Last night I picked up a half-smoked cigarette in the street and walked along twirling it in my fingers, trying to think where I could get a light. Then I threw the butt into the bushes. It was a triumph.

This is my life: I feel triumphant when I don’t bring home cigarette butts I’ve found by the curb. I feel triumphant every time I drive a car without smoking. I am no longer a person. I am a nonsmoker. Every ounce of my energy — physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual — is devoted to not smoking. My thoughts all lead to the fact that I can’t smoke. People talk to me, and their words become little cigarettes in my head. I can’t concentrate long enough to study or even to make a pot of coffee. So I dance around, pick up dog hair, sing, check my e-mail.

I bore myself with this whole nonsmoking bit. I can only imagine the effect I must have on others: How are you? I am not smoking. How’s your work? I am not smoking. What are you doing for the holidays? What the fuck do you think I’m doing? I am not fucking smoking. Merry Christmas.

My head is foggy, but my lungs are clear. I am determined to prevail. In the meantime, best keep your distance.

Deirdre Mahoney
Oakland, California

I have a good life. My partner is loving, thoughtful, and earns enough as a business executive that I can stay home with our two children. We live in an upscale neighborhood with hundred-year-old trees and superb schools.

But every time I’m running errands and driving a northbound freeway, I think about continuing on to San Francisco. There I could write full time. I could come and go as I pleased. I could sleep. I could sit in a coffeehouse and talk about the future, possibilities, ideas. The grown-ups in my life now talk only about interest rates, remodeling, and investment portfolios.

I dream about driving north until I’m on the doorstep of City Lights bookstore. I probably could never actually do it. But I am tempted.

South Pasadena, California

I didn’t steal as a child, even though I was poor and hungry and had reason to. No, the temptation arose only after I had plenty of money. Then I began to pocket lipstick, earrings, inexpensive drugstore items. I even tried to get away with not paying for subways or tram tickets.

I was unhappily married and desperately lonely. Our two children fought constantly. My mother lived next door, and I resented her emotional dependency. But it wasn’t my marriage that caused my crimes, because after I was divorced, I continued to steal. Did I secretly want to be caught? Was it a rebellion of sorts? Was it because my father had raised me to question whether I really needed something before buying it, and I unconsciously believed I didn’t need anything as frivolous as lipstick?

During a stay in Germany, I visited a psychic in Munich who told me I was a rosebud about to bloom, and that something soon would happen to reorient my life significantly.

The next day, as I entered the subway, I intentionally punched only one space on my strip of tickets instead of three. They rarely checked the tickets, but as soon as the train started moving, a conductor headed right toward me. I apologized and said it had been a mistake; I was from the U.S. and didn’t know the fares. He took me off the train at the next stop and let me go.

I got on a tram, and, thinking that surely I wouldn’t be randomly checked again, I stamped my ticket in a space that previously had been stamped. Again, a conductor discovered what I’d done. I explained that it had been an accident. I was leaving the country soon to return to the U.S. and didn’t even need the extra tickets. It truly made no sense for me to try to cheat the system. He told me to get off the tram and fined me sixty deutsche marks. If I didn’t want to pay, he said, I could go to the main office and plead my case there.

At the main office the punitive fee was waived, and I was allowed to pay the correct fare. But my inability to overcome my compulsion left me shaken. I swore to myself that I would never cheat or steal again. I still don’t understand what caused me to do it, but I have kept my word.

Name Withheld

In the seventies my husband and I built a house in the northern Maine woods, giving up electricity, running water, and other creature comforts in exchange for what we considered to be a more pure life. Several years later, we rejoined society, got jobs, and started driving our kids to band and soccer practice, but we kept our property in the woods and returned there every summer. Our kids called it the “free world.” We swam in the river, gathered raspberries, cooked over a campfire, hiked in the forest, and watched for moose and bears. The only sounds were the wind in the tall pines and coyotes howling.

The children grew up and scattered. When the marriage ended after twenty-six years, I retreated to the cabin for an entire summer and drew strength from hard work and endless hiking. Alone in that silent place, I realized I could manage this new single life. I ended up spending time there every summer.

One August I arrived to find that someone had bought the land on either side of our property. Within sight of our cabin, they built a bunkhouse and other buildings for their new summer bear-hunting business. A loud generator ran, chain saws ripped into trees, and pickup trucks and all-terrain vehicles roared about. Men cursed and yelled and tossed beer cans on the ground. To attract bears, they dumped rotting garbage and barrels of “bear mash” — a fetid-smelling, doughy brew. After training the bears to come to these spots, the “hunters” waited for the first day of bear season, then hid behind a blind and killed the unsuspecting animals.

Paradise lost. I fumed. I wrote bitter letters to my ex-husband and kids saying that we should sell the property. I had bad dreams about intruders trying to break into my house. I hiked farther and farther from the cabin in search of silence. And then came the idea: burn their buildings down. A friend told me he knew a couple of guys who, in the middle of winter when the snow was deep, would snowshoe in, splash around some gas, and light a match.

It went against everything I stood for. I was a pacifist, a student of Buddhism, a healthcare practitioner whose first aim was always to do no harm. But burning down their camp would solve everything. No one would be hurt, and my paradise would be restored.

I kept my friend’s phone number and thought often about calling to tell him to have it done. I knew it was terrible even to consider it, but the vision of the hunting camp going up in flames gave me comfort. Each time I went there and saw their compound and the mess they’d made of that beautiful spot, I thought, I will do it!

But I ended up moving across the country, and I stopped spending time at the cabin. Two years ago I heard that the bear hunters had sold their land to a family with six children who planned to live there year-round. Recently I phoned the wife, who turned out to be a kindred spirit — a Taoist and environmentalist. They are restoring the buildings and the land, installing solar panels and a composting toilet, and opening up their clearing with a handsaw. The serenity of that spot suits them, as it always did me. I will go back there soon.

I’m relieved I didn’t give in to the temptation to destroy what I didn’t like.

Nancy Moore
Bellingham, Washington

When I was twenty, my friend Jack and I traveled cross-country on a shoestring budget. We stayed with relatives or slept in our car, except for one night when we splurged and got a room at the YMCA in San Francisco. The clerk told us we would be sharing the room with a man who’d been there several weeks. Though we never saw our roommate, I immediately noticed his milk crate full of gay porn magazines. I wanted badly to look at them, but Jack was straight and didn’t know I was attracted to men. I’d told no one, and barely admitted it to myself.

In the morning, as we headed downstairs to check out, I told Jack I’d forgotten something, and I dashed up to the room to steal one of the magazines. I knelt in front of the crate, but I was suddenly too scared to take one. I couldn’t bring myself even to turn a single page.

Nathan Long
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I moved to the African nation of Mali to be with my fiancé, a French civil servant who’d been assigned there in lieu of military duty. One friend I made there, Raquelle, was the wife of another civil servant, and sometimes I’d shop with her at the one store in the country that sold imported goods and foods. Raquelle would walk up and down the aisles, putting items in her basket — and in her pockets. She explained that the goods in her pockets were already paid for because stores jacked up their costs with a “theft tax.” She didn’t believe in capitalism.

When her husband embraced the Malian culture by taking two new wives, Raquelle moved back to France, but her principles stuck with me.

One day at the import store, I saw some bottled cinnamon: an American brand with a red top. Though I could buy raw cinnamon in the central market, something about that familiar glass bottle called to me. Tightly sealed, shiny, and tidy, it brought me back to my childhood and whispered of care and contentment. But it was beyond my meager means, so I headed for the cash register. Then I turned back and slipped the bottle into my purse.

I have no recollection of using that cinnamon to make something delicious. I’m left with only the miserable memory of how I succumbed to temptation.

Myrina D. McCullough
Washington, D.C.

One of my first assignments as a newly ordained priest was to hear confessions at a local boys’ high school. I was nervous when the first young man entered the confessional and whispered, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I had impure thoughts.”

Relieved that the sin was something I could handle, I assured him that having sexual thoughts was a normal part of adolescence, but that he should not act upon them.

“Did you entertain these thoughts?” I asked.

“No, Father,” he said. “They entertained me.”

Kenny Moore
Totowa, New Jersey

I was happily married and the father of an infant son when she walked into our office for a job interview: a beautiful, petite blonde in a pale blue suit and matching pillbox hat. I prayed she would be hired, even though I loved my wife and felt ashamed of my powerful attraction to this stranger.

Sure enough, Raylene was hired, and I was assigned the task of teaching her the fundamentals of the job. She was quick to catch on and had a good sense of humor. I liked her even more.

Raylene and I rode the same bus home each afternoon, and on the way to the bus stop we shared stories about work and our lives. She was married to Cody, who also worked for our company but not in the office, and they had a young daughter. She was unhappy in the marriage because of Cody’s excessive drinking. One day she confided that Cody had come home drunk the night before and had insisted on having sex. She’d refused him because when he was drunk he could never climax and always wore her out trying. To retaliate, he’d found her diaphragm and cut it up with his jackknife. “What should I do now?” she asked.

I didn’t know how to respond. My wife didn’t use a diaphragm, and I had never even seen one. “Get a new one, I guess,” I told Raylene.

One day at the end of our shift, it was raining so hard Raylene and I took off our shoes and socks to walk to the bus stop. “My God, you have such sexy feet!” she said. I wondered if she would think the rest of me was sexy.

At the office Christmas party Raylene caught me standing under the mistletoe, and she planted a kiss full on my lips. The feelings I had for her came to a peak after that. I had erotic dreams and fantasies about her, but I never contemplated acting on my feelings.

Years passed. Raylene divorced Cody and had a few flings with other men at the company. Eventually she married one of them. Because husbands and wives were not allowed to work in the same office together, Raylene left. I lost touch with her for several years. Then I ran into her and her husband at a local mall. She was still as ravishing as ever. We discovered that we both had an interest in writing. She and a friend were forming a writing group, and they invited me to join. The three of us took turns hosting meetings. At my house, my wife prepared snacks for us. She liked Raylene. Then Raylene’s friend died, leaving just the two of us. We found other members, but it never felt the same, and the group disbanded.

Before long, my wife died, and Raylene and I talked less. She was still married, and I felt self-conscious calling her now that I was single.

One day Raylene called me, crying. Her husband had been diagnosed with lung cancer. I sympathized but immediately started thinking that if he died, I was not going to let Raylene get away. I wondered, though, whether she was even interested in me. It turned out to be moot, because Jeff made a full recovery.

Raylene, Jeff, and I are all seventy-seven years old now, and we’re good friends. She was never my lover, and I suspect probably never wanted to be. She was, and still is, my temptation.

William G.
Phoenix, Arizona

At the end of a long day, I slapped my seven-year-old son across his face so hard that I left a mark. He’d been arguing with me for more than an hour, and I was desperate to shut him up. Immediately I was stunned by my violent outburst. I’d spanked my children a few times before, but never anything like this.

The next day his day-care provider reported me to Child Protective Services, and rightly so. It was both humiliating and humbling. I agreed to attend parenting classes and family therapy.

Since then I’ve become more aware of my frustration over being a single mom. I’ve also realized that my children act out to get my attention. Divorce has been hard on them. They didn’t choose this life or the pain and frustration they’ve experienced because their parents split up.

We’re learning to talk and heal and support one another; not to judge; to be patient, kind, honest. I’m ashamed to admit, though, that I’m still tempted to take the easy way out. Hitting is quicker than working things through. I’ve succumbed a few times, but I’ve never hit my son that hard again. It takes every bit of strength I have to control my impulses.

Name Withheld

My husband is not a dancer, and he knows how much I love to dance, so he has agreed to let me go dancing with someone else. The young man who will be my partner shakes my husband’s hand and promises that there will never be more to our relationship than dancing. After all, he’s a devout Christian, and I’m a happily married woman.

Yet when we dance, I feel an unacknowledged sexual current. I ride this temptation across the dance floor, keeping it just barely under control. We move as one, our long hair flying behind us. Once, as my partner expertly whirls me across the floor, his soft lips and beard brush the back of my neck. Or do they? Rumors circulate that we are having a passionate affair.

One night my husband comes to watch, as if to prove by his presence that the rumors are untrue. He surely can see the sensual energy flowing between his wife and this other man, but he says nothing. I think he likes to watch, knowing he will be the one to take me home.

Name Withheld

I worked for a Fortune 500 company as a financial analyst. In my division, managers blatantly stole from the company and had business dealings with known crooks. I coped with the pressure of remaining silent by drinking.

After twenty years there, I was laid off. A generous severance package allowed me to sit back and drink myself to sleep each night. That Christmas, to show my family and friends that this layoff was the best thing ever to happen to me, I invited about two dozen of them to celebrate the holiday at my house. I got so drunk in front of them that my sister finally told me I needed help.

So I went to rehab. In my second week there, on the way to group therapy, I found a big, fat zip-lock bag of white powder lying in the parking lot. It had a red skull-and-crossbones insignia on it. I left it on the ground and walked inside to get coffee before group therapy began. But my curiosity was too great. I went back outside, picked up the bag, and put it in my pocket.

The problem was I had no idea what type of drug I had. I’d done cocaine before, but my knowledge of heroin was limited to what I’d seen in the movies. If I’d known for certain the white powder was coke, I could have checked out of rehab, snorted it for a month, and then checked myself right back in. But if it was something else, it could kill me.

I decided to ask Baby Cathy, an eighteen-year-old cocaine addict, for advice. She had a one-year-old son, but had let her parents care for him while she’d stolen their valuables to buy drugs. They’d taken her son away through the courts and promised to return him only after she was clean. Baby Cathy was untrustworthy — I could imagine her swindling the drugs from me — but I knew no one else well enough to ask.

At break time Baby Cathy told me to meet her in the ladies’ room. Here was my chance. Once we were in there, though, she started to cry. She was pregnant, she said, and didn’t know what to do. Other women entered the restroom and showered Baby Cathy with advice while I retreated into my own dilemma about the bag of white powder.

As the break ended and the restroom emptied out, I went into a stall and did what a good addict in rehab is supposed to do. Dropping the bag into the toilet and flushing it was mildly cathartic.

But every so often I still think about that bag of drugs. Maybe I would have died. But maybe I would have found nirvana.

Stone Mountain, Georgia

After many years of not smoking, I started up again. Suddenly nothing seemed more alluring than cigarettes. Even sex paled in comparison to the calming lullaby of nicotine. I would usually smoke two or three in a row, lighting a new one before I’d finished the cigarette in my hand.

I told myself I’d started smoking again because my husband and I were having trouble. He wouldn’t have sex with me, and, feeling unloved, I’d gone back to my wicked romance with cigarettes. Soon after that I left him and stayed with a friend who smoked. It was delightful to live with a fellow smoker and light up whenever and wherever I chose. I considered moving in with my friend permanently, but my husband wrote me long, wonderful letters, and eventually I went home to him. We went to counseling and began making love again. He was tender and passionate and tried to talk to me even when I was smoking on the front porch and wanted to be left alone.

Now I had a great job; my circle of friends had grown; my husband continued to appreciate me. So why was I still smoking?

I decided over and over again to quit. I tried counseling, nicotine gum, patches, and even prayer. But I always went back to my smokes. I felt embarrassed at work, dashing outside to inhale as many cigarettes as the fifteen-minute break would allow. I felt guilty when kids saw me. Strangers occasionally looked at me and wrinkled their noses. Still, every time I made up my mind to quit, temptation gnawed away at my resolve.

One day during my break, I found I didn’t want to light up. I lit up anyway, but I didn’t inhale. I breathed deeply of the fresh air instead. I returned to work figuring I’d have to make some excuse to go outside again later. But I didn’t, not once the entire day. That night I still didn’t want one. The next day I threw away the patch that irritated my skin. Weeks, then months passed. I began jogging again. My cough disappeared. I expected my desire for cigarettes to reappear at any time, but I no longer feared it. I had the strength to say no.

I remain in disbelief that the craving just left me. It was as if my malicious lover had simply lost interest. Ten years later he has still not returned.

Name Withheld

School was a struggle for me, largely due to my difficulty with reading. Despite tutoring, summer school, and remedial programs, I repeated grades and continued to disappoint my overachieving parents. The pressure was so unbearable that I ended up in the hospital with Crohn’s disease, a stress-related illness.

Then in sixth grade, during a test, I glanced at the paper of the student next to me and copied his answers. I got a B instead of an F. It felt so good to be normal that my focus shifted from studying to devising new ways of cheating. I grew my hair long so it would conceal my eyes while I stole peripheral glances at neighboring desks. I would volunteer for window duty, then leave one window slightly ajar so that Saturday morning I could enter the empty school through the open window and alter the grade book. (I even lowered the grades of a few students who always got A’s.) While my parents and teachers congratulated themselves on their success, I became increasingly devious.

By the end of high school I never took a book home. I was accepted to the University of Washington, where I continued my cheating, never studied, and got mostly A’s. But I was a complete fake.

A week before finals I packed my car and drove away from college with no destination in mind. I just wanted a different life. I took lousy jobs and lived in my car for several years. Though I had little money, I vowed not to resort to dishonesty to improve my situation. It was hard, but I resisted the impulse, and my Crohn’s disease got better. Thirty-five years later, I still have to remind myself that my honest life is a better one.

Name Withheld

It was my first year of teaching seventh-grade English at an inner-city school in Los Angeles. On average, my 150 students tested at a third-grade level. I had few classroom-management skills, and the students were itching to challenge authority. I had to deal with interruptions, arguments, and fights. I was insulted, cursed at, and even punched.

Jarrod was one of the most complicated students. He paid attention but didn’t do any work, so he failed my class every marking period. He would argue with me about my system of warnings and punishments, but when I sent him to sit in another room, he would go without complaint, unlike some other students, who would yell, bang their backpacks against their desks, and slam the classroom door.

Jarrod sat next to Shana, who was uncontrollable when angry and often threatened to hit him. I tried separating them, but to no avail. Because Jarrod left the classroom so quietly and submissively, I started sending him out whenever they argued.

Once, Shana raised her hand and said simply, “He’s bothering me.” I asked Jarrod to leave. He asked why, since he hadn’t said anything to her. I didn’t think he had, but I couldn’t face arguing with Shana. “Just go,” I said.

Shana smirked as he grabbed his bag and walked out.

I’d taken this job because I wanted to help kids, not wage a full-scale battle with them. I thought about quitting just about every day. But I didn’t quit. I didn’t want my students to remember me as just one more adult who left. I didn’t want them to have a substitute who would show movies for weeks on end.

The next year was better than the first. I’d learned to control my classes, and I was proud that I hadn’t given up. But I had given in to another temptation: I’d treated a student unfairly because for one class period each day it had made my life a little easier.

Alison Klein
Brooklyn, New York

The Hoopers were my grandparents’ neighbors and best friends. One day when I was six, I ran into the Hoopers’ shed and found Mr. Hooper sitting on his tractor. He seemed pleased to see me and sat me on his lap.

I remember his tongue pushing into my mouth and his hands running over my legs. I didn’t understand why he was putting his tongue in me. When he was finished, he told me not to tell anyone, that this would be “our little secret.”

In fifth grade, I learned that you should always tell if someone touches you inappropriately. I wanted to tell my mother about the time she’d let the Hoopers baby-sit us. I wanted to tell my grandfather, but didn’t have the heart to, even after Mr. Hooper died. Mr. Hooper gave in to temptation that day in the shed, but I never gave in to my desire to tell what he’d done.

Name Withheld

We’ve worked together for two years now, and the attraction hasn’t gone away. I bury myself in professionalism, in team effort, but the question is there.

She has a special smile just for me. I think, If only we weren’t both married. I fantasize about her while I’m in bed with my wife, to see what that feels like: electric, scary, like falling. Don’t do that again, I tell myself. But I do.

When I’m crazed with desire, I turn to porn, which can keep me satisfied in a temporary way, acting as a sort of pressure-relief valve. But then I give up porn, and I’m forced to take a hard look at what my marriage is like and what I really want, or what I thought I wanted twenty-three years ago.

I try to control my fantasy by imagining how we’d argue all the time, or picturing her avenging husband, knife in hand, or all the hurt, fighting, and divorce the affair would cause.

Just when I think I’m over it, she walks in the room again.

Name Withheld

In the seventies, my wife, my son, and I heated with wood, grew our own vegetables (and a handy cash crop of pot), bartered for most items, and enjoyed the pleasures of rural life on a Pennsylvania mountaintop. I had quit my conventional teaching job and become a home-improvement contractor; my wife sewed stars on American flags in a nonunion shop so she could be home when our son got back from school each day. It was close to an ideal existence. Every few months, however, I got restless and went to an adult bookstore far from our house to watch gay porn and masturbate. Afterward I went back to my family and pretended to be straight.

One day, as I was leaving the adult bookstore, a ruggedly handsome man made a point of leaving at the same time I did. In the parking lot he asked if I wanted to go to his place. My heart was pounding so loud I was sure he could hear it. Every part of me wanted to say yes. Instead I said, “Thanks, but I’d better not. I’m married.”

He just smiled and said, “Shit, man, so am I. Why should that stop us?”

I was stunned. Did this mean I could have it both ways: an idyllic family life on the mountain and hot sex with a man on the side? I was tempted to find out, but instead I got in my pickup and drove away.

I came out to my wife and son years later, and we remain close. I now have a loving partner and am happy with my life. But I still wonder what would have happened if I had gone home with the hunk. I replay the possibilities over and over in my mind, like one of the short reels in those XXX-movie booths. What is it that’s so compelling about unfulfilled desire?

Washington, D.C.

Recently I stayed overnight at a friend’s. She kindly left a bathrobe for me on the back of her guest-room door, and I found a pair of turquoise earrings in the pocket. I admired them and wondered whether they belonged to my friend. I’d never seen her wear them. If they’d been left there by a previous guest, and I took them now, no one would ever know.

Growing up, I’d felt entitled to steal from stores and from friends and family because I did not get much of what I wanted. Though I never truly lacked necessities, I desired luxuries. I stole money from my shopkeeper father to buy record albums and brand-name clothes. I took trinkets from friends and roommates who seemed to have everything and surely wouldn’t miss a few items. Once, a store detective caught me but let me off with a reprieve after I shed a few tears.

I felt that I deserved these belongings. I didn’t see that I was risking something much more valuable than any commodity: the trust and respect of my family and friends.

I did finally get caught shoplifting, and my parents punished me by making me wait a year to get my driver’s license. I felt ashamed and vowed never to steal again.

But now, as I stood there in my friend’s bathrobe, the old temptation came back. I was not poor, but I’d had to tighten my budget while my husband looked for a new job. I caught my breath when I realized where these thoughts were leading.

I brought the earrings to my friend. She thought they probably belonged to her daughter-in-law, a lovely woman who is entitled to lovely things. So am I. One of the loveliest is my friendship with the owner of the bathrobe.

Kirsten B. Feldman
Newton, Massachusetts

I had smoked pot since I was eighteen. I wouldn’t say I was addicted, but I was a regular smoker. Then I went to prison in 1987, and pot was much more expensive behind bars. For three to five dollars, you could get only enough to roll a thin joint that might or might not get you stoned.

One day, as we were lined up for chow, the captain announced that the Florida Department of Corrections was instituting a zero-tolerance policy for drugs. Inmates were to be taken out of their cells at odd hours and given drug tests. A positive test would earn you a month in lockdown. I continued smoking.

Not long after that I got stoned with my cellmate, then went to the administration building to do some clerical work. As the copy machine hummed, the institution inspector said, “Inmate Wood, your eyes look mighty red. Are you OK?”

I said I’d had a cold all week and had been taking Tylenol. He told me to go to bed early and drink plenty of water.

The close call made me determined to leave the weed alone. For the next five years I didn’t smoke marijuana, not even when a friend offered me some. But I was tempted.

Then Crank, a large and angry inmate who’d once been the number-one pot dealer in my dorm, became my cellmate. As he unpacked, I felt my stomach drop. “I know what you’re thinking, Wood,” he said. “Don’t worry, I don’t deal anymore. I’m done with that shit.” He’d been in a lockdown facility for five years, never leaving his cell except for showers and urine tests three times a week.

He told me about a New Year’s party he’d thrown before he was transferred to lockdown. “I didn’t want anybody snitching me out, so I made sure I supplied every guy in our dorm with good weed. Your roommate told me not to give any to you. He said you were off it for good. He even told everybody else to keep it in their cells, so you wouldn’t be tempted.”

“Weren’t you worried I would snitch?” I asked.

Crank shook his head. “I had to respect what you were doing. I’m not using anymore myself. I figure if you can stay off it, so can I.”

David Wood
St. Petersburg, Florida

At the moment, I do not have a car, a boyfriend, a well-defined job, or a father. I have lost all of these in the past year. The temptation to indulge in self-pity is strong.

In February 2005, my father was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. I quit my part-time job to help care for him. In the hours we spent together, we laughed and cried and told each other, “I love you,” more than ever before.

During my father’s illness, a stream of friends and family came to visit him. If there were any children among the visitors, they sat with their parents and peered timidly at Dad in his recliner, which was specially padded to ease his pain. He’d smile warmly at them and say, “See my arms? Hardly more than skin and bones. But see how pudgy I am down here?” He’d pull up his pants leg, revealing ankles bloated with edema. “A lot of fluid gets stuck in the lower half of my body. Here,” he’d say. “Come touch.”

He rarely wallowed in self-pity or questioned why cancer had struck him. He seemed to understand that bad things happen to good people every day.

After his funeral, I worked at various part-time jobs and was unable to settle into a routine. My boyfriend left me. A large pickup truck hit a patch of ice and slammed into my car. I was lucky to walk away with only minor injuries.

I still hadn’t truly mourned my father. Suddenly one day a gate inside me creaked open, and grief came pouring in. I cried almost every night. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes about the “cognitive deficits” experienced by people in mourning. I can confirm her findings. There are days I don’t fully trust myself to cross the street: Did that light really turn green?

I used to think I was in control of my life. Now I see that I cannot predict its course and that I am not invulnerable to death and pain. On my better days, my grief does not isolate me but opens me to the world. I see that my hurt is not made inconsequential by the war, genocide, and rape that exist, but rather connects me to all who suffer. I shed my self-pity and find I am no longer alone.

Deborah Good
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania