First thing in the morning, I go into my studio and sit at my desk. Relieved to have survived another night of insomnia and bad dreams, I reward myself with a pot of fresh, strong coffee.

Next comes the best part of my day. My wife, who sleeps later than I do, wakes. On her way to the bathroom, she stops at the studio door and says hello. Her hair is a mess, and she hasn’t brushed her teeth yet.

She comes to me, bends down to give me a kiss — either on the lips or on the cheek, depending on how bad she thinks her breath is. I put my arm around her and draw her closer, feeling her “fanny” (no one else is allowed to call it that), so endearingly soft and modestly proportioned.

And that, my friends, is the best moment of my day.

Peter Selgin
Bronx, New York

As a nurse on a hospital ward, I usually took care of elderly stroke patients. Robert was different. He had been paralyzed from the neck down in a motorcycle accident ten years earlier, when he’d been just twenty-two and a newlywed. Only his face seemed to be alive; the rest of him depended on machines to function. He was in the hospital now for a stubborn bedsore and bowel impaction that required frequent enemas.

All the patients on the ward needed assistance: lifting, turning, feeding. Family and friends were a big help, filling water pitchers and adjusting bed levels. Robert’s wife arrived each day to help with his feeding tube and bath. She read to him and brought flowers and familiar objects from home: a softly clicking clock, pictures of them and their dog.

One day three new stroke patients were admitted to the unit. The staff had to move quickly to stabilize them and still keep up with the daily routine. When I finally made it to Robert’s room to give him an enema, his wife told me she’d be glad to do it.

“You already do enough,” I told her.

She looked me in the eye and said, “It isn’t hard for me to do this. I love every part of my husband. It’s just an enema. I do them for him at home.”

I wondered how this woman, only a little older than I, could care for such a physically helpless man. It just didn’t fit my idea of love, which was intertwined with romance: a fancy candlelight dinner leading up to a night of passionate lovemaking.

As I handed her the enema bag and she rolled him over on his side, I realized that she offered her husband a kind of devotion that had always frightened me. This woman changed how I thought about love.

Carole Urmy
Franklin, Tennessee

My husband and I trained volunteers to work in orphanages in Quito, Ecuador. Most of the volunteers were U.S. college students. These women showed an enormous capacity to love children they’d likely never see again, but they were hesitant to compare their feelings with the love a mother might feel for her own children.

Pablo, a fourteen-year-old orphan who was probably autistic, was particularly difficult to reach. He never acknowledged others or participated in activities. He didn’t like physical contact. Because he was quiet when left alone, we tended to focus on the more-vocal children.

Then Cami arrived from a small Utah town. When Pablo would not join in activities, she would hold his hand and take him on long walks. She would mimic his sounds and laugh when he laughed. She discovered that he loved ice cream and took him to the corner store for treats. Because he didn’t want to be hugged, she rubbed his head to show affection.

One day he was hospitalized for a seizure. It wasn’t serious, but the hospital needed someone to stay with him until he was discharged. Off I went, leaving a note for Cami and asking her to meet me there.

Cami arrived at the hospital in a panic. My note hadn’t indicated that Pablo would be OK. I was struck by the intensity of her concern. Pablo was barely capable of responding to her, yet she was as distraught as any mother would have been. When Pablo saw Cami, he took her hand and placed it on his head.

J. Gauntt
Folsom, California

At a bible-study class called “Loving Your Husband” we were instructed always to refer to our spouses as “my darling husband.” I often uttered those words through clenched teeth or tears. If I wanted to vent about how inconsiderate he was, I had to begin with “My darling husband” or I’d be asked to start again.

Soon I began calling my husband “darling” at home. Reminding him to clean up his clutter, I’d say, “Darling, remember to take your baseball bat off the table.”

He began using terms of endearment with me: “Sugar, you forgot to turn off the garage light.”

Somewhere along the way I remembered why I’d fallen in love with him in the first place.

Arlene A. Craig
Bowie, Maryland

When I was twelve, my mother came home from her waitressing job and told my dad she didn’t love him anymore. Then she left.

At first my three younger brothers and I assumed our abusive father had driven her away. Then we thought it was the burden of raising four young sons that had caused her departure. Eventually we learned that she’d fallen in love with another man, who was also married and had three young children of his own. They’d left behind two broken, crushed families in order to be together. They’d married the day after my parents’ divorce had become final.

Forty-one years later, my mother and her second husband are the most in-love couple I’ve ever known. I speak to my mother regularly and love her dearly, but my father still cannot talk about her without getting emotional. My two living brothers (one died recently) are estranged from her.

My question is: Does finding true love justify the destruction of two families?

J. M.
Islandia, New York

At the age of eighty-two my father went to the Philippines to marry a young woman he’d met through an advertisement. He came back alone. The plan was for her to follow later.

Sick with cancer, he eventually became too weak to drive and asked me to help him until his new wife arrived. I left my job, friends, and dance classes in LA and moved back home to become my father’s primary caretaker.

One day I took him to an appointment with his lawyer. Thumbing through his will, I saw that he was leaving everything to his new bride — all except the refrigerator, the old couch, and the freezer in the garage. Though I felt hurt, I understood that by marrying her he was grasping at youth and immortality. The only thing that really mattered to me was that my father die with dignity and the least amount of pain possible.

One night, sitting at the table where for many years we’d gathered as a family for dinner, my father read a letter from his bride. “There’s not one word of love,” he said. “It’s all business. She doesn’t love me.” He never again mentioned her. My name replaced hers in his will.

Sometimes I’d put on a Cowboy Junkies CD and crawl into my father’s bed with him, the same bed he and my mother had slept in when I was a child. I’d hold him while we listened to the quiet songs.

He became weaker. One night, as I helped him back to bed from an unproductive trip to the toilet, we both almost fell. “Daddy, we can’t do this anymore,” I said.

“I know,” he replied.

The next morning I got into his bed and put my arms around him. We lay there awhile, so close. Then he said, “I love . . . ,” his mouth silently forming the word you.

“I love you too, Daddy,” I said. And he died right there in my arms.

Leilani Squire
Honolulu, Hawaii

As a teenage girl in the early fifties, I was best friends with a boy named Kevin. Our friendship existed in a cocoon of time and space. We knew almost nothing of the world beyond the rural valley where we lived.

One chilly morning everything changed. Kevin’s mother arose early to make breakfast and thought the fire in their coal range had gone out overnight. Mistaking a can of gasoline for kerosene, she doused the coals. The gasoline caused an explosion that engulfed her in flames. She was rushed to the hospital with third-degree burns over 80 percent of her body.

Kevin told me that when he visited his mom, her body was so charred he recognized her only when she opened her eyes. She soon died.

After her death Kevin took care of his aging father, who was mentally and physically deteriorating. Eventually his father’s care became too much for a high-school boy to manage, and Kevin’s dad was committed to a state mental hospital. Kevin went to a boys’ school supported by the Masons. It was there, he told me, that he had his first homosexual experience.

One summer afternoon when I was visiting Kevin at the school, he showed me two cashmere sweaters, one lime green and the other yellow. I assumed a gay lover had given them to him.

“Just feel,” he said. They were the softest things I’d ever touched. “Which one do you want?” Kevin asked.

“I can’t take one of your sweaters,” I said.

“I have two, and I want you to pick one.” He had no money and no family, yet he was offering me this fabulous gift. I reached down and picked the green one. It was by far the most exquisite thing I’d ever owned.

That gift came just as I was crossing the threshold from tomboy to young woman. It became my trademark. I wore it until it was threadbare. It was more precious than even Kevin could have imagined: a gift from my friend who had almost nothing and still shared with me.

Helen M. Stump
Lewisburg, Pennsylvania

When I was fifteen, I fell madly in love with a high-school senior who didn’t know I existed. I went to watch him play soccer, hoping to get his attention, but he barely acknowledged me. I cried while I waited for my mother to pick me up. A player from the other team walked over to ask if I was OK. His name was Alex. I could tell he wasn’t hitting on me but just wanted to make sure I got home all right. When my mother showed up, I waved goodbye to Alex, but I thought only of the boy who had ignored me.

Over the years I fell in love with many men who never loved me back. They often mistreated me, and I thought I deserved it. I was held back by my insecurities and self-doubt. I got pregnant while I was in graduate school, and my boyfriend walked out. I decided to have the baby and moved back home with my parents. When my son was born, he was perfect.

By his first birthday, I’d bought a house and had a job as a fourth-grade writing teacher. Being a mother made me proud and gave me strength. Graham was the center of my world. But increasingly he became a challenge, throwing violent tantrums and failing to adapt to new situations.

When my son was four, he was diagnosed with autism. My love for him didn’t change, but my dreams of dating again, marrying, and having more children now seemed impossible. I worked with my son every evening and studied about autism after he went to bed. I didn’t have time for a social life.

One night my mother stayed with my son while my sister and I went to a restaurant. And there, thirteen years later, I ran into Alex. We talked like old friends. This time, when I waved goodbye, I wasn’t thinking of anyone but him.

On our first date I told him about my teaching job, and about my son and his autism. I didn’t know if I’d see Alex again, but he called later that week. In the intervening days, he’d done extensive research on autism. I fell in love with him at that moment.

We’ve been together for more than a year. Our life is stressful. Others have advised Alex to find a less difficult relationship. But when he holds me in his arms, I know that our love is the only thing that matters to him.

Wendy R.
Birmingham, Alabama

“Did you used to be Delia Swanson?” the e-mail reads. I’m stunned — nobody has used my maiden name in more than thirty years. The “From” line is even more stunning: Jack Morgan. I whisper his name aloud.

In 1967 I sat next to too-handsome-to-be-true Jack Morgan in English 425. I spent the term flirting, hoping he would ask me out. When he did, it kicked off a watershed love affair that lasted nearly a year and became the standard by which I measured all subsequent relationships.

Jack made me laugh, and each date was an adventure. He wanted to be a writer. He taped a note inside my textbook that said, “You make me feel like a kid who just got a new Voit basketball.” I loved him with an intensity possible only once or twice in a lifetime. I was so dizzily happy that I missed subtle clues. That winter, when I told him I loved him, Jack replied only, “I know.”

I was blindsided when he told me it was over. I can’t recall whether he’d met somebody else. All I know is that I was angry and in pain. I gave him a Leonard Cohen album for his birthday, hoping its sad songs would make him miss me and want to come back. He did return several times. Each time we would talk, cry, make love. Two years after our break-up, I moved back in with my parents in Chicago. One day Jack called and left his mother’s phone number. When I returned his call, his mother coolly informed me that he was married.

I got married, moved to the suburbs, and had two children. I love my husband. After thirty years together, we are as happy as most married couples I know. We’ve always assumed we’d stay together till the end of our days. Yet through the years I’ve often thought of Jack. I still love him.

Now this. I reply to Jack’s e-mail, and we tell each other about our lives. He is still married to the same woman and has two grown children. He’s an English professor at our alma mater. He even teaches English 425. He says every time he walks into that classroom, he thinks about us and mourns that lost opportunity. He confesses he was too immature and scared by the intensity of our love.

Over the years, he says, he often flew to Chicago and drove to my parents’ house, where he’d pace the sidewalk in front, lacking the courage to ring the bell and ask my dad how I was.

Now Jack wonders if he did the right thing, looking me up. I wonder, too.

Name Withheld

Every third night, we were allowed in the prison day room, where for a few hours we could play cards, watch TV, and relax. One night I was watching TV when Danny dashed across the room. At six-foot-three and 220 pounds, Danny is a menacing figure. He’s also a bully and a hard-ass.

Danny ran across the day room to catch an old man who was falling off a stool, having a seizure. He gently cradled the man and screamed for the guard to call an MTA (medical technician assistant).

The MTA arrived, and the prisoner who was having the seizure got taken away.

Later I asked Danny why he had helped that old man; it wasn’t his style. Danny told me that his sister had been prone to seizures all her life. When he saw the other prisoner having one, he responded automatically.

Years later I heard Mother Teresa say she would see the face of Jesus Christ on everyone’s face. I thought about Danny. He hadn’t gone to the old man’s rescue, but to his sister’s.

Raphael A. Cabrera
Calipatria, California

After a family reunion in Chicago, my husband, Alan, and I boarded our return flight to Boston. “I feel sick,” Alan said, and he slumped over as if taking a nap. He’d had a massive heart attack. I immediately screamed for someone to resuscitate him.

Alan was brought back to life, but his brain had been without oxygen for too long. The doctors said it was unlikely he’d be “viable.” That night, in a Chicago hospital, as his body was kept alive by machines, I cradled him in my arms while his family filed in to say their choked goodbyes.

Toward morning I noticed that the new blue chambray dress I’d put on for the trip home was soaked with Alan’s blood. I was reminded of Jackie Kennedy in her pink suit.

Alan lived, but my Alan, the man I’d known and loved, was gone. Severely brain-and heart-damaged, my husband was now another Alan.

The blue chambray dress came clean and became my uniform that summer. I wore it often during the month in the ICU and to the rehab hospital in Boston. The dress felt like a badge of courage, evidence that the unspeakable had indeed happened.

Alan made progress and exceeded predictions about his rehabilitation. He survived a quadruple bypass. On the surface he looked as if none of it had ever happened. But every physical action and cognitive effort took enormous concentration and plenty of coaching. We reconstructed our life together. We felt a renewed appreciation for our marriage. But there was something else I needed.

I wanted a bridge between my first marriage to Alan and this second marriage to the new Alan. I needed to say goodbye to my Alan in order to commit to the Alan I had now come to love. I was ready to stop wearing the Jackie dress.

One summer morning my friends joined me in a garden where I’d set up two altars: one displayed precious objects from my first marriage to Alan, and the other honored our new marriage. Alan stayed home, but I carried his pictures in an antique locket he’d once given me.

At the altar of our first marriage I burned the airline tickets from our trip to Chicago. I told stories about our blessed years together. I confessed failings and regrets, gave thanks, and mourned.

As I left that altar and walked to the other, I shed my blue chambray dress. Underneath I wore a purple robe I’d recently received on my fiftieth birthday. I kissed the locket with Alan’s photo and made new vows to love him and make sure he felt my love. I vowed to celebrate our interdependence, and to create many sources of joy for us.

That blue chambray dress is still sold in the catalog from which I bought it. I’m always drawn to its photo, as if seeing it for the first time. Maybe some part of me wants to start over again, give that dress a different set of adventures, a nice ordinary life.

Janet M. Cromer
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts

He refuses to answer the phone, insisting I get it every time. He can’t go a day without mentioning some type of electronic device he wants to buy. He leaves the room the moment I raise my voice. On weekends he sleeps half the day away, whereas I’m up by seven. He gives me a disapproving look when I reach for chocolate instead of an apple. He talks during movies.

He brings me flowers just because it’s Tuesday. He encourages me to see my friends. He cooks dinner for me after his twelve-hour shift in the ER, because he knows I’m hopeless in the kitchen. He plays twenty questions with me during long car rides. He sends pharmaceutical samples to my grandmother so she won’t have to pay for her medicine. He rubs my belly and my feet when they ache.

He danced with glee when the pregnancy test was positive. Wiped my tears when the ultrasound showed the fetus had no heartbeat. Held my hand during the surgery as the doctor removed the amniotic sac. Told me that if we couldn’t have kids, we’d adopt.

At night, he softly whispers, “I love you.”

Alissa Butterfass
New York, New York

At fifteen, my sister set her sights on a high-school dropout who liked cars with big motors and girls with big hair. She bleached and teased her hair to get his attention. It worked, and she was soon sneaking out to meet him. I wondered what she saw in him, but she was convinced it was true love. When they got married shortly after she finished high school, she was already pregnant with the first of their three children.

Years later my sister left her husband, saying she needed some space. Our family didn’t believe in divorce, but it became apparent she wasn’t going back to him and had found someone else. That’s when my brother-in-law started visiting my husband and me, toting a Bible and reading verses about marriage being “till death do you part.” He lost weight and seemed genuinely bereft.

It was painful to see him cry and hear him ask us why she didn’t love him anymore. I gave him no answers, but I remembered how he used to pinch her arm when she said something he didn’t like. I remembered hearing her cry softly at night when I’d stayed with them. One time I’d gone into their bedroom and seen pictures of naked women taped to the walls. When we visited them, he would watch TV and barely talk to us. Now he wouldn’t stop talking.

One night he said that my sister and I were a lot alike. His glances made me wonder if he thought we were interchangeable. I started dreading his visits.

When my husband and I announced that I was pregnant, my brother-in-law stopped coming to see us. Occasionally we’d run into him, and he’d launch into a tirade about my sister. But in the end he’d say he would take her back in a heartbeat if she would just apologize.

We were all relieved when my brother-in-law finally remarried. Then we watched in horrified fascination as his new wife’s black hair got bigger and blonder. I wondered if she knew that he would leave her in a minute if my sister wanted him back.

Name Withheld

“I wonder if it happened to my brother, too,” A. says as we share a bowl of soup in downtown Seoul, where we’ve come to visit his birth mother. In all our years together, he has rarely mentioned the sexual assaults he experienced when he was nine and living in a South Korean orphanage with his older brother.

A.’s widowed mother had left her sons with relatives while she worked to support them, but they couldn’t stay there forever. She finally took them to an orphanage, hoping they would be adopted by an American family and have a better life. A.’s rapist was an older boy at the orphanage.

A year later A. and his brother were adopted by a farming family from Minnesota. He hasn’t seen his birth mother in twenty years.

The reunion goes well. Everyone is happy; everyone cries. At first I’m happy too. But after a few days I begin to wonder how a mother could abandon her sons. I know the orphanage was a last resort. Still, I don’t seem able to forgive her. I feel angry, knowing the physical and sexual abuse A. suffered in the orphanage, and the emotional strain of adapting to life in a foreign country. A. doesn’t seem to harbor any resentment, though. Days after their reunion, he’s still beaming.

One night I tell him how angry I am at his mom for having left him.

“I took a nap with her this afternoon while you were out walking,” he says.

My mouth drops open. Farm boys from Minnesota do not take naps with their mothers.

“I remember her voice,” he says with affection. “It’s exactly the same.”

Name Withheld

Jack is my fifth husband. He has the barrel-chested torso of an aging viking. His powerful arms are decorated with scars where arteries were extracted during a quadruple bypass seven years ago. Complications from that surgery led doctors to amputate his left leg.

We met last July at a coffeehouse, where Jack was sitting in the sun in his wheelchair, drawing. I sat down next to him, and we began a conversation about art. He told me he could tell I was an artist just by looking at me. For the next few hours we shared life stories.

At fifty-five, Jack was ten years my senior. We’d both been married several times, I one more than he. We attributed our eccentricities to our being artists and laughed at our past sins.

I invited Jack to a New Year’s Eve party at my home. The moment he came into the house, I knew my life was about to change. From that evening on we shared everything: eating, sleeping, painting. We talked about God, human behavior, art history, our own life blunders, the future.

Then everything ended. Jack wheeled himself home one night after having told me I talked too much. It felt worse than any divorce I’d experienced. I didn’t understand what I’d done. Finally I called him to ask what was going on.

He arrived at my door minutes later. “I am not a well man,” he started. “This relationship won’t work. I came to this town to die. The grafts the doctors put in my arteries won’t last forever. I didn’t think I’d ever be with another woman again. I just wanted to live by the ocean for the few years I have left and paint and draw. I’ve seen how people change when someone they love is dying. You don’t need it. You should find a man you can spend your life with.”

I wanted to hit him and hold him both at once.

“How dare you presume to know what I should do with my life!” I yelled. “Do you really believe true love is some fairy tale where everybody lives happily ever after? This is not a movie; this is our life. There’s nothing brave about being alone. I want to be with you.”

We were married five months later, surrounded by friends and family. Jack walked to the altar with his new prosthetic leg. We waltzed at our reception.

But on our honeymoon in Alaska, Jack developed a blood clot in his good leg. He was rushed by helicopter to a Seattle hospital and quickly wheeled into surgery. “No way to spend a honeymoon, huh?” a hospital staff person said to me.

During his long recovery, Jack lay naked in his hospital bed but for a pair of amber sunglasses to block the blinding fluorescent lights. I braided his shoulder-length hair to keep it from getting tangled as he writhed in a morphine haze.

Four months later Jack came home. I learned to change his bandages and administer multiple medications. Then the hospital bills arrived. Jack became angry. He told me he didn’t need a caretaker, called me terrible names and humiliated me in front of friends, who advised me to leave him.

After his wounds from surgery have healed, I will move out of our apartment, so Jack can experience phantom pains without having to see me cry. I plan to move into an apartment down the hall, just in case he needs me.

Name Withheld

In Vietnam word got around our paratroop unit that Nance and Kruger were queers. It didn’t cause much reaction. With our high casualty rate, a lot of “unusual” behavior was tolerated.

Nance and Kruger were never obvious about it, but when we divided up for our nighttime fighting positions, they always wound up together. When we flopped down with our heavy packs during the day, they sat at a distance, talking quietly.

One day we were ordered to attack a tree line where the enemy was dug in. Advancing across rice paddies, we came under heavy fire and had to pull back, dragging our wounded. Nance got a mortar fragment stuck in his forehead. It wasn’t a serious wound, and he wanted to pull it out, but we told him to ride that injury as far as he could, maybe all the way home.

After Nance was evacuated, we were again ordered to attack the tree line. When Nance heard about this through the grapevine, he pulled out the fragment, hitched a ride back on a helicopter, and caught up with us.

We took several hundred casualties that day. Searching for our dead and wounded after the battle, we found Nance and Kruger lying in a shell hole, dead. We guessed that a sniper had gut-shot Kruger, hoping his calls for help would lure other soldiers into the open. Nance had come to Kruger’s aid, and the sniper had shot him, too.

Dennis Stout
Phoenix, Arizona

At Sunday family gatherings when I was a child, I often excused myself and went to my grandparents’ bedroom to watch television. They had twin beds with matching comforters and a table in between. I liked to bounce from one bed to the other.

As I grew older, I began to wonder about my grandparents’ habit of sleeping in beds too far apart even for hand-holding. Downstairs, too, there was a separation of space: Nana’s kitchen, Grandpa’s dining room. I thought of their love as distant, formal, nearly dead. As I began dating, I believed I was bravely venturing into a world they had never known.

Now in their eighties, my grandparents still sleep in twin beds. Nana is small and fragile from cancer; Grandpa forgets our names. But I’m told that, after they’ve been helped into their beds each night, my grandpa says, “I love you, Elizabeth, my beautiful bride.” My grandmother replies, “I love you too, George.”

Jessica Lindert
Lincoln, Vermont

Bill and I are quite a pair, widower and widow. My husband took his own life at the age of thirty-seven, after having battled depression. Bill’s wife, a vibrant thirty-nine-year-old, died of a rare cancer that began with a toothache. She spent her last months in the bedroom where we now sleep. Our life together is a bittersweet combination of joy and grief.

On our first date, Bill was open; I was guarded. He told me that he’d apologized to his deceased wife while getting ready for our date. I didn’t tell him how furious I was at my husband for making me start over again. Bill was hopeful in spite of his anguish. When I accidentally called him by my husband’s name, he told me that it was bound to happen.

I often think of Bill’s wife. I’m living in their home now, and her presence is everywhere. One day I notice a tassel she hung over a doorknob. It’s the sort of thing I would do. I am curious about our similarities but try not to make comparisons. With Bill’s permission I put away a photograph of her that remained on a bookcase.

We struggle to reconcile this newfound happiness with our feelings of guilt. We’ve both had dreams that our spouses unexpectedly return and discover us together. If we had to choose now, whom would we pick?

Kelli Benintendi
Lenexa, Kansas

When I met her, Julia was six months old and had been in the hospital for most of her short life. She had been born premature, at twenty-six weeks, and a severe lack of oxygen during birth had damaged her brain. Except for a short stay at home, she’d been on a ventilator since she was born. She was also covered with big red blemishes — tangles of malformed blood vessels — that made it almost painful to look at her.

I wasn’t looking forward to caring for Julia, but it was my job. She wasn’t sick enough to pose a technical challenge, nor well enough to bring us the joy of a full recovery. She was what we nurses call a “chronic” — a stagnant and often frustrating case.

Julia’s misshapen head was covered with red bumps. She was addicted to the narcotic that kept her sedated. If we tried to wean her from it, she’d clench her fists and stiffen her entire body, screaming silently through her breathing tube.

At first Julia was little more than an assignment to me — a series of routine problems and solutions. I began to learn what agitated her, what positions caused her blood pressure to change. When her breathing tube was removed, I watched as she struggled to breathe on her own. Before long, the tube had to be reinserted.

Sometimes Julia’s mother would call, but no one came to visit. Julia had one toy in the crib: a crocheted animal that was so scratchy I wrapped it in a blanket before putting it against her skin.

One night, looking at her pupils with my flashlight, I found myself staring into a pair of beautiful blue eyes. I’d never noticed them before. I checked her breathing-tube placement and saw an adorable, heart-shaped mouth. I checked the blood flow to her extremities and found beautifully formed little hands. I didn’t notice the bumps on her head anymore. This pitiful little patient had become a beautiful baby to me.

When I changed her diaper, she grabbed my finger. I talked to her while giving her a bath and told her she was a big girl. She liked me to rub her forehead lightly when her heart rate was high. We began cutting back on the sedative, and some nights she went to sleep without any sedation.

I bought Julia toys that were soft, or made noise, or had simple faces she could look at. I found a pink fleece blanket for her. By my next shift, Julia no longer needed the ventilator. Without the tube in her mouth, she looked even more like a baby. Others commented on how much better she looked.

A few days later, I pulled a rocking chair to her bed, gathered together her tubes and wires, bundled her in her blanket, and rocked her. She hadn’t been held in anyone’s arms since she’d arrived in our unit. As I looked down at her face, I realized I’d never seen her from that perspective. She turned her head toward me, took a deep breath, and closed her eyes.

Julia and I have since gone our separate ways, but I keep what she taught me. I hope somewhere inside she will remember how I held her close.

Tiesha D. Johnson
Rochester, New York

Based on appearances alone, I wouldn’t have picked my wife out of a crowd. If I weren’t married to her, I probably wouldn’t put up with her moodiness. But because she’s so generous and creative, I think I’d still want to be her friend. And her laughter is genuine, as are her tears. That would make me want to keep in touch.

The more I got to know her, the more I’d want to be with her, even when she was stinky from gardening, or sick with wads of tissue paper stuffed up her nose. I have friends who can’t stay in a relationship for long before their partner’s idiosyncracies drive them away, but for me each imperfection is a source of greater fascination.

I’m like the archetypal fool, falling deeper in love every single day. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Name Withheld

“Do you know how lucky you are?” The chemotherapy nurse had waited for the door to close behind my husband before she spoke. “I see women in here every day with husbands who act like their wife’s illness is an inconvenience. I see women who face this alone. Your husband is just wonderful.”

We married six years ago, in our forties, a first marriage for both of us. We were set in our ways, weary from failed relationships, but enlivened by our love of paddling white-water rivers: he in a canoe, I in a kayak. You can tell a lot about a person on the river. I once saw a man swear at his girlfriend when she was in mortal danger. I’ve seen people ridicule paddlers who choose to walk around a difficult rapid. There are those who think everyone should be running difficult rapids all the time. And then there are the calm, steady boaters who never lose their temper or make a wrong move. They could be snobs, but they aren’t. Instead they’re always ready with a quiet assist or word of encouragement.

My husband is one of the calm ones. It was his reassuring demeanor that first drew me to him. I watched him perform rescues, help beginners, and make difficult moves with fluid grace. He introduced me to quiet rivers, where he pointed out beaver trails, named birds, and identified animal tracks. It was what I sensed about him on the river that made me want to spend the rest of my life with him.

Four years into our marriage I was diagnosed with cancer. I had major surgery and six months of chemotherapy at a hospital seven hours away. My husband, a full-time student, withdrew from school in order to drive me to treatments that required several days away from home. For four months he did all the cooking. For a year he did all the housework. When I was bald and skinny, he gazed at me as if I were beautiful.

He gave up solo canoeing to take me out in a tandem canoe on easy rivers. Tandem boating often strains the relationships of couples who attempt it. (Tandem boats are also known as “divorce boats” in our sport.) My husband and I are both solo boaters by nature, accustomed to being in charge. But he sacrificed his independence and paddled at my weakened pace. The hours we spent together on the river were the times of greatest healing during that long ordeal. When we were in the boat, I would forget that I had ever been sick or might get sick again.

As I became stronger, we acquired a tandem white-water canoe and began to paddle more difficult rivers. Four weeks after my final treatment, we attempted a class-III rapid and capsized spectacularly. But we carried the boat back upstream and ran the rapid again. This time we made it through.

Alison Snow Jones
Winston-Salem, North Carolina