Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I lived in Berkeley and worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a nuclear-weapons research lab, where I developed computer war simulations. On Sundays I went with my girlfriend to Quaker meetings, where people sat in each other’s company without the pressure to speak. One Sunday some fellow congregants asked if I wanted to join a protest at Livermore Lab. I told them I had to work that day. No one asked me where.
The first Gulf War started. The military used one of my computer simulations to calculate probabilities of hits and kills. Suddenly the simulations were no longer so abstract. Thousands of people were dying. I wanted to join my girlfriend and others who were protesting the war, but I didn’t feel I could as long as I worked at the lab.
At the lab’s next team meeting, I announced I was leaving. I no longer believed in what we were doing, I said, and wanted to find work I could feel good about. My office door would be open to anyone who wanted to talk to me about my decision.
One by one, the three military officers assigned to my project dropped by. Each said I was doing the right thing.
Palm Desert, California
It was 1968, a year after the Summer of Love, in San Francisco: Drugs were readily available. Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead performed frequently around Golden Gate Park. And I was determined to liberate myself from the uptight, war-mongering values of my parents’ generation. I made a conscious decision to be unfettered by conventional notions of commitment.
Nick was drawn to my free-spiritedness. We shared an interest in getting high and a belief in open relationships. I also admired his entrepreneurial spirit. Dozens of plastic baggies, each containing a precisely measured ounce of pot, were hidden under his bed.
One evening Nick returned home late. The next morning he told me he’d met up with an old girlfriend. When I asked if he’d slept with her, he said yes.
My distress must have shown on my face, because he said, “Guess we never talked about this, did we?”
“What’s to talk about?” I said nonchalantly. “Don’t be bourgeois.”
Nick and I stayed together for years, conducting not-very-secret affairs. It wasn’t until I stopped drinking and doing drugs that we finally split.
Nine years of sobriety later, I went to visit friends on Maui. There I met Mark and went home with him that same night: my first one-night stand in years. After I returned to California, Mark came to visit. When I broached the subject of sexual freedom versus monogamy, he said he was boringly conventional.
“Me, too,” I said.
North San Juan, California
My father was dying at home from a rare type of cancer. My normally calm mother, a former nurse practitioner, was eighty years old and utterly exhausted from years of caring for him. For the past few weeks, she told me, he had been sleeping during the day but wide awake and combative at night.
I began spending nights with them, my mother and I in the double bed, my father in a hospital bed in the same room. His personality and even his way of speaking had changed, and I had to relearn how to communicate with him.
A lifelong devout Catholic, my father was losing his faith and worried that maybe there wasn’t a heaven after all. He was afraid to die. I promised that, as he died, I would stay with him and hold his hand. If he saw that he was going toward something beautiful, I told him, he could let go of my hand. He visibly relaxed. “That’s a beautiful story,” he said.
On his last evening — it happened to be Father’s Day — I sat holding his hand until my mother said, “You’re keeping him here by doing that. He needs to go. Let him go.”
Reluctantly I freed my hand from his.
My father died while I was asleep in a chair across the room.
For years I’ve been haunted by my broken promise to my father. Did I give him permission to leave his earthly life, or did I leave him alone when he needed someone most?
Before I got engaged, I didn’t think I ever wanted to have children, but my fiancé and I talked about it and decided that children would be a part of our lives someday. Then I got pregnant on our honeymoon. We made the difficult decision to have an abortion.
Four years later, we were ready. I got pregnant and miscarried at fifteen weeks. It seemed that I was being taught a lesson. I wondered if I deserved to be a mother.
I got pregnant again a year later. When I made it past fifteen weeks, I felt relieved and started to enjoy the life growing inside of me. Then, at twenty-two weeks, tests indicated the baby had a life threatening spinal-cord disorder and probably wouldn’t live to see his or her second birthday. We had to decide whether to terminate the pregnancy or carry it to full term. We chose to have our child.
Our daughter came into the world on July 12, 2005, with ten fingers, ten toes, and no signs of brain or spinal-cord defects. The doctors had made a mistake. It was the best decision we’ve ever made.
My uncle was an important man in the Texas prison system, and each year he invited my father and me to the annual prisoners’ rodeo. On my first visit I was six, and we ate lunch in the officers’ executive dining room, where a well-scrubbed but underfed inmate served us with all the formality of an English butler. Pinned to the man’s prison uniform was an engraved name tag bearing his sentence and crime. I could read the word life, but the other word was new to me.
“What does m-u-r-d-e-r spell?” I asked my father.
The prison administrators regarded me with amusement. Finally the inmate spoke up. “It spells ‘murder,’ ma’am,” he said, addressing me with military discipline. “I killed another man, and I will be in prison for the rest of my natural life because of it.” Then he slipped back into the genteel manner of a servant and asked, “Would you like a cracker?”
The experience made a deep impression on me. I never forgot what happened to people who broke the law.
Two years later my widowed father got engaged to a pushy, self-indulgent woman, and they were married in a lavish ceremony. My new stepmother would not allow the demands of parenting to cut into her lively social schedule, so she and my father began leaving me overnight with my step-grandparents whenever they had tickets or a reservation.
Their evenings out on the town were nights of terror for me. My stepmother’s father crept into my bedroom and molested me and made frightening threats about what he would do to me if I told.
I didn’t tell, but one night when I was ten I refused to go and stay at my step-grandparents’ house anymore. My stepmother exploded with rage, and we began a shouting match that ended with her perfectly manicured hands around my throat. My father pulled her off me, and she left. I never saw her again.
The next day I made up my mind to tell my father what my step-grandfather had done to me. But before I could gather the courage, my father said, “If I ever find out that someone has hurt you, I’ll kill them.” His eyes told me he meant it.
I went outside and lay on the ground with my dog and reached a firm decision never to tell my father about the abuse. I’d seen prison, and I didn’t want him to end up there. My silence would keep him safe.
It’s been three months since I quit chewing tobacco. I run my tongue across my gums and think about it a hundred times a day: Copenhagen. Chewed it for twenty-five years. Goes perfectly with a cold beer.
On my first trip to my old drinking haunt since quitting, I order a beer and watch sports highlights on TV. Someone taps my shoulder. It’s Barry. He’s always got a can of Copenhagen. When I ask, though, he says, “Nope, man, left it at home. I’m trying to cut back. Worried about the gums, you know?”
“That’s all right,” I say, lying. “Haven’t had any in a couple of months myself.” I drain my can of weak beer and get up to leave.
Outside I climb into my old van and take the back roads home. A convenience store catches my eye, and I remind myself how good I’ve been the past few months. I used to chew so much I didn’t even mind swallowing the juice. Preferred it, actually.
The liquor store comes into view, and I tell myself I need some beer for home. No Copenhagen, just beer. I go in, choose a quart of Pabst, and proceed to the checkout. The guy behind the counter is in his sixties, and his cheek looks pudgy. He’s chewing. And why shouldn’t he be? Hell, this is Wyoming, isn’t it?
“Will that be all?” he asks.
I look at his lip. He doesn’t spit, but swallows the juice.
“I’ll take a can of Copenhagen snuff, please.”
“Chewed this stuff for forty years,” he says. “First thing in the morning till I go to bed at night. Don’t think I’ll ever be able to quit.” His face has no expression. He’s just stating facts. I thank him and leave.
The label says, “Fresh Cope. It satisfies, since 1822.” My thumbnail traces the edge of the lid, breaking the paper seal, and I open the can and hold it under my nose. Finally I take a pinch and savor it, swallowing the loose specks. I don’t think I’ll ever quit either.
I’ve decided not to talk to my son about his future, about the fact that he doesn’t have his college degree, that his job ends soon and he hasn’t a clue what he’ll do next. At twenty-four, Ian is old enough to decide what to do without my help.
When he was in high school, I vowed many times to stop talking to him about missed assignments and low grades, but I always broke down, because I couldn’t stand to watch him waste his talents.
Now his friends have all graduated from college. Soon they’ll get married, buy houses, have children. And he’ll still be living in the same cheap apartment, getting by on low-paying jobs.
Is this so terrible? He’s not on drugs. He barely drinks. He seems to enjoy visiting his father and me and can talk intelligently about many subjects.
I think back to when I was twenty-four. I had just finished graduate school and was drifting. I didn’t know what I wanted. The job I eventually took was far below my abilities and paid much less than I should have earned. What did I want from my mother then?
I wanted her approval. I wanted her to show some delight in me.
So I watch videos with Ian and delight in his knowledge of movies, his encyclopedic memory for actors’ names, and his spirited analysis of the films. I’m groping my way — slowly and with many missteps — from judgment to acceptance.
In my tenth year of incarceration at a Florida maximum-security prison, I took jukai: my Zen Buddhist layman’s vows. The other members of my prison Buddhist group were there, as well as our free-world teacher Doshin and Dai-En, the master who flew down from New York to conduct the ceremony.
Doc, my friend and fellow Buddhist inmate, also took his vows that day. He had helped me start the group just a few years before, when he was fresh out of two years in solitary confinement. He did most of the footwork, research, and negotiating with the Southern Baptist chaplain, who informed us that Buddhism wasn’t even listed as a religion in the Department of Corrections Chaplaincy Manual.
We were told we would need an outside sponsor, so we began writing to Zen groups. Their responses were full of encouragement but no offers to sponsor us. I was ready to give up when Doc quoted an old Zen saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher will arrive.” Sure enough, Doshin answered one of the many letters we sent out. He came to the prison and taught us zazen practice and the Heart Sutra. Another dozen inmates joined our group, and we eventually became recognized by the Department of Corrections.
A month later Doc decided to take his vows. He told me I should take mine too. Though I had been practicing on my own for almost ten years, the compassion and discipline of Buddhism felt beyond me.
“How do you know I’m ready?” I asked. “I still cuss, fight, jerk off, and eat meat, and when I meditate my mind wanders like mad.”
Doc smiled. “Taking your vows formalizes your commitment to your belief. It doesn’t mean you’re a saint or high priest.”
To prepare for jukai, Doc and I had to sew our rakusus — black, robelike garments. Needles were considered weapons in prison, so we had to sew them in front of the chaplain every Sunday afternoon. I was uneasy around the chaplain, but over time he actually warmed up to us “pagan heathens.”
On the day of the ceremony, Doc and I set up the chapel room with sheets and chairs and a makeshift altar with a picture of the Buddha. My mind raced with things that could go wrong. No previous event in my life — not even my sentencing — could compare to this one in importance. When Dai-En was held up at the prison gate (she’d forgotten her photo ID), my anxiety doubled. But the chaplain went and signed for her, and once the ceremony began, my concerns slid off my shoulders like loose silk. There are times in prison when you feel like you are free, and this was one of them.
At the end Dai-En placed Doc’s rakusu over his neck and gave him the dharma name of Dai-Moku, or Great Silence. When she placed my rakusu on me, I became Ei-Ryu, or Eternal Wanderer, a joke of sorts: I couldn’t wander far in prison, but my mind wandered all the time.
St. Petersburg, Florida
Six years of physical and emotional abuse had made me desperate to leave Saul, but many times he had threatened that if I ever left, he’d make sure he got custody of our son, Jonathan. I couldn’t risk leaving Jonathan to bear the full brunt of his father’s rage alone.
Saul was immensely charming, manipulative, and ruthless, and he had all the money, resources, and power in the relationship. We lived in his hometown, thousands of miles from my family.
One night, I realized that if I fell asleep in the same house as Saul, I might never wake up. All night I crept around the apartment, gathering papers and a few belongings. In the morning, while Saul was in the shower, I called a neighbor and asked her to come get Jonathan and me as soon as Saul’s car was gone.
I had told Jonathan that one day we might need to go to a shelter. After his father left that morning, I announced that this was the day. Any doubts I had about whether I was making the right decision were dispelled when my son ran to Alicia’s car, calling back to me, “Come on, Mama. Hurry up. Let’s go. We’re finally going to the shelter!” It was just before Halloween, and he was wearing an alligator costume I’d found for him at a thrift shop. The tail swung jauntily behind him.
The four days we spent in the shelter were, to that point, the best days of his young life. A year later, he still asks when we can go back and visit.
After my eighty-four-year-old father was operated on for pancreatic cancer, the surgeon predicted he’d live no more than two years, perhaps as little as six months.
I visited Dad in Philadelphia after the operation. He had no appetite, but he was eager to go to a Phillies game at the new stadium and to see his two new grandchildren. I stayed a week and listened to his stories. As I prepared to leave, Dad put three twenty-dollar bills in my hand. When I hugged him, his arms remained by his side. Showing emotion was difficult for him.
Later that day, after I’d traveled to Maine for a vacation with my wife and daughter, my father fell on the steps and hit his head. He was rushed to the hospital, where a CAT scan revealed a blood clot in the membrane surrounding his brain.
I drove ten hours back to Philadelphia, arriving exhausted at the hospital. The attending neurosurgeon told my siblings and me that he could operate on my father, but “why would I fix a tire on a car with a bad engine?”
My brother asked what the chances were of permanent damage if we decided to go ahead with the surgery.
“Twenty or 30 percent,” the doctor said, adding that even if my father recovered, he might end up in a wheelchair and have trouble understanding and using language.
We had to choose between saving his life so he could die later from pancreatic cancer or letting him die now from the bleeding in his head. The doctor reminded us that pancreatic cancer was a particularly painful way to go. Death from his head injury would be “like a headache,” he assured us. We had fifteen minutes to make our decision.
My brother Mark did not want my father to be operated on. Our sister Mary, a nurse, was undecided, as was I. Dad’s enthusiasm during my visit was still fresh in my memory. I called our brother Mike, a doctor, and told him our dilemma. He said the operation would be a mistake. I stressed that Dad was a fighter and had never given up on anything in his life. “Yes,” Mike said curtly, “but this is different.”
We took a vote. I knew it had to be unanimous, to keep the family from dividing. Though I felt certain our father would have taken his chances on the surgery, I voted to let him go. I felt like Judas betraying Jesus in the olive garden.
After the doctors removed his breathing tube, Dad grabbed my hand and said, simply, “Home.”
Sick with cowardice, I told him, yes, we would get him home.
He looked agitated, as if he understood that he would never be going home again. He drew me closer. “Pull the plug,” he managed to say.
That was the last time he spoke. Those words were his final gift to me, a way out of the garden.
I was nineteen and Rachel was twenty when we got married. My parents’ relationship had been a nightmare of abuse, religious fanaticism, and alcohol ending in divorce, and I wanted my marriage to be everything theirs wasn’t.
Rachel and I had a big church wedding, bought a house and a car, and kept up appearances, though we were already struggling with drugs and alcohol and still behaved like high-school kids. Our credit-card debts mounted, putting another strain on our relationship.
Then the fighting began. We slept with other people and were so mean to each other that friends stopped coming over. Rachel moved out a few times. She always came back, though. Neither of us could make it on his or her own.
One Saturday morning, following a rare week of peace and sobriety, we decided to go out for breakfast and enjoy our day off together. Rachel smiled as she drove with the top down and the sun shining. Our troubles seemed far away. Then she said, “You know, we’ll have to sell this car and get a four-door when we start having kids!”
I couldn’t reply. I was busy imagining what that would be like.
At breakfast I told her I was leaving. Our marriage had been a disaster, I said, and if we brought a baby into it, the child would only suffer and keep us tied together in our despair. The next morning I left and never went back.
Two weeks later a friend called to tell me that Rachel was in the hospital due to complications from an abortion.
After World War II ended, my father returned home to work in the meat department of our local A&P in northern Kentucky. He had a wife and six children to support. Eventually he bought his own butcher shop across the river in Cincinnati, in a neighborhood full of butcher shops.
My parents worked six days a week to make the business succeed. While they were at the shop, a neighbor cared for my two youngest siblings and me. One day when I was six, I said to my parents, “What’s the use of having parents if you never get to see them?”
Guilt-stricken, they reviewed their accounting records and realized that Wednesday was their slowest day. So they began closing on Wednesdays to spend the day with us. Sometimes we went to the meatpacking plant with Dad to pick out sides of beef. Occasionally we’d pile in the car — the first we ever owned — and just go for a ride, playing “pick a road.”
A few months after my parents started closing on Wednesdays, the other butcher shops began to do the same. I marvel now at the influence that I, a six-year-old, had on the Cincinnati meat market and the lives of so many families.
Patricia A. Bricking
Ed was a carpenter I’d hired to help me remodel my kitchen in the evenings. The work was hot and dirty, and Ed helped himself often to the beer I kept in the refrigerator. No matter how much Ed drank, he never seemed impaired, but went right on toenailing studs and hanging sheetrock. When I expressed concern about his driving home, he said he had Nova Scotia blood and was unaffected by alcohol.
One night, after he left my house, Ed stopped to urinate by the side of the road, and a cop caught him. Ed failed a sobriety test. He told the cop he’d had three beers, even though he had seven bottle caps in his pocket and an open bottle in the car.
Because of prior DUI convictions, Ed faced a year in prison. He asked me to testify on his behalf at his trial. I had no idea how much he’d drunk that night, although I was sure it was more than three beers.
In the months leading up to his court date, Ed was required to stay away from alcohol. One day when I was driving him home, he wanted to stop and buy cranberry juice to flush out his system, because he had to give a urine sample that afternoon. I was mad at Ed for refusing to acknowledge he had a problem and wondered whether I should tell his lawyer the truth about how many beers Ed had drunk, thereby absolving myself from my promise to take the stand. Yet I didn’t want to see a good man go to prison for a year because of a drinking problem.
The day of the trial came, and I showed up planning to say that Ed hadn’t seemed impaired when he’d left my house. Maybe the prosecutor wouldn’t press me on how much Ed had drunk that night.
Luckily Ed’s lawyer had the flu, and the case was continued. I now had three more months to decide what to do.
On the way out of court, Ed stopped to see his probation officer, who told him his urine samples were coming back “diluted.”
In the parking lot, Ed said to me, “What do they expect when a guy drinks as much cranberry juice as I do?” Then he asked if I’d take another day off to testify. I told him he needed to do something about his drinking. He stared into the distance as if he hadn’t heard a word I’d said.
My marriage was in trouble, and I was depressed and suicidal. To spare my family the cleanup, I decided to ride my bicycle into the desert and kill myself there.
By the time I’d pedaled all that way, though, I felt better: the exertion had cleared my head. I started biking more and more. On one ride, I met up with the local amateur cycling team. They invited me to join them on their training rides, and I eventually became a part of the team. We raced all over the state.
That was eleven years ago. The troubles and depression have not disappeared, but they no longer overwhelm me. My children sometimes ride with me now, but I do not take them to that place in the desert.
Back from California for the summer, I placed an ad in the local paper, advertising for a job as a nanny. After a few false starts (most notably a man who asked how I felt about “discipline”), I found Harry.
Harry’s wife had just died, three days after the birth of their first child, and he needed help. I accompanied him to the hospital to pick up his son Steven, who’d been born six weeks premature. For the next month and a half, I would spend almost all of my time with Steven. He’d sleep in an antique cradle next to my narrow twin bed, and when he cried, I’d give him my finger to suck on, or pick him up and lay him on my belly, the way my friend Ruth, a lifelong nanny, had taught me. I’d dance him around the kitchen to a song on the radio and delight in showing him things for the first time: a stream in the woods, a starry night sky. I’d whisper in his ear, “The world is a safe place.”
My first night on the job, though, Steven went to sleep in a little room at the end of the hall, and Harry and I talked. He told me how he’d raged at the doctors when they’d given him the news about his wife, how he was taking life one day at a time, how he still found little stashes of candy that she’d hidden all over the house. We were standing together in the doorway of my new bedroom. Harry was reeling from his incomprehensible loss, and I was twenty-three and too naive to be terrified of the responsibility I was about to undertake. I felt an urge to reach out and put my arms around him.
I let the moment pass.
Nancy Lee S.
© Jenn Reidel
I have lived for seventeen years in a little tribal village in Tanzania. My children have lived here their entire lives. Even though they are Americans, they think of Tanzania as home. I still think of it as a place we are staying for a while.
The life of a child is nearly perfect here: It is always warm, and shoes are rarely worn. Mangoes and avocados grow everywhere. Although most of our neighbors are severely impoverished by Western standards, the kids run freely through the village and play happily with a soccer ball made of tightly rolled plastic bags.
My children don’t want to go to America. The political corruption here in Tanzania hasn’t affected them yet. Nor have the rampant poverty, the crime and violence, the restrictions on individual rights. They don’t know yet that their white skin will set them apart from their village friends as they get older.
I want my children to know what it is to truly belong to a country. I want them to be able to vote and have a voice in society; to understand literature, art, and music; to know how to ice-skate.
I think it is time for us to go.
My mother came to America at twenty-three hoping to find a better life. When I was twenty-three, she told me her story.
My parents fell in love in China in the 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution. They were teenagers, plucked from their “bourgeois” homes and forced to work as peasant farmers as part of Mao Tse-tung’s “reeducation” program.
My father decided to swim to Hong Kong to escape the communist regime. He succeeded on his first try. My mother planned to follow him, but she had never learned to swim. She practiced in the Pearl River whenever she got a chance.
A friend who was going to swim to Hong Kong encouraged my mother to go with her. Mother declined, thinking she needed more practice. The friend went ahead and was killed by a shark.
My mother’s first attempt failed; her second landed her in prison. The third time, she started with a large group, including a man who had fallen in love with her and was trying to woo her away from my father. During the journey to the sea, the group split up, and my mother was left alone with my father’s rival. The suitor proposed to her, promising her a better life together in Hong Kong, but she refused.
When they reached the ocean, they jumped into the pitch-black waves. Ten hours later they came ashore safely on a tiny island off Hong Kong. The suitor again asked my mother to marry him. Her answer was the same.
They were picked up by a gang of entrepreneurs who charged a fee to reunite refugees with their relatives in Hong Kong. Because refugees arrived penniless, the fee was to be paid by the relatives. Until the money was delivered, the entrepreneurs held their clients captive.
The suitor’s father was rich; my mother’s relatives were struggling. When the suitor’s father arrived for his son, my mother begged him to lend her money to buy her freedom, but he denied her. Had she agreed to marry his son, his answer would have been different.
The entrepreneurs, fearing my mother’s relatives might not be able to pay, talked about wealthy American men they knew who were looking for Chinese brides. “A pretty girl like you could get along well,” one of them said.
Eventually my mother’s siblings and my father pooled together enough money to rescue her.
My parents immigrated to the United States when I was three. They worked hard, became middle-class, and sent their children to college. Now they are ten years from retirement and tolerating a largely loveless and unhappy marriage.
I wonder whether my mother regrets her decision.
In my early thirties I worked at the humane society. Each weekday morning at 9:15 we held a meeting during which we decided which animals would be put to death that day.
I’d joined the society hoping to alter the fate of these creatures. Now my house was filled with animals, and I’d tapped all my friends to adopt. The staff had given up the small break room for space to house more animals, and we’d closed off a bathroom for the sick cats, but there weren’t enough places to put them all. Although our efforts saved many lives, inevitably another 9:15 meeting would be upon us, and we’d have to decide once more who lived and who died.
A decade later I am thankful that I no longer have to make those decisions.
Keene, New Hampshire
© Lynne Jaeger Weinstein
I have been married to the same man for twenty-seven years. We’ve made a life and raised children together, but now I want out.
The trouble started when our youngest child left home to go to an expensive college. We’d always promised her that if she worked hard and got into a good school, we would pay her way. Shortly after she started college, however, my husband began having serious business problems and suggested we ask her to transfer to a state school. I was horrified at the prospect. I didn’t even tell her about our financial problems because I knew she would feel guilty.
The financial problems grew worse, and we ended up losing our home of twenty years and my husband’s business. I increased my own work hours to cover our daughter’s tuition. Meanwhile my husband became withdrawn and depressed and complained of constant chest pain. Worried about his health, I begged him to talk to me and told him how lonely I felt. He just fell asleep with his hand wrapped so tightly around the TV remote I couldn’t pry it loose.
So I found ways to occupy myself when I wasn’t at work. I started taking classes, joined a meditation group and a book club, and began writing. It got to the point that I was out almost every night and worked every weekend.
Eventually I enrolled in an MFA program and made new friends. I learned how to laugh again. Men were attracted to me, and I to them. But I stayed faithful. One time a younger man who’d had too much to drink kissed me on the lips. I can still feel that kiss. My husband hasn’t kissed me on the lips for seven years, I thought. Then I realized I no longer wanted him to.
Little by little, my husband recovered, both emotionally and financially. He now acts as if nothing happened. He wants to go out to dinner, go on vacations, shop for new cars, buy furniture, do all the things we used to do.
But my decision is made, though it will be difficult for people to understand. After all, I stayed with him through the difficult years. I still love him and am sorry for what he’s been through. But I dream of coming home to my own little place (without a television), having friends over for dinner, and going out with someone who will tell me I am beautiful and kiss me tenderly on the lips.
It’s August 1965. I am twenty-four years old and have just gotten out of a state mental hospital. I have no home, no husband, no money, and no place to go. And I have just had a baby.
“Miss Waldman,” the nurse in the maternity ward says to me, “why are you breast-feeding your baby? Welfare will be taking him away on Friday.”
I explain what I’ve read about colostrum — how the first three days of breast-feeding gives the baby better immunity for life.
The nurse’s expression softens, and she watches me for a moment. “Listen to me,” she says. “Take your baby out of here. Once you sign the welfare papers, it’s almost impossible to get him back.”
I can’t, I tell her. I don’t know how to diaper a baby and don’t have any clothes for him.
“You’re going to learn how to diaper a baby,” she says. She leads me down the hall to a room full of dolls and diapers and pins. “Pay attention.” Her hands gently take mine and show me how to diaper a doll.
Then she walks me back to the maternity ward and announces to the other new mothers, “Miss Waldman is going to keep her baby. Can each of you donate a piece of clothing from your layettes?” One mother holds up a nightshirt; another a receiving blanket. A third even gives up a blue fleece bunting.
Welfare is coming to take the baby on Friday. On Thursday I find someone to pick me up.
My “baby” is now forty and has given me three grandchildren. That nurse never told me her name, but she helped me make the most important decision of my life.
When my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in her late forties, she called and asked my advice. (I’m a nurse.) I urged her to come to New York City and see the cancer specialist at the hospital where I worked, but my father forbade her to leave their small Georgia town.
My mother came anyway. It was the first time I’d ever seen her stand up to my father. She’d always submitted to his outrageous demands, and never so much as whimpered when he’d struck her.
After surgery and two weeks of recovery, my mother returned to Georgia, weak, tired, and needing radiation and chemotherapy. Her cancer was spreading, and she could no longer fix meals for my young brother or drive him to school, but my father refused to help her. Instead he stayed late at work and was rarely home. I told her to come live with us. Again my father forbade her to leave, and again she defied him.
I picked Mom and my brother Sam up at the airport and wept when I saw them. Mom was in a wheelchair, her wig riding high on her head. She needed help climbing stairs and going to the bathroom.
My father called to say he’d hired a lawyer, because Mom had kidnapped Sam and taken him across state lines. I offered to hire Mom a lawyer of her own, but she was afraid my father would show up and hurt me for aiding her. So Mom took Sam and returned to Georgia, where she died a month later.
In the days leading up to her death, my father threatened to shoot me if I showed up at the hospital. I hid out in the cafeteria and gift shop and slipped into her room when he wasn’t there.
After she died, I decided not to sneak into the service. Instead I sat in my garden and rejoiced in her freedom.
The day I arrive at Maricopa County’s Tent City, one of the most notorious jails in the U.S., the temperature is just over a hundred degrees. The “jail” consists of fifty army-surplus barracks tents, filled to capacity, encircled by a twenty-foot-high chain-link fence with gleaming razor wire on top. The air smells like cooked garbage, and a sign above the entrance reads: “Sheriff Joe’s Con-Tents.”
We are marched inside like cattle. There are inmates of every race, but the Arizona sun has burned them all to shades of brown. The man I am handcuffed to says he used to be a professor at the local university. I tell him I am studying journalism there. Small world.
A short, pudgy deputy unshackles us and barks, “Remove your shoes and socks, and take everything out of your pockets. I am in a bad mood, so don’t fucking piss me off or you’ll be sleeping with the stripes tonight.”
The “stripes” are the hardened killers who are also housed here. They wear black-and-white-striped jumpsuits when they’re out picking up trash by the roadside, but in here they are made to wear pink from head to toe.
I empty my pockets: a roll of quarters, a lighter, my ulcer medication, and my inmate ID card. The deputy smacks the inside of my thighs to spread my stance and pats me down. “What the fuck is this?” he shouts, tapping the Ace bandage on my chest.
“It’s for my ribs,” I say. “I broke three of them last week.”
“Well, I hope you heal fast, because you’re not taking this in here.” He rips it off painfully. He also takes my lighter and ulcer medication, because I don’t have the prescription with me. “Welcome to Tent City. Enjoy your stay.”
It is the first day of my ten-day sentence. Drinking and driving was the worst decision I ever made.
When I told my parents I might travel from California to West Virginia to visit my sister Gwen for the holidays, they enthusiastically endorsed the idea. They were eager to put some distance between me and George, the man I’d been dating for several months. George was divorced and had three children. And he was black.
George and I had worked together for a year and a half and had grown to trust and respect each other before we’d started dating. I loved being with him and had never been happier, but I felt trepidation about being in an interracial relationship. (It was 1961.) I hoped this trip to West Virginia would give me time to think.
Once I arrived at my sister’s home, questions overwhelmed me: What kind of mother would I be to interracial children? Could I contend with the inevitable racism and discrimination? Would my family reject me? I felt deeply hurt by my parents’ reaction to my decision to date a black man. I loved them and wanted them in my life, but I had to anticipate the worst: that they would disown me.
The longer I debated, the more questions I came up with. I was getting nowhere. I was afraid to call George, because I knew I would break into tears if I heard his voice.
As soon as I returned home, I went to see George and fell into his arms. I knew I was making a decision that would change both our lives, and we would have to take it day by day.
We’ve been married forty-three years.
My high-school-senior son seems to have no goals or motivation. I want him to have a satisfying life, and I see higher education as one way for him to find satisfaction. I’ve had trouble striking a balance between pushing him in that direction and letting him find his own way.
In the July 2006 Correspondence, twenty-four-year-old Courtney Rosser responded to Nancy W.’s Readers Write submission [April 2006] about her struggle to accept without judgment her own son’s life decisions. They have given me the only sane answer to my dilemma, which is to encourage my son to figure out what makes him happy and to love and support him unconditionally while he does. He may not turn out as I had hoped or expected, but if he knows that I love him for who he is, it will help him succeed no matter what he becomes.
In his Readers Write piece on “Decisions” [April 2006], Francis D. seems to wonder if he made a mistake when he agreed to have his father’s breathing tube removed.
When Francis’s dad grabbed his hand and said, “Home,” Francis thought he meant his physical home and told him, “Yes, we’ll get you home.” But I understood “home” to mean something different: the final home, the one his dad would go to when he left his worn-out body. His dad then looked agitated, perhaps not, as Francis thought, because he realized he would never leave the hospital, but because his son had misunderstood this important message. To clear up the misunderstanding, his dad said, “Pull the plug.”
To me this father’s final words expressed gratitude and relief that he was being allowed to go “home.”
In your April 2006 issue, Nancy W. writes in Readers Write about her struggle to accept her twenty-four-year-old son’s life decisions, rather than judge him for them.
I am twenty-four years old and have spent the past year traveling and working in New Zealand. I plan to spend at least another year working there and enjoying the country. I have no long-term plans for a career, but I live each day in a way that’s true to myself and my heart, and I am as happy as I can imagine being right now.
My mother has struggled to accept my choices, but rather than question and lecture me, she has been nothing but supportive and loving. Her unwavering support has given me the strength to pursue whatever makes me happy, and for that I am grateful.
Nancy W. is absolutely correct that all a child wants from a mother is approval. If we cannot find it with her, then where will we find it?
Courtney Rosser writes, “Nancy W. is absolutely correct that all a child wants from a mother is approval. If we cannot find it with her, then where will we find it?”
Having been my mother’s black sheep, and having managed to attain adulthood without an ounce of her approval, I believe that all a child wants from a mother is love — which may not always mean approval. A child who grows up wanting approval will likely become an adult who seeks approval in place of love.