At church I met a handsome man with shining eyes. He was well dressed and enthusiastic, but the tattoo on his hand hinted that he had a past. Perhaps he was a recovering alcoholic, trying to make a new start.

We started dating around Thanksgiving, and by New Year’s, I had learned that he was not a recovering alcoholic, but an active heroin addict.

I am a small-town girl, a policeman’s daughter, now a single mother of four with a career. The idea of having a relationship — of any kind — with a heroin addict is absolutely unthinkable to me. Yet I have fallen in love with him.

We struggle. I have peeled off many layers of stereotypes and misunderstandings and judgments about addiction, about people, about life. I have come to understand that an addiction to heroin — as dramatic as it may sound — is a human weakness, just like any other.

Countless people have advised me to break off this relationship. I have tried. I have broken it off. He has moved away. But he always comes back. I continue to seek the human being behind the label “addict.” And, against all odds, I continue to find him.

Name Withheld

My high-school boyfriend and I may not have made it as a couple, but at crucial moments in both our lives, we helped each other beat the odds.

He was a second lieutenant serving in Vietnam, and I was a senior in high school. When I graduated, there was no money for me to attend college, but I was determined to go anyway. That summer I worked two jobs. One was at McDonald’s, where I made $1.60 an hour, a princely sum in El Paso in 1971. The other was a waitress position at a third-rate pizza joint called Swanky Franky’s. That job paid minimum wage: seventy cents an hour, plus tips.

With my savings from these two jobs, plus money from a small scholarship, I had enough to pay my tuition for one semester at an American university in Mexico. I went, not knowing what I’d do when the semester was over.

While I was attending college, my boyfriend unexpectedly sent me the money I needed to finish out my freshman year. His push got me over the hump, and I went on to graduate. I cried when I saw my diploma.

Ten years later, while in Las Vegas for a work-related convention, I contacted my old boyfriend, whom I had not seen in years. He was barely getting by and living in a dilapidated trailer with no air conditioning on the outskirts of town. He owned only one thing of value — a small condominium in another state — and he was in danger of losing it to foreclosure. He seemed depressed, apathetic, and powerless to change his grim situation. (Later, I would discover that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a legacy of his service in Vietnam.)

Once home, I sent him three thousand dollars. With only one day remaining, he was able to halt the foreclosure on his condominium. Shortly thereafter, he sold the property and made a tidy profit. Within a year he was married and expecting his first child.

Cassandra Rhine
Novato, California

I was not supposed to have this life: three children who play flute and piano and Legos in a sun-drenched living room; a husband who is glad to see me at the end of the day; patients who keep coming back; enough money to buy ripe tomatoes out of season.

Heaven knows I have worked hard to get here. As a child, I knew that I would have to struggle for a different life, one where people would be kind to each other and there could be something besides hurt and sadness. I still doubt whether I will ever feel that I deserve this life.

It is hard to enjoy the gifts that I have been given. When my children argue, I worry that they will grow up to hate each other. When they are sad, I worry that they will spiral into depression. When my husband is affectionate, I find fault with him. At work, I keep waiting for my employer to discover my incompetence.

I wonder if I would be more at peace had I taken my life, like my younger brother; or lived alone on disability, like my older brother; or simply gone on living upstairs at my parents’ house, reading novels, volunteering at the local hospital, and eating lifeless tomatoes in January. I would be alone and sad, but I would know that I was home.

Lucy Garbus
Florence, Massachusetts

Over dinner at a quiet New York hotel — the kind where the waiters never hover but are always there just when you need an extra pat of butter — my friend Edie told me she was dying of lung cancer.

I was almost sixty, and Edie was about a decade my senior. (She would never tell me her exact age.) As usual, she looked as if she had just stepped out of Bergdorf’s. She was wearing a dramatic hat — not one of those scarves women wrap around their heads while undergoing chemotherapy, but a real hat, one that seemed made just for her.

I asked when she’d found out.

“Six months ago. The damn doctors thought it was bronchitis. They kept treating me for that —” a raspy cough interrupted her sentence — “and missed the damn cancer.

“This chemo,” she continued, “I don’t know. I think it might be worse than the cancer. What’s the point in living if you don’t have a life?”

I asked how long they had given her.

“Maybe a year, darling. I have way too much to do.”

Three months later, I got a call from Edie: “This will be my last birthday, darling, so I’m only inviting the people I want.”

The party was attended by friends who, for the most part, knew each other only through Edie. The evening was sad and wonderful in equal measure.

A year later, on my sixtieth birthday, Edie attended a surprise party. She was only slightly slower, still standing up straight, looking grand, and engaging everyone around her in conversation despite her increasing deafness.

It’s now been almost four years since Edie’s diagnosis. She’s been off chemo for several months now, and is on oxygen. She’s contracted diabetes, so she checks her blood sugar and watches what she eats — most of the time. (On a recent visit to a restaurant, she pronounced the soft-shell crabs “positively the best,” the lamb chops “quite fine,” and the pineapple upside-down cake “delicious.”) The cancer has spread to her liver and to her other lung. The doctors are counting the weeks, but she greets their predictions with a shrug and a smile.

She’s pretty much confined to a chair on her sun porch these days, though with help she can manage a walk around her driveway. She is having clothes altered for the summer, and one or two outfits for the fall, “just in case.” She increases her oxygen while poring over the Times with her magnifying glass.

I go to visit her. “Now tell me what’s going on,” she says. “I want to know everything.” We order in Chinese food (“We’ll get that hot shrimp thing you like, but I want to try something different”), and things are the way they’ve always been. Her sharp brown eyes miss nothing. She is fully present, allowing her attention to drift only when I leave the room.

After my visits with Edie, I am unaccountably buoyed; the life force that’s been there all along suddenly seems more concentrated. A friend says, “She’s teaching you how to die.” But I’m not so sure: is she teaching me how to die, or how to live?

Robert Moulthrop
New York, New York

My doctor ran the ultrasound over my stomach. “One heartbeat,” he said. “And another!”

After a long bout of infertility, two miscarriages, and two premature babies, one of whom died shortly after birth, I didn’t know if I could handle the news that I was having twins. My already high-risk pregnancy had just become even higher risk. I was terrified. Depression set in. I told my husband I wanted an abortion. My body had failed me too many times; I couldn’t be responsible for more dead babies.

My doctor changed my mind. He took care of me, mentally and physically. I saw him weekly for the first three months, twice a week after that. He got me a handicapped parking sticker, signed me up for Meals on Wheels, and put me on strict bed rest after five months. I saw my therapist weekly to work through my fears. I hired extra household help. I tried always to put my pregnancy first and refused to do anything that would jeopardize it.

Still, in my seventh month, I suffered a setback: my doctor discovered a birth defect in the intestine of the boy twin. The hospital’s ultrasound facility not only confirmed his diagnosis, but found another possible defect: enlarged ventricles in his brain, which could mean neurological problems.

That night, the stress of the news brought on early bleeding, but I didn’t call the doctor. I was in denial. It couldn’t be happening again.

The next morning, I could no longer deny the situation. We went to the hospital, and I braced myself for the worst as they tried unsuccessfully to stop the labor. The boy was still in a breech position, so my obstetrician recommended a C-section.

There were at least fifteen doctors and nurses in the delivery room. My son was delivered first, then my daughter. At three and a half pounds each, they looked more like fetuses than newborns. I pumped milk for their feedings, because they were too weak to suck. When my son was three days old, they operated successfully on his intestine. His brain, miraculously, was normal. Both babies came home two months later.

Today they are happy, healthy nine-year-olds. I can hardly believe that I have taken for granted even a single day of their lives. But life goes on, and memories fade.

Heidi Coffman
Huntington Woods, Michigan

While nineteen years old and stationed at an army base in West Germany, I began to lose touch with reality. It was pleasant in many ways and a welcome relief from the anxiety I felt over my family problems and my dislike of the military. (The large amounts of twenty-five-cent-per-gram hash I’d been smoking helped, too.) What comes back most vividly now, thirty years later, are the lucid dreams I had and the feeling of power they gave me. I could fall into a deep sleep and command myself to dream whatever I wanted. Life had taken a magical turn.

It didn’t last. I found myself in a mental ward in Frankfurt, listening to an “evil entity” who communicated to me through the hospital PA system. I believed I was surrounded by old friends and acquaintances: Burl, the forward observer who shot heroin while calling in artillery fire; Southwick, the manic depressive who had promised to hook me up with his beautiful sister back home. They came and went as my psyche ordained.

Thorazine and other antipsychotics didn’t work on me, and I was airlifted in a straitjacket to an army hospital in Denver. When I continued not to respond to treatment, the doctors tried electroshock therapy. I remember biting down on the rubber mouthpiece and counting backward from ten while the sodium pentothal took effect. Later I would wake up and recall nothing of the experience.

Late one evening, the night before a treatment, I paced the second-floor barracks where mental patients were housed. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” sung by Roberta Flack, came over the PA, and I felt a divine female presence in the room. Unlike the “evil entity,” this presence was comforting, and merely wanted me to be aware of her.

I had always been afraid of the dark, yet I was suddenly compelled to go to the pitch-black conference room at the far end of the barracks. I walked past Treatment Room 1, where I would receive shock therapy the following morning, and entered the darkened conference room. It was terrifying at first, but then, like a foul mood lifting, something shifted, and I was no longer afraid. I felt my way around for a while, testing out my newfound courage. I’ve never had any fear of the dark since.

The next day’s shock treatment was my last. I was soon granted passes on weekends, most of which I spent trying to remember the last three months. According to the military, I had totally recovered from my schizophrenic episode, and I was honorably discharged. I never returned to another psychiatric ward.

Unfortunately, I never again experienced that divine female presence, either.

North Las Vegas, Nevada

Early on in our marriage, my husband and I hitchhiked around the country for a year and a half. For nine months of that time, I was pregnant. I never saw a doctor. I didn’t take prenatal vitamins. I ate in soup kitchens and sometimes from dumpsters. Although this is not how most women would want to spend their pregnancy, I chose to live this way to prove that life doesn’t have to look pretty.

Toward the end of the nine months, I could not handle the road any longer, and we settled temporarily in Blythe, California, on the Arizona border. Many homeless people were living by the Colorado River there, and that’s where my husband built our bamboo hut.

During our time in Blythe, I felt in tune with nature: the moon, the weather, and the animals were a part of my everyday life. We had a place to stay and a river where we could take a bath and wash our clothes. The only thing missing was knowledge of how to deliver a baby, but I trusted that nature would take its course.

For the most part, the homeless people were as helpful as could be. When word got around about my being nearly ready to give birth, an older couple sought us out. The woman was a former nurse and tried her best to convince me to see a doctor. I refused. She understood and offered us a ride to the hospital if we needed it. (They were the only people around who had a car.)

My water broke on the morning of January 9, 1997, and the contractions that had begun the night before had grown so strong they were almost unbearable. After five hours of hard labor, I decided I had to have help. My husband sent for the older couple, and they came and picked us up.

At the hospital, I could barely walk through the emergency entrance. Nurses quickly helped me to a bed. Their first question was “Who’s your doctor?”

“I have no doctor,” I replied proudly.

Flabbergasted, the nurses told me that it would be hard to find a doctor to deliver my baby at this point, because I was considered too high risk. Ignoring their concerns, I asked if I could have something to ease the pain, but they said the baby was too close to being born; it was past the time for drugs. I would have to give birth naturally.

Within an hour, I had a very healthy little boy: seven pounds, eleven ounces — pretty hefty for a baby whose mother ate out of dumpsters. They whisked him off to be analyzed, seemingly determined to prove me wrong, to find some defect. They just couldn’t believe a baby could be healthy under these conditions.

But he was.

April Thompson
Nampa, Idaho

My great-grandmother raised eight children on a farm in a small town in west Texas. One of her sons, my grandfather, grew up to be a drinker and married a woman who also had no control over her drinking.

While driving drunk, my grandfather hit a little girl. He was incarcerated for a time, and he stopped drinking after that. Instead he smoked and drank instant coffee all day long.

My grandmother was a nervous woman who couldn’t sit down long enough to eat. She always complained that the sparrows ate her peaches. To stop the birds, she caught them in a cage in her backyard and pulled their heads off.

Their son, my father, grew up stealing beans for his supper and rounding up his parents from the bars. He got kicked out of high school for blowing up a toilet, then kicked out of the Marines for reasons that remain a mystery.

He married my mother when she was sixteen, and the union lasted ten years, though his fidelity did not. He has now been married three times, with children from each marriage and a few stepchildren picked up along the way. Though diabetic, he continues to smoke three packs a day, guzzle beer every night, and feast on fried foods and ice cream.

Following the family tradition, I got married young, to a man who liked to expose himself to little girls and inhale nitrous oxide. After eight interminable months, I left him, but he followed me everywhere, standing on dance floors and staring while I slow-danced with other men.

Today I live in a nice house in a middle-class neighborhood. I have been married to the man I love for fifteen years, and we have two sons. I teach yoga, and our lives are healthy and full of love. Words like normal and ordinary carry negative connotations for some, but for me they hold an exquisite pleasure.

Fort Collins, Colorado

The lost-dog rescue foundation was holding its weekly Adoption Day at a local pet store, and my husband and I decided to take a look. I knew there was no way I could select an animal so quickly, but I was curious.

A volunteer showed us a dog who lay still and quiet on the cold floor amid the din of barking pups eager to alert me to their presence. Patches of white fur on his face and back made him look old. He held himself like an old dog, too, as if he were exhausted with life and hadn’t thought he would make it this far.

“I’m looking for a younger dog, and female,” I said. “Low shedder, docile temperament.” I had done my homework. I knew what I wanted, and it was not this animal lying on the floor before me.

“Just take him outside for a moment and walk around with him,” said the volunteer. “His last owner called him Bruno.”

I took Bruno’s leash, and we exited the store into the humid August afternoon. Bruno walked slowly ahead of me and paused from time to time to wheeze and cough. I could see the outline of his ribs. “He’s scrawny,” I said to my husband.

Bruno turned to look at us. Then he lay down on his back, his white-and-brown belly exposed. His large hazel eyes peered into mine, and I felt a connection. I kept staring at those eyes as I rubbed him. He leaned his head to the side and licked my hand.

“He’s picked us,” my husband said. I nodded. I felt dazed and touched and tense. We went back in the store and found the volunteer. “We’d like to adopt him,” I said. “How old is he, anyway?”

“Let me see,” she said, and she flipped through his chart. “He turned seven months old yesterday. He’s just a baby. He has a touch of kennel cough, but that should clear up. We found him in a shelter last week after his second owner left him there. The shelter was getting ready to put him to sleep, but we scooped him up just in time.”

Over the next six months, Bruno gained almost ten pounds. He had a bounce in his step, and the white patches in his fur shone glossy and thick. People commented on what a beautiful dog he was. His beauty went beyond the surface, though. It lay in the fact that he had made it through two owners and two shelters. He was alive.

Sheryl Modlin
Vienna, Virginia

A few months shy of graduating from medical school, I volunteered in a hospital in rural Haiti. One day the nurses brought me a premature infant weighing less than two pounds. They left her wrapped in a towel in the corner.

Even at that eager, optimistic stage of my career, I knew this baby would die, but for some reason I thought I should at least keep her warm, so I laid her under a warming lamp. When the generators were turned off at 10 P.M., I bundled the tiny girl up and put her under the biggest battery-powered light I could find. Then I said a brief goodbye and walked out.

The following morning, I lingered over my breakfast, trying to postpone the discovery that I knew awaited me at work. Even the best intensive-care unit in the United States would have had its hands full with this little one. Who was I, a medical student in the midst of unspeakable poverty, to think that I could make a difference?

When I checked on the infant, she was cold, but alive.

And so began a weeklong saga of improvised warming devices and tube feedings. Each morning, I braced myself for the worst. Each day, she looked a little less hopeless.

Eight days after she was born, I handed the tiny baby back to her illiterate mother, left a page of instructions in my limited French for her nurses, and returned home. I spent the whole flight back wondering if I should just have left her in that towel in the corner. How much more suffering awaited her in her no-doubt-short life?

When I returned two years later, I learned that the girl had been back to the clinic for her immunizations that year looking quite healthy.

These days my wife and child can’t understand why I’m always stopping by the hospital one last time to check on someone.

Stephen Erickson
Waupaca, Wisconsin

The last time I saw my Uncle Ray alive, he was on the phone in our dining room placing a bet on the Sonny Liston–Cassius Clay fight. He had recently returned from Vietnam, his tour of duty complete, and had a second child on the way. I was thrilled to have him back.

At thirteen, I had a crush on Uncle Ray. Handsome and kind, he taught me how to play poker, and he loved my Aunt Colene like nothing I’d ever seen. Colene used to let me drive her shiny red four-door down Stannage Street, smoking Chesterfield Kings and listening to “Soldier Boy” on the chrome radio.

Ray had just been called back for another tour of duty. He knew he might not return. That’s why he was betting the bank on the underdog in the Clay–Liston fight, knowing the odds were against him.

Colene still remembers the sound of the Marines’ boots stamping down the cement walkway of her home, and the letter they handed to her.

The neighbor girls and I used to play a game called Vietnam. We weren’t the soldiers; we were the wives. We’d visit a pretend cemetery and mourn our loved ones. We’d dribble tears on our cheeks from water-filled bottles.

I can still see the phone in Ray’s strong hand, his nails bitten to the quick.

Vicki Decker
Truckee, California

My mother and her twin brother were born out of wedlock. Their poor family lived in a ramshackle house on a small street in an Appalachian coal town. They never knew their real father, only their alcoholic stepfather, who gave their mother six more children.

My beautiful mother and her troubled brother suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of their stepfather. Once, he beat her brother so hard, slamming his head against the floor, that my mother stepped in and begged her stepfather to beat her instead, just to give her battered brother a rest. Another time, her stepfather twisted her arm so hard it broke.

The cycle of abuse usually continues through generations, but in this instance it stopped with my mother. She had three kids. We were spanked when we needed it, but mostly her hand was there to help me up after a fall, or hold mine on a walk after I had been sick, or to wave to us at our ballgames.

My mother still struggles with the demons from her past. Medication and therapy help. After a session with my mother, a psychiatrist told my dad, “No human being should ever have to live like that.”

My cousin once asked me if I wished I had a mother like hers. Why would I want any mom other than my own? I thought. She gave me the happiest childhood anyone could ask for, despite her own tragic upbringing.

Michelle C.
Henryville, Pennsylvania

I enter the kitchen of the zen center at 7 A.M., look at the lists for the meals we must prepare for today and tomorrow, and experience a familiar sinking feeling: two gallons of yogurt (which we make from milk and starter); one and a half gallons of dried prunes, halved; two gallons of apples, medium chop; twenty gallons of spinach, destemmed and washed. . . . The list goes on. How will our crew of six serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner to sixty students — and a different, more elegant breakfast, lunch, and dinner to about eighty guests?

At 7:30, it’s time for breakfast. The head of the zendo comes to get the Buddha tray, which holds three tiny lacquered bowls, each with a tiny amount of the breakfast items in it. I light the candle on the altar, ring a small bell twice to alert everyone in the kitchen, and offer the tray. Someone else rings the bell outside the kitchen, and the students come to take the food out to the serving tables.

After breakfast and cleanup, I assign lunch jobs to the crew members, prioritizing like a triage nurse. It still seems impossible that we will get everything done. There are mishaps: Joe puts one and a half cups, instead of one and a half tablespoons, of dry mustard into a sauce. Instead of setting the yogurt on top of the stove to ripen, Ellen puts it in the walk-in cooler and remembers her mistake two hours later. Larry slices his finger instead of the carrot and freaks out. In between these events, Jan from the office walks in with a count of the number of guests to expect for lunch. She comments on how calm the kitchen seems.

Miraculously, the salad is made, the rice cooked, and the soup ready to go when the head of the zendo comes in at noon for the Buddha tray. Afterward, the kitchen crew cleans a huge stack of dishes, and we go to lunch ourselves. Half an hour later we are back to clear the tables and prep two cases of chard.

After an afternoon break, I return refreshed at 4:30, bow to the crew members, and ask one to prepare the dinner vegetable, another to attend to the leftovers heating in the oven, and the rest to continue chopping, grating, and mincing. There is little more than an hour before supper, but the crew members — most of whom have never worked in a kitchen of this size before — work together smoothly. Amazingly, by the time we leave at 7:30, many of the items on the list for the next day’s meals have been checked off. Perhaps tomorrow morning, my job will seem slightly less impossible.

Tova Green
Carmel Valley, California

I was able to drag myself out of my depressive stupor long enough to call my former therapist and tell her what had transpired: my husband and I had just had a baby girl, and the whole right side of her brain was completely malformed. My voice shook, and my tears ran down into the receiver. “We thought we were having a healthy baby,” I said.

I gave her the details we’d learned from the neurologist. There weren’t many; after all, only a small number of cases like ours had ever been reported. After a long silence, my therapist said, “Try not to think of it as a tragedy. Think of it as . . . well, drama.”

Since then, we’ve had plenty of drama. Our lives revolved around doctors’ appointments, therapies, and an insatiable quest for knowledge about Ella’s condition. We learned a lot from other families we met through two Internet support groups. At times we were hopeless. Ella couldn’t even hold her head up. Within five months she was hospitalized four times.

The seizures were the worst, brought on by the erratic electrical activity on the malformed right side of Ella’s brain. The first came when she was two weeks old. Her eyes were fixated on nothing, and her eyebrows and lower jaw twitched. Her breathing became a shallow wheeze. Foamy saliva gathered at the corner of her tiny mouth, followed by drool.

When the spells became more frequent and pronounced, we rushed her to the emergency room. Ella was put on a large dose of phenobarbital — an anticonvulsant — and other medications. The result was a baby able to do little but eat and sleep. Still my husband and I were always on edge, afraid that a new, more ferocious bout of seizures would break through.

We vacillated between hope and despair. My eleven-year-old son had never needed special medical care. We were a family that valued intellect, talent, independence. The prospect of raising a retarded child who would suffer all her life was at times more than I could bear.

Because the left side of Ella’s brain did not show any abnormal activity, she became a candidate for a hemispherectomy. At ten months, Ella had the operation to completely remove the right half of her brain.

The brain of a small infant is malleable and can reorganize itself along new paths. It has taken much time, therapy, and patience, but we now see our daughter doing things we never imagined possible. The other day she was sitting in her highchair playing her toy piano with both hands, even though normally the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body. As she approaches her first birthday, she is becoming more accurate in getting things into her mouth, grabbing for toys, and focusing on objects near and far.

We don’t know what lies ahead, but the doctors tell us there is a good chance Ella will overcome her developmental delays. We are waiting for Ella to prove them right.

Michelle Portman
Newton, Massachusetts

At the age of forty-six, after a nineteen-year romance, I eloped. My fiancé and I sneaked off to the next town to be married by his sister, a justice of the peace who could keep a secret.

When I awoke the next morning, my new husband looked lovingly into my eyes and said, “You know, a woman your age is more likely to be struck by lightning than to get married.”

Casey Brennan McGannon
Chester, Connecticut

In the 1940s, before I was born, my mother worked as a model. Mom was five feet seven inches tall and weighed about 110 pounds, but she always had to watch her weight. Even a pound or two would be seen when she wore bathing suits.

One day Mom came home after a long day of modeling. She was feeling tired, but not unusually so. She had been separated from my father only a short time and lived with her parents. After taking a shower, she stepped out of the bathtub feeling a little strange. She yelled for her mother.

My grandmother ran to the bathroom and found Mom hemorrhaging profusely, as if someone had cut her wide open. My grandmother grabbed a bunch of towels to staunch the bleeding, and my grandfather went to get the car. “I don’t feel so good,” Mom told Grandma just before passing out.

At the hospital, the doctors couldn’t determine the cause of the bleeding, so they decided to perform emergency exploratory surgery. They administered a local anesthetic, and Mom was awake during the procedure.

As they opened her abdomen, she would later tell me, the doctor commented that he had cut into an abnormal mass of tissue. Upon further examination, he cried, “Oh my God, there’s a baby in here!”

Mom was shocked as the doctor pulled out a very tiny baby girl. Another doctor had to stitch up the baby’s lower back. (Although I have never measured the scar, it is at least a few inches long and located just above my buttocks.)

A complete blood transfusion was necessary to save my life. When finally weighed, I came in at just under one pound, eight ounces. I had to weigh at least three pounds before I could leave the hospital.

A couple of months later, I was released into my grandparents’ care. My grandfather said he was afraid to touch me, for fear I might break. Since there were no baby clothes small enough to fit me, my grandmother made all my outfits. My grandfather told me I was tiny enough to fit in a cigar box. No one had expected I would be born, let alone live.

Lynda D. Krun
Nampa, Idaho

It’s 1984, and I’m watching my so-called best friend Cathy perform an interpretive dance in our church social hall. Phil Collins’s hit song “Against All Odds” blasts from the PA. I am both embarrassed for Cathy and extremely jealous: Embarrassed because the audience doesn’t seem to understand interpretive dance. (I can feel the church-lady disapproval in the air.) Jealous because she has what I want: talent, chutzpah, and, most of all, Joey Dillon.

My performance, earlier in the talent show, was a sweet and timid vocal number — pretty, but no match for Cathy’s gyrations. She leaps, she sweats, she grunts and grimaces. She is being sexy in church. I hate her.

Joey Dillon was out of my league, and that year, “Against All Odds” was my anthem. I wanted to experience that kind of love and passion and desperation and pain. I wanted to cry out, “Take a look at me now! / ’Cause I’ll still be standing here. / You coming back to me is against all odds, / but it’s the chance I gotta take.” I wanted to say those lines, to shout them to Joey Dillon.

Thank God the urge passed.

Name Withheld

It was early morning when I started to pack my belongings, nice and neat, into two ragged suitcases, which I then placed squarely at the foot of the bed for the police to find — after they found my body.

The lingering effects of the previous evening’s cocaine binge were exacerbated by the cheap quart of beer I was methodically drinking to calm my nerves. I had thought it through. I was a loser, fresh out of the county jail, strung out, jobless, penniless, and facing prison time once my probation officer found out about my violations. The thought of taking my own life calmed me and gave me a false sense of peace. I busied myself cleaning the tiny room I rented from an elderly couple, to erase any incriminating evidence of drug use.

The little room was not much bigger than the jail cells to which I’d become accustomed. Just another prison, I thought gravely, as I slipped into my best dress pants and shirt before sitting down to write my note. “Dear Mother,” I began, “I can go on no longer in this life, stigmatized as I am. I am sorry for all the pain I have caused. I love you.” I laid the note gently beside the tiny black-and-white TV, atop the dresser. Then I took out a disposable camera and snapped several shots of myself for posterity.

After using up the film, I went to the supermarket across the street and stole a bottle of Tylenol-PM, careful not to get caught. On my way home, I saw dark, ominous clouds gathering in the distance. I arrived back at the house as the first light drops of rain began to fall, and I knew the time had come. I hesitated for a moment, then swallowed a handful of pills quickly, before the alcohol — and my resolve — wore off.

The darkness of the approaching storm filled the room. The only light was the flicker of the television. I had put on a religious station in a last-ditch bid for salvation. I lay there, fatigued and ruminating, for an hour. Slowly, the TV preacher’s sermon, the pitter-patter of raindrops, and the rhythmic thump of my heart in my ears built to a crescendo.

Numb, tingling, and feverish, I writhed on top of the comforter as flashes of lightning illuminated the rain-streaked window. My shallow breaths became slower and smoother. Two voices spoke within me. Go to sleep and rest, one softly whispered. Get up and find help! the other screamed.

Fear won out. I stumbled to the door and, with thick tongue and slurred speech, confessed everything to my landlady.

I remember only snatches after that: hugging the toilet; tripping over the garbage can; paranoia; men in uniform asking, “Can you follow my pen with your eyes?” and, “What did you take?”

I awoke the next day around 3 P.M., dizzy, sick, and nauseated. An IV slowly dripped into my swollen right forearm, and wires dangled about me, attached to pads on my chest.

“Hi, honey. How are you?” whispered my mother from the foot of my bed.

“OK,” I replied hoarsely. I looked away in embarrassment. My uncle stood quietly beside her and smiled reassuringly.

More family members arrived, crowding the small hospital room. A nurse came in and administered a rotten-egg-smelling liquid through the tube that ran into my nose and down to my stomach. “This will help your liver,” she said tenderly.

The physician, however, was blunt. “I give him a few days to live,” he told my family. “His liver has suffered irreversible damage. It will eventually shut down, and he will go into a coma.”

My mother asked about a transplant.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor said, “but with his drug history, there is no hope for that. All you can do is be here for him and let him go in peace.”

My older brother took out his guitar and sang some Christian songs while my youngest sister held my hand and spoke words of comfort. Uncle Ron immediately called his local church to request prayer on my behalf, and the pastor came to my bedside. My father called long-distance, stirring feelings of regret and remorse. My mother, who refused to accept the doctor’s prognosis, instituted a regimen of holistic remedies, ranging from aloe-vera fruit drinks to blue-green-algae shakes.

My toxic blood levels were off the charts. But hour by hour, day by day, the yellowish pallor of jaundice slowly gave way to fresh, lively pink, and I was soon able to eat without retching. My strength returned, along with my will to live.

The staff were perplexed. By all rights, my liver should have failed. The doctor spoke of a miracle.

Two weeks later, wearing the new clothes my sister had bought me, I walked out of the hospital and into the fresh air and sunlight.

Stephen Cotton
Bowling Green, Florida