The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I was on an archaeological tour of the Middle East as part of a graduate biblical studies program. The other students and I were all Catholics, and we discovered as we traveled that different Christian groups in the region were often highly antagonistic toward one another due to ancient rivalries and disputes. When we arrived at a holy place, we were never guaranteed a warm welcome.
Shortly after we got to Egypt, I became ill with a high fever, excruciating headaches, and an upset stomach. Because our group was on a tight schedule, I was left to make do as best I could in the back of the hot and dusty bus.
It was more than a hundred degrees outside when we stopped at a Coptic Christian monastery to visit some nearby ruins. As the rest of the group hiked away under the blazing sun, I slowly got off the bus in search of shade. I sat on a wooden bench under the only tree, on the verge of tears, doubting I would ever feel well again.
As I sat there crying, an elderly monk wearing heavy, dark robes approached me carrying a small cup of tea in a delicate porcelain cup and saucer. We didn’t speak the same language, but he smiled and bowed slightly as he handed me the tea. His simple gesture gave me hope and marked the beginning of my recovery.
For some people, their garden is their refuge. For me, it is the outward manifestation of all my shortcomings, inadequacies, and failures.
I have a black thumb. My plants perish for want of water or are choked by weeds. I plant tall flowers where they collapse into the driveway, dark blue flowers where their color is swallowed by the shade, and vibrant pink ones where they only highlight my disorganization.
And yet, every spring, a mass of trillium blooms opposite my front door. Trillium is a wildflower that grows only in untouched parts of the forest. Small clusters of it shine like stars in the deep shade. It appears sometime between Easter and Passover, emitting a fragrance like that of a thousand lilies.
You will not find trillium sold in black plastic pots at Kmart, nor even at the most exclusive nurseries. I cannot imagine how my plants came to be located exactly where I can see them from my doorway. Perhaps they migrated from the forest across the road. But my cluster is larger than any I have seen in the woods, the size of several bushelbaskets. Friends and neighbors stare in silent wonder at its magnificence.
As summer progresses, the stems and flowers wither and are absorbed into the ground again. But I know the spot. It reminds me that there is something in the universe that offers gifts even to the inadequate, to the undeserving.
Mercer Island, Washington
We hadn’t lived in Montana a year when my mother decided she wanted to move to Wisconsin. She and my new stepdad, Bill, loaded all our belongings into our ’52 Chevy pickup, the station wagon, a U-Haul, and two small trailers.
We must have looked like something out of The Grapes of Wrath as we started on our journey. A pile of junk towered eight feet above the cab of the pickup. At Mom’s insistence, Bill had fashioned a chicken-wire pen in one of the trailers for our ducks and chickens. We had no money beyond what we needed for gas, but it was summer, and our plan was to sleep in parks and by the roadside. All our food for the trip was packed into the station wagon with the five of us kids. The open-air chicken pen trailed behind.
The trip was uneventful until, in the middle of a bridge connecting North Dakota and Minnesota, the trailer hitch pulling the chicken pen broke in half. Chickens and ducks squawked maniacally, and cars around us laid on their horns. Mom pulled over, put her head on the steering wheel, and began to cry.
Seeing our predicament, a stranger parked his welding truck and offered to give us a free spot-weld. His name was Otto, and his kind gesture would have been enough in itself, but he also guided us to a city park and made sure we had everything we needed for a safe, comfortable night under the stars.
The next morning was cold and foggy. We’d run out of food, so Mom and Bill rummaged through some dumpsters, scrounging up a couple of plastic bags of broccoli discards.
As we huddled in our sleeping bags, eating our “breakfast,” Otto came by to check on us. I guess the sight of us gnawing on raw broccoli stumps was too much for him, because he insisted on taking us all out to the International House of Pancakes. He watched with delight as we gorged ourselves on pancakes, strawberries, and whipped cream. Afterward, he pushed a hundred-dollar bill into my mom’s hand and sent us on our way.
More than thirty years later, we still refer to him as Saint Otto.
A month before my twenty-first birthday, I learned that my father had lung cancer and was not expected to live more than six months. I flew home and drove straight from the airport to the hospital, where I found my father lying in bed and looking, for the first time, very old. His six-foot-four frame was emaciated; his eyes were bright but sunken. Only three months before, he had driven me to the airport, carried my bags to the gate, and kissed me goodbye. Now I barely recognized him.
I stayed at my mother’s house for three days, debating all the while whether or not I should drop everything and come home to care for my father in his last months. My father was a stoic man, stubborn and quiet, and my family argued that he would never consent to my staying in town for his sake. I knew this was true, but I also knew that I simply could not fly home and get on with my life knowing that he was slipping away.
The thought of speaking directly to my father about my dilemma was daunting. He and I had always been very close, but we’d understood each other without words. We especially never spoke of emotional topics, and I knew better than to force him into admitting he needed me.
I returned to my father’s hospital room on the day of his release. He had asked me to drive him to his apartment, where he lived alone — a testament to his self-sufficiency. Before we left, I sat down in front of him on the hospital bed. He smiled happily at me, as if he were being discharged with a clean bill of health.
“Dad,” I said, “I’m flying back tomorrow.” His smile faded, and I continued in a voice I hoped was both gentle and firm: “I’m going to sublet my apartment, drop my classes, and quit my job. I should be back within the week.”
The muscles in my father’s face grew tight. I reached down to take his hand. “I’m not going to leave you now,” I said. “I’m going to stay with you until you’re gone.”
I had never seen my father cry before. Now he sat in front of me with tears streaming down his face, squeezing my hand, unable to speak. He never took his eyes from mine.
When I was eleven, my father left my mother for a twenty-two-year-old woman and never came back. He had been my best friend. I was ashamed that my love hadn’t been enough to keep him, and outraged at his desertion, but I swallowed my feelings quietly. My grades in school dropped, and I lashed out at those around me. My small sense of power over my world had disappeared.
One cold and sleety winter afternoon, my friends and I went to a movie. Afterward, we huddled outside the theater waiting for Mr. N., a friend’s father, to pick us up. We heard a plaintive mewing. Tucked into a niche of the building was a shivering black kitten with matted hair.
The theater manager told us that the cat had been out there for almost a week. When he asked me if I wanted to take it home, I was thrilled. I put the kitten inside my coat to warm it up. Finally, I could rescue something, make a difference.
Mr. N. drove up, and we spilled into the back seat. He asked what I had inside my coat. When I told him, he said he didn’t like cats and wouldn’t allow them in his car. I said that I would keep it inside my coat, that it would never touch his car. He replied that if I wanted to get home, I had damn well better put the cat outside.
Not knowing how to fight him, I opened the door and lowered the kitten to the ground. It immediately ran beneath the car to hide. I asked Mr. N. to wait while I coaxed it out from under the car, but he barked, “No!” and stepped on the gas. As we pulled away, I looked out the rear window and saw the kitten crushed and twitching where the wheel had just run over it.
I often wonder, if Mr. N. had showed the slightest hint of mercy, would it have taken me so many years to quit hating men?
After ten years of having metastatic breast cancer, I’ve gotten pretty good at minimizing my condition. I started out thinking, At least I don’t have ovarian cancer. When it metastasized to my skull, I was glad it wasn’t in my brain. Finally, when my condition became worse than everyone else’s I knew, I embraced my doctor’s advice about not comparing cancers: they are all different.
Some of my relatives and friends, God bless them, have a perverse way of trying to provide solace: they share with me stories about other peoples’ misfortunes that are worse than mine. As if someone else’s trouble were my gain. What I need is another kind of solace, something less combative, more poetic. This is what I have in mind:
Every Passover, we recite a humbling prayer called Dayenu, which thanks God for the small favors that mean everything. The word dayenu means “it would have been enough,” and the prayer goes like this: “If God had parted the Red Sea, but not ensured safe passage, dayenu. If God had brought us into the desert, but had not led us into the Promised Land, dayenu.” The point is that, every step of the way, we give thanks to God for getting us this far.
If, after the cancer had spread to my bones, the tamoxifen hadn’t worked for me, dayenu. If I’d been given the abdominal injection called Zoladec, but not the yew-tree-based taxol chemotherapy, dayenu. Will God’s mercy never end?
Miraculously, I have lived ten years with an incurable, life-threatening disease. During this period, I’ve met and married a wonderful man. I’ve lived to see my daughter give birth to two grandchildren. And the current treatment allows me to keep my hair blowing in the wind. It’s enough.
When mom died at the age of forty-seven, a widowed acquaintance of Dad’s quickly latched on to him, and within two years, they were married. The house I’d grown up in was enlarged to accommodate my younger stepbrother and -sister. I found my new siblings and their mother obnoxious, and moved out as soon as I could afford an apartment, but the few months we shared in that house were enough to fuel a lifetime of resentment.
When I broke my arm and needed a ride to the doctor, my stepmother suggested I take a taxi because Dad had “more important things to do.” When their dog bit me, leaving a deep puncture wound in my upper arm, she responded by telling me to stay out of whatever room the dog was in. (He was in the living room at the time.) In my father’s absence, my stepfamily simply pretended I didn’t exist.
When I confronted Dad about the situation, he started to cry and asked, “What should I have done — not remarried?”
After I moved out, my relationship with my father was strained for a while, but I’ve come to see that he’s basically a good man, just easy to manipulate. Though I don’t agree with my stepmother’s tactics, I understand them: she wanted to make sure that Dad’s limited resources were used for her own and her children’s benefit.
One day, Dad mentioned over the phone that they were intending to buy my stepbrother a mechanized toy for his birthday. “It costs fifty dollars!” he said. “I never spent that much on my own kids for a birthday present.”
I knew he wanted me to tell him that it was OK to spend the money on my stepbrother. I took a deep breath and said, “Fifty dollars was a lot more money when we were young, and you didn’t have much disposable income then. You have it now; buy him the toy.”
We call them “crunches,” and when they come into the trauma unit, we lay them on the “crunch table” and cut their clothes off. If conscious, they are crazy with pain and fear, yet some still pause to plead with me to spare their favorite pants.
They’re told that we are here to help, but all we do is hurt them more. Got cinders embedded in your skin? I will scrub them out with a surgical scrub brush soaked in iodine soap. Without asking, we’ll stick tubes in your orifices, and other places where, normally, there are no holes. In our rush to save you, we’ll ignore your pleas for something to dull the pain. After your third request for pain medication, someone will explain the rule in our scary world: there’s no telling where a crunch is hurt, and medication might mask the pain of a hidden injury. You will not grasp this logic.
As we add more pain atop your already unbearable suffering, you might drift in and out, or fight with fists and feet, until we tie them to the cold, bloody table. The look in your eyes will reveal your amazement at the depths of our cruelty. “You just like causing me pain,” you will accuse, and you will be reduced to spitting at us. Your bloody saliva will splatter across my chest.
You’ll be in surgery long enough for us to clean your blood from the table and perhaps prepare another crunch for the operating room. Then you will be back in the trauma ICU, still under anesthesia. You’ll wake up and think you are meeting me for the first time, and once again I’ll set about proving to you how cruelly kind I can be. I’ll force you to cough with your belly barely stitched together, and if you don’t do it well enough, I’ll feed a tube down your throat and suction your lungs out. I’ll make you walk, dragging a couple of machines with you. Still want pain meds? Too bad; the surgeons might have missed something, and we don’t want to mask any injuries.
If your head has been injured, then you’ll have sailed through all of this unconscious. But in that case, the doctors might need to drill some holes in your skull to relieve dangerous pressure. After a suitable healing period, we’ll hook you up to a machine to see how alive or dead your brain is. If the machine draws flat lines, then the doctor will have me kill you. I will pull the plug on your respirator, and you will finally be free of this merciless place.
I pause in the hot, sun-filled doorway of the Haitian hospice ward, unsure what to do next. Eighty sick women lie on narrow metal cots a few inches apart. Some have pulled the blue sheets over their faces to keep the flies off. A few groan, or chant a litany of pain, but most are silent. In my mind, I repeat the prayer my grandmother taught me more than half a century ago: Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.
There are no 911 or emergency-room services in Port-au-Prince. When women become too ill to work, family members bring them here, to Sans Fils, hospice for the destitute and dying. I have volunteered to help, but today the Missionary Sisters of Charity are too busy to give instructions. Unable to speak Creole, I cannot ask the women what they need.
A young woman in a bed near the door invites me to approach. I perch at the end of her cot and intuitively take her bare feet in my hands. They are light, like small birds. Her callused heels rest in my soft palms. Suddenly, mercy — until now, only a theological concept — becomes real, tangible to me. Here in a Haitian hospice ward, mercy has weight, texture.
Other patients watch with interest. Women in nearby beds call to me in Creole, and I respond with touch, an ancient language beyond words. I move from cot to cot, holding, stretching, brushing, giving — and receiving — mercy.
Judith L. Favor
I was a sensitive, fearful child, just weeks shy of the eighth grade, when serial killer Richard Speck carved out his place in history on the bodies of eight student nurses. It was the summer of 1966, and our newspaper ran long stories about the murders. I became obsessed with Speck and spent many fitful nights sweating under both a sheet and a bedspread rather than expose myself to the murderer’s horse-faced leer in the window by the bed. I slept with my little sister, but her presence was scant comfort.
When I entered the eighth grade that fall, both my history and English teachers assigned term papers due the Monday before Thanksgiving. I put off working on them again and again until, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I had only a rough draft on one and a page and a half on the other. (The paper had to be five pages.)
As my family drove home from Baptist Training Union close to 9 P.M. that evening, I began to cry. Mama and Daddy asked what was wrong, and I explained about the two papers.
“You mean to tell me they’re due tomorrow,” Mama said, “and you’ve not got them done?” I could see her face, dark with disapproval, in the rearview mirror. She continued her tirade all the way home, with Daddy’s half-hearted support.
At home, I went straight to my bedroom, sat down at my dressing table (which doubled as a desk), and started crying again at the sight of the disheveled index cards, books, and papers. Mama came in and got my little sister’s gown and pillow. “She’s going to sleep in the company room. The light will keep her awake.”
When she shut the door, I cried even harder at the thought of being in my room alone all night. I could see the bedroom window in the dressing-table mirror, and I was sure that, any moment, Speck’s face would appear in it.
Just then, my door opened, and I jumped. Daddy entered, dressed in his undershirt and khakis, with his reading glasses, the Sunday paper, and a Reader’s Digest in hand. He pulled a chair out of the corner, sat down, leaned back against the wall, and started reading.
“Get to work,” he said. “I’ll stay in here with you till you’re done.”
I ran over and hugged Daddy’s neck. He could hoist hay bales all day long and carry two fifty-pound bags of lime across a plowed field to the spreader. He would protect me.
As always, Daddy was a little undone by my show of affection. His own father had rarely touched his children, except to whip them.
“Get back to work,” he said.
I sat down with renewed energy and worked without stopping. Later, Daddy moved to my bed, leaning back on my pillow and the headboard, his bare feet on the spread.
“Finished,” I said to Daddy at a little past four.
“Good girl. I’m gonna turn in. It’ll be morning before we know it.” He started for the door. “Want the light out?”
I nodded, and he closed the door. I got undressed in the darkness and crawled in between the sheets. As my head sank into the feather pillow, I smelled Daddy’s after-shave. It smelled like mercy.
Asheville, North Carolina
When I became involved with Michelle, it wasn’t under the best of circumstances. She was still together with her girlfriend, though a breakup was imminent, and I was the “other woman.” I probably should have taken this as a warning of things to come.
Michelle was the most seductive, enticing, mesmerizing person I had ever encountered. I could hardly stand to be separated from her. This was very different from the way I had behaved in other relationships, where I had always kept my partners at a distance.
With Michelle, however, I craved her touch, her voice, her smell, her laugh. We were two girls in love — and “two girls in love,” she assured me in a letter, was “better than chocolate cake on a rainy Sunday morning, or skating naked through the park, or dog kisses on a hot day.”
But love can burn hard and fade fast. One night, Michelle called from her best friend’s cottage to say that she needed space; she hadn’t taken any time to herself between her last relationship and ours. And, yes, the woman whose friendship I had been so jealous of had strong feelings for her. And vice versa.
After we hung up, I went to the bathtub and turned the water on as hot as I could stand it. Then I got a beer and a cigarette — even though I don’t smoke — and climbed in. I wanted to cry, but I was too shocked. I laughed out loud at the irony of it all: now I was the ex-girlfriend.
Finally I cried for my loss — and for other losses I’d never mourned properly. I cried for my parents’ divorce after twenty-five years. I cried for my grandfather, who blew his brains out in his basement, and for my grandmother, who passed away a few months later, never knowing what had happened. I cried for my friend Mikko, for whom the world had been too much. But most of all, I cried for myself — for the self who had been willing to hope.
It was then that I noticed the little ant. Not big enough to be a carpenter, he had obviously stumbled into our apartment by accident and was now heading toward certain doom in the hot water of my bath.
I am not a big lover of insects, especially when they trespass in my domain. But looking at that helpless creature traveling headlong down the side of the tub, unaware of what lay ahead, I knew I had to do something. I leaned forward and guided him onto my finger. Then I stepped out of the tub and walked, steaming and naked, through Michelle’s bedroom to the window. There, I placed the ant gently on the slats of the fire escape. He would still need to find his way down from the second floor, but at least he hadn’t been cooked alive.
After the ant had disappeared, I knelt at the window for a long time, looking out over the rooftops and wondering how I would make it through the lonely days ahead.
Dietlind Vander Schaaf
My father was an ex-military man. My three sisters and I all have unpleasant memories of living under his controlling reign.
As the second born — and still not the boy my father wanted — I got blamed for everything and singled out for regular beatings. Never able to stand up to him, I did what I could to please him. I married a military man, and I bore my father three grandchildren, which seemed to placate him for a while. But when I walked out of my marriage, my father became enraged with me all over again.
After being on my own for several years, I began making regular visits back to my parents’ home. Dad and I called a tentative truce and spent time talking about politics, looking through his telescope, and working crossword puzzles together. Later, we both took care of my ailing mother.
A few months after Mom died — when my sisters all said to hell with Dad; let him suffer — I flew with my still-grieving father to his World War II reunion. His old flying buddies honored him for having been secretary of their class, and I witnessed a humble side of him I’d never seen before.
Several years later, my father was hospitalized, and I sat with him, alone again, and sang hymns to him for hours. He could only whisper, and as I bent closer to hear, I looked into his eyes and realized that I had been able to stand up to him for quite a while. At that moment, he became very human to me, and I knew that I had forgiven him.
Linda J. Kozelka
My mother-in-law died of cancer. Near the end, when the pain was unbearable and the morphine provided little relief, she begged my brother-in-law, Steve, to take her life. “Have mercy,” she said, pleading with him to smother her with the pillow and end her suffering. He could not. Several weeks later, she finally succumbed to the cancer.
Eight years have passed since then, and in that time Steve has not been able to hold down a job for more than a couple of weeks. He is lonely and depressed, and completely unable to maintain a relationship. He blames himself for not having been strong enough to comply with his mother’s last request.
I cannot help but think that there were two people who needed mercy that day.
It’s been my best year of teaching ever, and now it’s about to end. We are celebrating with a poetry party. My fifth-grade students are reading their poems to a classroom filled with parents. Susan dedicates her poems to me, and tears well up in my eyes. I look for more declarations of love and gratitude from my students. The readings continue, some silly, some boring, some clever, or even beautiful. But there is no further acknowledgement that all my hard work this year has paid off.
And then it’s over. I hug my students goodbye and exchange pleasantries with the parents. As people leave, I start to remember all the ways I’ve failed my students:
I see Josh bent over his math problems. I was impatient with him because he is so slow. Why couldn’t I have been gentler?
I see Chris looking sad as he tells me that he and his mom are moving away. I wanted to comfort him, but instead I used my teacherly voice to remind him to be a better student in his new school.
I see Edith, one of the class “untouchables,” who came up to me one day when I was busy and asked to go to the restroom. Annoyed at being disturbed — particularly by Edith, who was always so needy and interrupted me at the worst times — I started to ask if she could wait. As I spoke, she clutched her crotch and began urinating on the floor. “Go ahead, go, go!” I whispered urgently. I distracted the class and spilled water where the accident occurred, but I can never undo the humiliation the experience caused Edith.
My reverie is interrupted when Dana, my star student, comes over to say goodbye. If anyone can absolve me of my guilt, it’s her. I stammer out an apology for not having been a better teacher this year, hoping she will tell me that, on the contrary, I was the best of all possible teachers.
But Dana doesn’t take the bait. Instead, she says, in a clear, matter-of-fact voice, that I was a fine teacher, but that I lacked confidence in myself. If only I could have been more assured, things would have been better for both me and my students.
After she leaves, I am struck by how needy I’ve been this past year. Dana has seen me in my need and decided that I am all right nonetheless — not great, but “fine.” And I realize that, in her own way, she has given me the absolution I craved.
At ten, I was the oldest kid in the neighborhood. The younger children looked to me for advice. So it was only natural that, upon finding an injured bird, they brought it to me.
I remember peering dubiously into the shoe box. The young bird was breathing but didn’t move at all, not even when I touched its tiny feet and stroked its head. Obviously, it had a broken neck. Five pairs of eyes looked at me in silent hope, firmly believing that I could save this animal.
I smiled and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take him to the vet. He’ll be just fine.”
Walking home with that shoe box under my arm, I considered the magnitude of the lie I had just told. I had tried to bring wild animals to our small town’s veterinarian before, and each time he had kindly but firmly ushered me out, even when I begged with tears on my face and a wad of money in my outstretched hand. I also knew that no creature can live with a broken neck. It would be only a matter of time before this bird starved to death.
Feeling very adult and benevolent, I told the bird that all its pain would soon be over. I filled a bucket with the hose and then lifted the bird out of the box. Its head lolled to one side, and I quickly supported it with my fingers. I stroked its feathers gently and repeated that everything would be all right.
I was not prepared for the struggle that ran through the bird’s light little body as I plunged it underwater. I was amazed, too, at the size of the air bubble that rose to the surface as the struggle ceased. Only as I lifted the limp bird from the water did I become aware of the fragile magnificence of life — any life. I was horrified by what I had done.
Over the past eighteen years, a small voice in my mind has suggested that perhaps what I felt was not a struggle to hold on to life, but rather an involuntary shudder. The bird, after all, clearly couldn’t move. Yet that small voice is drowned out by another insisting that there is no excuse for taking the life of a being that wants nothing more than to live.
Fort Gratiot, Michigan
Lou Gehrig’s disease had taken all of my friend Angela except her eyes and the muscles of her inner thighs. If you placed her limp hand on a computer mouse and put it just so between her legs, she could click letters and words on a screen. Communication this way was slow and awkward, but Angela made it funny and sometimes glorious: “f” didn’t need the three other letters beside it, and “love” said it all.
Angela and I had known each other since high school, when we took French together from a sweet rural woman whose pronunciation was abominable. When the teacher asked us to “repeat please,” it came out as “Ray-pay-tay, sil-va-play.” To amuse ourselves, we came up with some mispronunciations of our own.
“I like that blouse, Lisa,” Angela would say.
“Mercy buckets,” I’d reply.
It was the sort of small joke that got us through our boring classes.
Toward the end of Angela’s life, three friends, her sister, and I took her to the seaside one last time. Though the house where we stayed was only a short hop from the beach, it took most of the day to prepare Angela for the outdoors. First, she had to be propped up and buckled into her wheelchair. Then her leg braces had to be turned just the right way so her body wouldn’t slip down or lose circulation. Separated from her computer, she could communicate only with her eyes, which needed to be shaded from the sun. And her head couldn’t fall back, or else she’d lose oxygen.
Somehow, Angela managed to survive five grown women pushing and pulling on her. But, after all that preparation, rain and lightning kept us from seeing the ocean. Angela helped us forget our frustration by suggesting on her computer, “tinis?”
Before she’d been reduced to drinking Ensure, Angela’s beverage of choice had been a dirty martini, straight up. We answered her request by wetting her lips with a vodka-soaked olive — just for the familiar sting of it.
Then we debated, quite openly in Angela’s presence, how she was handling her disease.
“Could she do more?” someone asked.
“Shit,” I said in disgust, and walked away.
I didn’t know what Angela thought of my response, or about any of what we’d said. Her brown eyes were filled with something bigger than all our talk.
Later, we put her in bed like an infant, rubbing her cold arms and swollen feet. “Good night, Angela,” we whispered, as we would to our children; as she once had to her own three daughters. Then we left her alone with thoughts we could barely imagine.
Afterward, I kept drinking martinis until I got so drunk and fed up that I walked outside into the thunder storm. Lightning struck so frequently that the sky looked like daytime. I raised my fist to the clouds and the howling winds and shouted, “Why, God damn it? Why?”
I wasn’t really expecting any answers.
In the morning, the sun was out. Angela was alone on the screened porch, propped up in her wheelchair, with all the gadgets and straps that kept her withered body perfectly placed, kept her alive. Marveling at her beauty and calm, I approached her and said, “I was sort of screaming last night. The rain was pouring down, but it felt good.” I sat down next to her. “Are you OK?”
Angela squinted and began squeezing her thighs to move the mouse of her computer. What was she going to tell me? Had I offended her in some way? Should I have stayed with her in her room last night, instead of getting drunk and screaming like an idiot? Who was I to scream and laugh and cry, when she couldn’t? Did she wish I would just yank her head back and end it for her right there? What did she really want?
Angela’s chin fell to her chest, and when I lifted it and wiped her drool, her eyes were shining.
“i hear,” she’d typed. “night smell rain know feel today happy friends love mercy buckets.”
Back in those days at Baker Correctional Institution, our cell lights went off at ten every night, after which you could no longer visit another inmate in his cell.
One evening, just after lights out, I was chatting with Charles, my friend across the hall. We were both leaning in our doorways when Sergeant Boston, a fortyish officer with a bushy mustache and tinted wire-rimmed glasses, strode onto our wing.
“Just to let you all know,” Boston said gruffly, “I’ve got a headache, and I’m in a mean mood tonight, so don’t let me catch any of you wild-eyed gentlemen in the wrong damn cell, or I’ll write you a DR quicker than greased lightning.”
Boston was one of the good guys, but his moods were notorious. If he wrote you a DR — a Disciplinary Report — you could be moved out of your two-man cell and into an open-bay dorm.
As Boston walked on into the TV room, I said to Charles, “I wouldn’t want to mess with him tonight.”
“He’s just a big teddy bear,” Charles said. “How about a cookie?”
He held up a bag of Oreos. Figuring Boston was strolling down another wing by now, I went over to Charles’s cell. But the sergeant had done a quick U-turn and walked back down our wing. “Wood!” he barked.
I dropped my Oreo.
“You must not hear too good. Come with me. I’ve got some paperwork to give you.”
In ten years, I’d never had a dr. Now I was getting one for something foolish. I heard Charles snicker as I tagged along behind Boston, pleading with him all the way to the officer’s station: “Couldn’t we just discuss this, Sarge? I was only in his cell for a minute, and I was just about to head back when you showed up. I’ve never had a DR before.”
“In that case,” Boston said, “you’re in for an eye-opening experience.”
We walked into the officer’s station, where three other sergeants were eating pretzels. When Boston explained why he was writing me up, they all laughed. “He was in Jackson’s room?” one asked. “The homosexual?”
“You think I could make two drs out of this?” Boston said, then went to the records room to pull my card. The other three sergeants sympathized with me. I just looked away and sulked.
Sergeant Boston returned carrying my card. “Wood, you’ve got the cleanest record I ever did see,” he said. “Now I don’t know whether to give you a DR or a CC.” A CC was a Corrective Consultation, a written warning. I began to feel hopeful. Then Sergeant Boston said: “Tell you what: I’ll flip you for it.” He pulled out a quarter. “Call it, Wood: heads or tails.”
I froze and stuttered as the coin spun in the air. Then I shouted, “Heads!”
The quarter bounced on the linoleum. All four sergeants squatted down, blocking my view. I held my breath.
“God damn,” Boston said, “I guess I’ll have to give him the CC.”
Back in my cell, I told Charles how I’d gotten lucky on the coin toss.
“Don’t bet on it,” Charles said. “I know Sergeant Boston. You didn’t see the coin, did you?”
Bowling Green, Florida
I had taken a leave of absence from my high-tech job to volunteer in Calcutta for a month. I was sent with a group of volunteers to Prem Dan, a home for the sick and dying, run by the Missionaries of Charity.
As we entered the dim building, we were greeted by four large piles of human excrement. After walking through the damp stone ward, we all donned aprons, masks, and gloves. Our job for the day was to bathe a hundred terminally ill women who lay on cots in a massive room. Though complete strangers to them, we undressed these widows, mothers, wives, and daughters and carried them to the washing area amid their howls of pain and shame. We stripped their skeletal bodies, seated them on the floor, and scrubbed them down with buckets of warm water, soap, and brillo pads. We dried and dressed them, quiet and submissive now, in clean shabby clothes.
At the far end of the room, a twenty-two-year-old woman lay face up on a cot. From groin to knee, her thighs were open, burnt flesh. Her husband had thrown burning oil on her, taken their three children, and run off with another woman. “Bride burning” it’s called.
As I prayed that the man who had done this would receive his due, I developed a horrid, quiet fascination with the woman’s wounds. The skin below her knees had healed to a mottled mess of scar tissue, but the flesh above her knees was raw, open, and oozing. Whenever the sisters changed her bandages, the skin came off with them. Although there were no painkillers to ease her suffering, the woman didn’t utter so much as a moan.
Then the sisters asked me and another volunteer to put some lotion on the woman’s wounds where the skin had healed. I had already removed my gloves and couldn’t bring myself to touch her burned flesh with my bare hands. When the woman saw in my eyes that my desire to help went only so far, she was angry with me, and rightfully so. I will never forget her look of scorn, or the shame of my failed compassion.
Menlo Park, California
When I think of mercy, I think of the time my granddaughter Beth and I went out in the paddle boat and rescued bees. The insects had tried to fly across the lake and, unable to go any further, had fallen exhausted into the water, pollen leaching from their sacs. It was a mild day with Beth beside me, laughing at the adventure, the paddle wheel making its pleasant, repetitive sound, and the scooped bees drying on the deck.
I also think of the roadside zoo in Florida where Beth spied a baby rabbit that had been placed in the snake’s cage to be eaten. “No way!” she said, and she opened the lid, tucked the rabbit under her coat, and brought him all the way back to Maine, where he grew fat and happy.
And I think of a scene on the evening news that brought tears to my eyes. At a Ku Klux Klan rally, some anti-Klan protesters had pushed down a skinhead wearing a Confederate-flag t-shirt. They were kicking him when suddenly a black teenager threw herself across the body of the downed man and told them to stop. And they did. I wonder if the incident brought about any changes in the skinhead. What was going through his mind when the angry protesters backed away from his bruised body and he lay for a moment under the protection of his rescuer’s big, black breasts?