I was parking cars for the city of Austin over the December holidays. It was temporary work, simple but tedious. While working there, I met Mario, who was from somewhere in Mexico. He didn’t speak any English, and I’d always been too lazy to learn much Spanish. Mario wore a red wool hat with earflaps and coughed incessantly. When he’d finished a coughing fit, he asked another employee for a cigarette. The guy reluctantly gave him one.
Mario was old. I wondered if he was suffering from emphysema. I assumed he couldn’t afford health insurance. I thought about this as Mario pulled more smoke into his lungs.
One night after work, I noticed Mario attempting to walk home. (He lived about ten miles away.) I thought about offering him a ride, but Mario smelled bad, I was tired, and I dreaded that awkward ten-mile drive in which I’d have to struggle to speak Spanish. I drove off slowly, hoping that somebody else would pick him up. Luckily somebody did.
The next time Mario and I worked together, I was feeling under the weather. The flu was going around. I sat down on a trash can to rest and looked up at the sky, wishing I were anywhere but there in that parking lot.
Mario came over and patted me gently on the back. He extended his hand. In his palm was a vitamin-C lozenge.
“You take,” said Mario.
On my last day of work, I drove Mario home. When I dropped him off at his apartment, he smiled widely and gave me a thumbs up, then disappeared into the dark building.
In September 2001, as America was reeling from the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, my family was dealing with its own drama: my husband had just been diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
Jim had experienced symptoms of his disease for six months before receiving a correct diagnosis. Dr. S. had thought it was irritable-bowel syndrome and put him on a special diet. When Jim’s symptoms didn’t go away, Dr. S. advised him to stick with the diet anyway.
Finally Jim went to another doctor, who immediately ordered blood tests and a colonoscopy. They found cancer, and a CAT scan revealed that it had metastasized to his liver.
Upon hearing this, I experienced a number of feelings, mostly incredible anger at Dr. S. for having let his disease go undiagnosed all those months. Colorectal cancer is one of the most treatable cancers if it is caught in its early stages, but deadly after it has reached the liver. I could not temper my rage.
Jim had surgery that fall, and a few days later the chaplain from his work came to the hospital. The chaplain asked if there was anything we wanted to pray for. I thought that we should ask God to cure Jim’s cancer, but before I could speak, Jim said, “Could we pray that Margie would forgive Dr. S.?”
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Jim knew the anger was hurting me, and he had always placed my well-being over his own.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned from Jim, during the ten short years we were married, was how to live with grace. He demonstrated it not only on that day in September, but every day of his life.
A few years ago I had a dream in which an old high-school classmate named Steve was ushering me into my graduation ceremony. I awoke to a flood of shameful memories. I had bullied and terrorized Steve all through school, mercilessly pouncing on every sign of weakness: his short stature, his figure skating, his effeminate manner.
As an adult, I’d spent years in therapy recalling my own history of abuse at the hands of my brother and father, and now I felt a sense of horror, recalling how I had done the same to Steve. I wanted to make amends somehow.
That Christmas, when I was home for the holidays, I looked up Steve’s number in the phone book and called him.
He was very quiet at first. I thought perhaps he didn’t recognize my name, but now I think he was taken aback. I told him how ashamed I was of the way I had treated him and how sorry I felt. He agreed that I had been a real bastard and told me I had made his life miserable. We spoke for only about fifteen minutes.
The following Christmas Steve sent me a card thanking me for that call and saying how much it had meant to him.
How do such things happen? How is it possible that Steve has forgiven me? How could I have had such a dream?
After being sober for five years, I naively believed that if I led a good life, bad things wouldn’t happen to me. Then, in just one year, my husband’s seventeen-year-old brother was killed in a boating accident, and our first child, Dylan, died just an hour after being born. I decided that whatever power was in charge of the universe was punishing me for my past. Deep down, I believed that I deserved this punishment.
My husband and I tried to have another child right away, but we were unable to conceive. There was no medical reason why we couldn’t. It just wasn’t happening. I spoke to my dead son several times a day. My self-absorption knew no bounds.
One morning, in a moment of clarity, I realized I needed help. I called a Christian counselor who specialized in grief.
I had some reservations about seeking religious counseling. I did not want to hear, one more time, how my son’s death had been God’s will. I explained to the counselor that I was, at best, ambivalent about the existence of God. If I did believe in a higher power, then I hated him. I told her I did not want or need sympathy. I needed someone to push me through this. She bravely took on the assignment.
After a few sessions, she said that an image kept occurring to her in which I stood before God, clutching my son, unable to give Dylan over. She suggested we try a role-playing experiment: she would be God, and I would give my son to her.
I almost laughed. How quickly she’d suggested she play the role of God. What an ego, I thought. But I was paying her a lot of money; perhaps I should at least try the experiment.
It was an alarmingly difficult thing to do, but I did manage to hand over my son to her.
I next saw the counselor three weeks later. On the morning of my appointment, I took a pregnancy test. It was positive. I was convinced that I’d been unable to conceive because I’d been carrying a ghost in my womb.
I now believe that bad things happen to everyone, no matter what kind of life they lead, and the reward of leading a good life is simply that life. I’ve decided that my past is forgivable, but I’m the one who needs to forgive it.
We called her “Fat Betty.” She lived across the hallway from me, and two or three times a week she would come over to “borrow” food.
“I went to five food banks today, and they were all out,” she’d explain. “I’ve been looking for a job, but they’re prejudiced against me.”
I’d usually mumble something about how rough the world is and give her some canned goods or frozen potpies. She would thank me and quickly rush back to her place.
At first I felt concern for Betty. Then I found out she was a chronic liar who often spread rumors, and that the other residents of our building would have nothing to do with her. Now and then she would sit on my couch and cry about how hard life was, and I would pat her shoulder and mutter platitudes. She told me she’d been walking around looking for a job, but later I talked to the landlord, who said she’d been on the front stoop all day.
One day I was sitting on the stoop myself with my neighbors Carol and Alice. We were talking about Betty.
“I just don’t want her coming around me anymore,” I said. “She walks into my place with a dark cloud over her head and an unending appetite.”
“Don’t be soft with her,” Carol said. “You’re gonna have to tell her how things are. She’s a panhandler, and a bad one at that. She could work if she really wanted to.” It was just what I wanted to hear.
Then Alice told me what I needed to hear: “What if that were you?”
St. Petersburg, Florida
I was abandoned on the steps of a police station in South Korea when I was just a year old. I had pneumonia and was severely malnourished. It’s a wonder I managed to survive. In the picture of me that was sent to my adoptive parents, I look like a sad skeleton, my eyes too large for my face.
My adoptive parents have always believed that a strong survival instinct kept me alive. A massage therapist said I must have been held, really held, with love in my first year, and that instilled in me the strength to survive.
Perhaps my birth mother did hold me tight, with love. I’m sure I was breast-fed. (Poor families in Korea can’t afford baby formula.) I probably slept cradled next to her. (They can’t afford cribs, either.) My birth mother must have hoped for a better life for me. At that time, it was not unusual for Korean mothers to abandon children they could no longer feed.
I lived with a Korean foster family for a year. When I came to the United States at the age of two, I was still bowlegged from malnutrition. The condition went away once I began eating a healthy diet. In Korea, my head had been shaved to prevent lice; it was too expensive to wash children’s hair. I was bloated with rice water because my foster family had heard that Americans believed fat babies were healthier.
At first, my adoptive mother tells me, I wouldn’t let anyone get close to me. Once I let my adoptive parents get close, however, I wouldn’t let them out of my sight. Sometimes I would sleep next to my mother, and if she moved too far from me, I would wake up crying hysterically. I had horrible nightmares, and my parents would come in and lie down with me or sing to me. They held me often.
In my teenage years I must have been in six car accidents, all completely my fault. Each time, the vehicles were damaged, yet no one on either side was badly hurt. I have never broken a bone or needed stitches in my entire life. I rarely get sick. I have no physical scars, except some faint lines around my mouth where my lips cracked from lack of nourishment when I was an infant.
Why have I been given this gift of life, not just once, but over and over again?
Overland Park, Kansas
I once took care of an eighty-seven-year-old woman named Helen. Helen’s dementia was so bad that she would interrupt herself in order to repeat herself more quickly.
Every day, there were several things she could be counted on to say (and say, and say). One in particular got on my nerves.
“Did you ever hear what happened to Gertie Stern?” she would ask.
Gertie Stern had lived next door to Helen for many years.
“Yes,” I would answer, “I heard she moved to the North End.”
“I wonder why she moved to the North End,” Helen would say.
“Well, I heard that she wanted to be closer to her son,” I’d answer.
Helen would think about that for two seconds, then ask, “Say, did you ever hear what happened to Gertie Stern?”
One afternoon, while spreading mayonnaise on a slice of bread, I heard Helen call from the living room, “Did you ever find out what happened to Gertie Stern?”
My fingers curled tight around the knife, and I had an urge to plunge it into the loaf of bread.
“Who’s Gertie Stern?” I said.
“You know,” Helen answered. “She’s the one who moved to the North End.”
My grip on the knife relaxed. “Oh,” I said. “I wonder why she moved to the North End.”
“Well,” said Helen, coming more alive, “I heard that she wanted to be nearer to her son.”
This new dialogue went on for a few days. Then one afternoon I said to Helen, “Say, did you ever hear what happened to Gertie Stern?”
“Well, I heard that she moved to the North End,” said Helen.
“That’s not what I heard,” I said. “I heard that she dyed her hair purple!”
“I wonder why she dyed her hair purple,” Helen said.
“I heard she wanted her hair to match her new couch,” I said.
Helen thought for a second, then said, “Did you ever hear what happened to Gertie Stern?”
“Yes,” I said. “I heard that she dyed her hair red.”
“I wonder why she dyed her hair red,” Helen said.
“Well, I heard she wanted her hair to match her grandson’s.”
“Nah,” said Helen, shaking her head and frowning at me. “Her hair’s not red. She dyed her hair purple to match her new couch!”
In that job, this was my one moment of grace.
When my mother held my son Gil for the first time, she said, “He has chen.” The first letter of the Hebrew word is pronounced as if clearing one’s throat. I asked my mother what it meant. “Charm,” she said. “Well, not exactly. It’s more like . . . grace. Yes, grace.”
I remember thinking, What a lovely meaning for such an unlovely-sounding word.
Gil grew up, fell in love, and got married. Then, when his daughter was six months old, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He decided to receive an experimental chemotherapy treatment. My husband and I came to be with him, moving in with our other son, who lived just a few blocks away.
While Gil was receiving treatment, we clung together as a family, struggling to maintain hope and go about the daily business of life. We began to have Sabbath dinners together every Friday night. Our family had never been particularly religious, but the ritual of lighting the candles and blessing the bread and wine brought us comfort.
Did Gil handle his cancer with grace? Not always. He fought with his brother and me. (He had to be angry at someone or something.) As time went on, he withdrew from parenting, unable to muster the energy to pick his daughter up. He stopped eating. He could no longer make it upstairs to the bedroom and so slept on the couch.
When, after seven months, a CAT scan confirmed that the cancer had spread to Gil’s bones, he decided to halt the chemo treatments. By the next day, a Wednesday, he was drifting in and out of consciousness. On Thursday, my older son, who’s a doctor and had not left his brother’s side for twenty-four hours, said that Gil would probably not make it through another day. On Friday, however, Gil woke up and asked about Sabbath dinner. He insisted that his wife help him off the couch.
When we arrived at Gil’s house with our baskets of food, his wife had set the table with flowers, candles, bread, and wine. Gil sat waiting for us. We said the blessings, and Gil’s wife read from the Song of Songs, the biblical verse that speaks of undying love. After that, the talk grew increasingly irreverent and earthy. At evening’s end, Gil told his favorite off-color joke, a long shaggy-dog tale. When we got up to leave, I kissed him goodbye. He put his arm around my waist and said, “Shabbat shalom. See you tomorrow.”
We did not see him alive again. He died quietly in his sleep that night, having given all of us the gift of one last Sabbath dinner together.
It’s a Sunday morning, and I’m kneeling in the Church of the North American Martyrs, where I’ve come to mass for twenty years. Always the same old prayers, same old pew, same old church, same old me. Next to me are my wife and two of my three daughters. The other one is serving at the altar this morning.
From the outside I probably appear to be in a state of deep prayer. And maybe I am. I’m praying for my parents, who are steadily approaching the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. I’m praying desperately for money, which I can never seem to make enough of. I’m praying for my daughters, who are growing older and farther from me. I’m praying for my wife, who’s never gotten what she truly deserves.
Praying seems fruitless and shallow some Sundays, but I do it anyway, hoping that it will make my life a little easier. I’m told the crosses I must bear are there for reasons I cannot comprehend. And so I pray to Mary for understanding.
I think often of a recent incident in Colchester, Connecticut, where a propane leak ignited and blew a church to pieces. Nothing was left save a statue of the Virgin Mary, standing virtually untouched. I sometimes see the wreckage of my own life strewn about me — the shattered minds of my sick parents, the broken promises, the missed soccer games, the unspoken I-love-yous — and I pray for the wisdom and grace to stand like that statue of Mary, steadfast amid my own ruins.
When you are five years old, your heathen, vegetarian mother marries the local Catholic priest and drags you into a world of meat-eating, wine-drinking Jesus fanatics.
On the first day of their marriage, your new stepfather gets excommunicated, but many of his parishioners have long since had it with the pope and the archbishop and happily abandon the Church to go with him. So your new father is many other people’s “father,” too. You decide you can share. A new father who’s many other people’s father is better than no new father at all.
These newly independent Catholics are just as charitable and guilt-ridden as any Catholics in good standing, and they all know you’re poor, so you get boxes of oranges and strange plastic toys and hand-me-down dresses, and even old cars. The orthodontist down the street sees your new father for marital counseling, and pretty soon your mouth is all wired up with hardware you don’t need. The concert cellist across town has confessed some heinous sin in your living room, so now you’ve got cello lessons, and you screech away on that giant instrument, trying to smile with your mouth full of metal.
When your jaw doesn’t ache too much from the fillings and the neck gear and the head gear and the braces (all applied to baby teeth), there are the dinners. You’ve heard your parents talk about being poor, but you must not be as poor as you were when it was just you and your mom on welfare, because now there are scads of food everywhere. (Is Jesus bringing it in the middle of the night like some fairy-tale elf?) You have a full table for dinner every evening. Not only that, but you get invited all over town to eat other people’s food.
At one such dinner, you look down at an unchipped plate piled with mashed potatoes and the first slice of ham you have ever seen. It smells much better than marinated tofu. Your mouth waters, and you grab your fork. But suddenly your host says, “Wait! Father should say grace.”
Though your new father would never admit it, you don’t say grace at home, and from the looks on the faces of your host’s kids, you know this family never says grace before they dig in, either. But now everyone joins hands, and you have to set down your fork and join hands too. Even though you’re so hungry you think you’re going to pass out, you close your eyes and thank God or Jesus or some Saint of Ham for this strange slab of food on your plate that smells like heaven, and you pray for this whole grace thing to be over so you can have a bite.
I’ve been a lawyer for more than twenty years, most recently a criminal-defense attorney representing clients charged with misdemeanors such as trespassing, destruction of property, and domestic violence. Substance abuse — usually alcohol — is a major factor in most of these crimes.
I took this job in part to make amends for how I treated my late husband, the father of my three teenagers, who died of alcoholism. Not knowing much about the disease back when he was in the thick of it, I heaped a lot of abuse on him for not quitting. Had I known then what I know now, I think I would have been kinder to him. And if I’d been kinder, maybe he would have gone to more AA meetings and stayed sober. He’s been dead almost five years, and I continue to think, What if?
Whether I have a good or bad day at work depends in great part on how I start the morning. If I pray upon awakening and remain prayerful throughout the day, I see a part of me in each client. I offer them treatment information and calmly explain the impact of alcohol on human behavior. I operate in a mild state of grace.
Many times, however, I’m up and out the door without even a quick nod to prayer. Those workdays are filled with rude office colleagues, prosecutors who won’t negotiate, and inmates complaining about the deal I got them. On those days, I remember how miserable it felt to be married to an alcoholic and how my husband could have gotten sober if he’d really loved me.
“You lazy good-for-nothing!” you yelled, index finger pointing accusingly at me. You appeared to grow taller, a scowling giant.
“I don’t ask you to do very much!” you continued. “Saturdays are our housecleaning day, and you do nothing, nothing at all!”
And with that, you whirled around and marched out of my room, slamming the door behind you. My eyes filled with tears as I thought of all the nasty words I wanted to fling back at you.
I put down the Nancy Drew book I was reading and looked around me: unmade bed, crumpled skirt in the corner, bluejeans dropped in the middle of the floor, navy turtleneck trying to make its escape from a half-open drawer.
As I crept down the carpeted steps, I saw my older sister dutifully dusting the end tables and singing softly to herself. I peeked around the corner and glimpsed you pushing a tattered mop across the red-and-white kitchen floor. You sighed deeply and shoved the stick with unnecessary force, back and forth, back and forth. Holding my breath, I tiptoed out the front door and fled to the neighbors’ house, where Saturday-morning cartoons would help me forget.
You are tiny now, you who seemed so big half a century ago. When I wrap my arms around your frail body to give you a gentle hug, I fear I will break you.
It is my turn to have you live with me for six weeks. I hear the slow shuffle of your feet down the hallway as you emerge from your afternoon nap. I am on all fours, scrubbing the floor, as you enter the kitchen, your fine strawberry hair matted against your head, gray roots betraying your eighty-eight years. You seem lost.
“Good morning,” you say. “I’m ready for my lemon water and toast.” Your voice is so soft now that I strain to hear you.
“It will be dinnertime soon, Mom,” I explain. “I’m cooking your favorite dish.”
You chuckle as if I have told a good joke. “No, it’s morning,” you insist, and you place a wedge of lemon in a cup of water, put the cup in the microwave, and wait.
“Press two-zero-zero,” I say.
Next you put the seeded bread in the toaster oven and stand waiting for the click. Carefully balancing your plate and cup, you make your way to the kitchen table.
“Why are you washing the floor?” you ask. “It’s clean.”
As the summer sun sets, you rise and reach for the wicker garden basket that waits by the door. Your last venture into the garden left you with a bloodstained bandage on your shin, your skin so thin now that scabs cannot form. But you are ready to go out again. You bend over in slow motion, still flexible from years of yoga, pick up the basket, and shuffle out the door to the garden.
I stand at the kitchen window and watch you the way I once watched my toddler sons at play. You move along the winding path, stopping here and there to select a flower for your next bouquet. With much deliberation, you pick one, place it in the basket, and move on to the next plant.
“One of each kind,” you tell me when you return, your basket overflowing with color. “Your garden is a miracle.”
I am an oncology social worker in a hospital setting. Cancer patients are usually too sleepy for morning visits, but if I don’t see Will this morning, I might not have another opportunity. Aggressive chemotherapy and radiation have not prevented his colon cancer from traveling to his bones and brain. He will probably be sent home this weekend with hospice services.
Will is fifty-three, a forester who managed woodlots in the Pioneer Valley until he got sick last year. A long time ago I was briefly a member of his Quaker community. I remember him as tall, silent, a little remote, not unlike a tree. The joke then was that Will had never had a longtime human companion, only canines.
So I was surprised at first that a woman named Ellen was always in Will’s room. They’d met shortly before his diagnosis. Within a few weeks, she had become his primary caregiver and live-in partner. They are talking of getting married.
You might expect, under the circumstances, that Ellen and Will would have a major quarrel with cancer, but neither of them does. They are simply grateful to have found one another. They say they owe their relationship to the disease: the dependence it engendered in Will, the compassion it awakened in Ellen.
This morning, as I enter Will’s hospital room, the lights are dim and the curtain is drawn around the bed. For a moment I think I might be too late. Then I look behind the curtain and see Will asleep in the recliner, wearing his blue hospital pajamas. Ellen, in her street clothes, is asleep in the hospital bed. They have pushed the bed and the recliner together, and they are holding hands. They look happy in spite of all they have been through, and in spite of all that is coming.
Kathleen M. Kelley
As a child I attended grammar school in a small Nevada town. A girl named Lisa and I were the top students, though we were opposites in every way. I was tall; she was short. I was painfully shy; she was outgoing and confident. I felt quite intimidated by her. We were locked in silent competition with each other throughout our school years, and it engendered in me long-lasting feelings of inferiority. Even as an adult, I often thought of Lisa and wondered where life had taken her.
One day, when I was sixty years old, I was on a crowded plane to Reno, and a diminutive, matronly woman sat next to me. About ten minutes into the flight, we struck up a polite conversation. When she learned the name of the town where I’d grown up, she suddenly asked if my name was Sharon Riley. She seemed startled by her own question. I told her that Riley was my maiden name, and she replied, “I’m Lisa.”
She said she still lived in the same small town. She had worked for a government agency all her life and was now comfortably retired. She’d married soon after high school and had one child, a daughter. Her life had taken a turn years later when her husband was killed in a private-plane crash, and her teenage daughter died in an automobile accident shortly thereafter.
I expressed my sympathy and told her she seemed serene to have suffered such heartbreak. She replied that she had much to be grateful for and was truly at peace with the world. Then she asked about my life.
I told her I’d left home at eighteen to move to California, and hadn’t married until I was twenty-six. I’d had one child and gotten divorced after only five years. After that, I had continued to search for my niche in life. In fact, I was still searching.
Lisa said it sounded as if I’d had the opportunity to meet many different kinds of people and to learn much about the world.
Her generous comment later caused me to go back and reevaluate my own life, which I had always assessed as a failure. I now saw my colorful experiences as something to cherish.
Was it grace that brought us together? I don’t know, but I departed that airplane feeling as if I’d been given a gift.
When my daughter Francesca was little, I’d listen to other parents grouse about their rebellious teens and think that my little girl would never give me that kind of trouble. She was so bright and loving. If I worried at all, it was that she and I were too close. She seemed to prefer my company to that of her peers.
I rationalized that our closeness made sense. After all, wasn’t it the comfort of nursing her that eased me through my grief over her father’s death soon after she was born? In the warmth of her body, I found the strength to face the days that lay ahead.
I subsequently married a deceptively soft-spoken man. We had a stormy marriage, and it took me ten years to leave him. Francesca was entering middle school during the divorce and wept daily. She was worried about me, she said. I had little patience with her tears: I was working full time, caring for an elderly mother, and trying to get my college degree. When her crying finally stopped, my spirits lifted.
Then Francesca tried to kill herself, and I could no longer deny how much she was hurting. She spent time in hospitals and psychiatric units. Even after she returned home, her behavior was unpredictable. I never knew what I’d get from her when I came in the door: little-girl tears, icy indifference, blistering rage. Francesca ran away from home so often that the police were on a first-name basis with us.
My daughter moved out for good when she was seventeen. From then on I saw her sporadically. She’d call or visit only when her life was going well. When I didn’t hear from her, I knew times were bad.
On September 11, 2001, moved by the tragedy in New York, Francesca drove five hours to be with me. We reached out for one another, offering love, forgiveness, and hope for the future.
One week later, my daughter was shot and killed. She was twenty-four years old. I am grateful for that final visit.
Beryl Singleton Bissell
Close to midnight my doorbell rings. Who would be coming by so late? Has there been an emergency?
I open the door. A tall young man I’ve never seen before stands in front of me, wearing jeans and a white sweater. In the light of the street lamp, I make out a head full of dark curls and warm brown eyes. In his fidgeting hands is a plastic shopping bag.
“Is this your car?” he asks, pointing to my Honda Civic.
“Yes. Is something wrong?”
“No, but I saw the sign of the fish on the back. Are you a Christian?”
I bought the car used, I explain; the sign was already on it. “But I’m a spiritual person,” I add.
After a moment’s hesitation, he asks, “Would you pray for me? I am going through hard times right now.”
My heart goes out to him. Haven’t I been in tough situations before? “Yes, I will,” I say, as if this were an ordinary request.
“Would you also give me a hug?”
“Sure,” I respond, again as if there were nothing unusual. I extend my arms, and we hold each other in a firm embrace. His breathing is irregular. I hug him for what seems a long time. Then I say, to my own surprise: “There is light at the other end of the tunnel. You’ll be fine.”
Such a platitude, I think. But that’s what arose from somewhere inside of me. I touch his hair and stroke his back, as a mother might. Then we release each other.
“My name is Don,” he says. “What’s yours?”
“Thank you, Sigrid. Good night,” he says.
“Good night. Be well.”
He walks away, down the street.
I return to my living room, determined to pray for him as I promised, even though it is late. My eyes closed, I visualize his face and concentrate on wishing him well.
What trust he had, daring to knock on a stranger’s door at midnight, assuming it would be a Christian, and a kind one, who answered. What faith, that a stranger’s prayer could make a difference. Could I have done such a thing? No, never!
Wait. That’s not true. Late one icy night in an Alpine mountain village, my son and I had a terrible argument, and he locked me out. All the hotels were full, and my car wasn’t running. I knocked on doors until, around midnight, a woman took me in, gave me a bed, and shared her grief about her daughter’s death.
An expansive sensation wells up in me, and I see that this young man gave me something in return for my prayer and hug: the gifts of his vulnerability and openness, and a model of courage and faith.
Santa Cruz, California
Looking for an objective evaluation of my drinking, I made an appointment with a counselor at the local hospital. I filled out a questionnaire and waited while the counselor tabulated the results. When she called me into her office, she told me that I was an alcoholic and that my only hope for recovery was never having another drink. I went home feeling scared and alone.
My husband came home from work that day and, as usual, poured himself his first brandy manhattan. Normally, I would have drunk with him, but this time I refrained.
Shortly thereafter, my daughter and her two little girls dropped by, and my daughter got a beer out of the refrigerator. My loneliness deepened.
“Grandma, could you play a game with us?” my five-year-old granddaughter said.
I went to the cabinet and took out a simple game that she and her younger sister were able to play.
“Can I go first?” the little one said.
As we played, I had a strange sensation, as if I were floating above the table, looking down at myself and my grandchildren. I knew then that these two little girls had been sent by God to help me through a dark and dangerous moment.
I went to bed that night with the first day of my new sober life behind me.
When my grandmother died, the extended family dutifully assembled in Chicago for her funeral, but we were none too happy about it. Sure, we’d loved her, but we did not relish the thought of listening to a rabbi heap praise on this woman who had been, to put it kindly, hard to get along with.
The rabbi, it turned out, did not intend to mince words. He did not sugarcoat Grandma’s critical and domineering nature, her tendency to complain, her parsimony, or her constant battles with my grandfather — including the time they came close to divorce after forty-nine years of marriage. Whenever we’d called her, her first words had invariably been a complaint about how rarely we called. In her seventies, she’d walked four extra blocks in a snowstorm to save a few pennies on toilet paper.
But the rabbi gave these familiar stories a twist. Her criticism, he said, showed how much she loved us and wanted us to do better. Grandma’s stinginess was her attempt to make sure we never had to want for money the way she had, raising a family during the Great Depression. By eulogy’s end, the rabbi had us laughing at Grandma’s foibles, crying because we truly missed her, and guiltily wondering how we had failed to see the love and devotion at the core of this difficult woman.
When the service was over, the grandchildren converged on the rabbi to thank him for evoking Grandma’s memory so vividly and to ask how long he’d known her.
“Oh, I never met your grandmother,” he replied. “I just talked to your mom and your uncle and a couple of her friends. Do you think I did a good job of describing her?”
John Unger Zussman
Portola Valley, California
Last spring, after working full time for nearly two decades, I lost my job abruptly. Unfair accusations were made against me. The strain affected me physically. My stomach hurt, my breathing was tight, and I had trouble sleeping. I’d be awakened by nightmares about monsters; then I’d lie there and worry.
Gradually I began to sleep more deeply, until I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning and was napping in the middle of the day. I spent several months reviewing every aspect of my case with an attorney before finally deciding against pursuing a lawsuit. I was furious with myself. I was devastated. I was lost.
It’s been five months since my last day at work. I recently landed a very part-time job, but today I am not scheduled to go anywhere. After my husband and son leave for the day, I take a long, hot bath, get dressed, and go for a walk in the blue-golden September morning. I take off my glasses and strip down to my tank top to let the sun soak into my face and shoulders.
Returning home, I fry eggs and leftover mashed potatoes for my breakfast. Standing at the stove, watching the egg whites slowly becoming opaque, I realize that I’ve been thinking about nothing. On this iridescent autumn morning, in my quiet kitchen, my mind has become empty. I’m aware only of the gentle bubbling of breakfast in the pan and, outside the window, the changing patterns of sunlight on leaves.
Yellow Springs, Ohio