A biopsy around Thanksgiving showed I had early endometrial cancer. Just a few days before Christmas I had a hysterectomy. Now it’s almost New Year’s, and I’m still making my way around the house painfully, holding my belly.
What lessons have I taken away from this brush with mortality? For starters, that recovering from abdominal surgery hurts like hell. That nothing — not work, nor holiday shopping, nor social commitments — is so important that it can’t be put on hold.
That my husband loves me whether or not I have a swollen, scarred abdomen. That it’s OK for me to let other people handle things for a while.
That it’s a good thing to have medical insurance in this country. That when someone tells me he or she is ill, I should say something, even if it’s just “I don’t know what to say.” That I may be peeling little bits of bandage adhesive off my belly and arms for the rest of my life.
That painkillers are not a crutch but a useful and necessary tool. That loose, sloppy sweat pants are a wonderful invention. That the cat doesn’t really care where I’ve been, as long as I come home to pet him.
That most problems in life, including having your car totaled by a speeding moron, are small concerns, as long as no one gets hurt. That although I may judge myself harshly, my friends are much more generous in their assessments, and I should probably pay more attention to them.
That come New Year’s, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than sound asleep in my own bed beside my husband.
When I was in fourth grade, the art teacher passed out crayons and asked us to draw a picture of the most beautiful thing we could imagine.
I started with a thick forest beside a lush green meadow. Above it I drew a blue sky, wispy white clouds, and a yellow sun. And in the middle of the meadow I placed a sleek silver rocket ship, pointed skyward, bearing an American flag.
This was in 1961, near the height of the space race. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had orbited the earth, and the U.S. was trying desperately to catch up. Meanwhile I had finished the Hardy Boys series the year before and was deep into Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.
The art teacher stopped behind my desk. “Is that really the most beautiful thing you can think of?” she asked.
I got the message. Since that day my artistic endeavors have been limited to doodles.
John Unger Zussman
Portola Valley, California
When I was fourteen, my black Angus heifer won the Reserve Grand Champion prize at the Dodge County Fair. Sally was a beauty, built low to the ground with a straight back and weighing just 845 pounds. She was so tame that she would follow me around the farmyard without a halter.
In the ring, when the judge came up behind Sally and placed his hand on her back, she didn’t flinch. A shampoo a week and a healthy serving of beet pulp had made her coat sleek and shiny. She looked stunning in her white leather halter, required for the judging. But it was her quiet, sensitive eyes that I liked best.
A week after Sally won, Dad, my oldest sister, my brother, and I traveled to the Omaha Stockyards, where Sally was to be sold with other top prizewinners from around Nebraska. Each year steakhouse owners came to bid on the champions. Johnny’s steakhouse bought Sally.
From the catwalk over the pens, I caught sight of Sally as a yardman moved her toward the slaughterhouse. I called to her. She stopped and looked up at me. Then, prodded by the yardman, she moved on.
“Time to go,” Dad said.
By the time we reached our old station wagon, I was sobbing. My sister held my hand in the back seat.
“If you don’t understand what this is all about, you’re no daughter of mine,” Dad said into the rearview mirror.
We stopped for a hamburger on the way home. I choked mine down under my father’s watchful eye.
My dad taught by example. If he ran over a jackrabbit on a dark night, he stopped and threw it in the trunk, and we cooked it for supper the next day. He taught me that death comes for every living creature. It isn’t always pretty, or easy. But it comes. So every creature’s life should be valued and honored.
When the check from Johnny’s steakhouse came in the mail, I put the money in the bank and forgot about it. A few years later I had enough to pay for four semesters of college.
A couple of years ago, my brother handed me a cardboard box. Inside was the white leather halter that Sally had worn. It had hung in the barn for more than forty years.
“I thought you might want this,” he said.
I was healing from my second miscarriage and spending early mornings and sun-streaked late afternoons planting my garden. While I sowed seeds in neat black rows of humus, inside I felt bereft and barren.
That spring it rained almost every day, on top of a wet winter. I watched most of my seedlings die, rotting under the burden of too much moisture. At the time I was reading Romeo and Juliet with my freshman English students. I thought of Friar Laurence’s words about how Mother Nature’s womb is also her “burying grave.”
One day my five-year-old son Owen and I were cleaning around the roots of our rhododendron when we found the stiff, curled-up body of a hedgehog. It had apparently crawled beneath the shrub to die. Having already weathered the deaths of two potential siblings, Owen cried for days about the inexplicable demise of “Hedgie.” He and I buried Hedgie and talked frequently about dying and how death makes way for new life. I tried to explain to him that death, though we don’t always understand it, is nature’s way. At the time he could only nod through tears and mutter, “Poor Hedgie.”
Every year a family of black-capped chickadees makes its nest in a dilapidated, barn-shaped birdhouse left behind by our home’s previous owners. Though the birdhouse is an eyesore, we haven’t taken it down, because we get so much enjoyment out of watching these wisps of feathers build their nests and tend to their young.
During the few clear spring evenings, we dined on the patio and watched the birds bring sticks and grass and paper wrappers to insulate the house. Once the nest was built, the two mates took turns darting into the underbrush to gather food for the baby chickadees, whose insistent squawking kept their parents busy. Owen was eager to lift the lid of the tiny house and see the baby birds, but I explained that we should not disturb the nest.
By the end of May we no longer heard the babies’ inchoate cries or saw the gray-and-black blur of the parents. From past years we knew that, once the babies were strong enough to fly, the entire family would leave the house and not come back until the following spring. Owen and I couldn’t wait to get a look at this year’s nest design, but we decided to give it one more week, just to be sure.
On a warm Sunday evening we pulled the house down from its perch and peeked inside. The smell was the first indication that all was not well. In the nest were three decaying corpses. Two had died with beaks open, as if in midcry. Maggots filled the bottom and sides of the nest and spilled out of the eye sockets and beaks of the dead baby chickadees. I could hardly bear to explain to my son yet again about the cycle of nature.
After a moment, Owen asked, “Where are their parents?”
“I don’t know, Bud,” I said.
“I’m sad that our baby birds died. We should bury them next to Hedgie.” He sighed. “But look, Mommy, the birds are making life for these maggots.”
It is now almost fall. Owen and I speak often of our “year of death,” and he reminds me that nature’s way means that some things live and others don’t, and maybe next year the baby birds will live to fly away. Pregnant again, I smile at the thought.
It wasn’t my first time inside Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York. I had been making regular visits over the previous year to conduct workshops as a volunteer “trainer” with the Alternatives to Violence Project. This particular visit was unusual, though, because it was the first time I had been called in to meet with “inside trainers” — i.e., inmates — to plan an upcoming workshop.
On my regular daytime visits, I entered through a side gate adjacent to the classrooms where our workshops were held. This meeting took place in the evening, however, and I soon learned that things were different on the night shift.
The other trainers and I, accompanied by armed prison guards, were let in at the main gate and marched across the open prison yard — which, thankfully, was empty. As we made our way across the yard, however, inmates in their cells began to hoot and jeer. We couldn’t see their faces, but their taunts rained down on us from above.
We arrived, somewhat shaken, at our designated meeting room and went to work with the inside trainers — convicted felons, yes, but men with whom I had developed bonds of friendship over the course of a year.
The meeting passed quickly, and it was soon time for us to be escorted out. Flanked by armed guards once again, we made our way across the prison yard. This time, however, the yard was full of prisoners.
We walked in a tight formation through the crowd. I was frightened until I looked up and saw two men from the workshop walking as close to us as the guards would allow. They were watching out for us the only way they could. As soon as my eyes met theirs, I felt safe.
I know this doesn’t make any sense. Here I was with armed men guarding my every step, and the moment I made eye contact with a pair of convicted murderers was when I felt safe? It isn’t logical. But all the guns and bullets in the world will never make me feel as secure as friendship.
Aurora, New York
When I was about four years old, my mother enrolled me in a swimming class at the community pool. This was before the days of parent-child classes, and I didn’t like being dropped off by myself. I didn’t like the lessons, either.
On the first day, I quickly discovered that I could not float. I lacked the necessary body fat. The instructor encouraged me to arch my back and lift my tush, and for a moment it looked as though I had pulled it off, but then I exhaled and sank toward the turquoise bottom of the pool.
I was a little better at kicking, but I couldn’t stroke or breathe correctly. My hands wouldn’t stay cupped, and my arms windmilled wildly. I blew out when my head was above water, and breathed in when it was below.
At the end of the lesson, the instructor took me out to the deep end, holding me close to her face. Once there, she stopped and tossed me up and away. I was expected to swim the two or three feet back to her, using the techniques I’d learned. Instead I sank to the bottom, bobbed to the surface, and, with much sputtering and gasping for air, dog-paddled into the safety of the instructor’s arms.
At the end of the lesson, my eyes burned, my sinuses stung from chlorine, and my belly was bloated with pool water. I sat wrapped in my beach towel, shivering and hiccuping, and waited for my mother to pick me up.
I never did master the breast stroke, but I learned how to swim and am not afraid of the water. The confidence I gained from those lessons enabled me to enjoy many sunny days frolicking in the ocean waves, swimming in the neighbor’s pool, and water-skiing on the lake. It also gave my parents peace of mind.
Just three months before I was born, while relatives were in town for the holidays, my seventeen-month-old brother had managed to get past all the adults and out to the edge of the lake on which we lived. In the warmer months, he loved to splash and play with the ducks there, but that day was cold, and the ducks were gone. He drowned.
Los Angeles, California
An orphan, my grandfather lied about his age to join the army and fought in the trenches in World War I. He was captured by the Germans, escaped, and was recaptured. When the war ended, he returned to Florida to work as a field hand and sharecropper. He eventually married my grandmother and settled down on a farm outside Rush Springs, Oklahoma. They raised four children and survived the Depression, dust storms, and the Second World War.
Papa’s demeanor gave no indication of the difficulty he had known. He was cheery and playful with his grandchildren. In fact, when I was a little girl, I had a hunch that Papa just might be Santa Claus. He didn’t have a lot of money for gifts, but he was generous and loving. On his farm he let my brother and me pet the animals and explore at will. We ran barefoot in red-clay silt so fine it felt like powder. The only real dangers were yellowjackets, bull nettles, and fresh cow patties.
One hot summer day, Papa took my cousins, my brother, and me with him to run errands. As we were headed back to the farm, we drove past some people working in a cotton field. Most of them were Negroes. One of my cousins started making fun of them, and we all chimed in. I don’t remember exactly what we were mocking. It may have been their dirty clothes, or their skin color, or the work they were doing. I do remember that a shadow fell over Papa’s face. I had never seen him look so serious. He pulled over and told us to wait for him in the truck.
When Papa came back, he told us that we were going to pick cotton. He gave each of us an enormous sack. We were not to return to the truck until we had filled our bags.
I was excited at first. It was fun to see the white puffs we kept in a glass box in the bathroom growing from a plant. I figured it would be easy to fill a sack. As I started down my first row, sweat began to drip off my bangs into my eyes. The sandy clay soil stuck to my legs. The tough points of the dry outer pods scraped my hands. I was dismayed by how little of the bag my handfuls of cotton fiber filled.
A woman with a scarf on her head stopped picking to look at me. There was neither animosity nor friendliness in her expression. I was used to adults addressing me in a cooing, comforting way. I thought perhaps this woman would put down her bag and help me fill mine. I was just a little girl from the city. Surely she would want to help me. But she returned to her own work.
I walked up the embankment to Papa’s pickup, dragging the heavy, mostly empty bag behind me. Papa gave me some water from a metal canister.
“I’m hot,” I said.
“Yep, hot out today.”
“Better get back out there if you’re going to fill that bag before sunset.”
I stood still, surprised that I was being held to this bargain. Papa wasn’t supposed to be this hard on us — certainly not on me.
As I started back down the embankment, I saw that there were other children, Negro children, in the field. They didn’t have their own bags, but were picking cotton and putting it into the bags of the grown-ups. Those kids worked a lot faster than I did. Didn’t the sun bother them?
I started picking again, slower than before, careful to avoid the hard stems and pods. The sun dropped only slightly in the sky. When I saw Papa coming toward me, I felt sure he had relented. Instead, he took my bag and emptied it into my cousin’s. He told us that we could both fill the one bag.
I grew tired and sunburned and picked even slower now. The Negro kids were still working at the same dogged pace. I had not seen any of them take a break. There was no hint of play in their task.
Finally, when we had picked just enough for the cotton to reach the mouth of the bag, Papa emptied our pickings into a field worker’s sack. That man turned and began to pick the rest of our row.
We followed Papa up to the pickup and crawled into the cab. I was too worn out to feel relief. As we drove away, I looked back at the field. No trees, no shade, just the red waves of silt and cotton plants. Papa didn’t say a word: no praise, no criticism. I’ve never forgotten that lesson.
Cheryl J. Poole
For people with chronic illnesses, remission is a time of hope, but also of hubris. When I am in remission and hiking on a golden October afternoon, I am invincible. It is easy then to forget the other days, when I wrap my wrists with ice packs in a fruitless attempt to cool the searing pain around my bones.
When my arthritis is at its worst, just walking is like stepping on shards of glass. I sleep alone, swathed in heating pads and flannel sheets, searching vainly for a position in which even one part of my body does not hurt. Drugs only dull the pain, never erase it completely. Since they dull my mind as well, I avoid them for as long as I can. Even so, I have lost whole days to a pharmaceutical fog.
My first remission lasted for thirteen years, long enough for me to wonder whether I had imagined the endless tests and medications, the doctors’ predictions that I would be in a wheelchair by my fortieth birthday, the flight of my first husband at the prospect of a lifetime of caregiving. When others complained about their arthritis, I felt smug and secure in the knowledge that I had beaten it — and so, I thought, could they, if they really wanted to.
Then came the first blush of inflammation, a whisper of numbness, a gradual inflexibility in my joints. And along with these symptoms came a new doctor, new tests, and a new regimen of anti-inflammatory medications and immunosuppressants.
Now the flare-ups come and go with more regularity. I am attuned to the first subtle stirrings and do what I can to minimize the severity of the attacks. At forty-six, I am a long way from needing a wheelchair and have a husband who lovingly rides these cycles of pain and relief with me. In the midst of a flare-up, I curse myself for not doing more with my “good” days and make unrealistic plans for all that I will do once relief comes.
A friend recently tripped on a curb and fell, exacerbating the arthritis in her hips after a three-year remission. She and her husband are renovating their new home to make it wheelchair-accessible. Is she being realistic or fatalistic? I keep my opinion to myself. She has her own lessons to learn.
One fine spring day I was riding the subway back from the South Bronx when a mother and her two small children sat down next to me. The mother was in her twenties, and the little ones were maybe three and five. They were dressed as if they’d just returned from church, the girl in a frilly dress and crisp white ankle socks, the boy in a bow tie and freshly pressed shirt.
At the next stop, a homeless man got on the train. He was tall and raggedy, with a halo of wild hair. He made his way up and down the aisle, holding out his paper cup. Finally he settled on the bench across from me and shut his eyes. The children gazed at him in astonishment. Seeing this, their mother rummaged through her purse and produced a couple of dimes. “Go,” she said to the children in Spanish. “Give the poor man a dime.”
The children weren’t so sure they wanted to. But they made their way unsteadily across the aisle, holding out their little silver coins. The man’s eyes sprang open, but when the children tried to put their money in his cup, he covered it with his hand.
“Give the man the money,” their mother ordered.
The homeless man shook his head and smiled, rattling the cup like a tiny maraca. The children looked back, bewildered, at their mother.
“Go on,” she told them firmly.
The man laughed out loud. Clearly this mother was going to have her way. He held the cup out carefully, so the children could drop in their dimes. Then, just as they turned to go, he leapt to his feet and began circling his hand in the air above the paper cup. His long fingers flicked and dipped into the cup, and, bowing low, he suddenly produced two silver quarters, one for each child. Their dimes had been transformed!
“Take! Take!” he said.
The children glanced doubtfully across the aisle, but already they were reaching for the money. Their mother shook her head. “I want them to learn,” she said emphatically in English.
But the homeless man had other ideas. He didn’t want to be a homeless man that day. He wanted to be a magician.
Wilburn’s van was the biggest piece of junk I had ever seen. The tires were so bald that the belts were showing. It had once been a high-end cruising machine, but now it was a rusty, duct-taped, carpet-layer’s van. When I saw it in the parking lot of a local bar one night, I knew Wilburn was inside.
“Yo, Wilburn,” I greeted him. “Them tires getting a little thin.”
“What’chu mean, ‘thin’? They just now getting broken in.” A tall, bug-eyed man bent over from hard work, Wilburn spoke with a Southern accent. If you didn’t pay attention to what he said, you might think he was dumb.
After two beers, Wilburn had to go.
“Come on, I’ll buy you one more,” I said.
“No, I got to go to my daughter’s school program.” He laughed a deep, affectionate laugh. This was the last program before she graduated, he said. He’d attended every single conference, open house, concert, sporting event, and school happening since his daughter had started school thirteen years before.
I don’t know why it surprised me that a hardworking man with a trashed van and a Southern accent would rather attend his daughter’s program than sit in a bar, but it did.
I knew about school programs. My wife and I went to all of them, too: Eleven-year-old saxophonists making sounds like the collapsing hull of the Titanic. Parents sitting on hard bleachers, exhausted from a day’s work, yet clapping like madmen. Tired teachers thanking us for showing up. Hard, store-bought cookies and watery punch.
As Wilburn walked out the door, he looked down as if embarrassed and, trying not to brag, said, “Oh, I’m real proud of my daughter. She’s at the top of her class, got a full scholarship to college.”
Ten years ago, my husband, Ralph, was in a cycling accident that left him a quadriplegic, unable to perform the most basic human functions. Although I have help caring for him, it’s not easy for me to get away from home, even to run short errands. Stuck inside the house, not free to come and go as I please, I often feel trapped.
Our neighbor Mrs. Scott is one of the few people who didn’t abandon us after Ralph’s accident. The other day she came stomping into our house with her usual attitude of authority.
“Get in the car, girl. We’re going somewhere.”
“Is it really important?” I asked. “I’ve got a lot of work to do around here.”
“Yes, it’s important,” she said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be telling you to go. Now get cleaned up and let’s move. I’m about to teach you a lesson.”
I checked in with my husband and his helpers to make sure it was OK to leave. Then we got into the car. Mrs. Scott folded her big body into the front seat and barked directions: “Take Martin Luther King to Ashby. Watch out for those cars over there. Turn left on Carlton. Be careful now. Don’t take the turns so wide, sweetheart. Here we are.”
I parked in front of a small, neat bungalow on a narrow street in south Berkeley. The blinds were shut, and there was no car in the driveway. It looked as if no one was home.
“Get out,” said Mrs. Scott.
We went up to the porch, and Mrs. Scott pounded on the door. “Hazel, it’s me, Gerstine!” she shouted. “Let us in. I’ve got a friend with me.”
A deadbolt slid. The door opened to reveal a tiny, disheveled woman in a wheelchair. “Hello,” she said. “Come in.”
Mrs. Scott barged inside. “Hazel,” she shouted, “this is my friend Suzy Parker. We’ve come to help.”
I followed Mrs. Scott into the house as Hazel shut the door and rolled after us. “I’m so glad you’ve come,” said Hazel. “Please sit down.”
But Mrs. Scott stood and surveyed the old newspapers, dirty laundry, and half-full glasses scattered around the living room. “Hazel, has your daughter been here to see you?” boomed Mrs. Scott.
“Last week she was here,” answered the frail woman.
“It don’t look like she been here,” said Mrs. Scott, picking up a newspaper from the floor. “Ain’t nobody been here,” she whispered to me. Then, in a voice loud enough for people on the street to hear, she added, “Go into the kitchen, Suzy. See what you can do about cleaning up in there. I’ll check out the bedroom.”
While Mrs. Scott and Hazel moved into the other room, I went into the kitchen. A burner was on, but no pan covered the flame. Grease coated the stove. The sink held a stack of dirty dishes. In the frigidaire were an open quart of milk and an uncovered plate of shriveled sweet potatoes.
I turned the burner off and started on the contents of the sink. Then I moved on to the countertops and the small table, scrubbing the surfaces and wiping down the cupboard doors. On the back porch I found a bucket and a mop, which I used to clean the linoleum. I moved into the dining room and stacked magazines and newspapers into separate piles.
After forty-five minutes, Hazel and Mrs. Scott came out of the bedroom. “We’ve got to go,” Mrs. Scott said. “Suzy’s got a sick husband at home, and we’ve got to check on him. You take care of yourself, Hazel, and get someone over here to help you.”
“Thank you, Gerstine,” said Hazel. She wheeled around and faced me. “And thank you, Suzy. I’m glad to meet you, and I hope you’ll be back.”
Before I could answer, Mrs. Scott said, “Come on now. Time’s a-wasting. Catch you later, Hazel.”
When we reached the front porch, I heard the door shut behind us. The deadbolt slid. Hazel had locked herself in.
“There aren’t any ramps to this house,” I said to Mrs. Scott. “How does Hazel get out?”
“She don’t,” answered Mrs. Scott, shaking her head. “She don’t go nowhere, never. Now, ain’t that a shame?”
One evening I went to check on my two young children, ages six and four, to make sure they were brushing their teeth. Instead they were splashing water at each other, and the toothpaste tube was crumpled in the middle of the sink. Most of the gooey paste had been squeezed out.
I was furious. I had bought the toothpaste just that morning. It was the special kind with no preservatives or fluoride, just calcium carbonate and strawberry flavor. It cost close to four dollars a tube.
I marched the children to their rooms and told them that they owed me two dollars each for the toothpaste. I wanted to teach them a lesson about money and wastefulness. “Take the money out of your savings,” I demanded. I told my six-year-old that I wanted bills, not coins. My heart didn’t soften as I watched my weeping four-year-old try to count out two hundred pennies.
That night I was ashamed to tell my husband what I’d done. I lay in bed and wondered if I’d been too hard on my kids, who are usually well-behaved.
Two months have passed since then. Each night I check on the children while they brush. They continue to splash water at each other, but the toothpaste tube is always pristine.
The affair was a secret. I was married, and so was my lover. We’d met at the zendo in town, where we’d both been coming to meditate for about three years.
My lover was anxious to bring the affair out in the open. When I’d put him off, he’d say, “Death comes suddenly and without warning.”
I found it irritating when my lover assumed the role of teacher with me, and I dismissed it as just another strategy to persuade me. “Now is not the time for us to be together openly,” I’d say. “Maybe next year, when I’m not working so much.”
“We don’t know that we have another year,” he would respond.
One day my lover came to me in secret, and we made love. When it was time for us to part, he asked if I could stay, but I was already late to pick my daughter up from school. We made plans for our next meeting, and I left.
He died within an hour of our parting, in a car accident. I learned of his death from an article in the newspaper two days later.
Since my lover’s death, more than a few people have learned of our affair, my soon-to-be-ex-husband and my lover’s widow among them.
An old friend of mine saw me in the street the other day. He hugged me and told me how sorry he was about my troubles. “I hope you’ve learned your lesson,” he said.
I have, believe me: death comes suddenly and without warning.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, I ate dinner with the local teacher’s family every night. His wife, Chatou, sat across the food bowl from me, and, over millet with okra sauce, we shared stories about our lives.
One evening, after we’d washed our hands, she said, “I heard that you Americans have a machine that washes clothes!”
I confirmed that such machines existed, to which she replied, “Irikoy beri!” (God is big!)
“What other machines do you have?” she asked innocently.
I told her we have machines that wash the dishes, and machines that cook our food. We have machines that let us talk to people far away, and other machines that talk to them for us if we aren’t there when they call. We have machines for making bread, and machines just for toasting bread. Then there are machines so we can exercise.
By the time I got to the end of my list, Chatou’s eyes were round. She asked me to describe, in detail, the clothes-washing machine.
Many times she and I had discussed how she disliked washing clothes. I could understand why: she had four children, and the closest well was a half mile away. In my very best Zarma, mixed with a little French, I told her how the water is pumped into the boxlike machine through a hose. Inside the machine is a barrel. You put the clothes and soap into the barrel, which rotates back and forth and finally spins to expel the dirty water and soap through holes in the sides of the barrel. Then it fills up with water again, to rinse the clothes.
“Wait!” she said. “How does the barrel fill up with water if there are all these holes in it?”
I honestly wasn’t sure, I said. I didn’t even bother describing the dryer. Niger is an extremely hot, arid country, and I knew the notion of a drying machine would confound her.
When I had finished my explanation, Chatou said, “God is big! You Americans, you’ve figured out everything . . . except how to go to the moon!”
I thought I was having a pretty good day at work. I knew what to do for my patients, and they seemed appreciative. My hair was behaving. I wasn’t eating too much chocolate, and I was treating everyone with kindness — everyone except the new nurse. She just rubbed me the wrong way, with her sad, insecure smile. She was a little too eager, too needy.
That evening I overheard the new nurse talking about her struggle to become pregnant. She’d finally had a child at the age of thirty-nine, she told the listener, but the little girl had needed heart surgery, and they’d lost her to an infection. By that time, premature menopause had ended the nurse’s hope for another child.
Sheepishly, I asked the new nurse what her baby’s name was.
Her face lit up with a mother’s love. “Alison. She would be five next month!” She pulled out a photograph of a beautiful, bright-eyed little girl. My heart ached with shame, sadness, and awe. “Thank you,” I said. What I meant was: Thank you for teaching me how much I have to learn.
About a year and a half ago, I fell in love with Anabelle, who lived next door. The problem was that I was already in a relationship with Alex. He and I lived together and were planning to have children.
The allure of exploring a new side of my sexuality was strong, however, and Anabelle represented a freedom and openness that was lacking in my own life. While Alex was away on a three-month trip, I held my breath and took the plunge.
During the affair I came across a quote by Kurt Vonnegut: “Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts.” I asked this woman whose lips I could not kiss enough if we were being reckless. We decided that we weren’t.
I had no intention of telling Alex what had transpired between Anabelle and me, but when he returned from his trip, I was cold and distant and flinched at his touch. He confronted me, and I told him the truth. It was his birthday, and also the day after I’d received my master’s degree. My family had planned a bonfire at the beach to celebrate.
There is a photograph from that day of Alex, my dog, my two roommates, and me, all wearing metallic party hats. My smile is too big, my neck muscles straining. Alex is only half smiling, his arm around my waist, his hand clutching my shirt in a tight fist.
Alex and I survived that evening by avoiding each other’s gaze and feigning enjoyment of food and friends. Each time we awkwardly touched, the lines around his mouth hardened, and I had to stifle tears. I could not believe I had hurt so deeply someone I loved so much. We broke up soon thereafter.
I miss Alex. I worry every day that I’ve blown my big shot at family and fidelity. Anabelle and I are not even friends.
Santa Cruz, California
My son Matthew still believed in Santa Claus. Each Christmas he made a list and sent it to the North Pole. He even occasionally got a letter back.
One year Matthew asked if we could visit Santa instead of going to the Jersey Shore for vacation. I explained that it wasn’t possible, since no one knew exactly where Santa lived.
“I do,” he informed me. “His address is on the envelope. See, it’s 100 Rudolph Lane, North Pole.”
I’d forgotten about that. My reply was that only the mailman knew where Santa’s house was.
I thought that would be the end of it, but Matt soon informed me that, when he grew up, he wanted to be a mailman — at the North Pole, of course.
Not long after, we were shopping downtown when I spied a lone mailman making his rounds along the boulevard. “Hey, Matt,” I said, “there’s a real mailman. Let’s go talk with him.”
Matt was ecstatic. We went over, and I introduced my son. “He wants to be a mailman when he grows up,” I said.
The postal worker looked down at my boy and said, “Don’t do it, kid. The job sucks. By the time you’re old enough, the system will probably be taken over by big business, anyway. Things are already changing for the worse: they watch me like a hawk and don’t give me enough free time to take a piss.”
I looked on in shock. “You see, sir,” I whispered loudly, “the reason Matt wants to be a mailman is so he can deliver mail to Santa Claus at the North Pole.”
“Well,” the postman said, “if the job’s outside the United States, it might be different. But I wouldn’t count on it.”
Totowa, New Jersey
On New Year’s Day 2000, my sister Rachel drove two hundred miles north from Los Angeles to visit me at Salinas Valley State Prison. She brought with her my sixteen-year-old nephew Andy, whom I hadn’t seen in three years. Once upon a time Andy had been a precocious, goofy little kid. Now he was a six-foot-tall aspiring gangbanger with a shaved head.
Just weeks before her visit, my sister’s fiancé, Jake, had slowed his car to watch Andy and his homeboys spray-paint a wall with the name of their gang. When the other boys saw Jake, they shot at him.
Now Andy shrugged and told me, “You know how it is, Uncle Mario. Jake was sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. Anyway, they weren’t trying to cap him, just scare him.”
When Andy went to buy some candy from a vending machine, Rachel told me my nephew had recently been jumped and beaten by some gang members. Maybe he’d decided that joining a gang was better than being a victim.
I told Andy that I loved him and didn’t want him gangbanging. But, I conceded, he was old enough to make his own choices. He should know, though, that there were plenty of kids as young as he was doing life without parole under harsh new sentencing laws. More and more of them were coming straight to places like Salinas. These kids almost never shed a tear for the lives they’d ruined or taken, but they sure would bitch and moan about their own dismal fates. I told Andy I knew I could count on him not to be a crybaby and to take like a man any sentence he got, even the death penalty.
I told Andy not to worry too much about his mother; she was a strong woman. If he came to prison, she would visit him often. If he went to the hospital, she’d visit him there, too. If he was put into a wheelchair, she’d push his ass down the street. And if he was killed, then his heartbroken mother would throw dirt on his coffin, miss him always, and try to move on and be as happy as God would allow her to be.
I said to Andy, “Me, your mama, anybody — we can only warn you not to stick your hand in the fire. In the end, you’ll have to take sole responsibility for getting burned.”
He listened respectfully. I think he knew I spoke the truth, but how much he really absorbed, I couldn’t tell. Maybe my words seemed to him like a bag of clichés doled out by his old outlaw uncle.
Thirty-seven days later, on a night full of stars, Andy stood laughing with his best friend in front of his house overlooking Silverlake Reservoir. Two cars came along carrying three girls, four boys, and five guns. They riddled Andy’s body with bullets. His mother rode with him in the ambulance and held his hand as they entered the hospital. Andy, lucid but bleeding badly and very afraid, just a boy after all, told her: “It hurts. I’m sorry, Mom. I don’t want to die. Pray for me, OK?” Then he closed his eyes and didn’t open them again.
I didn’t know what to say to my sister. What can you say to a mother who’s lost her only son? The truth is seldom a defense against pain.
I’m no longer in Salinas Prison, a violent hell situated in beautiful natural surroundings. Now I’m doing time in a medium-security jail named Pleasant Valley, located in an arid, polluted corner of the state. When I meet kids in here, especially ones who are about to be released, I tell them Andy’s story. They always listen respectfully, knowing I speak the truth. That is all I can do.
Mario Vincent Perez