In honor of The Sun’s fiftieth year in print, we’re revisiting topics that have appeared in past issues and reprinting some of the original responses. “Gratitude” ran in our March 2002 issue.
There are enough chairs in our house for a family reunion, yet my children prefer to squash together in the corner of the couch. Wherever my husband and I are, they sit in our laps and put their heads on our shoulders. It’s sweet, but there are times when their elbows poke me and I have to tilt my face up to get some air.
In these moments my husband’s gaze often meets mine, and I feel like I can read his mind: It’s a season, remember?
He and I always remark in autumn how the summer is over too soon. Why, we wonder, didn’t we take more time to enjoy the longer days?
Shifting a child’s wayward heel away from my ribs, I remember that someday our laps will be without our children’s bodies, and I will miss the squashing.
I hold on to that heel and tickle it. My husband scoots closer. We are all on one couch cushion now, the kids squirming and laughing. We stick our noses against their necks, breathe into their tangled hair, and squeeze them even tighter.
In May 2020 I heard from many of my fellow members of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association that their creativity was being strangled by the COVID pandemic. Partners, kids, and roommates suddenly crowded our living spaces and our thoughts. Routines turned dysfunctional, and stress levels rose with the death toll.
To help us cope, I started Zoom “write-ins” that allowed us to forget our problems and write together for a few hours each day. We got to peek into each other’s homes, where dogs and kids wandered in the backgrounds. Strangers with vastly different perspectives forged unlikely friendships. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have these new companions in a fractured world.
In 2021 one of the writers, my longtime friend Kelly, needed a kidney transplant. Without a live donor, doctors said, she’d likely die. A friend that Kelly had made during our write-ins, Pamela, quietly applied to be her donor. After a year of testing, Pamela was approved as a match. The other writers were ecstatic to learn Kelly’s life would be saved and flabbergasted to hear the gift was coming from the community we’d built.
On March 29, 2022, the group held a daylong vigil as Pamela’s kidney was removed in New Jersey, flown to Los Angeles, and implanted into Kelly. Six months later Kelly and Pamela met in person at our organization’s writing retreat. That I could witness such generosity and courage — and have my dear friend now well — makes me feel like the luckiest person alive.
Well, the second-luckiest.
Los Angeles, California
My new friend Wren and I were hitchhiking to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where we’d heard there were high-paying government construction jobs. A ride dropped us off at a dusty intersection about three hundred miles north of our destination. Flat, high plateau stretched in all directions. On one corner was a weathered general store with a gas pump out front. Opposite it was a faded saloon. It was 10 AM, and only a few battered pickups were parked at the bar.
Wren, who at twenty was two years older than I, and who said he was a full-blooded Apache, entered the saloon with me and asked if anyone was headed south. No one was. So we went back outside to try our thumbs. We could see cars approaching from miles away; they’d slowly get bigger and then whoosh by.
Around noon a sky-blue Volkswagen pulled into the saloon parking lot, and a short, pale, pudgy man got out. He wore a rumpled summer suit and Buddy Holly glasses. Wren asked if he was going to Las Cruces. He said he was, but when Wren asked if we could hitch a ride, the man simply said no. Then he locked his car and went inside the saloon for lunch.
Wren was furious. This man was going right to Las Cruces and had room in his car, yet he’d refused to take us. The more Wren thought about it, the hotter he got. Finally he went over to the man’s car, pulled out his knife, and, bending low, quickly slit all four tires. He was calm when he returned. The tires would last only a few miles, he said, before they went flat, leaving the man stranded, at the mercy of passing drivers.
A half hour later, the man came out of the bar and walked toward us across the hot gravel. At first I was afraid he’d seen Wren, but he didn’t seem angry. In fact, he apologized that he couldn’t drive us to Las Cruces and said he had taken up a collection at the bar and gotten us enough for two one-way bus tickets. We could buy them at the general store across the street. The bus would arrive in an hour. He handed us the money.
We were speechless. As he turned to go, I wanted to run after him, confess what we’d done, and give him the money back, but I just watched as his car disappeared slowly into the distance.
Later I remembered that, when he’d handed us the money, neither of us had thanked him.
My wife and I adopted Amy through county social services when she was six months old. Our social worker told us our daughter had probably been traumatized by her early life, but she was a loving and smart child, and our first years with her were wonderful.
During junior high Amy lost interest in friends and activities and became dishonest with us. By the time she was in high school, she was skipping classes, drinking, and showing flashes of anger we had never seen before. Scared, we took her to a doctor, who said she seemed depressed and prescribed Prozac. The drug only made things worse. Our daughter began self-medicating with methamphetamines and getting in fights, car accidents, and volatile relationships. Many nights we were awakened by a call from her, asking for help. Too many times I dragged her from some hangout, either limp and unconscious or high and angry.
Finally my wife said that the next time Amy called, we had to tell her we could not help her unless she agreed to check into a treatment program. A few days later our daughter showed up at the house, carrying all her possessions in a garbage bag. My wife was strong enough to refuse to open the door. She called me at work to tell me to expect to see Amy camped out on our doorstep when I got home. When I said I wasn’t sure I could simply walk past her, my wife told me to check into a hotel. I did and had a sleepless night.
The next day Amy agreed to go into treatment. After detox, a psychiatrist diagnosed her with bipolar disorder and prescribed her medication. Amy relapsed a few times, going off her meds and returning to alcohol and drugs, but for the most part she showed amazing courage and did the hard work required to complete treatment.
Amy is now a healthy young woman who no longer suffers the extreme highs and lows she experienced for so many years. At the end of the month she’s getting married.
Smith Bay, St. Thomas
U.S. Virgin Islands
For years I posted three little things I was grateful for every day on Facebook. I came up with a new list each time: “Farmers market; my hammock; big, bold, fabulous flowers that are not at all shy.” A neighbor called me a Pollyanna. She didn’t know how hard I had to rack my brain for ideas.
Someone close to me disdainfully said, “I call posts like yours ‘Isn’t my life great?’ posts.” She had no idea, because she never asked and I didn’t tell her, that when I posted, “Homeowners insurance!; Forrest Gump (and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump); popcorn,” I couldn’t express gratitude for my marriage, which was slowly crumbling, or for my son, who was entering a dark and worrisome phase of his life.
They say not to sweat the little things. I say we should all be more grateful for them. Sometimes they are what gets us through.
I grew up in a frugal household. A three-minute egg timer sat by the phone for long-distance calls; a few ounces of dried beef became a dinner for five; and a roll of black-and-white film was made to last so long that the earliest photos on it were a surprise when they were finally developed.
I don’t remember how I managed to acquire an issue of Seventeen magazine or the Bobbie Brooks outfit I’d seen advertised in its pages. Nor can I fathom why I decided to enter the magazine’s promotional contest to model the outfit. I was an awkward fourteen-year-old — slightly pudgy, with buckteeth, unstylish glasses, and a choppy, amateur haircut. The ruffled, pink-and-white gingham blouse and matching pedal-pusher pants only added to my frumpy appearance. What delusion possessed me to ask my dad to buy a roll of color film and act as my photographer?
I posed in front of our garage (barefoot due to a lack of cute shoes), and my father used up an entire precious roll of film to aid me in my misguided plan. I sent off the best picture and awaited a response that never arrived. I’m sure I didn’t thank my dad.
Years later, after his death, I came across his worn savings-account bankbook and saw the weekly entries of $1.28, $2.16, $0.87 — paltry amounts even in the sixties and seventies. Remembering the photography session, I realized how careful he must have been to mask his misgivings over such a wasteful and futile endeavor. He knew any hesitation would have quashed my hopes, and his compassion now seemed remarkable to me. I hope somehow he knows that I have seen it.
Fort Wayne, Indiana
An organization I work for was sponsoring a Passover seder in San Quentin State Prison, and my husband and I were invited to attend. We’d been given a strict dress code — closed-toe shoes, no fancy jewelry, and no gang colors — but it slipped our minds as we rushed to get ready. When we arrived at the entry kiosk, the guard told my husband he couldn’t come in wearing his blue pants and blazer. While my husband left to buy clothes at a nearby Target, I was escorted into the chapel where the seder was being held.
One of the prisoners approached me and asked why I was alone. I filled him in on the dress-code violation. He invited me to sit with him and two of his friends.
Brian, Marc, and Lou were lifers. Each of them had been behind bars for at least twenty-five years. Still, they all expressed gratitude that they had been assigned to San Quentin, which they called the “country club of prisons.” While there they had gotten degrees and acquired skills they might use to find employment if they were ever allowed to go home. None of them had been born Jewish, but the chaplain who led weekly Shabbat services and taught classes on Judaism’s sacred texts had given the men faith and focus. They told me they were different people now than they’d been when they were prosecuted decades earlier.
I asked Brian what it was like to take part in a holiday that celebrates freedom when he was not free. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I am free. I’m just incarcerated.”
San Francisco, California
When my sister Beth was born in 1965, the doctors told Mom and Dad that she was a “mongoloid idiot” with extremely limited potential, unlikely to become verbal or to be able to care for herself. They recommended my parents put her in an institution rather than suffer the disruption she would bring to our family.
My parents had not planned for a fifth child in their forties, but they brought Beth home and did their best with the almost nonexistent support services available at the time. Prior to federal legislation passed in 1975, school districts could, and usually did, exclude students who had special educational needs, and kids with visible disabilities like Down syndrome were usually kept out of the public eye. It was rare to see them at church, the grocery store, or the playground.
I was twelve when Beth was born, and it quickly became clear to me that she had a lot more potential than the doctors had predicted. She went everywhere we went as a family and was clearly processing everything around her. She laughed easily and was appreciative of the smallest pleasures. She might not have been a typically developing child, but she learned at her own pace.
Beth became a voracious reader, with a particular fondness for Stephen King. She was an excellent swimmer and competed in Special Olympics events. She traveled extensively with our parents throughout the U.S. and Europe. At home she used public transit to get to her sheltered employment and took pride in her work and her increasing independence. As an adult she moved into a group home and met a close circle of friends, as well as a devoted true love who also had Down syndrome. She was a music lover and a great dancer and went to dozens of concerts, including Fleetwood Mac, the Doobie Brothers, the Eagles, and the Rolling Stones.
Beth is now fifty-seven and has dementia. She seems to regard me as a benevolent presence, but she no longer remembers my name or our relationship. She does, however, still respond to the music she loves. Rock and roll continues to give her a joyful way to connect with the world.
Santa Rosa, California
When I was homeless and living with a friend’s family, I was told I should be grateful for my poverty because it builds character. When I had to file for financial aid as a college student because my parents had disowned me, the well-meaning secretaries at the university said I should be grateful that I “had a place to go.” When I had coffee with friends after sending in my financial-aid request, one said excitedly, “Oh my God, you’re going to get so much money now!”
“That’s because I’m homeless and have to pay for everything myself,” I said.
“But the Pell Grant is so hard to get. You should be thankful that you qualify,” my friend replied.
Reactions like these made me feel awful. Was I not already doing enough to make the best of a bad situation? I was emotionally drained, barely sleeping, and grieving the loss of my place in my family. I felt like people wanted me to shut up and move on.
At no point during those difficult years did I feel ungrateful; in fact, the experience made me appreciate my support system even more. But I did feel misunderstood by the people around me. There is no reason to invalidate others’ feelings because you think they could have it worse. Being grateful doesn’t mean constantly having to look on the bright side.
In 1981 I was a twenty-three-year-old college dropout with a serious drinking problem, working at a department store in a low-level sales-management position I hated. Disappearing for long, boozy lunches helped, until I was summoned to human resources and told I was on the verge of being fired. Paul, the HR guy, had a degree in industrial psychology, and he noted that my poor performance was not in line with my potential. He had me take some tests at the nearby university, to see if there was another position I would be better suited for. The evaluation said I would excel at paperwork with a minimum of supervision, so Paul transferred me to oversee HR procedures for the company’s administrative staff.
At the end of a six-month probationary period, during which I didn’t miss a single day, Paul called me in again. How would I feel about returning to school? The company would allow me time off to take a couple of classes a week. I jumped at the chance, graduated with honors, and was offered a free ride to MIT, where I completed my PhD in 1991. I’m now thirty-two years into a successful academic career.
When I returned home in 2005 to visit my dying mother, I tracked Paul down at his family’s furniture business to thank him in person for pulling me out of the chaos that had been my life. To my surprise, Paul scoffed — and not in a self-effacing, “you-did-all-the-work” way. He said he remembered me as a “very emotional young woman.” I was stung. The rest of the conversation was stilted and awkward.
Almost a year later I received an email from Paul apologizing for his brusqueness. He said he had been going through a terrible divorce at the time, and he was deeply grateful that I had sought him out. It made him happy to know he had done someone some real good.
Abiquiu, New Mexico
On March 3, 2020, the adoption agency called to say that my husband and I had received approval to adopt a two-year-old girl from China. We had waited more than three years for this call, and we were elated. At the time, travel to China was restricted due to the outbreak of COVID, but we told ourselves that the crisis couldn’t last forever. We rushed to complete the paperwork and waited for news.
Days became weeks, then months. I sank into depression and turned to my body to regain a sense of control. I limited my portion sizes, started eating almost exclusively whole grains and vegetables, and went for strenuous rides on my mountain bike, focusing on the trail ahead of me instead of the anguish I felt. I lost thirty pounds and, in my midforties, was in the best shape of my life.
It’s now been more than three years since that phone call, and my husband and I are still waiting. We cannot start a new adoption process while we’re in the middle of this one, so our lives are on hold. The near-daily feelings of hopelessness are balanced by gratitude for what I have learned about my own capabilities. Last year I participated in my first mountain-bike race, and this year I’m planning to do three more.
Every time I get on my bike, I am reminded of how fortunate I am to have my health and how lucky I am to live in a place with easy access to the outdoors. When I worry that we’ll never get to meet our little girl, I visualize a bike ride to help me relax. It’s impossible to say what would have happened if the world had not changed in 2020, but I doubt I would have discovered this resilient person inside me.
During our eight years of marriage my wife degraded me in the bedroom. She told me my genitals were inadequate and said sex with me was not pleasurable. Near the end of our relationship the only time we had intercourse was when she was drunk.
After we divorced, I was afraid to be intimate with anyone. I thought I’d be wasting my time because I’d be incapable of giving them pleasure.
Years later I had a sexual encounter with someone I thought cared for me. The night she saw and touched my genitals was the last night we spent together. I assumed I had repulsed her.
About a year ago I decided to join a dating site and was immediately filled with anxiety. Too afraid to make the first move, I hoped that someone would be attracted to my profile and send me a message.
My membership was about to expire when I saw a woman I thought was adorable. According to her profile, we had a lot in common. Luckily she asked me out.
After a few dates it was time to take our relationship to the next level. My ex’s comments swirling in my head, I managed to explain to my date what had happened in my past. She was aghast and reassured me I was perfectly normal.
We’re now engaged. I will never be able to thank her enough for what she’s done for me.
At a stoplight I look in the rearview mirror and see a man with big sunglasses and a purple hat, singing along and shimmying to a song on the radio. How delighted I am to witness someone consumed with joy!
My neighbor Jan tells me what her dog is thinking when I stoop to pet him: “Don’t stop, Dave. A little more under the ear. Ah! That’s it. I can sit here all day.” I like her dog well enough, but I’m more thankful for her enthusiasm.
I’m grateful, too, for the hikers, joggers, and walkers I encounter on trails. They smile, nod, or wave, acknowledging that we’re both alive and lucky to enjoy the sweet air and plum-colored light of a chilly morning.
A student of mine passes me in the school parking lot and raises his hand to the visor of his baseball cap, tipping his hat like a man in an old black-and-white movie, and I love how this brief salute can penetrate a generational wall. My optometrist gently touches my hand while my head is harnessed in the vision-test contraption. The waiter at the Mexican restaurant takes my wife’s order, then turns to me and says, “And for you, my friend?”
Some may say these are meaningless courtesies or even ploys for bigger tips, but I think these small gestures make life better.
Port Charlotte, Florida
My doctor daughter-in-law announced the time of death: 8:57 PM on a Saturday night. With that, my husband’s fifteen-month ordeal of home hospice for grueling pancreatic cancer ended. Grave, black-suited men brought a stretcher and a gorgeous, hand-embroidered cloth to cover Roger as they removed his body. Exhausted family members decamped to their own houses to resume the lives they’d put on hold. Ambien gave me the first full night’s sleep I could remember.
In the morning I wandered through the hushed house, feeling lost. Then I realized it was Sunday, and I could go to church. I felt a small whiff of relief to have a reason to get dressed and go out.
At church I sat in a back pew, where I hoped people wouldn’t be distracted by my grief. Most of the congregation knew about Roger’s illness. They’d seen this handsome six-foot-four man shrivel to a skeleton. Two weeks earlier he’d come to church with me for the last time, enjoying the fuss people made over getting him settled and bringing Communion to him.
Alone in my pew, I saw Nina approach. She told me to “move all that shit over” so she could sit with me. As I gathered my purse, coat, and tissues, she asked what was going on.
“Roger died last night,” I said.
She shook her head and said, “Men!”
My eyebrows rose to my hairline. What kind of reaction was that?
“I had two husbands, and they both died on me,” she said. “I’m still mad at Ray for leaving.”
I burst out laughing, and so did she. Then the two of us got the giggles so bad we couldn’t stop. Her words had punctured a dam inside me, letting out some of the pain.
I felt a touch on my shoulder. At first I thought someone was trying to get us to shut up, but then I felt more hands on my arm, my neck, my head. I turned my head and saw a crowd of parishioners standing close behind, delivering a silent, heartfelt message: You are not alone.
Providence, Rhode Island
I blinked back tears during “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa. I had played the clarinet part countless times, but now I felt the meaning behind the notes. It was July 1989, and I was performing in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) with the American Waterways Wind Orchestra, a group of mostly American musicians, all in our twenties. In the middle of a five-month international tour, we spent a week in that beautiful city.
When we’d arrived in the Soviet Union, we’d been required to take everything off our bus and put it through an X-ray machine while officials searched the vehicle with dogs. But the Russian people we met showed no such wariness and embraced us like long-lost family. The head of the Leningrad office for international relations acted as our translator and took us on a tour of the city. We were housed with local families, a first for a visiting orchestra. Another clarinetist and I were placed with Myra, a chemist, and her son, Vladik, a music student who spoke English. Our hosts’ apartment was comfortable enough, but the appliances and furnishings looked like what I imagined people in the United States had fifty years earlier. And, like everyone else we met, they had to boil the water before drinking it.
When we had free time, the other clarinetist and I took Myra and Vladik out to dinner at a fancy restaurant. Our hosts were thrilled with this luxury and told us that many foods were simply unavailable in stores. They had to wait in a long line to purchase basic items like soap.
Our orchestra played several concerts during our stay. The most memorable was one we shared with the Orchestra of the Leningrad Military District. It took place in front of two giant flags, one American and the other Soviet. I was aware that the flag I sat in front of was an accident of birth. When we got to “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” both groups played under the direction of the Soviet conductor. Though the notes were the same as always, my worldview was different. I understood the privileges I enjoyed each day in my imperfect but wonderful country.
So many times, when I was teaching in Boston’s public schools, I had students who hadn’t eaten that day or had slept in a car the night before or had been beaten that morning by a parent. One student had seen a parent die by jumping off a housing-project building to escape the police. One girl’s grandmother had put her in an oven when she was an infant and burned the top of her head, melting the skin. I didn’t completely believe her until she separated her hair and showed me the bald spot, pale and thin. High-schoolers lived under bridges and in the back rooms of the businesses where they worked, forever scared of being found out and put somewhere worse, including back home.
We read plays together — To Kill a Mockingbird, Twelve Angry Men — and they loved acting out their parts and sitting around a table, talking about justice. We read Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night and cried at the brutality of the world.
One day we made a meal together. Each person brought something — Irish soda bread, paella, chocolate cupcakes, corn bread, candles, a tablecloth, real silverware, real plates — and we set the table like a fancy restaurant, folded napkins like doves, and sat around it holding hands. The kids said a prayer of thanks, and we laughed quietly so as not to draw attention and make other classrooms jealous.
My students knew how to care for one another and show respect in myriad ways that allowed each one to be a member of this little family in a big building inside a bigger city that didn’t care about them. At the end of the year a few would try community college, but most would disappear into a miasma of unfairness, because they were limited-English-speakers or because they were Black or because they were poor or because because because. But for the time they shared a classroom, they made it a home for each other.
I had an unplanned pregnancy during a challenging time in my life: I was in college, my mother was dying of cancer, and I had no financial resources. I chose an open adoption for my baby.
Over the years his adoptive parents and I shared letters and pictures through the agency to protect our privacy. I cherished those exchanges, which sometimes elicited melancholy but mostly wonder and delight. It was clear the couple was teaching our son that adoption was a choice based on love, and I was grateful to them for bringing up such a well-adjusted boy.
When he turned twenty-three, he sought me out, and we were reunited — on Mother’s Day, as it happened. It turned out he’d grown up just twenty-five minutes from my home, which was remarkable given that the adoption had occurred in a different state. I am now able to see him each time he visits his parents.
Whenever we talk on the phone, before we hang up, we both try to be the first to say, “I love you.” I guess it’s genetic.
Crossing a city street in Vietnam is an act of faith. When I visited that fabulous country, I was advised to walk straight, at a slow and steady pace, directly across the path of the hundreds of motorcycles, buses, cars, and bicycles moving at breakneck speed.
One late afternoon in Hanoi, after happily wandering through the wholesale market, I headed back to my hotel and found the crowded streets transformed into a flash flood of motorized missiles. I stood on the corner and contemplated that suicidal first step into the torrent. I couldn’t do it. I considered hailing a rickshaw, but I would have felt slightly ridiculous since my hotel was just across the road.
To my left stood an elderly Vietnamese man, elegantly dressed in traditional silk clothing, also waiting to cross. I decided that if he had survived a lifetime of street crossings, he must know what he was doing. When he stepped off the curb, so did I. Side by side we parted the flow of vehicles.
When we reached the other side, I felt compelled to acknowledge that he had escorted me to safety, even though he might not understand my words. I turned to him and said, “Thank you very much.” He smiled and replied in impeccable English, “It was my sincere pleasure, madam.”
My mother rarely spoke about her childhood, so I was surprised when, at a family reunion in my twenties, she handed me a memoir she had written about her early years. I read it that night after everyone had gone to bed.
I had always noticed a fierce independence in my mother, who never seemed to mind eating alone in a restaurant or going to a movie by herself. I now learned that this was partly due to having been on her own since childhood. Her parents divorced when she was eight, her father disappeared, and her mother, who had a drinking problem, was usually at work. After my mother’s friends had been called home to supper, she would often wander the streets, alone and hungry. Once, an older boy lured her into his basement, where he locked her in a bathroom and molested her. She returned home only to receive a spanking for being late.
My mother had to sleep on the living-room sofa while her brother had his own room. She wore hand-me-downs while he got new outfits. At the age of fourteen she began working in order to buy her own clothes and pay her own dentist bills. Yet nowhere in what she wrote did she portray herself as a victim.
I choked back sobs as I read. Learning about my mother’s childhood made me appreciate my upbringing even more. She had refused to inflict on her own children the same hurtful treatment she’d endured.
Talking Rock, Georgia
I went through what I think of as an early midlife crisis. I had a high-powered job in New York City’s fashion industry but felt something was missing from my life. So I decided to sign up for a Voyageur Outward Bound course in Minnesota. For a few weeks I lived in the woods, hiking and rock climbing, and was left on an island for three days — living life to the fullest with what some would consider nothing.
Back in the city, I was walking home when I passed three homeless men. Wanting to learn about their circumstances, I politely asked if I could spend the day with them and document their lives with my notebook and camera. The men invited me into their group and couldn’t wait to tell me their stories.
At one point I asked passersby if they would take our picture together. Everyone ignored my request, some circling wide to avoid coming too close. I was struck by the sense of isolation these men had to endure. Later on, a stranger tossed us a handful of change. Donnie, who seemed to be the group’s leader, collected the coins and handed some to each of us, including me, even though he knew I was not homeless.
I still think about the ways we might give other human beings not just money but compassion, time, and a shoulder to lean on. Donnie and his friends embraced me, a complete stranger, as if I were one of them. That’s an honor I have never forgotten.
Years ago my daughter, my godson, and I house-sat in a place famous for its tropical beauty. We walked the homeowners’ dog twice a day, watered the dozens of potted plants, and lounged around, enjoying the break from our usual routines.
One morning, as we packed up for a day at the beach, a voice told me to do a final sweep through the house before leaving. Thankfully I listened to it. In my godson’s room I saw a thin curl of smoke rising from his bed. An old clip-on lamp was bent over the mattress, and the hot bulb and metal shade were burning a hole in it.
I felt sick. Had we left without seeing the lamp, the house could have burned down. It was an old wooden structure with no sprinkler system; it probably didn’t even have a smoke alarm.
We went on with our planned day at the beach. Every so often the close call would surge into my mind, and my heart would race. I imagined having to contact the owners to tell them their home, filled with family photos, art, and books, had been destroyed. “Thank God,” I whispered to myself.
We finished our stay, leaving a few hours before the owners returned. When I spoke to them on the phone, I offered to buy them a new mattress and recommended they replace the lamp.
A few weeks later I received a note from the wife, telling me her husband had died from an infection he’d gotten while hiking on their trip. At first they’d thought it was no big deal, but six days after their return home, he was dead.
It occurred to me then that if we had burned their house down, they would have come home early — perhaps before that fateful hike. They would have been furious and sad, and I would have been filled with guilt. All my life I would have thought, Oh my God, I ruined their lives!
We never know, in the midst of our misfortune, what other, far worse disaster we might have avoided.
For more than a decade my dad hadn’t been able to keep a job because of an undiagnosed physical problem. I’d urged, reasoned, and pleaded with him to apply for health insurance and see a doctor, but my parents’ religion shuns medical intervention and teaches that God alone heals all human ailments. Despite going bankrupt and having to sell their home, they continued to thank God for providing for them.
“I’m doing better, really!” my dad would say, but I couldn’t see any evidence to support his claim. He didn’t walk very well, and his speech and handwriting were growing more and more difficult to decipher.
“Just slow down!” my mother would scold him when his words became garbled, as if it were within his power to fix it.
Finally, my father applied and was deemed eligible for state health care, and I began helping him through the medical maze. My mom — still opposed to his seeing a doctor at all — fussed about having to bring him to appointments; she needed their only car for her housecleaning jobs. So I took my dad to see his doctors. He saw a primary-care physician, who referred him to a neurologist, who told him he needed an MRI.
The neurologist concluded that my dad has multiple sclerosis, which has allowed him to qualify for monthly disability checks, greatly enhancing my parents’ modest income. My mother is still holding out hope for a spiritual healing that will allow Dad to return to work. She doesn’t accept that the occasional remissions he experiences are the nature of the disease. Instead, any sign of an upturn in his health is evidence of God’s healing power. Neither of them talks about the relapses.
My parents tell me, reluctantly, that they are grateful for all that I’ve done to help them. But mostly their thanks go to God.
One Sunday night in 1975 my car broke down on a lonely Missouri highway on my way to my first assignment with the Army in Kentucky. The engine sounded on its last leg as I chugged into a dark rest area. A single light bulb glowed over the restroom door. I saw no one, until I heard a shuffling in the gloom of the parking lot and saw a man working under his car. He must have heard me, too, because he rolled himself out, put on the Stetson resting on the hood, and asked me what was wrong.
“My car’s dead, and I’ll be AWOL if I don’t get to base tomorrow,” I moaned.
“Let me have a look,” said the man, walking over to my Opel Kadett. “Not much call to fix these foreign cars out here.” My heart sank. “Lucky for you, I worked on one in town just this week. Might have metric tools in the trunk.” Astoundingly he did. He opened my car’s hood and got to work.
An hour or so later he called me over from my forlorn perch under the lone light bulb.
“I got her going. Runs like a top now. Listen.” He smiled and ran the engine, which purred better than I’d ever heard it.
“Geez, buddy, what can I pay you?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just keep a good attitude.” He walked back to his car, put his Stetson on the hood, then slid underneath again.
I never got that cowboy’s name, but he’ll live forever in my memory. I think of his motto every time I try to repay his kindness to a stranger.