister, Bre, ignored him and hopped out, picking up a stuffed panda bear for sale. It was dirty, torn, and missing an eye, but she clung to that bear until Dad paid $2.50 for it. Then she skipped back to the car and buckled a seat belt around this ugly stuffed animal. She named it Mr. Pickles.

Despite his shabby appearance, Mr. Pickles always had a spot at our dinner table and came along on all our family vacations. I asked Bre one day why she liked that bear so much. She said that when she’d seen him lying on the table at that yard sale, he’d called to her for help, saying he was cold and alone and needed to be held. So she’d picked him up and held him.

Twenty years later he’s waiting to be handed down to my new niece or nephew. In fact, Mr. Pickles is with Bre in the labor-and-delivery room right now.

Jonielle Osborne,
Madison, Alabama

When you have twin infants, the nights are almost as long as the days. Last night one of the boys, Zach, woke crying, and it was my turn to sleep with him in the guest room. This morning I feel incredibly tired. Zach does not sleep for more than forty minutes at a time. Friends assured me it would get easier after the first three months, but that time has come and gone with no noticeable change.

After my husband leaves for work, Zach settles down, but then Andrew starts to cry. I hold one boy and rock the other in his bouncy seat as my frustration grows. I contemplate taking the twins shopping. It is a daunting proposition, but if I don’t go, I won’t see or speak to another adult until after five o’clock.

Both boys scream in unison as I strap them into their infant carriers. Then I lug them separately to the car, too weak to haul both at once. Leaving one screaming baby in the car while I retrieve the other, I say a quick prayer of gratitude that we live in a safe neighborhood. Zach and Andrew continue screaming until the minivan starts to move.

In the department store my sons attract a lot of attention. Strangers approach our double stroller, exclaiming, “Are they twins?” Someone assures me that I am lucky because the boys will always have each other to play with. I will come to appreciate the truth of this several years from now, when they do begin to play together. In the meantime what gets me through the next seven hours, until my husband comes home and I can take a hot bath, weeping with exhaustion, is a comment from a mother of older twins. She stops me in an aisle of the department store, looks into my eyes, and says, “You’re doing great.”

Susan E. Lindsay
Henrico, Virginia

My husband is my best friend, an honest, hardworking, loyal man who loves me and our children deeply. He also struggles to display physical affection and rarely compliments me or says, “I love you.” Marriage counseling has helped, but can someone be taught tenderness? Sometimes my thoughts drift to my male friends, whose hugs, casual touches, and good-natured flirting carry me through the lonely evenings spent watching TV at the opposite end of the couch from the man I love. When I’m alone, I sometimes hug the door frame just to feel the pressure against my body. I’ll close my eyes and press my head to the wood and imagine it’s human contact that I feel.

I have contemplated divorce and fantasized about an affair, but either would ultimately lead to pain not only for ourselves but for our children. So instead I have chosen to sacrifice my desires in exchange for my husband’s consistency and our family’s stability. Tonight I crawl in on my side of the bed, my back facing my husband’s, as always. I stroke my hair and caress my arm, imagining my husband — or any man — is touching me.

Corvallis, Oregon

For most of elementary school, gym class was a breeze: walk a lap around the gymnasium, shoot a basketball, play badminton. In the fifth grade, however, gym began to demand feats of physical fitness that my pudgy ten-year-old body could not manage: run a mile around the school, do thirty push-ups, play dodge-ball.

The worst was the dreaded chin-up bar. Every Friday our gym teacher, an older woman who looked like a professional bodybuilder, would line us up in front of the bar. She expected everyone to do at least five chin-ups. The athletic children were always eager to compete, but I began pretending to be sick on Fridays just to avoid gym. After my third Friday in a row of feigned illness, my mother figured out my deception and made me go to school.

In gym class, when it was my turn, I leapt and grabbed the bar, pulling with all my might, but I couldn’t do a single chin-up, and my pasty-white belly flopped out from my shirt for all my classmates to see. I still remember how it felt to hang there, suspended in space.

Gunter Wisdom
Cordova, Alabama

Alzheimer’s has made my mother-in-law, Elizabeth, combative and cruel. Her husband, Howard, bears the brunt of her viciousness. She batters him with demands, accusations, and even physical attacks. But Howard promised at their wedding to take care of his wife, and he aims to keep his word.

Howard has had his own health problems, including prostate cancer, throat cancer, skin cancer, and a leukemia-type blood cancer. He’s gone through radiation treatments, topical chemotherapy, three cataract surgeries, and sixty days of treatment in a hyperbaric chamber. He takes ten pills a day and has a pacemaker in his chest due to a past heart failure.

Howard and Elizabeth live together in a nursing home, but Howard often won’t let the caregivers bathe Elizabeth, insisting on doing it himself. He hides her incontinence from the staff and cleans up after her. He won’t even let them take her to another room just to give him a brief respite.

Today Howard is having another surgery. One of his doctors suggested he consider refusing further treatment, but Howard wanted to go through with it. If he recovers, he has two more procedures scheduled. Meanwhile Elizabeth is angry because he is not there taking care of her.

Some people see Elizabeth and Howard’s story as sweet: two elderly people still so in love that they can’t live apart. But members of our family see them as stuck together in a slow, agonizing decline, both refusing to let go.

Name Withheld

My husband and I lived with our toddler son, Steve, in a house on three acres in an undeveloped subdivision on the island of Hawaii. We had no electricity and used a propane stove and kerosene lamps. Our connection to the outside world was a CB radio that rarely worked, and the roads were minimal at best, but we were confidently self-reliant.

Our sturdy deck was a source of pride for my husband and me. We’d built it with thick rails made from branches of ohia, a native Hawaiian hardwood. One afternoon Steve and I were singing and playing together on the deck while my husband worked on our Volkswagen van. Occasionally Steve would call down to his dad in the driveway and wave and clap. Steve was holding one of the railings and jumping up and down when all of a sudden the railing gave way, and he fell through the gap.

I lunged and caught our son by one ankle, saving him from a twenty-five-foot fall, headfirst. Steve laughed innocently, unaware of the danger, while my husband’s face turned ashen.

I cannot imagine how our lives would have changed had I not been able to grab Steve’s ankle. I can still feel it in my hand.

Mary Hudak
Hilo, Hawaii

The night before the yard sale, my boyfriend and I were identifying junk we wanted to get rid of: candles, picture frames, old clothes, books not worth reading twice. As I climbed into the back of my closet, I saw the large speaker box from my 1991 Pontiac Grand Am. I pulled it out and handed it to my boyfriend, who asked if I was sure I wanted to let it go. I cried but told him yes, it was time.

It had been more than fifteen years since I had sold the car. The speaker represented my youth: nights out dancing, drinking, having sex in the back of the car (or on the hood), and feeling very much desired and invincible. I’d kept it as a memento of the boy who had built it for me, who had also given me plenty of affection — and my first orgasm — before our relationship fell apart. That speaker reminded me that I could be loved for who I was.

But now I was resolved to let go of the past. I put the speaker in the yard sale — with a price tag of fifty dollars.

Needless to say, I still have it. I guess no one else thought it was worth as much as I do.

Jennifer McCann
Canton, New York

I once injured my leg in a bizarre accident and spent a summer recuperating. My anxious husband, Paul, was a solicitous nurse, but I think he was uncomfortable in the position of caretaker. Once, I had to wake him up in the middle of the night to help me to the bathroom. Groggy with medication and pain, I wrapped my arms around his neck and held on as he half carried, half waltzed me across the floor. Despite the awkwardness, there was something tender and intimate about the moment.

Years later, as my mother neared the end of her life, she became feeble from loss of weight and the cocktail of drugs she was given at the nursing home. When she needed to use the toilet, she and I performed the same clumsy dance. She held my neck and sometimes giggled as if tipsy. I presume it was humiliating for her — I know I was embarrassed — but I hope my mother also felt cared for in her time of need, as I had when I’d put my arms around my husband’s neck and held on.

Lisa Hendricks
Missoula, Montana

I have a terrible memory. Last year while trying to show my husband where I went to high school, I got lost and drove right by the place. I can’t even remember where I lived during my sophomore and junior years of college.

To combat my forgetfulness, I take notes about life as it happens — especially the things my daughter says. She is nine and doesn’t know that I document bits of her conversations. How else would I remember her high-pitched laughter when a boy in her class called to talk about snowballs? Or how she reacted when a boy from the neighborhood announced that he would tend the fire in our living room. (“Uh, thank you?” she responded, her eyebrows raised. “There is really no need to do that.”) When she was four and not following my instructions, she told me her listening skills were “broken.” At six she compared the wrinkles on my forehead to the edges of a bottle cap. At eight she realized that she and bacon had “grown apart.”

By writing down these fleeting moments, I can not only remember that they happened, but also how important they are to me.

Robin L. Flanigan
Rochester, New York

Before my husband and I got married more than two decades ago, he told me about his addiction to strip clubs and prostitutes. He was attending a support group to deal with it, he said, and I felt sure our healthy sex life would supplant his urges. But six months ago I answered his cellphone, and a woman I didn’t know was on the line. He would later admit she was a prostitute.

My husband confessed that he had been going to strip clubs and seeing prostitutes for twenty of our twenty-two years together. He estimated that, during the course of our marriage, he’d had encounters with forty different women, and that wasn’t even counting all the lap dances. He always felt guilty afterward and had even spent nine months in counseling without telling me. Afraid of losing me, he would keep his lapses a secret and try to put each one out of his mind — until the next time.

After six more months of therapy and countless in-depth discussions about our marriage, he reports that he no longer feels a desire to “act out.” He is being true to himself as well as to me, and his guilt has turned to regret. Meanwhile I have the burden of living with the knowledge of his infidelity. This crisis has threatened our marriage but also helped us understand each other better. We each remain committed to providing a safe haven for the other. Isn’t that the goal of marriage?

Name Withheld

On our annual journey north to visit relatives in England’s Lake District, my family stopped for lunch at an inn at the foot of a rocky, barren hill called Barf. I was nine, and my sister was eight. It was the 1950s, and children were not allowed in public houses back then. So we were left to eat our sandwiches in the car while our parents and grandparents dined inside.

Halfway up the hill is a huge stone known as Bishop’s Rock. According to local legend, in 1783, after a night of drinking at the inn, the Bishop of Derry made a wager that he could ride his horse to the top of the hill. The rock marks the spot where his horse tumbled, killing them both. I wanted to hike to the stone, but my sister preferred to stay in the car and read her book, so I set off alone.

At first the going was easy, but as I climbed higher, I had to hoist myself between boulders. It took a long time to reach Bishop’s Rock. Once there, I started to worry that I’d get in trouble with my parents. I was supposed to be watching my sister, and I had been gone for a while. Going back the way I had come would take too long. A steep slope covered in loose slate looked like the faster way down. I scrambled over to it, got a running start, and slid on the stones. I did this several times, with each slide faster and longer than the last. Too late I saw that the slope ended at a steep cliff.

As I slid over the edge on my stomach, I grasped a small bush and held on tight. Below me was a long, probably fatal drop onto the rocks below. I rationalized that if I let go, I might only break my legs. But how would anyone find me?

Suddenly I heard a clear, calm voice say, Move your left hand to the rock next to the bush. I did as the voice instructed. Now your right. The rock will come loose, but you will have time. Keep moving. Good boy. You’ll be fine. Following the guidance of this comforting voice, I pulled myself back up onto solid ground. I made it to the car just before my parents and grandparents emerged from the inn.

I am now sixty-five years old, and two things have never left me since that day: a terror of heights and an understanding that there is a world beyond this one.

Michael Ditchfield
Edgartown, Massachusetts

Thirty-five years ago my wife, Barbara, went into labor with our first child. It was a home birth, overseen by a midwife who went by the name “Sunshine.” This suited us fine. Both refugees from conservative families, Barbara and I rebelled against all things mainstream and wanted no more to do with Western medicine than we did with imperialist warfare, corporate greed, or Christian fundamentalism.

Barbara’s labor progressed normally for several hours, then stalled. I could see our son’s head, but his body wasn’t moving. The midwife assured us that the baby was not in crisis. Having never experienced childbirth, and still clinging to our view that the only good birth was a home birth, we stuck with our plan.

When our son’s body finally emerged into the world, he wasn’t breathing. Our baby had suffered a brain hemorrhage in the birth canal, a fatal injury that could have been avoided with proper fetal-heart-rate monitoring and a C-section at the hospital. We had held tight to our convictions, but we’d lost our son.

William Larsen
Nevada City, California

Ten years ago I realized I needed to quit my job. Although my career had been rewarding in many ways, it had consumed my life and drastically changed me. I had stayed this long only out of a strong work ethic and a misplaced sense of loyalty. I was also afraid: of the impact on my finances, of being labeled a quitter, of not being able to find new employment at my age. Realizing I had to go, I made a compromise with myself: I would see the project I was working on through to its end. Then I could leave.

And I did complete the project, but new ones took its place until a year had passed. I began waking up in the mornings with a sense of dread. Two more years went by. I had dreams that I was clinging to a steel bar suspended high above a dark, dangerous landscape while a relentless wind tried to tear me loose.

One day, during a short vacation, I decided to clean and reorganize my home office, which I barely used anymore. As I was wondering where to start, I saw that everything was exactly as I had left it six years earlier when I’d been promoted to my current position. Notebooks full of essay ideas and unfinished manuscripts lined the shelves above the desk. Another shelf held my cameras, some with undeveloped film still in them. In a file drawer I found my partially completed application to graduate school. In another were seed catalogs and lists of plants I had intended to order before my vegetable garden and flower beds had been overcome by weeds.

The person who had lived in this room had been creative and curious, with wide-ranging interests. Perhaps she had been a bit unfocused, but she had been passionate about possibilities. I suddenly realized that person was gone and would never return. I cried for hours. Then I quit my job.

Later I accepted another position with the same organization, which has proved to be a perfect fit. But today, as I stroll through a city park, observing the landscape and its wildlife, I consider another difficult decision that I now face: whether to retire or keep working until I’m no longer able. I could build a new list of fears, one that includes the diminishing capabilities of old age and the feeling of dwindling significance. I envy the birds at the park, who so easily lift their wings to the breeze, let go of their perches, and soar.

Name Withheld

While attending graduate school in Boston, I would step over homeless men and women sleeping on the sidewalk without a thought as to who they were. Now, years later, I volunteer in a homeless shelter as an intake worker. My job is to check the bags and backpacks of arriving guests for drugs, alcohol, weapons, and other contraband. I am often intrigued by what the homeless carry with them: mostly clothes, toiletries, cigarettes, and books, but also less practical items.

An aging Native American artist with long gray hair saves matchbook covers and scraps of paper with drawings on them. An elderly woman carries yarn and knitting needles for an afghan she is making for the pregnant teenage girl in the shelter. A lanky young man has CDs of his own musical recordings neatly packed. A teenage mother hauls around presents for her five-year-old daughter, who is in foster care and whom she sees once a month. Another young woman carries diapers and clothing for a child she hopes to have someday. A handsome, middle-aged recovering alcoholic keeps a Bible tucked into his bag and proudly proclaims it to be the source of his sobriety. A toothless older woman nightly unpacks and repacks a pair of red stiletto heels that she can’t bear to part with.

I have come to view these seemingly impractical items as vital necessities. They reflect the hopes, memories, and individuality of these people.

Diane L. Laflamme
Mattapoisett, Massachusetts

When my marriage of thirty-one years ended, I was stunned. My ex-husband and our two grown children had been the center of my life for decades. In therapy I struggled with what had happened and tried to address my fear of losing my children’s love and being completely alone. I didn’t even understand why my husband and I had gotten divorced and couldn’t say if I had wanted it or not. That winter I often sat by my wood stove for warmth and stared out the window in a daze.

Six months later I quit my job and moved to a city to start anew. My son graduated from college and took off on his own adventures. My daughter lived five hundred miles away and worked at the same school as my ex-husband. I talked to my kids every week or so, but mostly I was by myself, avoiding the few friends I had and too anxious to make new ones. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I did not want a new start; I wanted my family back.

I moved closer to my daughter and my ex-husband. I often forgot to call him my “ex,” as I was beginning to dream about our getting back together. The divorce seemed like a huge misunderstanding. I asked him if he’d go to couples therapy with me and give our relationship another try, but he kindly told me he was seeing someone.

Even then I clung to my false image of our perfect family and the hope to restore it. The more time I spent absorbed in my loss, the more pain I felt. It was physical: a tightness in my chest and a sick feeling in my stomach. One night I was barely hanging on to my sanity.

A year later I have attended enough support groups and done enough therapy to finally accept my life as it is now. I am finding my way as an independent woman and letting go of my fantasies about the past.

Name Withheld

At the end of 2010 I was malnourished, suicidal, and facing the possibility of being institutionalized. I had lost friends in the wake of my destructive behavior and felt alone and worthless. But at least I was sober. Recovery had given me a new way of coping. It wasn’t always graceful, but I stayed clean.

I’m now coming up on four years of sobriety. It hasn’t been easy. Once, when my long-term relationship with someone I’d met in a support group ended, I began doubting the program and myself. I could barely stand the shame I felt when I saw him at meetings, and I fantasized about relapsing, but I got through it.

Then I met Andrew, who was also a recovering alcoholic, and we began dating. Within months he was drinking again, but I continued to see him. One time I kissed him and tasted vodka on his tongue. Part of me began to crave that old destructive behavior.

I made plans to meet up with Andrew and get high, but before I did, I spoke at a meeting about how I was struggling, and my friends intervened. I ended up barbecuing vegetables with women in the program instead. When I proclaimed that I was in love with Andrew, they suggested that I probably just wanted to get high, and he was a convenient — though admittedly cute — excuse to do so. To this day I am grateful to those women for helping me avoid disaster.

A couple of weeks later another friend of mine relapsed and died the first time he shot up. It was a terrible reminder of how recovery from addiction is truly a fight for survival.

Portland, Maine

When my brothers and I were small and needed assurance, one of our parents would hold out a finger for us to clasp. My brother, Sid, who is five years younger than I am, started walking when he was just nine months old. Our mother would spread quilts in the yard for us to sit on. When Sid would crawl to the edge of his blanket, one of my parents would hold out a finger, and he would grasp it, pull himself up, and walk.

One day I was running across the yard when I tripped over a tree root and fell against the edge of a wooden lawn chair. My chin was split open and needed stitches. My father hustled me into the car and drove me to the hospital twenty-five miles away. Once we got there, the doctor said he was going to use a local anesthetic, but he also wanted to swaddle me tightly to keep me still while he cleaned and stitched up the wound. As soon as he and a nurse finished wrapping a warm sheet around me, I panicked and began to weep and gasp for air. “Unwrap the sheet,” my father said. “I guarantee that she will not move.”

The doctor and nurse were skeptical, but my father refused to let them proceed until I was free. The nurse unwrapped me, and my father held out a finger. “Here,” he said, “you can hold on to me.”

I did, and it was enough.

Judith Lessler
Pittsboro, North Carolina

Aunt Tara was a widow of modest means who lived in a small town in India, far from the big city where I grew up. When she wrote to my dad looking for an inexpensive place for her son, Biju, to stay in the city while he attended college, my father offered to let him share my room. My cousin and I were about the same age. Soft-spoken and shy, Biju was pleasant to be around, and we quickly became friends.

Five months after he moved in, Biju went out one afternoon to meet a friend at the railway station and didn’t return. We called his friends and acquaintances and checked the local hospitals. When no leads turned up, we called the police. Since I had gotten to know him best, it fell to me to call his mother and break the news. Aunt Tara listened without interrupting, then said quietly, “Please get Biju back to me.”

I took charge of the search, talking to the police and placing notices in the newspaper with the offer of a reward. I eventually found a merchant who had encountered Biju in the vicinity of the railway station, but that was it. There were no other clues. The police closed the case, and I traveled to visit Aunt Tara and explain that we were giving up. Once again she listened and then repeated her plea for the return of her son.

Biju never came back. I found it difficult to face Aunt Tara at family gatherings and often avoided her. Once, I ran into her at a wedding. She inquired about my family, then asked, “Any news?” I shook my head.

Over the next twenty years I encountered Aunt Tara another four or five times. At some point during each conversation she would go silent and simply look at me. I always felt she was putting the question to me without actually voicing it.

Aunt Tara died at the age of eighty-nine. She was at her daughter’s house, having come to the city to see a cardiac specialist, and I drove over to be with her in her final hour. I sat by her bed and held her hand as she asked about my children. Then there was a pause, and she looked at me and murmured, “Please get Biju back.”

Manish Nandy
Reston, Virginia

My husband died from cancer two years after his diagnosis. After his death I had to fix up our house and put it on the market, find another place to live, and sell two cars and our motor home. I frequently woke with night sweats, feeling overwhelmed. I wanted to escape these responsibilities so badly that I considered joining the Peace Corps or just walking away from it all and driving across the country with our dog. I would often have crying spells. Sometimes I would go into a room, shut the door, and scream.

I kept all this a secret, even from the people I loved. I didn’t want to reveal my weakness after my husband had shown such strength while he was dying. At times I thought my own death might be the only solution.

My dog bore witness to my plight. Each morning he would bring his leash to me in hopes of a walk. I always gave in and took him to the park for a stroll along the lake. As the sun rose, I would watch the mist disappear from the water and listen to the sounds of wildlife all around.

Often my dog and I would climb a hill overlooking the park and lie on the grass. When he would put his head in my lap and sleep, I felt that I was needed and loved. On the way home I would stop at a drive-through, buy my dog a ham-and-egg breakfast sandwich, and watch with pleasure as he gobbled it down.

Back at home, surrounded by memories, I would feel depression coming on again. But my dog would retrieve his rubber-duck toy for a game of fetch, and his zeal would compel me to get up and move. Sometimes I would put on some music, grasp his front paws, and dance with him until I fell on the couch laughing.

This occurred day after day until I realized that, just as life was renewed on the lake with each dawn, so, too, could my life start over. It took a lot of persistence on my dog’s part, but I finally got the message.

Carol Jones
York, Pennsylvania

I have been taking care of my mother, who has Alzheimer’s, for a decade. Several years ago she signed a DNR — “do not resuscitate” — order and later moved into a dementia unit in a nursing home. We put her on “comfort care,” which means that in the event of an emergency she is no longer to be taken to the hospital.

When my mother got pneumonia, her doctor told me that she would likely die within two weeks if we didn’t give her an antibiotic. The decision was up to me, her healthcare proxy. When my mother and I had discussed her end-of-life wishes, we hadn’t specifically addressed whether to treat a life-threatening infection. I was sure that if I were in my mother’s situation, I would not want the antibiotic. She was unable to bathe or feed herself, unable to read or write or speak coherently, unable to walk independently or remember that she had children. But I feared that others would think I’d chosen to forgo the treatment out of convenience. I also worried about how my siblings would react.

For advice I turned to a friend, a doctor whose father had had Alzheimer’s and had ultimately died from a kidney infection that the family had chosen not to treat. I told him about my mother’s quality of life, how she easily became anxious, suffered severe pain from her arthritis, and often got agitated, even combative. My friend asked if she had any moments of pleasure during the course of a day. I said she often asked for her father, whom she remembered fondly. She didn’t know who I was, but she seemed to enjoy it when my daughter and I visited. She liked holding our hands.

I was surprised when my friend said he would treat the pneumonia.

The next day I told my mother’s doctor to begin the antibiotic. I stayed by her side, giving her liquids and feeding her. She recovered within two weeks.

That was a year and a half ago. My mother’s pain, anxiety, and agitation have increased as she continues to decline. I now feel guilty for prolonging her life and wish I’d had the courage to let her go.

Name Withheld

Before we were married, my third husband behaved well. We were both academics and arranged to take sabbaticals the same year so we could spend time together. He ended up moving in with me. My first inkling of his temper came when the vacuum cleaner stopped working one day. As he tried to fix it, he ranted at the top of his voice.

He has never threatened me and is a good man at heart, but he slams doors and breaks dishes in anger. Sometimes he can be so negative I just stop listening to him. I have done well in my field, but he never got tenure. He threw chalk and cursed in class, and students gave him terrible evaluations. I urged him to retire before he was fired, even though his pension is paltry. He cannot manage money and has received letters from collection agencies ever since we began living together. He also has bad hygiene and terrible breath. He won’t even bathe before sex.

I have moved our household four times in the last seven years, trying to find a place where the neighbors won’t call the police about his screaming. Three times I have ordered him to move out, but then I see his grief-stricken face, and I relent and put my arms around him. When I hug him, his hands hang limp at his sides.

Why do I stay with this man? Because three years ago he diagnosed himself with Asperger’s syndrome, and I will not throw a disabled person out on the street. Besides, I love the jerk — from his thinning gray hair to his smelly toes.

Name Withheld

Hold your baby with your left arm, close to your heart, supporting her head in the crook of your elbow. Hold her firmly but not too tight. If you need your arms free, put your baby in a sling across your chest, because it’s important to keep her as close as possible.

Hold your baby’s hands when she is learning to walk. Hunch over and walk like a penguin until your back is almost stuck in that position. Don’t grip her hands too tight or too loose, but strive to maintain the perfect tension. If she falls, pick her up and hold her to your chest.

Hold your child’s hand when she’s crossing the street, whether she wants you to or not. Keep a firm grip regardless of how she pulls and protests. On nature hikes, allow her to choose whether to cross rope bridges, creeks, fallen logs, and rocks. Let her change her mind often.

Hold on to the handlebars of your child’s bike when she’s learning to ride. Run beside her, waiting for her to find her balance. Don’t let go too soon, or she’ll panic and fall and blame you. When she rides, celebrate her success.

Hold on to your armrest while your teenager is learning to drive. Do not yell, lecture, criticize, gasp, press your foot on invisible brakes, or hyperventilate. If she gets in an accident, she’ll say it was because you distracted her.

Hold your tongue when your daughter comes downstairs dressed like a thrift-store belly dancer. Don’t look her up and down disapprovingly. Just keep your eyes above her neckline and kindly remind her that her curfew is midnight.

Hold back your anger when the police officer calls to say that your daughter was caught speeding with a carful of underage drunk passengers. Assure him that you will hold her personally responsible for the fine and give her a stern talking-to when she gets home. Then, when she walks in the door, take her firmly by the arm and speak to her from your frightened heart, saying that you don’t support her choices.

Hold back tears when your daughter calls you from jail to ask for bail. Tell her you’re sorry that she’s in trouble, and you will see her at the arraignment. After she calls you a bitch and hangs up, dry your tears and remember cradling her as a baby.

Hold on to the good feeling you get when your daughter announces that she’s going to major in art. Brag to your friends and imagine her drawings framed and hanging on your walls. And when she drops her art class a week later, pick yourself up and hang on to the belief that she will find her way. Hold that belief close to your heart.

Mountain Brook, Alabama