When I was nine, my parents leased a horse for me at a small country stable outside Corvallis, Oregon. Cashmere was her name. The freedom to walk to the stable and ride her whenever I pleased was a new luxury and became the focus of my summer.

She was a young Arabian with a beautiful dark-bay coat, and she welcomed the strokes of riders as they passed her stall. She was also unpredictable and had her own ideas about how to spend her time when she was loose.

Every day I marched confidently into the grazing field, Cashmere’s red halter in hand, and called for her. Every day it was a struggle to get her to come. I’d spend the better part of an hour walking in circles, whistling, clucking my tongue, offering carrots, and shouting her name as she avoided me, throwing her head back and prancing away.

One day, after circling the field in sweaty frustration, I collapsed onto the dry grass and threw Cashmere’s halter after her. Why should I try so hard to catch a horse that had no interest in being caught? I closed my eyes to block out the sun and wondered if I should just give up trying to ride her.

When I opened my eyes, Cashmere was standing calmly in front of me, staring squarely into my wet eyes. I feigned disinterest to protect my pride. Then I screamed at her to leave, calling her a “stupid horse.” Still she stayed. I threw a broken carrot at her nose and missed, but she didn’t leave.

After that, I stopped commanding Cashmere and began listening to her. Instead of circling the field in an impatient fit, I sat quietly on the fence and drew in my sketchbook, ready with her halter and a pocketful of carrots. Eventually she would come.

Morgan Padgett
Seattle, Washington

There are moments in my life when I stop striving and relax. Sometimes I put the timer on for the pasta and just sit with a glass of wine and a book for those few minutes. Or I take the dog to the river and watch him run unleashed and then return to me, soaking wet, for a pat on the head and a biscuit. Some afternoons I lie down for a rest and awake disoriented, realizing I have drifted off to sleep.

But these are brief exceptions in a life defined by the effort to get everything right. I am trying hard to support three children who are almost adults, as well as a mentally ill relative who is just this side of homeless. At work I try to help my patients navigate the difficult world of urban poverty that they have been born into. At home I try to keep the house picked up and lose those ten extra pounds. I try to get along with my husband, whose baggage weighs as much as mine.

I know my life is good. My house (aside from the smell of wet dog) is comfortable and inviting. My children are loving and usually happy. My husband and I still hold each other close at night. But when the timer goes off, telling me that the spaghetti is done, I close my book and think about how far my savings would go on a Greek island: just a small room for me and a pile of books. I could let my hair turn whatever color it really is and let my waistline spread, my only company a few scrawny cats and some fishermen and the sound of the sea.

Lucy Garbus
Florence, Massachusetts

I work as a chaplain at a teaching hospital that offers charity care to indigent patients. On a daily basis I interact with the community’s poorest members, many of whom have no family, no insurance, and no financial support. I am a witness to the results of accidents, violence, social ills, unemployment, poverty, despair, failure, homelessness, and just plain old bad luck.

“Trust in God, but lock your car” has become my working theology. I strive to live in such a way as to avoid becoming like the people I encounter at work. I exercise, eat well, pursue a graduate degree, write thank-you notes, and never turn down an opportunity to preach or teach — always with an eye out for the trapdoor that might open underneath me. I realize that these efforts, though worthwhile, are only futile attempts to outrun entropy, and that by trying to control my life I am displaying a conspicuous lack of trust in God. I also understand that all my efforts in no way insulate me from suffering, loss, and pain.

The irony is, the harder I seek to rise above the human condition, the more obviously bound to it I am. With all of my foolish philosophizing and theologizing, I am merely sounding an off-key note in God’s symphony, like a rusty saxophone bleating out of tune.

Luke G. Heibel
Chattanooga, Tennessee

First I inserted my earplugs, eye mask at the ready to keep out even a hint of light. Next I slipped on my “sleep socks,” tucking the bottoms of my pajama pants into them so the pant legs wouldn’t twist and the socks wouldn’t slide down my shins. Then I drew the blinds and turned the lock on the front door three times, and on my bedroom door twice.

Arranging myself for sleep added another fifteen minutes to my routine, but it, too, had to be done. The body pillow, the neck pillow, and the extra pillows had to be positioned precisely for maximum support. All this for only a chance of sleep.

Once settled, I slid the eye mask over my eyes and began my breathing regimen: With each exhale I would surrender all the anxiety, all the unfinished tasks, all the thoughts of failure (including the failure to sleep). On each inhale I would take in only goodness and peace. If this didn’t work — and I’d know within five minutes — good old-fashioned counting sheep was next. I’d count them backward from a hundred. If I got to zero and was still awake, I’d turn to the stack of boring books on my nightstand.

Sometimes I would sacrifice the pillow arrangement and move to the rocking chair to read. After a chapter on the coniferous trees of Canada, I’d get up to pace, counting my steps or clicking my tongue every time my left foot hit the floor. Then it was back to the chair for a few pages on aviation history.

Usually, though, none of this would work. It would take tears to bring just a few precious hours of sleep.

Megan N.R. Wildhood
Seattle, Washington

Growing up I was hiding a very big secret in a very small town: that I’m gay. At the age of thirteen I developed a crush on a schoolmate of mine. Robin was a blond-haired beauty with green eyes, and I did everything I could to spend time with her. But Robin was boy crazy. So, to be her friend, I pretended to be boy crazy too. I lied with great embellishment and exaggeration. I was the straightest-sounding baby dyke in town. I even had a serious boyfriend in high school. I fooled everyone.

After graduation I attended a university across the street from my old high school, where my elaborate deception continued. I dated a few Christian boys from the college ministry, knowing there would be little pressure from them to consummate our relationship. It all went well, until I met Anne.

Openly gay, Anne represented a life I had barely allowed myself to imagine. Initially I tried to avoid her, but she would chase me down after class, and we’d walk to our cars together. As thrilling as those walks were, I was overcome by the fear that I would lose everything — my family, my Christian identity, the only life I knew — if we shared even one kiss.

My feelings for Anne led to panic attacks that caused me to drop out of college, and I never saw her again. I spent the next few months agonizing over what might have been if only I hadn’t been so afraid. I realized that I had two options: to come clean to my family and friends, or to cease to exist. At nineteen I decided to take a chance on living truthfully, even if it meant losing everything.

And so began years of working through my self-denial and embracing a new life. It took my family and friends some time to adapt, but those who mattered most came to accept me, and I made new friends who would support me through the inevitable highs and lows. As it turns out, being who I really am requires a lot less effort than hiding. I will always be grateful to Anne. Without even knowing it, she showed me how much easier life could be.

Laurel G. Luxenberg
Minneapolis, Minnesota

He had more than five hundred toasters in his kitchen and dining room, arranged on top of cabinets, in bookshelves, and across the deep windowsills of his large Victorian home. He bought them at flea markets and antique fairs, which I attended with him and his friends, who collected other oddities, such as light bulbs and cowboy boots. I wasn’t interested in toasters or even antiques. I just wanted someone to love me.

He always chose the activities for our dates, and I always went along with his choices. We were not a good match. His kids were grown, and I met them only once. I was divorced with a son, and he criticized my parenting. He didn’t seem to like kids. But I wanted someone secure and older with a big house, even one full of toasters.

“We look at life in different ways,” he said, explaining why he could never love me. When I finally ended it, he told me he wouldn’t miss my neediness, only the warm body in his bed. Then he asked out my best friend, who turned him down.

Still I wouldn’t let it go. One day two colleagues convinced me to knock on his front door on our way to a meeting. They knew I missed him, and our route took us right past his house.

“We came for toast!” I said when he opened the door. He looked at us with an amused smile and suggested we stay for lunch, but we had no time. We scampered back to the car.

“Now the ball is in his court,” my colleague said. “You reached out.”

He never reciprocated. I’m not sure why I ever thought he might.

Today I barely recognize the lonely woman I was then, so in need of love. But I don’t blame her for trying.

In a way I owe him. Without that two-year exercise in futility, I might still be trying too hard to please, forever standing on someone’s doorstep, knocking.

Doylestown, Pennsylvania

On my first day of teaching, in August 1973, I was only twenty-four. The bell rang, and the ninth-graders, instead of sitting down and allowing me to begin class, just kept milling around, not paying me any attention. As I stood among them wondering what to do, someone asked, “Hey, where’s the teacher?” I stepped to the front of the room, and they stared incredulously at me in my miniskirt and high heels.

That year no veteran teacher came forward to offer me words of wisdom. No helpful lesson plans lurked in a desk drawer. I taught English and Spanish — four hour-long lessons a day — and frequently stayed after school to supervise Spanish Club and perform my freshman-advisor duties. I had an hour-long commute and was already tired by the time I sat down at the kitchen table in the evening to correct papers and tests and concoct lesson plans for the next day. One night in October, around midnight, my husband walked into the kitchen and warned, “You’re going to kill yourself.”

I wish I could say that those words were a turning point.

One class in particular took its toll on me. The seniors in Spanish III couldn’t conceal their disappointment when they learned that I was not going to indulge them with weekly fiestas, as their previous teacher had. They bound together and silently dared me to try to teach them the preterit and imperfect tenses. I did everything but stand on my head to win them over.

In May, with just a week of school left, I was plagued by a constant thumping in both ears. It sounded like my heartbeat. I also felt nauseated and dizzy. A specialist told me I had Ménière’s disease and suggested I cut salt from my diet and take medication for vertigo. When I asked how long the problem might persist, the doctor shrugged.

Two weeks later, as I was enjoying my first days of summer vacation, the aggravating sound and dizziness disappeared. The symptoms never returned. The diagnosis should have been “trying too hard.”

Deb Hefner
Whitewood, South Dakota

I wanted to be a good mother and to give my child happy memories. So at Christmas I baked slabs of gingerbread for a house, which my four-year-old daughter and I decorated with frosting, gumdrops, and white wintergreen Life Savers.

The project didn’t go as smoothly as I would have liked. Gluing gingerbread walls together with frosting and sticking rows of Life Savers on a precarious roof are tasks that require precision and patience — qualities the average four-year-old does not possess in abundance.

My patience, too, wore thin. The finished house looked pretty good, but it came at the expense of both our moods that day.

What my child wanted, I realized, was not for me to impose difficult projects on her but for me to join her once in a while in the things she liked to do. Besides playing with Legos and Fisher-Price people, my daughter loved the TV show Full House, a sitcom about a family of little girls headed by a single dad, with his best friend and his brother-in-law helping out. I disapproved of the show, because it was silly and not educational, but one day I decided to sit down and watch it with my daughter anyway. I had no book or magazine in hand. I just watched with her. She was delighted.

It was an effortless moment that, if not perfect, was certainly happy for us both. So I did it again, and again my daughter was in heaven. I began to enjoy my diminished role, with nothing to set up and manage and control. Sometimes the best gift you can give people is just to be with them, doing what they want to do.

And the TV show itself was not a total waste. As she grew up, my daughter often displayed an understanding of some problem or situation that was wise beyond her years. When I asked in amazement, “Where did you learn that?” the answer was inevitably “Full House.”

Lynne Davis
Carbondale, Illinois

I was a college sophomore living in rural Washington State, seventy miles from the nearest big city. I had a fake ID and a twenty-three-year-old roommate, who invited me out one night to meet a guy she was crazy about. I would be the designated driver.

James was six foot two with longish brown hair and big blue eyes. He wore climbing pants, Birkenstocks, and a chunky wool sweater — the kind you might buy at a street fair. He was not my type.

When he learned of my Chicago roots, he asked if I’d ever been inside any Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. No, I told him, but I’d grown up in a house inspired by Wright’s “Prairie style” architecture.

For the rest of the evening James was glued to my side as we hopped from a dark, smoke-filled Irish pub to a basement reggae bar packed with revelers drinking cheap beer. I not too subtly suggested that he should dance with my friend. “She really likes you!” I shouted over the music. “She came out tonight to be with you.”

“I don’t date waitresses,” he said. (He was a manager at the restaurant where they both worked.) Clearly drunk by now, James pulled me toward him. “I want to dance with you,” he said.

I moved away, but he just grinned and asked what I wanted for breakfast in the morning.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get him to believe that I was not going home with him. “Would you like raspberries on your pancakes?” he asked. “You look like a raspberry kind of girl.” Even after we were in the car headed home, James continued: “So, you still haven’t told me what you want for breakfast.” I could feel my friend’s eyes boring holes in the back of my head. As I dropped James off and drove away, he yelled, “Wait! You’re coming back, right?”

I did not go back that night, but I did see him again — it was hard to avoid someone in that tiny college town in the middle of nowhere. James never gave up trying to win my affection. The simple fact that I knew who his favorite architect was, let alone had a knowledge of the Prairie style, had sealed the deal for him. And I was beginning to think those gorgeous blue eyes held promise.

This year we’ll celebrate fourteen years of marriage.

Mary Butler
Boulder, Colorado

Shortly after I left my hometown in Pennsylvania to start life in the big city of Washington, DC, I fell sick. The main symptom was dizziness. The doctor decided it must be an inner-ear infection and treated me accordingly, but I didn’t get better. Within a month I experienced a serious spell and went to the hospital in an ambulance.

I was eventually diagnosed, at the age of twenty-five, with multiple sclerosis. My condition would slowly worsen, the doctor predicted, and by the time I turned fifty, I would probably be in a wheechair. I felt as if I were receiving a prison sentence: only twenty-five more years of life as I knew it.

Each time the symptoms flared up, they limited my ability to walk. Steroid treatments alleviated the problem temporarily, but there would always be another flare-up. (Of course, no one mentioned the drug’s side effects. I was told much later that the steroids were likely responsible for my osteoporosis.)

My main goal after each episode was to return to work without my co-workers noticing anything different about me. I tried hard to appear normal and perform as if I hadn’t been stricken with a debilitating disorder.

I was eligible for a handicap placard for my car, but I delayed applying for one because I didn’t want people to think I was an invalid. When I finally broke down and got one, I told no one what it was for, though some already knew I had MS. It was almost twenty years before I was comfortable telling new people about my disease. The ones who did know always tried to help me. You might think I would have appreciated their assistance, but it felt more humiliating than kind.

As the symptoms progressed, I had to use a wheelchair. I found it incredibly disheartening to have someone push me around. (I could operate the chair myself, but others seemed to feel a need to lend a hand.) So I invested in an electric scooter, which made me feel more independent. Still, my symptoms got worse, and I continued to be embarrassed by people’s assistance.

What I eventually realized is that there are a large number of people in my same predicament. I was wasting my time trying to pass for “normal.” What is normal anyway? In the end I wasn’t fooling anyone, except maybe myself. I finally learned to accept and appreciate help when I needed it.

Shirley Adams
State College, Pennsylvania

I had just gotten a new teaching position, I was pregnant, and my husband and I were buying a home in a quaint, historic neighborhood. The neighbors were all middle-class, educated, racially diverse families with young children. I dreamed of becoming best friends with the moms, perhaps trading baby-sitting and making dinners together. My child would grow up with a close circle of friends, and I would feel the sense of tightknit community that had eluded me.

And so the campaign began: I started to spend a lot of time in front of my house, introducing myself to everyone. My husband and I threw parties and invited all the neighbors. After my son, Ryan, was born, I went out of my way to get to know anyone pushing a stroller. There were no fewer than ten children close to Ryan’s age on our street, and I set up play dates, offered to baby-sit, and passed on toys, clothes, and books.

Through it all, our next-door neighbors were strangely cold to me for reasons I couldn’t discern. Our kids grew from infants to school age together, playing on the sidewalk and learning how to catch and hit balls, but the parents rarely said hello.

One day one of the children next door hit Ryan. When the child’s mother didn’t say anything, I told Ryan in front of her that he had permission to hit back. I also regularly took it upon myself to correct the behavior of other kids on the street. After all, weren’t we all like family?

The next-door neighbors became even more distant. When one of their younger sons accidentally called me “Auntie” — as he had been taught to address most adult females — his older brother quickly corrected him: I was to be called “Miss.”

A couple of months later Ryan and a boy down the street fought over a ball, and the boy grabbed the ball away so hard that my son landed flat on his stomach on the sidewalk. I asked the boy if what he had done was fair and suggested that he apologize. The boy’s father saw me talking to his son and in an angry tone ordered him inside.

Ryan recovered from this incident and three days later asked the boy to come outside, but the boy said he couldn’t play with Ryan anymore because I was “too bossy.”

I walked down the street, determined to clear up any misunderstanding. The boy’s father felt that I blamed their son for everything and didn’t adequately punish my own son. Our children were not to play together.

I was crushed. The standoffishness of my next-door neighbors, I saw, was not an isolated incident but part of a pattern: I was disliked because I was too bossy, not to mention self-righteous and judgmental. Being a schoolteacher, I felt free to discipline other people’s children; I did it at work all day long. In my mind I was helping the other parents. In reality I was pushing them away. How could I have gotten it so wrong?

Name Withheld

In college I worked several summers as a doorman at a high-rent apartment building, filling in for the unionized doormen who were on vacation.

While opening the heavy front door for rich residents or pushing cartloads of their compacted trash onto the curb, I occasionally exchanged a few words with them. I peppered my speech with fifty-dollar words, striving to impress. I was embarrassed, I guess, by my servile job and wanted these wealthy people to know I was more than an errand boy.

One day the head doorman told me to tell Mrs. Scribner, who was sitting outside, that she had to move so we could hose down the courtyard.

This was the Mrs. Scribner, as in the Scribner publishing empire. An aspiring writer, I had fantasized about leaving a manuscript on the Scribners’ doormat or tucked into their Sunday New York Times. Could I tamp down my ego enough to tell her what she needed to know in a clear and simple way? No. Instead I began, “Mrs. Scribner, I regret to inform you . . .”

She stared at me and then clutched her chest, going pale. It took the head doorman and me a couple of minutes to calm her down and figure out what was wrong. Her elderly husband was ill, it seemed, and she’d thought I bore news of his demise.

Gabriel Shapiro
St. Louis, Missouri

Tonight I take a shower and shave my legs above the knees, even past the thighs. When I’m done, the skin is as smooth and glistening as a mannequin’s, except for a trickle of blood near the ankle.

Next I dry my hair. It’s been every color from palest blond to burning auburn. Now it’s a raven shade of black. The grays are there, too. I dab on moisturizers: one smells like fresh-cut flowers; the other, with Retin-A, just burns. Can it burn away the latest laugh lines? I wish they really had come from laughing. As I curl my lashes and dust myself with powder, I remember my father screaming at me to wash that “stuff” off my face. I was never anyone’s little girl.

Then I get dressed: the bra that lifts, the hose that flatten, the dress that makes my legs look long. I’m not young anymore, but I do have good legs, like an aging showgirl.

I vacuum my home and hide the dirty laundry. (Housekeeping was never my specialty. Maybe that’s why I’m alone.) I check my latex arsenal in the nightstand. (I still make men use condoms. Maybe that’s why I’m alone.)

I have enough orange juice and eggs for two and an extra mug for coffee. I have the new toothbrush and fresh towels. I pray that maybe this man will stay for more than just one night.

Dara Cunningham
Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania

When I took my first yoga class, stretching my heels to the floor in Downward-Facing Dog came easily. The pinched nerve in my neck actually released in Warrior Pose, and the Wide-Stance Forward Bend eased my lower back pain in a way I hadn’t thought possible.

At the end of class the instructor had us lie on the floor in shavasana, or Corpse Pose. I positioned my blanket behind my head, pointed my toes to the ceiling, draped my arms alongside my body, and inhaled the scent from the lavender eye pillow. Then the instructor told us to let our minds go blank, to concentrate on our breathing, and to enjoy this simple rest after our workout.

What? There was nothing relaxing about lying flat on the floor. As far as I was concerned, the class was over. It was time to roll up my mat and put my shoes on. I had to stop at the grocery store before dinner and run by the credit union to deposit my check. I had to get some papers graded before school tomorrow. My mind flew through lists of things to do as I waited anxiously for this “rest period” to end.

I like to think of myself as a quick learner; surely I could force myself to relax. The instructor would walk by and whisper to me, “Try to soften your face,” or, “Unclench your hands, dear.” But nothing worked.

To pass high-school gym class I’d had to master a swimming technique called “drownproofing.” The final was a twenty-minute test during which I had to lie facedown in the deep end of the pool with my arms and legs dangling. As seldom as possible, I was to push my arms down against the water and raise my head for a quick breath. The idea was that you could stay in the water like this for days, expending very little energy, until someone came along to rescue you.

The trick to passing the test for me was to avoid looking at the clock when I raised my head for air and to keep from imagining situations in which I might drown. The former could lead to despair; the latter, panic.

One afternoon, lying in shavasana, I remembered drownproofing. I could smell the chlorine, recall the paint on the pool deck, see the clock high above the bleachers. As I pictured my body hanging motionless in the pool, I felt my face soften, my hands unclench, and my breathing grow deep, and quiet, and long.

Heather O’Shea
Albuquerque, New Mexico

My father was the music teacher at my elementary and middle school, so I was expected to play an instrument and join the band. I practiced a half-hour every day to please my father. My sister, on the other hand, refused to play an instrument, but she was petite, outgoing, and the apple of my father’s eye. I was skinny and shy and wore glasses.

I actually enjoyed being in the band. I liked marching in parades and playing concerts. The only part I hated was the tryouts, at which any band member could challenge another for his or her higher chair position. I was first chair in the clarinet section, so I was challenged quite often.

As tryouts approached, I’d practice for an hour a day, then two hours a day. The night before the challenge I was always sick to my stomach. But I was determined to keep my chair position and not disappoint my father. And I did keep it, all four years that I was in the band.

As eighth grade came to an end, I signed up for the high-school band, but I didn’t join in the fall. That summer I’d realized that if I stopped playing, I would never have to go through the agony of tryouts again. All those years I had been playing to win my father’s approval, and I’d made myself sick doing it.

I still love making music, but now I play the fiddle just for me.

J.E. Kest

From the time I started kindergarten, I made friends fast. I was popular and always picked first or second for games of kickball on the playground. But in third grade I started to see signs that my perfect social life wouldn’t last.

That’s when my best friend, Angela, began to spend more time with Ruth. The three of us were in the same class and competed for grades and our teacher’s affection. I could sense that pretty, young Mrs. Thompson was keener on Angela and Ruth than she was on me. Sometimes at the end of the day our teacher would allow a student to rub her shoulders. When Angela or Ruth did it, Mrs. Thompson would sigh with pleasure. When I tried, she’d tell me I was doing it wrong. She’d explain what she liked, but I was unable to follow her instructions. I remember wanting so badly to do it right. The day I made my first B, I found out Angela and Ruth had made straight As, and I put my head down on the desk and cried.

The next year I lost Angela to Ruth for good. I still had many friends, but I felt shaky and unsure of myself. As I moved on into junior high, I developed a fierce competitive spirit and needed to be first in everything: cheerleading, school plays, and especially the school spelling bee, which I won in sixth and seventh grades.

In eighth grade the field narrowed to just me and one other girl. Then I misspelled ninetieth. My opponent spelled it correctly and went on to win. I looked into the audience and saw all the girls I’d thought were my friends celebrating. I was fighting back tears, not just because I’d lost but because I realized my friends had wanted me to lose.

The only thing that had made me feel good was winning, and now I couldn’t do that either. Instead of turning to my friends or family for help — my divorced mother was too busy trying to take care of eight children to ask how I was feeling — I discovered sex, drugs, and alcohol.

Two decades later, when I stopped using people and chemicals in an attempt to fix myself, I realized how hard I’d been trying my whole life to show not only the world but myself that I was all right, that I didn’t hurt, that I didn’t need anybody. What a relief it was to finally stop pretending.

Gainesville, Florida

Rather than gaining weight during her pregnancy with me, Mom lost twenty-five pounds. I was born premature, probably due to lack of nourishment in the womb. I also suffered from a visual impairment and an insatiable hunger.

My older sister and only other sibling is asthmatic, and our mother was obsessed with keeping her firstborn alive. When my sister was five and I was three, Mom left her husband to bring us to the Arizona desert, because the arid climate was supposed to be good for respiratory illnesses.

In first grade I couldn’t learn to read. After the teacher discovered I didn’t see well, I got glasses and began to catch up, but by then I had already decided I was stupid. Years later I was also diagnosed as dyslexic.

When I was eleven, my sister, who had studied the violin for years, became the youngest musician in the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. Since my mother liked to give the appearance of fairness, she had my father buy me a piano and arranged for lessons. I’d been studying for only a year when my teacher announced that all her students would participate in a recital. The thought of performing in front of an audience terrified me. “You’ll have to try three times harder than the others,” Mom said, “because you’re just average.”

For weeks prior to the recital I remembered Mom’s warning and practiced three hours a day instead of the recommended one. At the recital I managed to perform well enough — like an average person who had tried three times harder.

My sister went to college at Northwestern University for its journalism program: she was going to be a writer. The winter of her freshman year she came home for Christmas, and my mother gave her three leather-bound poetry books. I wasn’t given any books. When I asked Mother why, she said, “You’re not the reader your sister is.”

I became a secret journal keeper and wrote poetry about my misunderstood suffering.

I attended a state university and majored in English. Although I was “just average” and “not the reader” my sister was, I wrote poetry and prose for the university literary magazine. After graduation I went to New York City to pursue a career as a writer, but I wasn’t able to muscle my way into the publishing world.

In 1972 I earned an MFA in creative writing, composing a book of poetry for my thesis. In 1985 I finally published a novel with a New York publishing house. The book was a critical success but a commercial failure. I went on to write a second novel, but it’s never been published.

No matter how hard I tried, I was never able to win my mother’s approval. But I’ll always wonder what my life would have been like without her warning to “try three times harder.”

Rita Robinson Brown
Tucson, Arizona

I caught the first flight out, drove straight to the convalescent hospital, and hurried through the gloomy hallways in search of Dad’s room. I found him in bed, dazed family members standing in the shadows.

All I knew was that he’d fallen three days earlier. Now Mom recounted how the melanoma had metastasized to his brain. The doctors had proposed operating, but Dad had said he had no interest in getting his skull cracked open.

Soon after he’d arrived at the hospital, he’d begun to feel better. My sisters said he’d held court the night before I arrived. “When we left,” my brother told me, “he just waved and said, ‘See you tomorrow.’ ” Today he was in a coma. In accordance with his wishes, he was receiving only palliative care.

My siblings had been there for two days; my mother, three. I sent them all home for showers, food, and sleep. I’d stay the night, I said. Secretly I wanted to be alone with my father.

Breathing through his mouth, Dad took huge, noisy gulps of air. That’s all he did, hour after hour, as if he were running a marathon. His face and arms were hot to the touch. I got a styrofoam cup filled with chips of ice, and throughout the night I’d touch some ice to his lips, and he’d suck it into his mouth, searching with his tongue for more. My father was dying, and all I could do was give him frozen bits of water.

I told my dad that I loved him and thanked him for having always been supportive of me. He could also be a real pain in the ass, but I had long since come to realize that he’d done the best he could.

I knew the situation was hopeless, but did he? I leaned over and spoke directly into his ear. “Dad, you’re in the hospital,” I said, “and you’re dying.” I told him he’d “fought the good fight” — a phrase he’d used often — and that he’d lived far longer than anyone had predicted. I promised the rest of us would watch out for one another. “It’s all right to stop fighting,” I said. “You can let go.”

But he continued to labor on. Another sixteen thousand breaths and it was over.

Manchester Barry Price
Portland, Oregon