In junior high and high school, one of the worst times of year for me was softball season. I couldn’t play at all and was always among the last chosen when teams were made up. I and the other girls who were just plain failures at sports slunk around trying to be invisible and dreading our turn at bat. I was always assigned to play right field, the spot least likely for the ball to be hit, but, inevitably, once or twice each season I would get struck in the mouth attempting to field a grounder and come home with a fat lip or a chipped tooth.
Finally, my father decided he would teach me to play. We practiced every day in the back yard: he pitched and I batted; then I pitched and he batted. My youngest sister was always our outfielder, and, as a result, I never learned to catch. But I learned to bat. I could hit anything. And I learned to pitch — nothing devious, just right over the plate, where you wanted it.
The following year I was made one of the captains and found myself picking the team. After picking my best friends, I picked all of the girls no one wanted, starting with the least desirable and moving up from there. We never won a game, but for years I thought of it as the kindest thing I’d ever done.
In 1988 I bought an old coffee shop on Main Street in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and turned it into my dream restaurant. (I already owned and operated a small, moderately successful natural-foods restaurant in New York City.) With tourists coming in from Tanglewood and the neighboring towns, I did incredible business that first summer. But during the winter months it just died. There was no snow that year — hence no skiers — and I soon noticed that the locals didn’t go out much. (Needless to say, I hadn’t done any market research.)
I kept the restaurant open for two and a half years, losing all my money in the process and putting a terrible strain on my other restaurant in the city. In the end, I had a hard time selling the place and ended up practically giving it away just to cover the note payments.
Meanwhile, business at my New York restaurant was down. The place needed improvements, but I no longer had any money. It became a struggle just to stay open. With the constant financial pressure, my mind was spinning and my nerves were raw. I was watching my life unravel.
Then something interesting happened: I realized that, although this was a dark and difficult time, there was a great deal of richness to it — not to mention humor. I started writing everything down: the crises in the restaurant, the recipes, the funny stories, my struggle to make sense of it all. I not only began to feel grounded again, but ended up writing a book. I also took up meditation and found that I loved it.
Little by little, things began to shift; I still had all the same problems, but they no longer bothered me. I saw that what was falling apart was merely the outer shell of my life, not my inner self. In fact, that self was slowly starting to surface. I discovered that I needed to get out of the restaurant business. I had been in it for too long, and I was stale.
Now I’m broke and in debt; I’ve lost one restaurant and am about to close the other one. Yet, in the process, my life has deepened; I have changed directions, become more of who I truly am. Some people would call that a failure; I call it a miracle.
New York, New York
The only F I ever got was in eighth-grade general science. I never studied or did any homework for that class, and my teacher never talked to me about it. He was one of my few male teachers; he drove a red Karmann Ghia, and every day he wore the same gray suit and the same maroon tie with a small abstract design, like a tiny, white, upside-down fish.
I can only imagine how I appeared to him. I had skipped a grade, but was still more developed than any of my junior-high classmates — my breasts were as large as they are today, and I hunched my shoulders to hide them. The Jackie Kennedy look was in, and I would torment my scalp by sleeping on big rollers with brushes inside, then spend half an hour “ratting” my hair and gently smoothing it into a flip or pageboy that stood out from my head several inches. I wore black eye pencil, thick black mascara, blue eye shadow, and white lipstick. Had someone gently suggested to me that I looked silly or cheap, I’d like to think I’d have toned it down a bit.
More than anything else, I wanted to overcome my parents’ drunkenness and be respectable. And I wanted to avoid getting pregnant. I had seen two or three girls disappear from school amid rumors that they had gone to “the unwed mothers’ home.”
On the last day of school the year I got the F, I found myself alone with my general-science teacher. I remember the stuffy classroom that stank of sulfur. I remember the stained black table tops, the green linoleum floor. And I remember the hate and disgust in his eyes when he looked at me and said, “You’ll be pregnant before the year is out!”
I stand next to a homeless man at the YMCA desk. He is asking how much it costs to take a shower and swim. “A dollar fifty for a shower, four dollars to swim,” the attendant says, obviously repulsed by him. She turns toward me and I hand her my key. She hangs it on the hook, gets my member card, looks at the picture, and hands it to me with a smile. The man is still standing there. I thank her and walk away. Inside, I am thinking, I can give him the money, but I don’t.
It’s cold out, just starting to feel like winter. I am waiting for one of my kids to finish a class at the YWCA when a woman walks in and asks the attendant at the front desk for help: she and her friend are traveling through town and their car has broken down; they need a place to sleep. I sit and pretend to read the paper while I think, I could invite them to stay at my house. The woman at the desk calls several shelters but finds nothing available. The other woman leaves.
My five-year-old says he loves to be inside when it’s storming out but also feels sad because there are people who aren’t inside, who don’t have homes. He asks why I don’t help them, and I tell him how there are too many people who need help, and so on. . . . But the truth is, helping one person would help one person. He doesn’t say that to me yet, but he will one day, and I don’t know what I will say then.
It’s the end of my visit home. I’ve decided to stay an extra two days after my husband goes back so I can spend more time with my dad, stepmom, and stepbrother.
My dad comes home from work early to see the five o’clock news, just as he has done for the last thirty years. He wants to find out what the day’s breaking stories are before I interrupt him. He talks only about the news — as if it’s really important to both of us that the president is down in the polls — and he only wants to talk during the bad commercials. The good commercials — ones with special effects, music, or babies — he wants to watch. This limits our conversation to thirty-second chunks of gibberish.
Just as the newscasters are about to break for a commercial, my dad points out the pretty blond anchorwoman and tells me she went to the same private high school as some of my college chums, and got a scholarship to Wellesley. She’s two years my junior, and she’s a local newscaster with a bright future.
That history given, he turns to me with a grimace and says, “I always laugh when I think of you filling out your college applications, and how you kept saying that all that extracurricular crap and student-council bullshit would make up for your grades.” He laughs and waits for me to follow suit. This is the ritual, the part where I laugh at his jokes about my idealism and hopes and dreams.
Only this time I don’t laugh. Nor do I become hysterical and try to defend myself, even though I know that without school plays, student council, poetry workshops, choir, and speech-team trips I would have committed suicide during those years after my parents’ divorce. I don’t defend my decisions. I just narrow my eyes and say, “Stop it.”
My dad bolts up from his Barca-lounger. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you. You’re so sensitive. You can’t even laugh at yourself anymore.” Then he leaves and goes up to his bedroom to finish watching the news.
I sit there, looking at that blond woman, and wonder what in the world my dad thinks I want. And for the first time in a long, long while, I don’t feel like a failure.
Los Angeles, California
I had managed to block the memory completely until my mother deftly brought it up in conversation: When I was thirteen, I was insecure and a perfectionist. My self-worth depended on the success of everything I attempted. That summer I decided to take a lifeguard class with the Red Cross. I was a good swimmer and the course was no problem until the final test: towing the biggest instructor — a six-foot, two-hundred-pound man — across the pool. He struggled wildly and I failed to get him anywhere at all. Before it was over I thought I would have to be saved. I didn’t pass the course.
When my mom brought this up, twenty years later, she told me she thought my failure to become a lifeguard had been a turning point in my life. After that, she recalled, I had become sullen and withdrawn. Right, Mom, I thought. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that you and Dad had divorced two years earlier, then my grandfather died, then my grandmother was put into a convalescent home that reeked of piss, then I was sexually molested, then you married an asshole, and then we moved to another town far away from everyone I had ever known. No, it must have been my failure.
Over and over, I see it as if it just happened: I am on the floor between the living room and the dining-room table, crouched over my youngest son’s body, breathing into him, pinching his nose, searching for any sign of life. My husband and I turn him, clearing passageways, breathing into him again and again. I apply pressure to his chest with unfamiliar force, following CPR instructions from the 911 operator still on the line, knowing I have never pushed this hard on my sweet child’s body, knowing that I want, more desperately than I’ve ever wanted anything before, to bring him back to life. Something tells me this is impossible, but I hang on to a sliver of hope all the way to the emergency room, where paramedics try to ignite some spark in his pale, still body. They underestimate the time since he last breathed, and I tell them it has been too long, that he wouldn’t be the same boy if they suddenly got his heart to beat now. Movement stops. There is sudden, glaring stillness. He is gone.
So much of parenthood is unfathomable; for me, it is also forever painful. Why have two of my children suffered and died? Why was my sweet eight-year-old son suddenly robbed of his life? Why was my cherub toddler’s life whisked away thirteen years ago? No doctor I’ve consulted can tell me why one’s heart just stopped, or why the other’s energy mysteriously dwindled to nothing. Nor would I be soothed if they could explain it.
People now tell me how their children once came terrifyingly close to death — but they rushed them to the hospital and the children were saved. I guess these people are trying to say that they also understand the intensity of fear for a child’s safety. But I am not comforted: I didn’t save my children.
My husband and I and our two remaining sons live daily with a truth that loss teaches: life can change drastically in an instant, without apparent reason, warning, or cause, ripping away what we love most.
Friends who seek to comfort us say, “Oh, but you have two beautiful sons still with you” — as if it’s something we haven’t thought of, something we don’t cherish now more deeply than ever before. When I look at my precious living sons, I see their broken hearts, their struggles to be resilient, to be like their friends. I also see their missing brothers.
Troop 316 — the Boy Scouts of Greenwich Village — met over a florist shop on Seventh Avenue, just down the street from the Vanguard nightclub. Almost all the guys in my seventh-grade class were in 316, as were a bunch from St. Bernard’s, the tough parochial school that bordered on Chelsea. I needed to be in Troop 316. It was a social necessity.
The first rank in Boy Scouts is Tenderfoot. To attain Tenderfoot status, one must study Scout history and lore, learn a few knots, and be familiar with some basic outdoor skills. I got the book, cut off some Venetian-blind cords for knot-tying practice, and hunkered down at the family dinner table.
While my book was open to the page depicting the top part of the Scout emblem, my mother walked by and said, “Oh, the fleur-de-lis.”
“No, Mom, it’s the Scout emblem. It’s shaped like the compass point, which reminds us to keep a straight and true path,” I told her.
Mom got down an authoritative volume from the shelf and showed me the fleur-de-lis, which, the caption explained, was the symbol of French aristocracy and an object of scorn during the Revolution. (Mom was very rarely wrong.)
On the evening of my Tenderfoot test, the panel of balding Beaver Scouts called me into a small anteroom and asked me what I wanted to do first. I said the knots, which is what I’d really sweated over. I did fine. Then came the history, and that went OK. Finally, the symbols and their associated meanings. One of the Beavers asked, “What is this?” pointing to the Scout emblem. I told him what Mom had told me.
The Beavers were incredulous. “What?” they asked.
“The symbol of French aristocracy — you know, from before their people got to choose their own leaders and all.”
I failed the test.
The year I went to study in Italy, my mother and father separated, then divorced; Dad’s mother was in the hospital dying of throat cancer, and his best friend had been killed in a car accident. Early one morning, just before Christmas, the phone rang. It was Dad: “I’m coming to see you over the holidays. I need to get away from here.”
I hardly knew my father and hadn’t spent much time with him since my childhood. I didn’t think he knew me either; he had never tried. He was a successful businessman who traveled a lot. I remember looking across the dinner table at his empty chair night after night, wondering when he’d come home again.
The thought of spending three weeks with my father made me extremely uneasy. What would I say to him? Would he cry? I was convinced that the worst thing was for a father to cry. He needed to be strong, and I planned to help him. The task I set for myself was to keep him entertained, to cheer him up, to diligently avoid any emotional scenes. On the train to meet him, I memorized a thousand topics of conversation and places to visit to fill our twenty-one days.
My father and I took in the sights of northern Italy, then rode the train through the snowy peaks of the Dolomites into Austria, where we attended a Christmas Eve chorale. The Gothic church was filled with people. My father leaned against a marble post next to me. The singing voices had brought on his tears. My plan had failed. Then he turned to me, wiped away his tears, and said, “I love you.”
My brother had thought a lot about suicide and wanted to do it right, not just disable himself for life, so he bought a gun and made a mask out of duct tape with a hole for the barrel. If the bullet didn’t do it, the duct tape would suffocate him.
He went to a park in the hills and walked a couple of hundred feet down the trail to be alone.
But then the cops showed up. My brother’s car was the only one in the lot, and he could see them poking their flashlight beams into it. He had left shotgun shells in the trunk, and he imagined the cops finding the shells, then coming after him and finding him with the gun. He got scared and hid in a bush, scooting in as far as he could. It was cold; he hadn’t dressed warmly, since he’d planned to be dead.
The duct tape had twisted as he’d scuttled under the bush, and now it was stuck to itself, like a problem that only gets worse the harder you try to solve it. He couldn’t fix it, just as he couldn’t fix his job or his marriage or his childhood or his sadness.
He couldn’t see the cops from under the bush, but he heard them drive off. Still, he thought they might be waiting around a corner, or calling more cars, or planning to come back later. Shivering, he waited under the bush until the sun came up the next morning.
I thought I could control this disease. It had landed me in the hospital twice before, but I thought that, if I watched very carefully, I could catch it before it became full-blown. How could I have missed the signs?
First came the grandiose feelings, the voices telling me I was invincible, the excessive spending — on lingerie and books about personal power. My world had suddenly become fascinating, waiting for me to explore it. Colors and sounds were sharp and bright. How could something be wrong when I felt this good?
Then confusion and depression set in. I could sense people laughing at me, talking about me. Everything had taken on life-or-death significance. I found my dog napping in my bed and thought he was telling me that my place in this world was gone and the only thing left for me to do was swallow all the pills in the bottle next to my bed.
But somewhere in the back of my mind, a shred of sanity survived, and I realized I had two choices: take the pills or get to the hospital. Unkempt and wild-eyed, I drove around and around the suddenly unfamiliar streets until I finally stumbled upon the hospital.
Once I’d settled inside, my world came completely apart. I paced the halls and sang out loud, imagining myself to be some sort of prophet who had bravely sacrificed herself to help all the poor souls in the loony bin.
From inside the isolation room, I viewed the pained mental-health staff outside the wire-mesh window as my enemies. When they gave me a shot of Haldol, it was as though they were trying to kill me. I refused to wear the blanket they gave me to cover my naked body — I still thought I could save their souls.
At last the drugs took effect, and I came back to reality, where I plan to stay. I take the lithium now.
You and I were both in our late twenties; I was only a few years into my medical career. On my way to pick up some X-rays for my evening rounds, I heard your mother call my name from one of the waiting rooms. I smiled, though I always dreaded such unexpected encounters.
“He’s on the scanner now,” she said. “Is it true we won’t know the results for a few days? Couldn’t you find out sooner and give us a call? It seems so unfair to make us wait.” I sympathized but told her quietly that the final interpretation would take a while. She shook her head sadly and fidgeted in her chair.
“It’s kind of funny, isn’t it?” she said. “You two were such great friends as children, and now you’re reunited like this. Remember when you first moved to the neighborhood and he beat up that boy who was bullying you? It’s kind of fitting, I guess; he saved you then, and now you get to save him from . . . well, from this mess.” I apologized and told her I was running late. She touched my hand and said, “Could you at least go in and say hi? It would mean a lot to him.” I hesitantly agreed. She was right — it was the least I could do.
I wasn’t adept at interpreting scans, but, looking at your insides displayed on the screen, I could see the tumors readily enough: dark, ugly smudges scattered throughout the gray pictures. The technician looked at me sadly and said, “We’re done. You can go in and talk to him now.”
You were still on the table, waiting to hear if the pictures were adequate. “I’m sorry, sir,” I said as I entered, “but we have to start all over.” You turned in my direction, then smiled in recognition. “What are you doing here?” you asked. Your skin color was slightly wrong, your arms thin from losing so much weight. A baseball cap covered your head, bald from chemotherapy. But your eyes were shining with emotion — part fear and anxiety, but also, I believe, some happiness at seeing me. We exchanged pleasantries, and I told you we wouldn’t know the results for a few days; then I said I had to get back to work. You moved your hands from your chest to your sides as I turned to leave, but I didn’t even offer a handshake.
I took the back exit to avoid seeing your mother. On my way to the elevator, I experienced a wave of nausea and rushed into the men’s room, where I stood, head bowed, hands against the wall, willing myself to vomit. Nothing came.
That night, at home, I stood before my bathroom mirror, plugged in the electric clippers, and shaved my wavy hair into a severe crew cut. Even before I was done, I knew it was a foolish and woefully inadequate gesture. As I cleared the fallen locks from the sink and counter, I felt the confused disdain you would have had for me had you been privy to this scene. Only then did I understand the true source of my turmoil. It had little to do with my inability to be your savior, and everything to do with my inability to be your friend.
Durham, North Carolina
My economics professor in college announced on the first day that he would be handing out four As, eight Bs, twenty Cs, and a sprinkling of Ds and Fs. He then added that those of us fortunate enough to get the As and Bs would become accountants and lawyers — and be hired by those making the Cs and Ds, who would own the companies. “You As and Bs,” he said, “have too much fear of failure to own companies.”
I got an A.
When I was a little girl, I once tried to save a baby bird. I put it in a small box lined with soft clumps of grass and leaves and gave it water with an eyedropper. I put the box where no cat could reach it. In the wee hours of the morning I peeked inside and hummed the little bird lullabies. I made it feel safe by cradling it in my hands.
Now, many years later, in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, I can do none of these things for my newborn son, his fifteen-ounce body lying naked and vulnerable inside a plastic bubble.
It was the day of my father’s eightieth birthday, and he was uncharacteristically cranky: this was a big occasion for him and it seemed that no one had recognized it.
For three years, he had known that he had cancer. Sitting in my office, just hours away from a surprise party that would bring together more than a hundred people to celebrate his life, he casually announced, “I want a coffin made by a craftsman. I want it made from rough-cut Adirondack pine.” Getting no response, he said, sort of to himself, “I could get a stranger to build it.”
“Why don’t you ask a friend?” I said.
“Who?” he replied.
“How about Doyle?” I said. He gave me a look. “Doyle is an excellent craftsman,” I reminded him.
“When will I see Doyle?”
About two weeks later, Doyle, who had come to the party that night, told me my father had asked that he build him a coffin. We decided to take on the project together. I explained that Jewish tradition required a simple box without ornamentation and with no metal or plastic parts.
Ten months after the birthday party, on Yom Kippur, I went to a lumberyard in the Adirondack Mountains and bought the wood we would need. I covered the pine boards and left them to season as my father’s health fluctuated for about a year. Then a sudden downswing in his status prompted Doyle and me to start sawing wood.
Over the next year, the box slowly took form. Using wooden pegs to make joints was taking much longer than I had expected. But I was learning a lot about carpentry — and whiskey drinking. As this simple project came together, it developed a presence of its own that we both began to respect.
Before long, bone deterioration collapsed my father’s hip, requiring an operation. I couldn’t see how he would survive, so I called Doyle, and we worked late into the next two nights until the coffin was built.
The night before the operation I went to the hospital and told my father the coffin was finished. It was the first time we had spoken about it since the afternoon of his eightieth birthday. Only he, Doyle, and I knew about the box. But now he had to tell my mother what he wanted, and what had already been done about it.
My mother is as traditional as my father was eccentric. We both knew she would not be happy with something this unconventional. We were right; she hit the roof, saying, “No way.”
My father survived the operation — his suffering would progress for one more year — and, not wanting to make waves or cause his wife unnecessary stress, he wrote to tell me he had changed his mind, but that he appreciated what Doyle and I had done.
The day finally came for my mother and me to meet with the funeral director and select a coffin. We walked silently among the thirty or so models in the showroom. “Which one?” my mother asked me.
“I can’t pick it out,” I responded. She and I had never spoken about the box. I looked at her and said, “You know, it’s not that you won’t use the coffin Doyle and I built; it’s that you won’t consider it, won’t even look at it. Just look at it, and if you still say no, I’ll pick one of these.”
I took her to the third floor of a cold commercial building where Doyle and I had stored the coffin. My mother and I stepped off the freight elevator and together looked at the box; I was sure I had never seen a thing so good. After a few seconds, my mother simply said, “No.”
We went back to the funeral home, and I picked out the plainest pine box there. The next morning, we buried my father in it.
Albany, New York
“No, you don’t need to do that. All I need is someone to come over and sign the death certificate.”
I don’t know what Mom said after that. I just kept hearing death certificate. I sat up in the sofa bed that Mom and I were sleeping in and pulled the covers around me. The clock over the kitchen sink said it was almost 4:00 A.M. No wonder she was having trouble getting someone to come out. I knew, of course, whose death certificate she meant. Only Mom and Dad and I were home. (My brother had been sent to military camp for the summer, to make up the classes he’d flunked at school.)
She hung up the phone and, noticing that I was awake, came over to sit on the hard edge of the folding bed. (I don’t remember why Mom and I were sleeping on the horrible hide-a-bed; there were two other bedrooms upstairs besides the one my dad was in, the one he and Mom used to share before he got sick.)
“I went up a while ago,” she said, “and he was gone. He just looks like he’s sleeping. You can go up there now, if you want, and kiss him, before the men from the funeral home come.”
I was about to ask what had made her go look at him at four in the morning and how, if he just looked like he was sleeping, she had known that he was “gone,” but then the word kiss sank in, and I jumped up and ran from her. The idea of kissing a dead person made me sick, but really I just didn’t want to admit that he was dead. The doctor had said he’d be “up and about in a couple of weeks.” No one had ever said he could die.
I heard my mother answer the back door as I ran upstairs to my hideout, passing dangerously close to the room where Death was. I opened the closet door, climbed to the second shelf below the slanted ceiling, reached down to close the door behind me, and hid behind the towels. Huddled in the dark in my thin summer nightie, I listened to the soft footsteps and hushed voices as people came up and went back down.
After a moment — or was it an hour? — I heard rattling metal and more footsteps. When I finally built up the nerve to peek out the door, a skinny metal table with wheels was passing by; they were taking him away, and my last chance to go in and kiss him was gone.
It was so exciting. The city was forming a kids’ marching band. This was what I’d been waiting for: a chance to wear a uniform, be looked at, admired. The first night of tryouts, I decided the horn was my thing. The instructor gave me the horn, and I blew. Nothing. I blew again. Nothing. The others snickered. The instructor began to get embarrassed. “Anybody can do it,” he said. Again I blew. Nothing. Then the instructor snickered. I walked away.
In high school I ran for class treasurer freshman year. I got up to deliver my campaign speech and as soon as I stood in front of the crowd, I forgot every word. The only thing I could think of to say was “I forgot my speech”: wild laughter, pain (still, thirty years later), failure.
Out of school, I was employed as a technical apprentice at a summer-stock theater. This was it, what I was meant for. I was assigned to stage lighting. Maureen Stapleton was the star that week. Opening night, in a dramatic moment at the end of the play, Maureen went to the kitchen to turn off the lights; I turned off the hall lights. She moved on to the living-room lights; I turned off the kitchen lights. She went to turn off the bedroom lights; I turned off the living-room lights. When my father read the newspaper review, he said, “Paul must have been on lighting.”
Adulthood. I had a master’s degree, a great job, a lover who looked like Adonis, and a city apartment with a small porch where I planted petunias: pink one year, white the next. Then: nervous breakdown, mental hospital, failure.
Middle-aged now, I’m alone, a loser. I clean rooms in a guest house by the ocean. It scares me when I realize how old I am, how many years ago that lover was. This morning I crawled out of bed in the dark to watch the dawn. I sat for a long time doing needlework as the soft, gradual light caressed me: failure, complete failure, delicious failure.