With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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My mother and I are sitting on a beach in south Florida while my two sisters take a walk along the sand. In recent years, my relationship with my mother has improved to the point where I see her as another human being, rather than simply as a parent. Although our topics of conversation have always been superficial — sales, recipes, gossip — today, without really thinking about it, I ask whether she has any regrets in life.
She thinks for a moment and then says, very deliberately, “Yes, I regret having children.”
I am stunned. I wonder if this is a joke and wait for the punch line.
As the day progresses, however, my heart starts to feel lighter. A contradiction that has puzzled me all my life is finally resolved. I’ve always had the sense that my parents didn’t want us, and yet the thought seemed ridiculous. After all, they clothed, fed, and educated us. Now, thanks to my mother’s revelation, I can finally stop thinking I’m crazy. I feel strangely happy.
The size of my thighs used to dictate my happiness. On the days when they looked long, lean, and sinewy, I felt strong and confident. But on those dreadful days when my thighs looked stumpy, thick, and mushy with cellulite, I wanted to hide from the world. In my eyes, the happy, gregarious girls were always the ones with thin thighs. I watched them during class and around campus and in bars. I wanted to be weightless and carefree like them. If only I could control the proportions of my thighs, I convinced myself, I could be as happy as they were.
I began shunning foods containing even the slightest trace of fat and developed a passion for long-distance running. Nothing could interfere with my diet or my running schedule. I stopped going out with my friends for fear of consuming unwanted calories in bars or missing my daily ten-mile run the next morning. When challenged about my new lifestyle or told that I looked disgustingly thin, I accused my friends of being jealous. Although I had an inkling that my new way of living was not healthy, all I had to do was glance at my toothpick-thin thighs to reaffirm my happiness.
By the end of college, I’d dropped a considerable amount of weight, enough to cause my breasts to disappear and my menstrual cycle to stop. I’d also suffered countless running-related injuries and become isolated from friends and family. Fortunately, entering the working world would force me to relinquish some control over what I ate.
At my first job, on a financial-securities trading floor, the same lunch was ordered for everyone, and employees ate while they worked. I decided I just wouldn’t eat during the day. But in the evening, exhausted after a long day at work, I would stand before the open refrigerator and devour virtually anything I could get my hands on. Then, consumed with shame over my lack of control, I’d berate myself and promise to go to the gym the next day — twice.
Frustrated by my nighttime binges and eager to fit in with my new co-workers, I attempted to eat “like a normal person.” The lunch at work satisfied my hunger, and my countless injuries forced me to curtail my running. After a two-year hiatus, my menstrual cycle returned. My body soon filled out into a womanly shape. And I began a less obsessive relationship with food and exercise.
Now, when my thighs swell in response to menstruation, I appreciate the fullness of my figure and the absurdity of the stringent conditions I once used to maintain my thinness. I finally feel grounded, balanced, and, yes, happy.
New York, New York
I grew up with a dog named Daisy. We didn’t walk her or groom her or fuss over her, but Daisy had the run of the seven acres around our home, as well as the best chair in the living room, and this made her happy.
On the eve of my eighth birthday, our house caught fire. All seven of us children, both parents, and numerous cats emerged safely. Finally, Daisy appeared and quickly fell unconscious. The firemen struggled to strap an oxygen mask over her snout and rushed her off to a veterinarian, where she stayed for three months while her lungs healed and our house was repaired.
Meanwhile, we children were distributed among neighbors and relatives and rarely saw one another, though we received occasional visits from Mom. When we returned, one by one, to reacquaint ourselves with our old rooms, they still bore the acrid smell of smoke.
Our return didn’t feel complete, however, until the day that Daisy came home, triumphant. She galloped through the house, checking each family member thoroughly and purposefully, and examining every nook and cranny. She wagged and wiggled and spun with joy.
South Hadley, Massachusetts
Long before I could read it, my favorite book was my parents’ thick green Family Medical Adviser. Published just after World War II, the “doctor book,” as we called it, had vivid color plates illustrating common diseases: crusty-looking chickenpox; fine red measles; a fiery eyeball flaming with conjunctivitis. By the time I was eight, however, I’d become bored by the color plates and had started reading about the less-common diseases, which were pictured in black and white: elephantiasis, mumps, fractures, and the like.
One day, hungry for new material, I turned to a section of bright orange pages at the very back of the book. Amid a few grainy black-and-white photos and some boring-looking charts and graphs, I found a series of concentric circles around the words “Ground Zero.” It was an illustration giving the expected survival rate after an atomic blast depending on one’s distance from the center: a half mile, 1 percent; one mile, 8 percent; and so on. The grainy photos turned out to be pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombing. The text taught me about radiation sickness, gamma rays, fallout, and firestorms.
I began to dream almost nightly about the effects of an atomic explosion. Night after night, I struggled up the stairway against the onslaught of gamma rays — which I pictured as thick, undulating waves — trying desperately to save my parents and my sisters. I knew I would die of radiation sickness; that my hair would fall out in clumps; that I would vomit until I was dead. I told no one about my nightmares.
A few months later, we attended a family gathering at my aunt and uncle’s house in a nearby city. The city was home to a military base, and I’d heard people say it would be a likely target if the Communists ever attacked. Ground zero. I calculated my chance of survival based on the distance from our home to that city: not very good, but my aunt and uncle’s chances were even slimmer. I felt bad for them and wondered if they knew.
That afternoon, we sat surrounded by masses of flowers beneath an enormous weeping willow tree in my aunt’s backyard. Glass wind chimes tinkled in the breeze, and the familiar voices of my family swirled around me. Suddenly, a plane flew over. Very low. Very loud. Conversation stopped. When the plane had passed, my grandfather said, “Well, the war’s begun,” and everyone laughed. I got up from the grass, went inside, and lay down on the couch, hearing my grandfather’s words over and over: The war’s begun.
After that day, whenever a plane went over, even a little one, I ran inside. I knew they might carry bombs. I knew what the bombs could do. I was ten years old, and my happy childhood had been stolen from me by atomic terror.
I am lying in bed with Paul, my lover, safe in his strong arms. It is dawn, and he is still asleep. Outside my bedroom window, snow is falling on the spruce trees. Soon Paul will wake and leave for his job at the boatyard. My husband will come home on the first ferry back to the island. We’ll have breakfast together, and he’ll tell me about his stay on the mainland. Then he’ll ask me about Paul, who is one of his best friends: How was our evening together? Is Paul still trying to quit smoking? Did he feed the goats before he left this morning? Will he be coming for supper this evening?
Only our closest friends and family know about my relationship with Paul, and they support us. I don’t know what would happen if the rest of our small community discovered our arrangement. Sometimes I believe our choice would be respected. Other times I think that’s naive.
It’s snowing harder now. My husband is ready to leave for work. At the door, he turns and says, “Paul is a good man. He’s good for you.” I watch him walk away into the gathering storm, this man I’ve loved for nearly twenty years, who is my husband and my best friend, but no longer my lover. I watch the snow a while longer before turning to my morning chores. Then I start to sing. I am wild with happiness.
On the way home from a meeting that hadn’t gone all that well, I couldn’t stop thinking of my father. He had passed away almost three years earlier, and sometimes the thought of him still made me sad. Other times, like today, I thought of him because I was sad. Sadness and Dad had become inseparable: I couldn’t have one without the other.
I was driving automatically, my head full of self-pity, when a deer darted out into the road up ahead. A large buck with five points on each antler, he seemed to float rather than run across my path. I slowed to a crawl and watched him spring into someone’s front yard. Then he stopped and looked right at me. Our heads turned as I passed by, and we watched each other until we no longer could.
I couldn’t believe how lucky I was, not just to have seen a deer, but to have had the deer see me. My blue mood lifted, and I settled into pure happiness. I believe that my father sends me these things just when I need them most.
New City, New York
I was born placenta-first and prematurely back in the days when this was quite a big deal. In fact, the doctor told my father that he couldn’t save the baby, and he wasn’t sure about the mother. Needless to say, I lived.
A short while after my birth, my four-year-old sister was diagnosed with leukemia and died. My parents had no medical insurance, and they didn’t finish paying for my birth and my sister’s death until around the time I started college. I always wondered if my parents would have been happier had I died instead.
My father was a police officer and was always on call. Our family lived in a constant state of crisis. There was never enough money or time. For most of my childhood, I felt as if I were living in a separate dimension from the adult world. I rarely remember any grown-ups — my parents included — talking directly to me. I don’t think this neglect was intentional; my parents were simply numb from dealing with one emergency after another. But my invisibility added to my feeling that I shouldn’t be here.
One Friday night, my family went out to eat at a Mexican restaurant in town. As we waited for a table, I spotted the doctor who had delivered me. He looked up, and our eyes locked.
“You,” he said to me. “I remember you. I saved your life.” His speech was a little slurred (he had obviously been drinking), and he had a big grin on his face.
“Drunken bastard,” my father said under his breath.
But the doctor was persistent. “I brought you here,” he said. He looked so happy.
And for the first time, I felt it was a good thing that I’d lived.
J. M. J.
When I was seven, my family — five kids, an alcoholic father, and a Valium-addicted mother — moved to an old, rambling farmhouse in the country. Though run-down, the place was better than the trailer where we’d been living.
I’d grown up in fear of my mother’s unpredictable rages, but out in the backwoods, I began to notice a change in her. She stayed up late one night painting the kitchen a bright salmon pink. She carted home boxes of ripe peaches and lined the shelves with canning. She wore her hair in loose braids, rolled up her baggy jeans, and went without lipstick or jewelry. My father bought her a milk cow, which she named Daisy, and twice a day, no matter the weather, my mom would trudge out to the barn and fill a bucket with Daisy’s warm milk. Occasionally, she would allow me to help her work the outdoor water pump or carefully gather the warm eggs from under our hens.
I remained silent throughout these changes, afraid to draw attention to myself, watching from behind corners, wondering when my mom might snap. And sometimes she did, running after us with a wooden spoon or a hairbrush, leaving red welts on our legs and arms. But there wasn’t as much venom in her blows; it was as if she had found some small space for herself amid the never-ending needs of her children.
One morning, I awoke to my mom’s whispers, urging me to get up. Startled, I followed her into the kitchen. She still had on her long flannel nightie, with a heavy wool jacket over it, and gumboots. In her hand was a covered pot. “Put your coat on,” she said. “I have something to show you outside.”
In a daze, I pulled on my jacket and boots and clomped through the snow. Stepping in my mom’s footprints, I followed her to the back of the chicken shack, where she crouched down on her hands and knees beside a gap under the shed wall and pushed the pot into the opening. “Come here,” she whispered.
I hunkered down beside her and peered into the gap. There, I saw our tortoiseshell barn cat lapping at the milk in the pot, and around her belly a litter of small, fuzzy kittens. My mother took my hand and pushed it into the warm, mewing bundle. As I stroked their downy coats, she gently picked up a tiny orange kitten and placed it in my palm. I looked up into my mother’s face, which it seemed I had never really seen before. She was smiling at me, and I smiled back.
Winlaw, British Columbia
The bus we’re riding on is painted flat gray and has thick bars across the windows, but I don’t mind. When we travel in a van, we have to wear handcuffs, shackles, and belt chains, but when we travel on a bus, no chains are necessary — not with two guards in crisp brown uniforms carrying loaded rifles and revolvers.
We’re traveling south through Florida, along seldom-used two-lane roads, going from Baker Correctional Institution — where I have spent the last eight years — to Hardee, where I will finish out my sentence. It’s been years since I’ve ridden in any kind of vehicle, and the sensation of wheels and highway and rumbling engine is thrilling. Like an old dog, I want to stick my head out the window and feel the wind. And I would, were it not for the bars.
The other inmates lean back nonchalantly, maintaining their cool, but I press my nose to the glass and grin like a forty-year-old kid, fascinated by the world of free people. Some of them look up at our bus with expressions of disgust, shock, disdain, even curiosity: What did those men do? Where are they going? I’m not offended. I’d think the same thing if I were them.
I take it all in — gas stations, newspaper boxes, traffic lights, pay phones, stores, fast-food joints, people, people, and more people — knowing that these brief hours of travel will have to hold me for another eight years.
Bowling Green, Florida
I am startled to think how happy I am most of the time, considering that my health is a mess. I use a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis and have struggled with five different cancers. I’m completely blind in one eye, can’t see at night, and can drive only short distances in daylight, at speeds that enrage other drivers. My blood pressure is high, my thyroid function low. My bones are crumbling, and I’m shorter than I was two years ago.
Yet I am happy. My wheelchair gets me most places I want to go. Large type on my computer allows me to write. I don’t have to put on pantyhose and go to an office every day. If it snows, I watch the trees turn white instead of worrying about a nerve-racking ride home from the city. Chatting by the office coffeepot has been replaced by e-mail with friends. I have all the things that I promised myself I would have when I retired someday: books by the stack, a view of the lake, a goofy golden retriever. Cancer has taught me that “someday” is today. And today I am doing exactly what I want to be doing.
Skaneateles, New York
It was nothing special from the outside: a two-bedroom apartment in an ordinary complex, a couple of miles from campus. But it was the first home I’d ever shared with a lover, and this made it an extraordinary place.
When I remember that apartment, it’s always filled with sunshine: Sunlight spilling over the old card table in the kitchen and falling in squares on the narrow countertops, where he taught me how to bake bread. My rocking chair in the living room covered with morning sun, our wet clothes hung there to dry. Light dancing on the bedroom walls while we made love during sleepy afternoons.
The funny thing, though, is that we lived there only during the winter — a gloomy, rainy, Pacific Northwest winter, at that. It surely must have been dark most of the time. But in my memory, that little apartment is filled with light.
One year at the Common Ground Country Fair, I was watching the fiddling competition when a boy with Down syndrome stepped away from his mother and into the large open area between the stage and the stands. Holding his arms tightly to his sides, he began to rock forward and back in time to the music.
Then, from the other side of the crowd, another Down-syndrome boy stepped out and, facing the first across the open area, did the same rocking dance. Both their faces were bright with the sheer pleasure of movement. Their dancing inspired the fiddler to greater intensity, until it seemed his music embodied every Scottish air, Gypsy melody, and Slavic folk tune I’d ever heard. When the music stopped, the crowd broke into thunderous applause — for the fiddler, for the dancers, for joy.
Mom has endured more than her share of grief: the early deaths of her parents and her only sibling; the protracted illness of her husband; and — not least — the loss of several beloved dogs. When I was a boy and my father lay dying in a bed we’d set up in our living room, I would sometimes walk in on my mother crying inconsolably.
Now, five years into Alzheimer’s dementia, she is unable to recognize people or converse in a meaningful way. Though I see her often, she never remembers me. She lives, inextricably, in the present. As she chatters on in her singsong, childlike way, I think, I’ve never seen her so happy.
Every couple of weeks when I was growing up, my family visited my maternal grandmother, a squarely built woman whose ankles spilled over the tops of her black orthopedic shoes. She lived in an Atlantic City apartment with a mustached, Yiddish-speaking female cousin, both of them refugees and widows, both perpetually unhappy. Their heavy, pleated curtains were always drawn against the daylight, and dust gave the place a sickly yellowish pallor. The cousin would sit motionless, draped in black, like a piece of overstuffed furniture covered up for mourning. Thirty years earlier, her husband had hanged himself in their garage. She’d been the one to find him.
But the cousin’s quiet, Gothic sorrow couldn’t hold a candle to my grandmother’s theatrical despair. Just looking at me, her eyes would fill with tears. “Such a beautiful granddaughter,” she’d say. “If only I could be happy.” And her thick-veined hands would pat my hair, my arms, my shoulders, my cheeks.
“Be happy, Grandma,” I’d say.“Come take a walk with us.”
But she would only begin to cry — not in whimpers, but in chest-pounding sobs of biblical proportion. Her laments terrified me.
I wondered what caused her unhappiness. Her health was good. She had devoted children and grandchildren. I never picked up even a hint of a mysterious tragedy in her past. Yet my grandmother had been this way since long before I was born. No amount of indulgence, pleading, medication, or therapy had ever done any good.
Somehow, I decided that I — and I alone — had the power to cure her. Perhaps it was the way she looked at me with such hope. I thought maybe if I were kind enough and caring enough, if I prayed and sacrificed enough, if I remained selfless and didn’t tell a soul about my efforts, a miracle would occur.
From then on, during our visits, I would sit quietly, never squirming or asking to leave. This was part of my pact. Eventually, my father would hand me a couple of dollars and tell me to go to the boardwalk and play some arcade games, get an ice cream, have fun.
Year after year, I devoted all my childhood wishes — birthdays, the first star each night, the wishbone from the Thanksgiving turkey — to my grandmother’s happiness. Sometimes, when I stood before my birthday candles, eyes squeezed tight, I might think, A Barbie, or, A puppy, but then a shiver of guilt would race through me, and I would quickly take it back, begging forgiveness for my momentary lapse.
One Sunday afternoon when I was fourteen, we went for our usual visit. “Come take a walk with us, Grandma,” I said, as always.
And my grandmother shrugged and said, “OK, why not?”
I was stunned — but a part of me wasn’t surprised at all. We strolled along the boardwalk, pausing to look at the ocean, and I pointed out the arcade where I’d go to play skeeball. We didn’t talk much. Why ask questions? I already knew what had cured her.
My grandmother died of a heart attack a year later. Her passing was sad, but we all took solace in the fact that her last year had been a happy one.
I never again prayed for anything with such fervor, and by my late twenties, I’d stopped praying altogether. Yet I remained haunted by my apparent role in my grandmother’s transformation.
One day, I asked my mother, “So, why do you think Grandma finally changed? A miracle?”
Without missing a beat, she replied, “Shock treatments.”
A simple explanation. But still, I wonder.
And when I think about that first leisurely stroll along the boardwalk, my grandmother and I arm in arm, supporting each other’s weight, I ask myself: Does the answer even matter?
Santa Cruz, California
There we were, my two daughters and I, wearing our fancy hats, with veils and roses and purple brims, marching arm in arm down Geary Street in San Francisco and singing “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” No one who saw us would have guessed that only hours earlier we had lost my husband — their father — to cancer.
It was his favorite song. A blind jazz musician and advocate for the disabled, he had always looked on the bright side of life. He’d blessed us, his wife and daughters, with the same outlook. After he’d taken his last breath, the three of us had sat and cried and held each other. Then Bonnie, whose spirit was so like his, brightened up. She had an idea.
An hour later, we were walking down Geary Street, making a happy spectacle of ourselves, singing about gold dust at our feet. Cars honked. Men waved. Everything seemed right with the world.
No one noticed the deep sorrow behind the laughter and the song. Why would they, with happiness in such abundance?
San Francisco, California
When the store’s repair shop failed for the third time to fix my stereo, I asked for either my money back or a replacement. Instead, they offered me store credit, which was no longer enough to purchase an equivalent model. I told them I didn’t want to spend any more money at a store where I’d received such poor service, but they wouldn’t budge.
At home, I called a toll-free number that guaranteed “customer satisfaction” — only to be put on hold, then cut off. I redialed and waited even longer, all the while subjected to annoyingly soothing music and a recorded message telling me how “important” my call was to them. As I sat there, a good two hours of my busy day wasted, I suddenly thought how wonderfully absurd it all was. I took a deep breath, relaxed, and started to see this event as an opportunity to let go of my anger. Within seconds, I was laughing and then crying with detached contentment.
That evening, the store called and said they would replace my stereo with a more expensive one.
Last February, my four sisters and I spent a weekend at our family cabin in northern Minnesota. The morning after we arrived, the septic system broke down, and the cabin filled with sewer gas. If we were going to salvage our weekend, we would have to rough it: no showers, no toilet. We’d wash up in buckets and dump the water outside.
As it turned out, the lack of plumbing actually enhanced our time together. Perhaps conserving water made us happy because it freed us from unconscious guilt over wasting a precious resource. When you must haul water in a pail, you stop to consider its value and the consequence of using it. At one point, my youngest sister came out of the bathroom holding reverently a plastic mixing bowl, careful not to slosh the soapy water over the brim. “Look,” she said, as if she’d won a prize, “this is all the water I needed to wash my hair!”
Another result of roughing it was that the boundary between the cabin and the outdoors virtually disappeared. We were outside as much as we were inside. The sun-bright sky was dazzling during the day, and at night, the snow on the ground and the tree branches glittered in the moonlight.
I wonder now if a deeper happiness doesn’t lie buried beneath our layers of comfort and convenience. Perhaps paring down to our essential needs would bring us closer to this fundamental source.
St. Paul, Minnesota
One day, my friend Scooter and I went on a picnic with our parents by a lake loaded with ducks and minnows. While our moms chatted and our dads smoked cigarettes and talked about sports, Scooter and I figured out how to capture minnows with styrofoam coffee cups.
I managed to herd a dozen or so particularly large minnows into an inescapable muddy cove, where the water’s surface was fringed with layers of duck crap in various shades of white and gray. Just as I dipped my cup into the water, I felt a hard shove in between my shoulder blades and wound up face down in the slimy mud and feces.
My face made a sucking sound as I pulled it from the mud. My cheeks and nose stung from the impact. When I wiped the stinking, slimy gunk from my eyes, I saw two bigger kids laughing as if I were the funniest sight they’d ever seen. My eyes grew hot with tears.
“Hey, you jerks!” Scooter yelled from across the cove.
Normally, I would have waited for Scooter to come to my rescue; I was small for my age, while he was big enough to take care of both my tormentors. But this time, for some reason, I came up swinging.
My first punch was the most beautiful roundhouse right you’ve ever seen. It landed, with all of my fifty pounds behind it, flush on the nose of the bigger of the two jerks. It was like hitting a ball in the sweet spot. He went down in a heap, bright red blood flying from his nose onto my shirt.
Still crying, I jumped on the bully and rained punches that landed mostly on his shoulders or the ground. By then, Scooter was drawing near, so the second bully pushed me off his partner, and the two of them took off at top speed.
When Scooter reached me, he put a hand on my shoulder, but I pulled away so he wouldn’t feel me shaking. When I glanced up at the picnic table where our parents were sitting, my dad had a huge smile on his face. Mom was smiling, too, but more out of relief. I started toward them. Dad met me halfway and squatted to look me in the eye. He was smiling so hard I thought the leathery skin of his face was going to crack. I had never seen him so happy. But then, he worked two jobs, sometimes three, so he wasn’t around much.
“Did you see it?” I asked, trying to calm the quiver in my chin.
“Start to finish,“ he said. He checked my right hand briefly for injured knuckles, then picked me up and held me to his chest with his rock hard arms. I could smell his Vaseline hair tonic and Camel smoke and sweat. I cried unabashedly as he raised me up on his shoulder. It may have been our happiest hour together.
Ronnie L. Jones
El Cajon, California
It was after midnight in the dead of summer. My sister and I were house-sitting in Boston’s quiet, well-groomed South End. When the air conditioner gave out, neither of us could sleep, so we grabbed a gallon jug of wine and hopped the fence of the local playground.
Emma spun down the slide, eyes closed, laughing inside the hood of her sweat shirt. At the bottom of the spiral, she exploded out, whooping like a child, and landed with a whump in the dust. “Where’s that wine?” she said, giggling.
I handed her the jug and ran up the slide, bare feet slapping the metal. Drawing my knees to my chin, I slid down backward, swirling around and around, until I spilled out in a dizzy, breathless heap. I looked up and saw Emma laughing at me, pink-cheeked and filthy from her own landing in the dirt.
It had been seven years since our sister had died, and it would be another three before survivor’s guilt would drive Emma to cut her wrist with a razor. Tonight, though, we played like children.
Emma scrambled up the winding slide again, gasping with laughter, intoxicated with wine and fresh air. This time, she slid down headfirst, arms stretched out in front, squealing with glee. It seemed we would carry on forever, the two of us, spinning and laughing.
E. K. N.
I purchase the best seat available: behind home plate and only a few rows up. I am amazed at my good fortune, getting a seat like this at the last minute on Labor Day weekend. If I’d had someone with me, we’d surely be sitting out by the foul poles.
I arrive early, and the kindly usher who dusts off my seat asks, innocently enough, if I am alone. I smile and say I’m just visiting the city, but I promise to root for the home team. Soon enough, the crowd fills in around me. The batting cage is folded away, the infield dirt is groomed and hosed, and the base lines are chalked. Forty-five thousand spectators stand and dutifully sing the national anthem, and the game begins.
It is a stellar day for baseball, sunny and warm, with a gentle breeze that carries a hint of the cooler fall days to come. I immerse myself in the game, enjoying the sights and sounds and ambience: the quiet chatter and the wild roar of the fans, the vendors’ cries, the green outfield, the infield dust, the foul-pole flags flapping in the breeze, the crunch of peanut shells and the stickiness of spilled sodas underfoot. I don’t know when I first discovered that baseball made me so happy. At a ballgame I can believe, for three wonderful hours, that everything is right with the world.
The game ends too soon, and I reluctantly join the crowd heading for the exits. Leaving the ballpark, I walk back to the nearby VA hospital, where my father lies dying of cancer. I can see the park from the window of his room.
He doesn’t know that I’ve been gone. Maybe he doesn’t even know that I’ve been with him for the past three days, although I prefer to think that he does. Had he been able, he gladly would have joined me at the game today. Sitting out by the foul poles, we would have spoken only in random sentences and knowing nods, communing through baseball. Every daughter should know this happiness.
There was about a 50 percent survival rate in the bone-marrow-transplant unit. I was there longer than most, since my first transplant failed and I had to undergo a second. I saw many people come and go. Some recovered quickly, leaving the hospital in just a couple of weeks. Others stayed longer and left the hospital using walkers or wheelchairs, to slowly begin their life anew.
And then there were those who did not leave, like Tammy, the twenty-seven-year-old who came in looking strong and defiant, her hair shaved in the shape of a T; or Maureen, who called out to me from her bed with her wry British humor; or Jane, the poet, who arrived looking frail and seemed to fade a little more each day.
On the unit, I lived in constant awareness that each day could be my last. If I died, I decided, I wanted to be able to look back on the previous day and say that it had been a good one, despite my bald head and my nausea. So I committed myself to doing something pleasurable every day: I read poetry with my partner. I wore a platinum blond wig with a pink bow that made everyone laugh. I turned the music up loud and danced a jig with my sister. I did Kojak imitations.
What still amazes me is that, though I was deprived of everything I considered essential to a good life, those three long months there were filled with joy.
I was doing the dishes when the phone rang. It was Rosa at the beauty shop. “I think your mom’s going into one of her tailspins again,” she said. “She’s acting kind of crazy. Should I let her drive home on her own?”
I’d heard this story before: It meant Mom was about to have another of her psychotic episodes. It meant that my otherwise loving, responsible mother would be — for the next several weeks, possibly months — afraid that family members were plotting to kill her; afraid that God couldn’t find her unless she kept every light in the house on day and night (including those in the oven and refrigerator); and terrified of the voices that spoke to her inside her head.
Raised a Christian Scientist, my mom would have nothing to do with therapists or medication. So when she really began to unravel — like the time the neighbors saw her leaving the house half naked in her black patent leather high heels — we had to call the police to help us get her to the hospital. Even then, she’d often escape by climbing the ten-foot-high fence or sneaking out when the door was left unlocked.
Now, hearing Rosa’s words, I got a sinking feeling. My mouth went dry, and I couldn’t get a deep breath. I told Rosa I’d be down to pick up my mom as soon as I could find a ride. (My car was in the repair shop.) Then I called a friend, who said she’d be right over. While waiting, I finished the dishes.
For some reason, I became totally engrossed in drying the two different patterns of silverware. With intense concentration, I placed the knives, forks, and spoons of each pattern into their assigned slots in their drawer, mindful not to mix them up. Somewhere in the middle of this process, I was suddenly aware of a warmth inside me, followed by feelings of joy, peace, and gratitude. In that moment, I knew, without a doubt, that everything would be OK; that my mom needed to be in this place at this time, and that I shouldn’t worry.
I was standing at the kitchen sink trying to comprehend what had just happened when I heard a gentle knock on the front door. There stood my mom, smiling — not the crazy grin that scared me, but her usual loving smile.
“Honey,” she said, “I feel pretty shaky right now, but I’m working real hard to get back to my old self. Can I stay with you for a couple of days?”
Over the next few days, she had some hallucinations, but this episode never peaked into bizarre behavior the way all the others had. And it was the last episode she ever experienced.
Los Altos, California
Juan came to our homeless clinic seeking medication for an upper-respiratory-tract infection. He was living in a self-constructed cardboard shanty underneath a nearby overpass. He seemed a good candidate to find a job: he had acquired many skills while growing up in Guatemala and had no significant substance-abuse problem. We offered him a bed at our shelter, so he could have a roof over his head and meals and showers while he sought employment. He politely refused, explaining, “I could never find cardboard this strong in Guatemala.“
Over tea, my grandmother tells me stories of her youth. The family would rarely pass up a chance to ride in a car, she says. One of her aunts was so determined not to miss a drive and a picnic that she even crammed a wasp-stung foot into a shoe. It was also common for couples on dates to go and watch the mail plane come into town.
We’re sitting at the kitchen table in her new house, which she moved into a few months ago. She hasn’t bothered to sign up for city trash collection. Instead she reuses, recycles, and composts almost everything. Every few weeks, when she takes the shuttle bus to the grocery store and the bank, she brings along a small bag of trash to discard. This is not an environmental statement but the way she has always done things.
I help my grandmother out when she will let me, though I’m often reminded that she can manage on her own. She is very independent for ninety. She enjoys frequent phone calls and visits from four generations of kids and grandkids, but she also cherishes her solitude. She spends her days keeping house, following real estate prices in the newspaper, tending her garden, listening to Irish music, and preparing feasts for herself or whomever happens to stop by. She claims to cook only simple food and apologizes for not having much to offer guests. To me, her “simplicity” is wealth, and the key to her happiness.
Donna Lynn Caskey
Newport News, Virginia
At 6 A.M., my baby daughter sings, “Mah-mee,” and I bring her into bed with my husband and me until we all get up at 6:30. After eating breakfast, feeding the animals, and seeing that the kids are showered and dressed, I read the baby a stack of books while my husband and my ten-year-old son leave for work and school. On their way out, they inform me that my car has a flat tire in the driveway, so I call AAA and sit on the stoop with my daughter and her dolls while the tow-truck driver fixes it. Then the baby sitter arrives, and I drive in heavy traffic to my son’s school to watch him perform at an assembly. He does well, and, before going back to class, he gives me a quick, tight hug that brings tears to my eyes.
I stop at a homeopathic pharmacy for a hay-fever remedy (I can’t take over-the-counter drugs because I’m pregnant), then return home to troll the Internet for story ideas I can pitch to editors, and to work on what I hope will be my first book: a cookbook for busy families. Around noon, I drop the car off at the tire place and, during the forty-five-minute wait, eat lunch at a little Japanese restaurant with a smiling waitress. I come home and take a nap because the baby has kept me up every night for a month.
When I get up, I work on the cookbook some more and then run to the market for fresh bread, cheese, and herbs for dinner. As I cook, I hold the baby on my hip and the phone against my shoulder, arranging tennis lessons and carpools for my son. I recall with regret that I was crabby with my husband last night; I vow to apologize again.
When my husband and son get home, the dog goes wild, because she knows it’s dinnertime. I feed her, then put spaghetti (the sauce is one of my cookbook recipes) and garlic bread on the table, and my husband and I talk about my exhaustion and his concern over how to support our growing family. We resolve nothing but give each other a slow, rocking hug that makes the baby laugh.
For twenty years, I searched for happiness. I tried all kinds of jobs, spiritual practices, and self-help groups, but for me, this is it.
Los Angeles, California
Usually when I check the list of upcoming Readers Write topics, it looks something like this: “Isolation,” “Loss,” “Ending It All,” “Depression,” “Really Bad Depression,” “Despair.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to think when I saw the August 2000 topic: “Happiness.” Had new editors taken over? Was The Sun still The Sun?
When I received the August issue, I quickly turned to the “Happiness” section. The first entry was by a woman whose mother said she wished she’d never had children. The second was about the terrors of anorexia. The third featured a family whose house burned to the ground.
Yep, it was still The Sun, all right.