I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
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It was the day after my birthday, back when I still drank a lot and often, and I was standing in a supermarket express lane with a ripping hangover, buying a pack of cigarettes. A thin and very old woman in front of me was buying a birthday cake — one of those sheet cakes they make at the grocery store. That was it. There was nothing else in her basket. Hey, I thought, someone has almost the same birthday as me.
The old woman had on a red hat and was one of the oldest people I’d ever seen up close. I kept staring at her — she was so small — when suddenly she looked me right in the eye and just held my gaze. It was unnerving.
Finally, I said, “Whose birthday is it?”
And she said, with a big smile, “Mine!” She was just beaming. I couldn’t figure out why.
I reached over, put my shaky hand on her bony arm, and said, “Today is your birthday?”
And she said, “Yes.”
“And you’re buying your own birthday cake?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Well, who’s going to help you eat that cake? You having a little party?”
And she said, “No, just me.”
Hearing that, I felt my heart give a little, despite that damn hangover. “I’m going to buy your birthday cake this year,” I said.
And she beamed again and said, “Why, thank you! Will you have some with me?”
And I said, “Sure. Why not?”
So I bought her cake and my cigarettes, and as I was carrying the cake out to the parking lot, she told me how she’d walked the ten blocks from her garage apartment to the store, and that she’d brought her own cart, to help her get the cake home. She used the cart all the time; she couldn’t just leave it.
So there I was, loading this heavy-ass grocery cart into the trunk of my Monte Carlo while the woman climbed into the front seat. About to pass out from the effort of lifting the cart, I got in and drove her home. Her name was Mary, she said, and she’d come to America from Ireland when she was a little girl.
When we got to her place, I dragged the cart out of the trunk, stashed it in the garage, and carried the cake up the stairs to her apartment. Mary’s dining-room table was covered with one of those cheap, plastic, red-and-white-checked tablecloths. I set the cake down and parked myself in a chair. Mary was just humming away, putting on a kettle and spooning instant coffee into these dainty white coffee cups. Finally, she put a sugar bowl on the table and cut us each a big, square piece of cake. I asked if she wanted me to sing “Happy Birthday,” and she said, “OK!”
So there I was, belting out “Happy Birthday” to Mary, even though the sound of my own voice was killing me. When I was through, we ate our cake and drank our coffee, smiling and nodding, not talking, just happy for the moment.
After we’d eaten, I told her thank you, but I had to go now; I’d celebrated my own birthday the night before and had drunk way too much.
And she said, “Thank you for the cake. I hope that, when you are ninety-four, someone buys you a birthday cake and eats it with you.”
I said I hoped so, too.
Prairie Lea, Texas
My girlfriend Megan and I were returning home from a trip to Boston. It was Labor Day weekend, and Interstate 95 was a long, snaking line of cars. I noticed a white Cadillac stopped on the shoulder, an elderly couple standing next to it with the trunk open and their suitcases on the pavement. “Looks like they have a flat tire,” I said, pulling over.
The woman came toward us, looking relieved. “Thank you so much,” she said over and over. I began to help the man with the tire. He hadn’t had much success with the spare.
As I loosened the nuts on the tire, the woman gripped my shoulder and told me their story: Her husband had just been diagnosed with bone cancer. He was ninety-three years old. They were on their way back from Nantucket, their last vacation together. “We needed help so badly,” she said.
The husband and I changed the tire together, and the wife, tears in her eyes, told Megan again how thankful they were.
Placing the jack back into the trunk, I noticed the wife attempting to give Megan some money. My girlfriend was backing away, her hands in the air. “No, no, really,” she said. “It’s OK. You don’t have to do that.”
“Megan,” I whispered, “just be polite.” I had decided long ago that when older people wanted to give you money, it was best just to let them.
“You’ll take this, won’t you?” the wife asked me as I eased the flat tire into the trunk. My hands were full, so she slipped the money into my front pocket. There were tears in her eyes.
Later, as we drove down the highway, I dug into my pocket, wondering aloud how much this woman had given us. I glanced down and saw a folded and wrinkled hundred-dollar bill. “Oh, my God!” I yelled. “It’s a hundred dollars.” I’d expected maybe twenty bucks.
“Duffy,” Megan said, “I’m almost positive there were two bills.”
I spread the folded money with my thumb and forefinger: two hundred dollars.
I tried to think of a way to give the money back, but the couple was long gone. I’ve since realized that it’s lucky I didn’t see how much she was giving me. The money was an expression of her immense thanks; it would have been thoughtless to push it back into her hands.
My new friend Wren and I were hitchhiking to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where we’d heard there were high-paying government construction jobs. A ride dropped us off at a dusty intersection about three hundred miles north of our destination. Flat, high plateau stretched in all directions. On one corner was a weathered general store with a gas pump out front. Opposite it was a faded saloon. It was 10 A.M., and only a few battered pickups were parked at the bar.
Wren, who at twenty was two years older than I, and who said he was a full-blooded Apache, entered the saloon with me, and asked if anyone was headed south. No one was. So we went back outside to try our thumbs. We could see cars approaching from miles away; they’d slowly get bigger and then whoosh by.
Around noon, a sky blue Volkswagen pulled into the saloon parking lot, and a short, pale, pudgy man got out. He wore a rumpled summer suit and Buddy Holly glasses. Wren asked if he was going to Las Cruces. He said he was, but when Wren asked if we could hitch a ride, the man simply said no. Then he locked his car and went inside the saloon for lunch.
Wren was furious. This man was going right to Las Cruces and had room in his car, yet he’d refused to take us. The more Wren thought about it, the hotter he got. Finally he went over to the man’s car, pulled out his knife, and, bending low, quickly slit all four tires. He was calm when he returned. The tires would last only a few miles, he said, before they went flat, leaving the man stranded, at the mercy of passing drivers.
A half-hour later, the man came out of the bar and walked toward us across the hot gravel. At first, I was afraid he’d seen Wren, but he didn’t seem angry. In fact, he apologized that he couldn’t drive us to Las Cruces and said he had taken up a collection at the bar and gotten us enough for two one-way bus tickets. We could buy them at the general store across the street. The bus would arrive in an hour. He handed us the money.
We were speechless. As he turned to go, I wanted to run after him, confess what we’d done, and give him the money back, but I just watched as his car disappeared slowly into the distance.
Later, I remembered that, when he’d handed us the money, neither of us had thanked him.
Lori and I arrived at our new university jobs on the same day and were assigned adjacent offices. She was very independent and had an extremely loud and hearty laugh. We became fast friends. A year later we were married.
In our seventh year of marriage, I teased Lori that we were living “the good life.” We both had recently been granted tenure and promoted at the university. We owned a nice house in a wonderful neighborhood. Lori was pregnant with our first child, and I loved her as intensely as I had on the day we were married.
Two weeks before the baby was due, as Lori and I sat down to dinner, she was struck with a pounding headache, blurred vision, vomiting, and pain in her chest. We went to the hospital, where a doctor gave her pain medication and sent us home. Around noon the next day, I went into the living room and found Lori sitting on the sofa, crying quietly. I sat down and tried to comfort her: “Only two more weeks, and everything will be OK.”
She looked at me and wiped away her tears. Then suddenly her face froze, her eyes rolled up in her head, and she fell over backward. I raced to the phone and dialed 911. I screamed for help, holding Lori in my arms, watching as her face turned blue.
Within minutes, firefighters and paramedics arrived and began resuscitating Lori. I moved over against the wall, trying to stay out of their way.
Lori was rushed to the emergency room. After an agonizing thirty minutes, three solemn doctors delivered the news to me: Lori was dead. The baby, a girl, had suffered severe brain damage due to lack of oxygen and was being kept alive by a ventilator. The doctors encouraged me to go to the neonatal intensive-care unit and spend time with her.
Our daughter, Mackenzie Morgan Irving, was beautiful: five pounds, twelve ounces, with a line of curly hair across her head. I hugged her, kissed her, and cried over her. Several hours later, we turned off the ventilator. To my surprise, Mackenzie’s breathing became more regular. A nurse handed me my baby, and I felt like a real father.
I held Mackenzie for three hours before she stopped breathing. It was a very quiet and peaceful death.
Every day, I feel the intense loss of Lori — my best friend, my lover, my colleague, my wife. Mixed in with my sadness, however, is an appreciation for the eight wonderful years we had together. Lori made me a better person, and for that I am grateful.
It’s a Saturday morning in August, and I’m feeling happy and languid, driving and smiling at my friend Raja, who is trying on my cheap sunglasses and mugging. My two-year-old son, Jack, is sitting in back in his car seat. Instead of speeding through a yellow light, I roll to a gentle stop.
Seconds later, I hear it, violent and final: the profane thud of a fast-moving vehicle hitting a body. It vibrates distinctively in the tiny bones of my ear, this sound of someone’s fate being decided. I look and see a man lying on his side in the middle of the road, still as death, his body twisted and slack, his crushed bicycle nearby. For a moment, it seems nothing is moving: no people, no cars — not even my heart. Then the rush of time accelerates again.
“Raja,” I say, “take Jack. I have to go and help that man.” Raja argues and clutches my arm, but I shake him off and open the door.
Another driver has gotten out and is calling for an ambulance on her cellphone. Her face is drained of color. “It was a dark blue pickup,” she tells me shakily as I approach. “The driver just took off.”
As I draw closer, I know it will be bad, and that the man will die. I also know that somehow I’m meant to be here. I kneel down and touch him, this big man with long, reddish hair and eyes the color of the sky. He’s conscious and struggling, staring straight ahead, his breath loud and ragged. Dark blood and lighter brain matter pool together on the pavement. Even in his state of shock, I think he knows that these are his last moments. He’s terrified.
“It’s all right,” I tell him. “God is with you, my darling. It’s all right.”
I repeat this over and over, stroking his arm and his blood-soaked hair. I’m not sure where the words come from; they’re not anything I’d ever think to say. I’m not religious. I can only guess that they come from the same place as the strange sense of quiet I feel inside.
Every once in a while, the man’s body jerks. I try to calm him, though I don’t know if he hears me. I feel protective of him and reluctant, when the ambulance comes, to let him go. I know they won’t be able to help him. I just want him to feel loved as he dies.
The paramedics take him away, leaving just the large stain on the asphalt. Feeling as though I’ve been shaken awake from a dream, I wander back to Jack and Raja, and Raja hands me the car keys. When I reach to take them, I notice that my hands and arms are splattered with red, dark as wine. I stare at my hands in the sunshine. They seem to me both terrible and beautiful. Then I start to cry.
Later, at home, I’m overwhelmed by the notion that I’ve failed somehow; that I didn’t do enough for the man, didn’t convey to him the intensity of the love I felt. It seemed beyond words. I don’t understand what has happened.
Night comes. I try to sleep, but my mind won’t stop replaying the scene. I bring Jack into my bed, and his presence soothes me. Eventually, I close my raw eyes.
And then I see him, the man who was hit by the car. He comes spinning toward me in a whirling ring of light. He’s brilliant, shimmering like a thousand cut diamonds, but softer. In all my life, I’ve never seen such beauty. How do I know it’s the man with the red hair? I can’t explain. It’s simply him.
My eyes open. I immediately close them again, wanting to see more, but there’s only darkness.
The next morning, I find a notice in the paper about a cyclist who was struck by a hit-and-run driver. The cyclist died in intensive care just about the time I was falling asleep.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I was a sensitive child, easily hurt by my siblings’ laughter and teasing. I stuttered regularly and mispronounced my r’s. My legs were bowed and my feet pointed in, giving me a peculiar pigeon-toed gait. I often asked my mother if I was adopted, because I was so different from everyone else in the family.
Only in the presence of my godmother, Edna, did I not feel like an ugly duckling. She gave me praise for my accomplishments, spoke soft words of encouragement when I attempted to talk too fast, and listened to my stories without ever mentioning my speech impediments. Around her, I felt like a bright, shining penny, a hand-picked flower. Those feelings lasted well into my teens, when I worked in earnest to correct my speech and my walk.
I am thankful to have known Edna, who is now ninety-nine and still awakens my sense of self-worth.
Iowa City, Iowa
I awaken as a nurse enters my four-year-old son’s hospital room to check his tubing and vital signs. Out the window, I see white petals being blown from the cherry trees by the morning breeze.
I hold the jug for Robert to urinate. His urine has an odd color and odor, tainted by the chemotherapy drugs for his leukemia. After fourteen days in the hospital, I have somehow put aside the disbelief that this is happening to my child.
After the nurse leaves, Robert and I doze until the breakfast tray arrives: time to press the buttons to raise his bed to the sitting position. Each plate or bowl is covered with a plastic lid, and I lift the covers with a magician’s flair to make him laugh. Next, he presses the buttons that turn on the morning cartoons. Breakfast in bed with cartoons and Mom’s undivided attention: not bad.
While he eats, the doctor arrives. I find my binder and pen so I can write down the information from the lab report: hematocrit, white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets. The doctor tells me that Robert might begin to get sores in his mouth, and he gives me a sheet with instructions for mouth care. I put this in the overflowing “to read later and file” section of my binder.
The rest of the morning turns out to be fun. Robert and I spend time in the playroom, which is well stocked with watercolors, Play-Doh, puzzles, and a sand table. We push his IV pole outside and sit on a bench and look at the tulips and the flowering trees. It’s good to feel the sunshine. We return to Robert’s room for lunch and afterward color a picture of a garden and listen to music. Then Robert settles down for a nap. I use his nap time to walk down to the cafeteria.
I have learned to pray in my head while walking. I don’t blame God for having let Robert get leukemia, but I do believe God can decide how much longer Robert will live, and this is the focus of my prayer. At the start of the walk, I want Robert to live to be an old man. If not that, I at least want to see him grow up, get married, and have children. I want to see what he will look like as a teenager. I’ve had four years with him; I want four more. I want at least one more year — one more Christmas, one more birthday. I want to bring him home one more time, away from nurses and spinal taps and IV tubes. By the time I finish praying, the hall has become very narrow.
Then the thought comes to me: At least we have had this day. This day of laughing and playing and music and sunshine on tulips. If Robert died tomorrow, I would be able to remember every minute of this day for the rest of my life and take pleasure in it. Some children are killed by cars, and their mothers never get to say goodbye. Some infants die suddenly, and their mothers never see them grow and laugh. Some mothers are too busy or burdened to spend an entire day with their child, just playing. I realize that I am one of the lucky ones.
When I was fifteen, in the heat of the moment, my mother told me that I was “not worth shitting on.” I believed her.
At eighteen, I got married. My new husband and I had many different tastes, but we had in common a desire to please each other and to appreciate each other’s differences. My husband liked “hillbilly music,” while I liked classical and opera. It took me several years to get him to go to the symphony and then a few operettas, but once I did, he was hooked. We were married for forty-seven years before he died, and our life together was filled with evenings at the symphony and the records of Eddy Arnold, Johnny Cash, and Marty Robbins.
I taught my husband to fly-fish. He taught me tennis and golf. I weaned him off bologna and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and introduced him to fine dining and dry wines. He talked me into learning how to drive a car and how to sew. He tried to teach me to play chess, but I learned only the moves, not how to win.
In our later years, my husband would sometimes tell me how grateful he was for all I’d taught him. He said that, without me, he would have spent his life in front of the TV watching sports and drinking beer. I knew better; his willingness to try new things would have pulled him off the couch sooner or later. But I loved hearing his expressions of gratitude. I finally felt that my mother had been wrong: I was worth something. I had made another human happy.
At twenty-six, I wasn’t prepared to be hospitalized with lymphoma in my chest, fevers coming and going after my first round of chemotherapy. It was a week of specialists and blood draws. It was also a week of beloved friends and family taking turns sleeping on the roll-out cot, helping me pass the long nights full of doubt and fear. Sometimes I was certain I would die. Other times I was sure that the fear of dying itself would overwhelm me.
It was June in Washington, D.C., and I was stir-crazy, but my immune defenses were so low I could not leave my little germ-free room on the oncology floor. One night, I stood a single step outside the door, just to experience different air, different sights.
And then one day, I was released from the hospital. I will always carry with me the intoxicating smell of that humid June day, how I could not get enough of its scent, its heat, its life. I wanted to drink the air and live for a long time.
Eight years later, a resident doctor myself, I am sometimes confined for a very different purpose in these white hallways. Whenever someone laments the stifling summer heat outdoors, I remember that day and think what any of us would give for a small breath of precious summer air if we couldn’t have it.
At the age of five, I was adopted from a South Korean orphanage by a white American couple. I had lived in the orphanage since I was three months old and knew nothing of my Korean family. My new family lived in New Jersey. When I came home with them, I acquired a new name, new relatives, a new country, and a new culture. I learned to speak English within two months.
My parents adopted me because they’d sponsored me for four years and I was getting too old to be adopted by anyone else. The orphanage had told them that if I wasn’t adopted, I would grow up to be a prostitute — the fate of all orphaned girls in Korea.
Whenever I grieved the loss of my birth family, my parents told me I shouldn’t be sad but grateful. I’d been lucky to be adopted, they said, and had everything in the world a child could want. I soon learned that I was expected to show nothing but gratitude toward my parents.
I hid my unhappiness for years. On the outside, I was playful, precocious, and even charming, when I wanted to be. No one knew that I hated myself for being Asian and wished I were dead. I had internalized all the racism I’d experienced over the years. Deep down, I was still feeling the pain of losing my birth mother.
In 1996, I returned to Korea and went to the adoption agency to inquire about my birth parents. The agency staff told me they had no information, except that my parents had died in a car crash. I was puzzled. How could they know how my birth parents had died, yet have no other information? (Later, I found out that the agency told all adoptees the same story.)
The following year, after thirty-six years of separation, I found my birth mother, two brothers, and several other relatives. I learned my mother’s story — my story.
I realized then that I had indeed been very fortunate to have been adopted. Here in America, I have had opportunities and privileges that I would never have known had I stayed with my Korean family. Yet I have also paid a tremendous emotional price for these opportunities and privileges. I can honestly say that I appreciate what my adoptive parents did for me, but I will never be “grateful.”
Mi Ok Song Bruining
I have been hired to work with pregnant middle-school students, who tend to drop out. My initial encounter with Isabel is uneventful: I go over my role, answer her questions, and tell her I’ll be back at her school in a week or two. In the meantime, she is welcome to call me. I don’t expect to hear from her.
A week later, Isabel does call and asks for a ride to her clinic appointment. She missed the bus, she says. I hesitate, not wanting to set a precedent. But she is the first student who has asked me for anything. I tell her I’ll be there soon.
When I arrive at Isabel’s house, I learn that her father doesn’t know why she has an appointment at the clinic. Isabel says she and her mother want to tell him in their own time, and I certainly want to respect their wishes.
During my next visit, Isabel, who knows that I have two children, asks me about morning sickness. I think she’s starting to warm up to me. We revel in the perverse pleasure of comparing pain and discomfort. I start to tell her about the importance of eating high-protein and calcium-rich foods during pregnancy. Then, not wanting to lose her attention, I cut my speech short. But Isabel pulls out a notebook and begins to write down what I’ve said. I am thankful for her attentiveness. She responds to my advice better than any other student.
While driving Isabel to an appointment one day, I notice she is rather serious. She says, “You know, during class today, I was wondering . . . what would I do if you weren’t around to help me?” I must look amazed, because she says, as if she has offended me, “I know it ain’t your job to drive me around, but I don’t know what I’d do sometimes, if you weren’t here.”
Twenty-five weeks into her pregnancy, Isabel gives birth to a one-pound, thirteen-ounce boy. Gazing on him in the neonatal intensive-care unit, I am thankful that he’s alive. Yet I know that, somehow, I also would have been thankful, had he not lived.
© Marvin W. Schwartz
As a mother and homemaker, I spent all my time hunting down special ingredients for gourmet dinners, coordinating hair ribbons and socks, and decorating the house in an elegant yet comfortable style. Every holiday was an occasion for a lovely centerpiece, a scrumptious meal, and whimsical decorations. Everything matched, the chicken was organic, and the thread count on the sheets was always 310 or more. Here I was, the black Martha Stewart, and no one in my family seemed to notice or care.
I watched incredulously as my kids raved about the Tuna Helper their aunt served for dinner. The night before, no one had uttered a word of praise for my spicy Thai fish, made with basil I had lovingly grown myself. A few weeks before, I had rescued three Chinese prints from a rummage sale, framed them, and hung them in the foyer. My husband walked right by without noticing them. “Don’t you see anything different around here?” I asked.
And now I was standing in the fabric store, looking for a princess dress pattern for my daughter’s Halloween costume. Of course, most people bought their children’s costumes, but not me. I was going to make her the perfect little outfit, even though I knew she wouldn’t appreciate the hours of pinning, cutting, ironing, and sewing. I sighed and considered making myself a martyr costume.
Suddenly it hit me: I wasn’t doing it for them; I was doing it for me. I loved decorating my home. I felt victorious when I found that elusive ingredient for a four-course dinner. And I enjoyed seeing my kids dressed like the ones in the catalogs. In fact, I should have been grateful to my family for giving me the opportunity to do what I loved. Their very presence allowed me to exercise and showcase my talents. I knew then and there that I was going to relish every minute of making the pink-satin princess dress with the matching cape and hat.
Still filled with my newfound gratitude, I drove home, raced into the family room, and said, “Sweetie, look what I bought! You’re going to love it!” I stood there expectantly, holding out the pattern.
The future best-costume prize winner pulled the quilt around her and said, “Mommy, have you seen the remote?”
For more than a decade, my dad hadn’t been able to keep a job because of an undiagnosed physical problem. I’d urged, reasoned, and pleaded with him to apply for health insurance and see a doctor, but my parents’ religion shuns medical intervention and teaches that God alone heals all human ailments. Despite going bankrupt and having to sell their home, they continued to thank God for providing for them.
“I’m doing better, really!” my dad would say, but I couldn’t see any evidence to support his claim. He didn’t walk very well, and his speech and handwriting were growing more and more difficult to decipher.
“Just slow down!” my mother would scold him when his words became garbled, as if it were within his power to fix it.
Finally, my father applied and was deemed eligible for state healthcare, and I began helping him through the medical maze. My mom — still opposed to his seeing a doctor at all — fussed about having to bring him to appointments; she needed their only car for her housecleaning jobs. So I took my dad to see his doctors. He saw a primary-care physician, who referred him to a neurologist, who told him he needed an MRI.
The neurologist concluded that my dad has multiple sclerosis, which has allowed him to qualify for monthly disability checks, greatly enhancing my parents’ modest income. My mother is still holding out hope for a spiritual healing that will allow Dad to return to work. She doesn’t accept that the occasional remissions he experiences are the nature of the disease. Instead, any sign of an upturn in his health is evidence of God’s healing power. Neither of them talks about the relapses.
My parents tell me, reluctantly, that they are grateful for all that I’ve done to help them. But mostly their thanks go to God.
My parents taught me always to say “please” and “thank you.” When well-meaning relatives gave me a gift of clothes instead of a new toy, I had to thank them and tell them how much I liked it. I despised this artificial politeness.
In the winter of my freshman year of high school, my father became ill and died ten days later. I could not cry the way everyone else did. I felt numb, as if I’d been plunged headfirst into the Arctic Ocean.
People kept approaching me to tell me how sorry they were and to ask if I needed anything. Never had I used the phrase “thank you” so often, and never had I hated it so passionately. Every unfelt expression of gratitude numbed me even more.
One day, about two months after my father’s death, I stayed after school to talk with one of my teachers about a homework problem. She asked me how I was doing.
“Fine,” I said automatically, not looking at her.
“Did you crash yet?” she asked.
Does she want to know if I have cried? I thought dazedly. “Yes,” I said. It was a half-truth. A few tears had escaped.
“I think you are a strong person,” my teacher said, “but you don’t have to be strong all the time. It’s all right to break down, Kristen.”
I looked directly at her for the first time, too surprised to think of a polite response. “How did you know?” I asked.
I did not cry during our conversation, but as I stood on the steps of the school, waiting for my ride, I felt it break across me like a wave. It was too painful to be called relief, and too healing to be called sadness. This was true gratitude.
Pine Hill, New Jersey
It’s 2 A.M. I’m not sure which has awakened me: the searing pain running down my left leg like an electric shock, the intense pressure in the back of my head, the feeling that porcupine quills have attached themselves to the nerves of my head and limbs, or the bone-on-bone grinding sensation in my shoulders. Carefully, I roll over onto my other side. I used to sleep on my stomach, before it became too difficult to breathe in that position.
Outside my window, the courtyard is silent except for a few cyclists locking their bikes to the rack. The leaves rustle in a light breeze. The constant sound of traffic at this hour always amazes me. Who could possibly be out this early in the morning, and where are they going?
The electric sensation in my leg increases, and the limb contracts toward my body, responding to the firing of damaged nerves. Fifteen years ago, when I had surgery on my spinal cord for the first time, I could never have imagined this kind of pain. Six surgeries later, I still can’t believe how much it can hurt sometimes — especially at two in the morning.
When the pain increases again, I pray — not so much to be released from the pain, but to endure it, and, more importantly, to learn from it. Some people say you can’t learn from pain; that you just have to deal with it. But this pain has taught me much about myself, about life, and about what it means to trust in a higher power. And so, in the middle of the night, I curl into a fetal position and pray.
The pain reluctantly eases its grip and allows me to sleep again. When I awake, the sun is just rising, gently illuminating the courtyard. Slowly, the landscape takes shape. The birds on the bike racks are chirping, and the cyclists are chatting as they unlock their bikes. I roll over and sit up. The pain is not as bad this morning. I offer a prayer of thanks.
Marguerite L. De Long
The handle of the faucet on the outside of my house is broken, and I’m too lazy and inept to fix it. When I turn it on, the water sprays out almost three feet. So I put an old towel over the faucet to keep the water dripping down on the sidewalk, instead of shooting straight out. After I turn off the water, I hang the wet towel on a dead tree stump.
Today I noticed that the stump is growing new branches. It makes me happy to think that my incompetence and sloth have bred new life.
When I drove a milk route for Grant’s Dairy, I would stop at a children’s summer camp in Searsmont. One morning, as I stepped out of the truck, a group of young campers surrounded me, crying, “Come save him, quick!”
They led me to the lakeside, where a raccoon was backing in circles with a tin can wedged on his head. They had tried to pull it off, they said, but it was too tight. Could I help?
The raccoon backed away as I approached, finally retreating out onto the dock. He stopped when he came to the edge above the water. I carefully reached down, firmly grasped the can, and gave it a twist. Off it popped. There was an audible sigh of relief from the children. The raccoon and I blinked at each other, and then I walked slowly back up the dock. The raccoon followed. The crowd of children parted to let us by.
I’ll never forget how, as I was climbing into my truck, a little girl came up to me and said, “Thank you so much for saving him, mister.”
I’m grateful for the surgeon who, when I was six weeks old, fixed my lower stomach muscle so that I could digest food.
I’m grateful that the boys who caught me and held me captive in a toolshed when I was six didn’t mean it when they said they would never let me go.
I’m grateful that the car accident my family had when I was eight didn’t take our lives.
I’m grateful that the lump I discovered under my left nipple when I was twelve wasn’t malignant.
I’m grateful that I awoke unharmed in my bed after all those nights as a teenager when I drank myself into oblivion and still drove home.
I’m grateful that, when I was nineteen and my friend’s car hit a tree, pressing the glove compartment into my chest and wrapping the windshield around my face, it didn’t do any permanent damage
I’m grateful that, at twenty, I somehow didn’t drown when I was swept down that river in Switzerland.
I’m grateful that the operation on my ruptured appendix at twenty-one, which had a 50 percent mortality rate, was a success.
I’m grateful that the buses I took through the mountains of Nepal, when I was twenty-four, didn’t go over a cliff — like the one I saw a thousand feet below one day.
I’m grateful that my brakes failed after I had crossed the Rockies the summer I turned thirty.
I’m grateful that, after all of this, I am still alive to make mistakes.
According to the most recent edition of the psychiatrists’ manual of mental disorders, my father, if he were alive today, would be diagnosed schizoid. When I was growing up, he was labeled simply an alcoholic. In truth, he was an empty shell of a man, without expression or emotion, unresponsive to joys or sorrows. As a child, I interpreted his lack of interest in me as an indication of my worthlessness.
My father worked as a green grocer five days a week, and the rest of the time, if he wasn’t on a drinking binge, he sat in front of the TV watching boxing, wrestling, or Face the Nation. He lifted weights every other night and read Charles Atlas and Strength and Health magazine. Night after night, I remember my mother frantically whipping up dinner, barely able to manage two part-time jobs while caring for my seizure-ridden sister and me.
When I was a prepubescent girl, my father molested me. In my teen years, he was merely provocative and exposed himself once. His attention confused and shamed me. I was fifty years old before I laid to rest the pain of that relationship.
There is one memory of him, however, that I treasure. On my fifth birthday, as I bent over to blow out my candles, my long ringlets caught fire. For an instant, I saw my mother’s horrified face. Then, just as the blaze tickled my chin, my father rushed toward me, leaned down, and clamped his hands over my burning hair. For this, I am forever grateful.
As part of project troubadour, I traveled with three other New England folk musicians to the West African nation of Gambia to give forty free concerts up and down the Gambia River. We took passage on an old cargo boat bringing salt, lumber, oranges, and coconuts to the far reaches of the country. When the boat docked to unload cargo, we would scamper off, make contact with the village chief, and find a large tree under which to give a free concert.
The children would gather around first — curious to see who these strangely dressed people were — and then the grown-ups and the elders. We would play tunes like “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Oh, Susannah,” and “This Land Is Your Land.” They all kicked up their heels and laughed and showed huge appreciation that we had come such a long way to visit them in their tiny African village.
While on board the boat, we met a remarkable woman from Sweden who was also traveling the river. Her name was Mary Lingberg, and each year she saved up her money and made a trip to the leper colony at Bansang, to bring supplies to the lepers and their families, who lived with them at the colony. Mary also had her own supply of potato white lightning, which she stored in glass canning jars and generously shared with us. Before long, we’d agreed to do a concert at the leper colony.
When our boat docked at Bansang, we struck up conversations, through our interpreter, with the colony’s residents. We decided to begin the concert at once. A large crowd assembled. There was electricity in the air.
Soon after we ripped into our first number, I noticed an old man with no hands or feet, only stumps, dragging himself toward us across the sand. He stood himself up in the center of the circle, looked right at us, and smiled with joy. And then he started to dance.
He moved like no other person I’ve ever seen, as if on stilts, waving his thin arms, turning his fine head up toward the light, spinning in circles. Tears streamed down my face to see someone so carefree, so happy. Elliot, our leader and guitar player, was so overcome with emotion that he put down his guitar and ran out to dance with the man. I will never forget the sight of the two of them twirling together.
The man with no hands or feet turned out to be the village chief. After the concert, he invited me to come and have a cigarette with him on a large rock in a field. I don’t smoke, but I couldn’t turn him down. Conversation was difficult, but passing the cigarette back and forth between my hands and his stumps was a communion of the highest sort. The chief’s inner light shone out of his clear eyes like a beacon of truth, and in his tribal tongue, he kept thanking the “Great Spirit” for our visit, for his life, and for all the good things that had been given to him.