I remember Sister Martha storming into our seventh-and-eighth-grade classroom at Saint Catherine’s, black habit billowing behind her, large silver cross rattling against the oversize rosary she wore. She was stout, with thin, tight lips and small black eyes like raisins. A starched white cap with a black scarf pinned to it hid her hair and framed her puffy face, the only part of her that showed from beneath the habit.
That was the year John, a sixth-grader, developed a crush on me. Looking back at my pictures, I’d say it wasn’t because of my physical beauty. I had straight brown hair with severe bangs, a chubby, freckled face, and the beginning of breasts that I desperately tried to hide by keeping my arms crossed or holding my books tight to my chest.
John and I would sometimes visit during recess or lunch and sit together on the bus. We talked about what was happening at school or the latest movie playing at the Strand Theater. For my birthday, John presented me with a chain-link ID bracelet with my name engraved on one side and his name on the other. I was very proud of his gift and enjoyed showing it off.
One day Martha came bustling into the classroom in one of her darker moods. She summoned an eighth-grader named Julie to the blackboard to solve a math problem. A thin, self-conscious girl with a speech impediment and a scar on her lip from being born with a cleft palate, Julie struggled to find the solution. Martha pressured her: “Well, what’s the answer? Haven’t you learned anything? Are you just stupid?” Then Martha looked skyward and uttered her favorite phrase: “Oh, Lord, give me patience.”
Apparently, the Lord didn’t, because Martha grabbed Julie by the shoulders, shook her, and slammed her into the blackboard. Crying, Julie stumbled back to her desk with Martha yelling at her every step of the way. Then Martha turned to the row I was in.
Seeing that my turn was coming, I began working feverishly on the problem. Two other girls ahead of me failed to solve it and suffered the consequences. When Martha called me up to the blackboard, I picked up the chalk and shakily wrote out an answer.
“Wrong!” Martha bellowed, hitting the blackboard with a long wooden pointer. “All you have time for is boys and bracelets!”
I stared at her with a mixture of anger and disbelief. Then she took me to the nearby study room, where she put her face so close to mine that I could see droplets of oil oozing from the pores of her pasty skin. “I’ve seen you with that boy,” she said. Her breath was warm and smelled like garlic. “What have you been doing with him?”
“We were just talking,” I mumbled.
“Don’t you lie to me, young lady. What has been going on between you?”
“Has he touched you?”
“Why did he give you a bracelet?”
“Because he likes me, I guess.”
“Are you going to get married?”
I stared at her in shock: “Married? I’m only twelve years old!”
Martha told me that she never wanted to see me talking to John again, and that from that day on he and I would ride different buses. “Now we’re going over to the chapel, where you can say your act of contrition and ask forgiveness for your sins.”
She marched me out of the school building and across the gravel parking lot to the nuns’ convent — just a house, really. I had never been inside it before. In the “living room” were three short rows of pews facing a small altar, which held a statue of the Virgin Mary looking down at the baby Jesus in her arms. The only illumination was the faint light coming through the heavy damask curtains.
“Now pray for your sins,” Martha commanded.
As I knelt there, the only sin that I could think of was the total, absolute hatred I felt for her, a nun, a bride of Jesus, a holy person. We’d all been warned over and over by the sisters, starting in the first grade, not to carry home tales about what happened at school. When some children told, in hopes that their parents would do something about the abuse, the result was often a whipping at home, too, because they must have done something wrong to upset “the good sisters.”
The lump in my throat and the heaviness in my chest turned into loud sobs.
Sister Martha beamed with pleasure at what she believed were tears of penitence and remorse. She had saved me. I was redeemed.
Joan F. Bowen
I was a city kid, but one summer when I was about ten years old, my family went to Michigan for a camping trip. My dad let me bring his old BB gun along, and I went strolling through the woods with it one morning. From what seemed an impossible distance, I aimed at and actually hit a chipmunk. The thrill lasted about one second before it turned to horror. The BB did not kill the poor creature — at least, not right away — and the chipmunk let out a shriek as it crawled back into the trees.
I live in the forest now, and for years I have made sure that the many chipmunks around our house roam unmolested and get their fair share of the birdseed. I contribute regularly to a dozen or more animal-rights groups and shelters. I write letters to my congresspeople on behalf of threatened species. I rarely eat meat.
But I do not feel any sense of redemption. The memory of that wail, nearly forty years later, still makes my eyes tear and my guts hurt.
I hesitated in the doorway of the examining room before going in. The sight of my patient repulsed me: a grossly overweight woman of about fifty with coarse hair on her chin, a stained, loose-fitting housedress covering her bulk, and hideously swollen legs with skin like tree bark, red and oozing with infection.
“You look like the boy that plays the piano at church,” she said, giving me a toothless grin. I was ashamed at my reluctance to touch her.
Over the next few months, I managed to rid her of the infection, but with her weight, her failing heart, and her weak lungs, it was obvious that she could not care for herself. She refused to leave her apartment for a nursing home, though, clinging fiercely to her last bit of independence. When she could no longer physically make it to my office, I took my medical bag and, feeling very altruistic, made a house call.
Wearing my benevolence proudly, I stepped up to Number 8 and knocked. As the door swung in, I was enveloped by the passionate sound of gospel singing. Around twenty-five people were squeezed shoulder to shoulder in the tiny apartment. Her church, too, it seemed, had decided to make a house call. There, in the middle of the room, sat my patient, smiling. In that moment, I saw her as the beautiful human being that she was — swollen legs and all.
After the singing had finished, she gave me a hug and thanked me for coming. Although I realized the futility of treatment, I wrote her prescriptions and promised to visit again the following week. She died three days later.
When I think of her, I feel the warmth of people able to forgive a friend’s failed body and embrace her spirit.
Just west of Greenwich Village is New York City’s meat-packing district. Every so often, an underground nightclub or retail establishment will take up residence in the area, but for the most part, the meat-packing district at night is a dark and lonely place — one of the loneliest places in the city. If you walk far enough, past Tenth Avenue, you will eventually run into the West Side Highway. And where the desolation of the meat-packing district meets the anonymity of the highway, there is a bleak but steady glimmer of light from the Liberty Motel.
The Liberty is a rent-by-the-hour establishment. (Actually, the rooms are rented for one and a half, three, or six hours.) A man from my office introduced me to the place. He wasn’t my boyfriend, or even a friend, really. He was just a man I worked with and had sex with at the Liberty Motel.
When he was feeling chivalrous, he would meet me at the train station and walk with me through the dark, deserted streets of the meat-packing district to the motel. Sometimes, though, he didn’t bother meeting me at the train. I never told him how I hated to make that walk alone, how it frightened me.
Usually, we’d split the cost of the room fifty-fifty. This wasn’t a courtship, after all, but rather a mutually beneficial arrangement. He insisted that we get a room with an adjoining bathroom, so that I could freshen up afterward. He didn’t do that for just any girl, he said. I was grateful for the special treatment.
My very last visit to the Liberty Motel happened to be on a night when he treated for the room, and this time we got one with mirrors on the ceiling. The mirrors made me self-conscious, but he seemed pleased, so I didn’t say anything. (Things were always easier to bear when he was in a good mood.) I also didn’t complain because the weather was awful that night — freezing-cold February rain — and I had forgotten my umbrella, so I was anxious to get out of my cold, wet clothes.
“Daddy” (as he liked for me to call him) always needed to be in control, and I was passive enough to enjoy lying there and letting him take over. But the ceiling mirrors messed up our routine: I was doing everything I could not to see them, which meant I had to be on top. This didn’t last long: I’ve never been very aggressive, and Daddy preferred to take the dominant role. So, after a few long minutes of uncomfortable fumbling, we settled back into our usual positions, and I just shut my eyes to avoid seeing our images reflected in the ceiling.
I was finally starting to relax into the old routine when it happened. At first I thought that our wet clothes had combined with the heat of the room to produce actual clouds of steam, blanketing the room like a wet fog. But this was more than just steam. There was some kind of presence in the room with us, filling every inch of the air. There was something familiar about it. Then, in my heart, I understood: the presence filling that room was God himself. The Divine had chosen to reveal himself to me there in that motel room.
As I lay naked in bed, staring at the ceiling mirrors I could no longer see, God gathered me up in his arms and pulled me away from the man on top of me, away from the things that were being done to me, until all I could feel was a gentle rocking, like being held securely in the arms of a father who loves you dearly. I felt the unconditional love of God pouring into me, and I heard him whisper in my ear, his voice simultaneously as loud as thunder and as quiet as the patter of a gentle rain. God called me by name and said simply, “Why are you doing this to yourself?”
Those words broke a dam inside of me, and for the first time, I allowed myself to feel the lifetime of loneliness that had sent me seeking companionship here at the Liberty Motel. I felt emptied to the core, and then the unconditional love of God filled me up again and made me whole. That night, I understood the power of redemption.
I don’t remember how long it took for the man to finish, or if he even noticed that I had started to cry, or what I said to him when it was time to leave. I just remember that, when I left that place, I didn’t go home. I wandered aimlessly up and down Tenth Avenue and the West Side Highway, ignoring the cabs and squad cars that slowed and beeped as they passed, urging me to come out of the freezing rain. I walked and walked and let the cold rain soak me, cleanse me. I was no longer afraid to walk those streets. I was walking with God now; what was there to be afraid of?
Hours passed, and I started to see the lights of Times Square. I had somehow meandered all the way back to my apartment: more than forty blocks. When I got home, I opened my Bible at random to Psalm 139. I’m not sure whether I’d ever read it before: “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your Presence? If I go up to the heavens, You are there. If I make my bed in the depths, You are there.”
And I knew it to be true, for I had made my bed in the depths, and God had found me, even there.
Catherine M. Kolwey
Brooklyn, New York
Late 1967, in Tuy Hoa Vietnam, a departing soldier handed me his copy of Bernard Fall’s Vietnam Reader, an anthology of views on Indochina. A few days earlier, a sniper had taken a couple of shots at me while a firefight was going on outside the perimeter wire. For a nineteen-year-old sentry-dog handler recently arrived in Vietnam, that book would become a profound background to the gunfire and panicky walkie-talkie reports and explosions that marked the start of the Tet Offensive.
With time and distance and more reading, the war began to look to me (and still does) like neocolonial meanness tainted with racism. It served very few Americans well, and even fewer Vietnamese. And, contrary to the prevailing myth at the time, it did not enhance democracy anywhere. Afraid of the communist menace, we sabotaged ourselves in the 1956 elections, abandoning our anticolonial heritage and our commitment to defend democracy. I know there were Viet Cong atrocities, but in Phu Yen Province, they rather consistently hit military targets. By the time my year was up in Vietnam, I had started to feel as if my nation and I needed some redemption.
In late October of 1968, home on leave, I sat in a friend’s funky apartment discussing the upcoming elections with his friends and neighbors. It was Richard Nixon versus Eldridge Cleaver versus Hubert Humphrey versus George Wallace. Knowing that I’d just spent a year doing perimeter patrol at a small napalm-delivery base, they asked me how I planned to vote. I was still too young, I told them: old enough to guard tactical nuclear weapons in Ohio or napalm in Vietnam, but not mature enough to pass judgment on Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace-Cleaver.
On the first Tuesday after the first Monday in June of 1972, I voted in the Democratic primary, putting an X next to the name of George McGovern, the ex–bomber pilot turned peace candidate. Some small sense of redemption came with casting that ballot, along with the knowledge that maintaining a healthy democracy would never be a simple matter.
George R. Cartter
On february 18, 1997, I received a memo from the human-resources twit (as I thought of her) saying that I needed to come to her office for a talk. I suspected it had to do with my sexist asshole of a boss, who was completely unable to appreciate the sterling mind he had in his employ.
It turned out that I had used more sick leave than I had earned, because I was often too exhausted to come in to work in the morning. My condition was not helped by the fact that I was drinking a six-pack of beer a night. For a clinically depressed, insomniac woman who was down to ninety-five pounds, this was more than sufficient to knock me out.
The HR twit let me know (in her New Age schoolmarm way) that I had two choices: either sign the Family Medical Leave Act papers and take 120 days of unpaid leave, or . . . She didn’t need to elaborate.
At that point, the guitar string in my head that had been stretched tighter and tighter over the years finally snapped. I had no money saved, no more insurance coverage — having spent a fair amount of time in the area’s more prestigious psychiatric wards — and was sick of begging my parents, my sister, or anyone else within a ten-foot radius for cash. I had spent sixteen years as a professional basket case, and I’d had enough.
I staggered home, put a sports bottle two-thirds full of straight rum into a large tote bag, along with a pillow and a serrated knife, and went to a local park. The idea was to get just drunk enough that I wouldn’t particularly care about opening my veins. I positioned myself in the middle of the park, out of sight of the road, so that passing motorists wouldn’t see me and considerately come to my rescue.
By 6 P.M., it was nice and dark: a cool, dry evening. I could see the moon through the trees. What a lovely night to die, I thought. I pinned a note to the inside of my suit saying, “Instructions for disposal: 1. Donate my organs. 2. Cremate my body. 3. Do not bury me in Oklahoma.” I was ready.
I know next to nothing about God, but I do know that he/she/it has a wicked sense of humor, because, just as I was rolling over to grope inside the tote bag for the knife, I passed out.
I must have lain there for two hours before I came to, found my way home, and called my last remaining friend — a Vietnam vet I’d met in the hospital — to come and pick me up. We stuffed some clothes and my medications into the tote bag (which I hadn’t bothered to empty) and took off.
I spent most of the next morning puking up the rum. Afterward, I got hold of my shrink, who miraculously got my insurance to cover one more stay in the psychiatric ward. Then I remembered I hadn’t taken my pills that morning. I rummaged around in the tote bag, beneath the pillow and the now-empty sports bottle. Growing impatient, I dumped the contents out. About the time I spotted my meds, I got a very strange feeling: the knife was not there anymore. I felt like a blinking, baffled three-year-old who’d just had some dangerous object plucked from her grasp while she was looking the other way. No more knives for you, Missy.
After I’d been released from the psychiatric ward and gone back to work (arriving on time, grudgingly), I’d often pass that park on my way to the subway in the morning. Sometimes I would picture myself lying there, blue-faced, wrists crusted with blood: A poor jogger trips over me and starts shrieking. Her dogs bark and run around in circles. She calls the ambulance on her cellphone, and they come and pull the sheet over my face and drive away amid a crowd of curious onlookers.
I think redemption has something to do with God not giving us what we want, despite our best efforts to obtain it.
In June of 1990, my father finally entered the dying phase of his emphysema. We’d gone through many “emergencies,” but this was different. My mother and I had to be present at the nursing home when he said that he didn’t want any feeding tubes, IV fluids, or CPR. He lived for weeks after that, on no food and only what little water he could sip through a straw. Although I’d never liked visiting him in the nursing home, I was starting to feel drawn to his room. I needed to be present for this turn of events.
My father was an intelligent, witty, talented man who turned into a different person when he drank. Even after he’d stopped drinking, he continued to hurt my sisters, my mother, and me. He did it mostly with terrible words, although in the early days they were sometimes punctuated by punches or backed up with the threat of kitchen knives. But, as hard as it sometimes is to explain, I always loved him.
So here I was, all grown up, sitting in my dad’s hospital room, watching him die. It wasn’t going as fast as we’d hoped. He spent his days struggling for breath with his eyes wide open. I honestly didn’t want him to suffer. Sometimes I considered placing a pillow over his head and holding it there. Instead, I put my face up really close to him and stared at him until he turned his head and saw me and smiled. This didn’t completely erase the fear in his eyes, but it did ease it some.
During this time, it occurred to me that there might be some kind of purpose to this long, slow death. I started to think about atonement, forgiveness, and the opportunity to make up for the harm that we’ve done. Maybe that’s what was happening there in my father’s room. The more I thought about it, the surer I felt. I decided that it took some courage, and maybe even commitment, on his part to go through this process wide awake. So I stayed, to be a witness.
I gave him sips of water from a straw, and every once in a while I cleared the fluid from his mouth with a gloved hand. His deathbed delusions were sometimes humorous and familiar: demanding his eyeglasses to read a nonexistent newspaper, or complaining about someone putting onions on the burgers he saw cooking at the foot of his bed. One night, when it was just the two of us, he started calling, “Help me! I’m drowning!” I sat on his bed and put my arms around him; he patted me on the back and sighed.
The next evening, when it was again just the two of us, his breathing stopped. Before calling the nurses, I sat with him and touched his hand. I wanted him to know how much I appreciated his struggle. “You did a good job, Daddy,” I said.
Syracuse, New York
I always thought that when my mother died, I would die, too — I loved her that much. As far back as I could remember, I had tried to save her, mostly from my father. It was as if my appointed role on earth were to be her protector.
In the last year of her life, she experienced several frightening episodes of shortness of breath and was taken to the emergency room. She was diagnosed with “panic attacks” and sent home on tranquilizers.
When my sister and I visited our mother after these discharges, we found her gasping for breath with dark, frightened eyes and a blanket wrapped around her. She was in obvious need of help, but we felt powerless to help her as long as she remained with our father.
Eventually, my sister and her husband simply kidnapped my mother and took her to a new physician. His diagnosis: lung cancer.
At the hospital, our mother lay in bed struggling to breathe, eyes wide with fear. All my sister and I could do was be together in our vigil. The nurses advised us to wait outside until it was over, and I was only too glad to do so. I sat and chain-smoked in the waiting room and once an hour walked down the long hall to my mother’s bedside to tell her that I loved her.
For all my declarations of love and devotion, in the end, I couldn’t bear to see my mother suffer. I didn’t have the courage to sit at her bedside and watch her die.
I’m now a hospice nurse. I’ve spent eighteen years around dying patients, holding their hands, laughing, crying, and not infrequently being the only person at their bedside when they died. Still, I am unable to silence the voice inside my head that whispers, “Shame on you.”
N. Brown Kowalski
I would have had an easier time growing up had my father been gay, like me. I’m sure it would have been easier for him to raise a heterosexual son, one who’d enjoy playing catch or going to a Packers game. Though I never admitted it to him, I felt bad that I wasn’t the son he wanted. I wore his disappointment like a badge of inadequacy. But I couldn’t talk with him about it, because that would have meant admitting defeat, giving in, submitting.
A product of his time, my father was stubborn (I was flexible to the point of codependency), racist (I was a hippie liberal), hypermasculine (I was a real sissy), and very controlling (OK, we have that in common). Our shared desire to control situations made for many a battle. We both loved having the last word and being right. To develop a sense of my own autonomy, I had to move away and make a life apart from him. We stayed in touch, spoke often, even enjoyed some good times, but that tension never left us.
As my father approached the end of his life, we both softened a bit, acknowledged how alike we were, and expressed our love for each other. I waited until he was close to death to tell him that I thought he’d done a fine job of being my father. He was, in fact, a good provider and very generous in many ways.
As a Jew, I was required to say Kaddish for my father after he died. It was a tradition he’d performed for his parents, and they for theirs. It meant going to synagogue every day for eleven months and reciting the ancient prayer spoken by mourners. The decision was an easy one: I had to do it for him.
Saying Kaddish for my father has been the most consistent spiritual practice of my adult life. I feel grounded by it and affirmed as a Jew. I am grateful to my father for having expected it of me.
The greatest benefit I derived from upholding this tradition was a feeling of redemption. Here was a daunting task — a rigorous commitment that held great import for my father — and I, his never-quite-good-enough son, had done it, and done it well. I believe he knows this and is at last proud of me.
It was near midnight, and 130 of us were traveling together on an Air India flight to Bangkok. Halfway through our two-month tour to study world religions, we were weary and saturated with the rich sights of Israel, Turkey, Italy, and India.
A UCLA professor was one of the instructors on the trip. Handsome, sophisticated, and cool, he mostly hung out with the beautiful winner of the Miss India pageant and the languid and gorgeous Swedish grad student.
Early that morning we had been in boats on the holy river Ganges. Tradition says that those who bathe in the Ganges will avoid rebirth into the world of suffering. Bodies of the dead are wrapped and set afloat on the river, and all the sewers along its banks empty into its waters, which are said to remain miraculously pure. The river looked filthy to me, but this young professor bathed in it fully clothed, dodging the sewage and the corpses. Coming out of the water, his face looked rapturous. After cleaning up, he was quiet for the rest of the day.
The plane’s engines hummed softly. Most of us were dozing or talking quietly when I heard the professor start singing a song I knew. Before long, I joined in on harmony. He stood up, and so did I. Leaning against the seats, we sang our way across the border into Thailand.
I wanted the song to go on forever, and when it was finished, I said, “Maybe we can do that for the talent show next week!”
I wish I could say the professor looked at me wisely and silently, teaching me about being fully present to the moment and then letting it go. He did not. He looked at me as if I were the biggest geek he had ever seen and sat back down.
It was all right, though. I had been washed in the holy river of song and had come up from under the waters into the dark airplane cabin, still humming along with the music in my head.
Spartanburg, South Carolina
When I saw the twenty-dollar bill in the ATM’s cash tray, I thought, Wow, twenty bucks! and placed it in my pocket. Of course, my gain was someone else’s loss, but what could be done about it? Whoever had left it was long gone. I could have taken it to the store’s cashier, but what would she have done with it? Perhaps the person would come back for it. No, the next person to use the machine would simply take the money. It was easier just to pocket the bill myself.
About then someone tapped me on the shoulder, a man I’d seen riding his bike around the neighborhood, always wearing the same baseball cap. I’d heard he had some sort of disability. He pointed to the bank machine and then to his ATM card, motioning as if to ask whether he could go ahead of me in line. I said, “Sure, sure,” and nodded, surmising that he must be hearing-impaired.
As I continued to fill out the deposit envelope, he got my attention again. He was shrugging his shoulders and waving his hands at the screen, as if to say, “What’s this mean?” Was he illiterate, too? I tried to help him navigate the menu options: English or Spanish? Deposit or withdrawal? From savings, checking, or credit card? Amount? He nodded confidently and pointed to the twenty-dollar option.
We waited for the machine to spit out the bill, but nothing happened. We went through the whole process again, and the ATM declared it an “invalid transaction.” At a loss for how to pantomime “invalid transaction,” I stood there for a moment. Then the man got the picture, nodding his head in resignation.
As he walked back to his bike, I remembered the twenty-dollar bill in my pocket. I dropped it into the ATM tray, then summoned the man back to the bank machine. Seeing the money, he pointed in amazement to his ATM card, then to the bill. I shrugged my shoulders and nodded, smiling. He shook my hand, and I walked out the door.
Brian C. Martinson
Saint Paul, Minnesota
My mother is unhappy in her assisted-living apartment. She wants to move back home. This would be a simple matter if not for my sisters, who have decided that our mother is incapable of caring for herself.
At first, the assisted-living arrangement was to be just for the winter. My sisters said she couldn’t live alone in her little house by the lake where the driveway is sometimes buried under a foot of snow and the heat is likely to go off. (She has a wood stove for a backup.) Our mother agreed to move to the home on one condition: if she didn’t like it, she could return to her lake home in the spring. Everyone agreed.
The winter is almost over. My sisters thought our mother would love the home’s lavish care so much she would never want to return to her own house, but they were wrong. Our mother says she misses cooking her own meals. She is not used to such luxury and is reluctant to pay the cost. She resents living with a bunch of “old people,” many of whom use walkers or wheelchairs. Most of all, she misses her little dog, who went to live with a grandchild for the winter.
We try to reason with her. We say we will gladly give up our inheritance to pay for the home. We remind her that winter will come again. If she falls or hurts herself, there will be no one there to help her. Our mother says that she has a right to live where she pleases.
My sisters take a hard line. They write her letters telling her she is being foolish and saying they will not help her “destroy” herself. “Please don’t talk about things that are impossible,” one writes. “You are making us all miserable.”
During my regular Wednesday visit, my mother asks if I remember the promise. I don’t have to ask what promise she is talking about. My sisters have already warned me that if I help my mother move back to her lake home, I will be helping her commit suicide.
My mother is eighty-seven years old and may not live to see another winter. On the other hand, she could rally and live many more years.
I don’t lie to her. “Yes, Mother,” I tell her. “I remember the promise.”
“Then will you help me move if I decide I want to?”
I picture myself straining to lift a heavy couch while my sisters wag their fingers in my face and tell me I am killing my mother. I envision my mother lying unconscious on the floor with no attendant around to take her blood pressure. She is looking at me now, waiting for me to answer.
When I was eight years old, my grandmother often took the train to our house for a visit. While staying with us, she would cry for hours about the treatment she suffered at the hands of her daughters-in-law. I couldn’t understand why somebody didn’t put them in their place, so I decided to do it myself. I went upstairs to my bedroom and wrote a letter to my favorite aunt. Even though I loved Aunt M., because she was always full of fun and laughter, I told her she should stop treating my grandmother so badly, and that if she didn’t, she would burn in hell. Then I tricked my mother into addressing the envelope and walked all the way to the post office by myself so no one else would know what I had done.
The next time my grandma came to visit, she gave me the biggest hug and called me her “little savior,” her “redeemer.” Later, my mother tried to smooth things over with Aunt M., who said, “Don’t tell me you didn’t put her up to writing that letter. You addressed it yourself.” My favorite aunt never spoke to either one of us again, but my grandmother called me her little savior until the day she died.
My mother is still looking at me, waiting for an answer. “Yes,” I say. “I will help you move.”
I grew up listening to my mother’s boastful tales of walking from grocery stores with food tucked under her coat or pushing shopping carts piled high with merchandise out the smoothly sliding doors. She said if you believed something was yours, then it was. She told me that American society owed us these goods, because we were at the bottom of a vast class system created to keep us poor. She took only what we needed, she insisted, while the rich bought and consumed more food, resources, and raw materials than we could imagine.
By the time I turned ten, my mother had moved on to a new belief system that did not condone stealing, but it was too late: I had become a fanatical shoplifter. I took things I thought I needed but could not afford, things I thought I had to have in order to be happy and popular: dark sunglasses, sweatshirts with the names of colleges I would never attend, bright lipsticks, a treasure-chest pin with fake opals spilling out the front. I was brazen and fearless because, in my mother’s stories, no one ever got caught.
Late one afternoon near Christmas, I stood at a glowing department-store counter and fingered the long, flashy earrings on the rotating rack. Carelessly, I caught a pair between my fingers, brought my shopping bag into position, and released them. Only then did I look up to find a stocky, cleanshaven man in a beret staring at me. His lip curled in a sneer as he strode quickly in my direction. I headed for the nearest exit.
He was directly behind me as I stepped out of the store and into the cool twilight. “I saw you,” he hissed at my back. “I saw the whole thing. I’ve been watching you.”
Desperate, I kept walking. I saw a police officer up ahead, with her shiny badge and black gun.
The man stayed close behind me, talking in a rough stage whisper. “This is it, girl. You’re going to juvie. This ain’t no joke. I’m an undercover cop with the Green Berets. I know your bag is full of stolen property.”
I turned and faced him. His eyes quickly skimmed my body, and I shivered inside.
“I’m gonna give you a break,” he said. “I could turn you in right now to that cop, but if you come with me to the parking lot, we’ll work something out.”
I knew I shouldn’t go to the parking lot with him, but I also didn’t want to be turned in. My mother would be upset — she thought I was such a good girl. As the man reached out to take my wrist, I made my decision.
“You didn’t see anything,” I said. “I don’t have anything that isn’t mine. And if you don’t leave me alone, I’m going to tell that cop that you are harassing me.”
And I turned and walked toward a crowd of holiday shoppers. The lights sparkled in the trees, and the Christmas music played scratchily on the outdoor speakers. I blended into the throng of people who possessed both money and morals, vowing I would never steal anything again. I’d been saved.
State College, Pennsylvania
I grew up in a small Illinois farming community during the forties and fifties. Raised a devout Catholic, I knew I was different, but I had never even heard the word homosexual. I thought that God had somehow “slipped up” and placed a male soul inside my female body.
It wasn’t until I graduated from high school and moved to Chicago that I learned other names for people like me, mostly from ugly jokes told at work. These remarks hurt, but they were nothing compared to the discovery that the Church considered me an “abomination.” At the time, I was in the midst of my first love affair and had been thanking God for this marvelous gift!
Perhaps only another Catholic can comprehend the particular spiritual anguish I went through. Every time I’d received Our Lord’s body and blood in Holy Communion, I had been committing sacrilege because I was in a state of “mortal sin” — a sin so deadly that it would land me in hell if not confessed.
I soon confessed this “sin,” explaining to the priest that I had never confessed it before because it had never felt wrong. On the contrary: since God had given me a woman to love, for the first time, everything felt right.
The priest responded, “Well, with an attitude like that, I’m certainly not giving you absolution.” And he didn’t. Nor did a long line of priests to whom I carried my confusion and pain over the months that followed.
After work one evening, I stopped by Saint Peter’s in the Chicago Loop and poured my heart out to yet another priest. I was, of course, prepared for rejection. What he said was so unexpected, I remember it word for word:
“My dear child, we don’t know enough about these things to pass judgment. You needn’t confess this again. I can tell that you are a good person, that you love God, and that you are well-intentioned, or you would not be here talking to me. And I tell you this: You must stop worrying about this thing. This worry will drive you from God. Just go on being the good person you are; pray and stay close to God. He loves you.”
I began crying, and he offered to say my Act of Contrition with me. Then he absolved me. When I rose to leave, he whispered, “Please, pray for me, and remember me at Mass.”
I had forgotten his parting request until now. I don’t remember whether I honored it at the time. But thanks to that priest, I have stayed close to God, and to the Church. I will pray for him now.
On my job, I travel the world setting up healthcare clinics to treat those who need it most. I work long hours for little pay and often put my own life on hold to get just one more clinic open and running.
To outsiders, I probably appear pure in my intentions. When forced to accept praise or gratitude, however, I insist that I need to do this, that I “have no choice.” They smile, commend me on my commitment, and write a check for the cause.
They do not know, nor could they possibly understand, that I truly do not do this because I want to. I would give anything to work a nine-to-five job, wear nice clothes, and drive a good car. I did not intentionally give up these things; they simply were not an option for me.
What sins do I seek to redeem? I have not figured that out yet. My mask of goodness covers an evil that even I do not understand.
I have been sick for more than twenty-five years. Multiple sclerosis and a series of cancers have stolen my energy and even my ability to move without pain. For the first decade or so, I was caught in a self-made cage of anger, denial, and bitterness. I had surgery for colon cancer, then gritted my teeth and went back to work before I had healed. I refused to ask for help. I worked impossibly long hours. When I wasn’t at the office, I snarled at my family, cried, and slept.
Eight years after my first treatment, the colon cancer returned. This time surgery was followed by months of exhausting and nauseating chemotherapy. Two months into those treatments, I found a malignant lump in my breast that landed me back in the hospital for more surgery. While my body was overwhelmed, a relapse of multiple sclerosis hit me hard. I awoke one morning literally unable to move or talk.
That night in the hospital, I began to pray out loud, my voice shaky and slurred. I could say little more than “Help me.”
From the other bed in that dark room, I heard a voice say, “I’m praying with you.” My roommate, though struggling with her own illness, had come to my aid in the only way she could.
I think that was a turning point for me, the time at which I began to heal. The cancer didn’t disappear. (In the next year, I would be diagnosed with yet another ovarian tumor.) And the ms didn’t instantly get better, although in the coming months I began walking and talking again. But my bitterness and anger dissolved into the night.
Skaneateles, New York