Lately I’ve been waking up a lot, usually between three and four in the morning. I wake up, and I think. First I think about my oldest daughter someplace in Africa. Then I imagine a pretty neighborhood here in New Jersey where I hope someday she’ll live.
I think, too, about my other daughter, in college. If it’s a Saturday night, I wonder if she’s out somewhere, and I hope she’s safe. I also hope she will recover from the tragic death of her friend and be a happy college student once more, though I know she probably won’t.
And I think about my son, about how gentle and vulnerable and stubborn and sweet he is. I wonder if he did his homework, and sometimes I cross the hall to check on him. The sight of his lean teenage body all twisted up in his blanket comforts me.
If I get lucky and wake up when the red numbers of the clock glow 2:22, or 3:33, or 4:44, I get to make a wish. I wish for the well-being of all my children. Then I calmly drift back to sleep.
Maplewood, New Jersey
Days after turning thirty-one, I found a lump in my breast. A biopsy led to a lumpectomy, more tests, another biopsy, and a terrible decision that no one should ever have to face. The cancer had been caught early, but it seemed to be in more than one spot, possibly in both breasts. The doctors couldn’t guarantee that a more thorough lumpectomy and radiation would leave me cancer free. In my mind, the choice became whether to save my breasts or my life. I chose my life.
During those months of tests, my eyes were opened to the incredible safety net of family and friends I had. They did their best to remind me that I was not entirely alone. While I was awake, it worked, but when I slept, I experienced nightmares and woke sobbing. In one dream I was being repeatedly shot, unable to move as I took one bullet after another. I awoke more determined than ever not to be a helpless victim.
As the date of my surgery drew closer, I told a friend that I was afraid of falling asleep and waking up without my breasts. Her response was “What if you think of it as falling asleep and waking up without cancer?”
I took my friend’s advice, and I did fall asleep and wake up without cancer. I should feel better, but I admit that I still sometimes cry myself to sleep.
I used to love waking up before dawn, getting that first smoke and first cup of fresh-brewed French roast, and letting my six hounds out to do their business. The dogs could always make me chuckle with their rough play. One after the other would break off from the rest and come to me for a pat on the head.
That was eight years ago. I reckon those dogs are all dead by now.
This morning I woke up from a beautiful dream of forests, summer breezes, and a woman’s touch to find myself in a ten-by-ten-foot cell with the stink of five other men. The prison system has forbidden all tobacco products, and coffee will probably be next. I’m almost fifty years old with ten more years to go. I have no home, no money, no prospects.
Waking up in here takes a piece out of your soul. Sometimes I wonder: why bother getting up at all? But the fact is my heart is still beating, the blood still courses through my veins, and the pressure on my bladder says I either get up or lie here and piss the bed.
Raybrook, New York
It is 1960, and I am certain John F. Kennedy will win the upcoming presidential election. In televised debates against Richard Nixon, Kennedy knows when to smile, his hair is just right, and his eyes are quick and intelligent. He says we have a voice in how our country works and can make it better.
I am eleven and attend a boarding school where nobody recognizes Kennedy as the hero he is. One weekend my mother and stepfather take me to a Kennedy rally, where I get a picture postcard of Kennedy that I keep under my pillow so I can talk to him and give him encouragement. The headmistress tells me that a young Catholic can never become president. I disagree. Miracles can happen. The other girls laugh at me and say I have a crush on him.
On election night I lie awake and listen to the other girls snore. “You can do it, John,” I say into the darkness. Kennedy wants Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Negroes to be equal to whites under the law. When he gets elected, I’m going to ask him if he’ll give Manhattan back to the Indians. I keep my radio close to my ear. At 3 A.M., Kennedy is projected to be the winner. I did it. I can’t contain my excitement. I jump down onto the cold floor and wake up every single girl with the news.
New York, New York
As a child I loved animals. One day, while playing in my yard, I saw several neighborhood children laughing loudly and throwing dirt into a trash barrel in their drive. Curious, I walked over and saw a terrified gray cat cowering in the sooty bottom of the barrel. I wanted to protest, but the kids were older and bigger than I was. I left, relieved that at least it wasn’t my cat, Topsy Turvy, who was black.
At home my father asked me what the kids were doing. I told him, concluding with the good news that it wasn’t Topsy Turvy. He immediately crossed the street, ordered the kids to back away, and lifted the cat out of the barrel.
“How could you do such a cruel thing?” he hollered at them.
One boy answered that they were just having fun. Besides, it was only a stupid stray.
My father hugged the cat to his chest. “It doesn’t matter whose cat it is. You shouldn’t be so cruel.”
My father brought the cat home, and as we cleaned the ashes off, the gray cat became black, and the stray became Topsy Turvy.
We gave her milk, and she took a nap in my arms. While she slept, I awoke from the idea that when I encounter suffering, I should feel relief if it’s not someone I know and love.
Miriam C. Murphy
At the age of eight, I wanted to demonstrate to my parents that I was big enough to cross the street by myself. I looked right and then left — no car in sight — and ran across while they watched. Safe on the other side, I yelled proudly, “I told you I could.”
Before I’d finished the sentence, a bicyclist knocked me unconscious.
Like many traditional Chinese people, my mother and father rarely showed affection. I never saw them hold hands or hug their children. So when I opened my eyes in the hospital and found them hovering over me with attentive, loving smiles, I was confused, but happy.
Years later we immigrated to the U.S. Every time I visited my parents in Washington, D.C., I would give them a long, tight hug. Mom usually giggled and said, “Not again.” Dad would try to push me away, saying, “Enough.”
Their words didn’t fool me. They wore the same expressions I’d seen that day I’d woken up in the hospital.
My parents divorced because of my father’s alcoholism and violent temper. Dad and I had a difficult relationship while I was growing up, but by the time I was old enough to get a job and support myself, we’d come a long way. I told myself he’d been confused and depressed and hadn’t meant the things he’d yelled in his drunken rages.
One afternoon I decided to test him on the subject of abuse. I told him about a co-worker who had an alcoholic boyfriend who hit her sometimes. I wondered aloud why she would stay with a guy like that.
“The girl is probably the source of the guy’s problem,” Dad said.
I was stunned. When I asked him to elaborate, he wouldn’t reply.
Staring at this stubborn old man who wouldn’t meet my eye, I finally saw him clearly. All those times he’d gotten drunk and hit Mom, he had rationalized that it was her fault.
Years later my father and I discussed his violence and reached an unsteady peace. But that afternoon I got my first insight into his real character.
In college I shared a crowded old house with many roommates. I made my bedroom in an attic crawl space — a triangular, three-foot-high tunnel that stretched the length of the house. It was a cozy cocoon where I hid from the world, lulled to sleep by the sound of rain hitting the roof just above my head.
Two months before graduation, I became seriously depressed and suicidal. A couple of years earlier I’d gone through a similar depression and had devised a plan for killing myself: I tricked a doctor into giving me a prescription for twenty-four sleeping pills by lying and telling him I had insomnia. Life got better, though, and I didn’t use the pills. But I didn’t throw them away either.
Now I bought a bottle of vodka, dug out the pills, put my favorite CD on repeat, and began taking the pills two at a time in my tunnel-like room. I remember getting to twelve pills before I lost consciousness.
When I woke up twenty hours later, my first thought was that I was late for work. I tried to get out of bed, but my head was so heavy I could barely lift it. As I waited for my strength to return, I looked for the twelve remaining pills but found only one. Had I taken them in my sleep? Had someone discovered me there and thrown them away to protect me from myself? I never found out.
That afternoon I dragged myself to a photography workshop, then came home and ate dinner with one of my roommates. As we ate, I thought, Start here, with this roommate and this spaghetti. No joy or regret, just an observation of fact: I will live.
Farmington, New Hampshire
It wasn’t until the day before I left home in 1961 that I saw my younger brother Paul as a real person. We’d worked side by side on the farm and attended the same school since we were small, but he’d barely figured into my life. Now nineteen and about to be married to a boy I loved, I was leaving home. Paul came into my bedroom, sat on the bed, and told me he wanted me to be happy. I could tell his words were heartfelt.
I saw my brother as a person from then on, but I still didn’t know him. When our father became ill and was hospitalized, Paul worked on the farm after school until midnight. His grades slipped, and eventually he joined the army, the way so many poor boys in the rural South do when they are searching for a better life.
I had very little contact with Paul in the years that followed. He was stationed with NATO forces in France. In the one letter he sent me, he said he was homesick. After he was discharged, he came by bus to see me. He seemed disoriented and was drinking more than I thought healthy.
Paul returned home, fell in love, got married, and bought a house near the factory where he worked. He was a devoted husband and a good father to his daughter, but his wife left him, leaving behind the daughter. Paul remarried and divorced again, drinking now more than ever.
After a third marriage he got sober, and one Christmas Eve he told me that, when he was a child, he’d secretly suffered from constant fear and anxiety. He’d started drinking to ease the fear. Now, with the help of Jesus Christ, he’d stopped drinking and had gotten treatment for his anxiety. He could talk freely and without shame for the first time in his life. I vowed never to let go of this new relationship with my brother.
Paul and I talk frequently now. I admire his courage and take every opportunity to tell him how much I look up to him. He wants me to join his church because he’s afraid my Unitarian faith won’t be good enough to get me into heaven. I tell him we must agree to disagree about religion, but I am profoundly touched by his concern for me. I wish I had his ability to love.
I was sixteen and sleeping in after a night of drinking with friends. About 11 A.M. I awoke to my father’s loud voice from downstairs. He usually came home between 2 and 6 A.M., banged open doors, turned on lights, and screamed at my mother, who responded in quiet tones. On this particular morning, however, my father was yelling at my older brother Michael, whose response wasn’t so quiet. “Motherfucker!” my brother yelled. I heard my father wailing in rage, followed by the sound of a chair hitting the floor and heavy footsteps running down the hall. I peered downstairs to see my red-faced father running out of the master bedroom with a shotgun in his hands.
“Michael, get out!” my mom pleaded.
Michael did get away, but a few months later he was driving, and his car hit a utility pole at sixty miles per hour. At the time, my mother was at the hospital visiting my grandmother, who was in a coma. That night my grandmother sat bolt upright in bed and said, “Michael? What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here.” Then she lay back down and never again came out of her coma. Michael died in the accident.
I was part of a Lutheran service trip to Bosnia. Each morning our group played with children at an elementary school, and I marveled at the beauty of their young faces. On the walls of the school were signs instructing students on how to identify land mines. The hillsides were covered in graves. While walking around the town we saw a bullet-ridden home where, an interpreter told us, soldiers had evicted a family to use the house as a barracks. When the soldiers moved on, they left a live bomb in the flowerpot for the family to find when they returned. We heard many stories like this. Some people in the group cried. I just felt numb.
One night I was walking down the sidewalk past what was left of the Olympic center when I stepped in a hole and tripped. I bent down to examine the hole and could tell it had been made by a shell. This physical encounter with the effects of war finally awakened me and brought me to my knees on that Sarajevo street. I thought of the Bosnian children we played with each morning and their beautiful faces, which seemed even more beautiful to me now, because they could still smile.
Blairstown, New Jersey
After I got out of prison, I wasn’t sure how I would find work. I worried that when potential employers found out I was a sex offender, they wouldn’t hire me.
I signed on with a day-labor contractor and was sent to work as a dishwasher in a large restaurant. I did a good job, and the restaurant asked that I be sent back. A month later the manager, Big Bill, asked me to work there permanently. A clause in the day-labor contract stipulated that I couldn’t be hired by a company where I’d worked as a day laborer, but Bill said he would figure something out.
Then I dropped the bomb. I told him I was a registered sex offender out on probation, but I was in counseling and wanted to spend the rest of my life as a decent human being.
“I can live with that,” he said.
A month later Bill was promoted, and Valerie became my manager. Bill had been easygoing, but Valerie was all business. Within a month she laid off three people who didn’t like working with her. By law, I had to notify my new manager of my probation status and crimes. I put it off as long as I could. Finally one day I sat down with Valerie and began to tell my story. Before I could finish, she stopped me. “If your probation officer calls, I’ll tell him you told me everything,” she said.
For two weeks Valerie didn’t talk to me. I figured my past would always haunt me, and I prepared to be fired. Then one day Valerie said, “John is out today, so I need you to prep.” She smiled and punched me in the arm. I knew then that things would be all right.
My next manager, Steve, took it all in stride. He knew that I had been there a year and had learned to take care of the kitchen and the serving line. That was enough for him. I worked hard and felt comfortable and safe.
I was laid off a few months later. Now I had to start over, but I felt confident that I could get a job based on my skills and experience.
That was two months ago, and I am still unemployed. I am beginning to think that my previous job was a fluke. I sometimes wonder when I will wake up and realize that my past is inescapable; that I will forever have to rely on luck, fate, and other people’s pity.
I still look for work and try to have faith. I have not yet woken up to the certainty of my failure.
St. Petersburg, Florida
Each morning in our house started much the same way: my father slept in, and my brothers and I tiptoed around like ninjas, fearing we might wake him. My father had sensitive ears, and if we so much as stepped on a creaky floorboard, he would make us pay.
One morning our father woke before us. While we were still in bed, he kicked in the door to our room and bellowed, “Who ate the last Snickers bar?”
He lined my brothers and me up as if we were soldiers and he were a drill sergeant. He even questioned my mother. We all said we hadn’t eaten the candy. I silently wondered if he’d eaten the Snickers himself and then forgotten.
After an hour he concluded that either my older brother or I was guilty, and he told us to pull down our pants while he looked for his belt. I knew I hadn’t taken the candy bar, and I begged my brother to admit if he’d eaten it, but he insisted he hadn’t. We were both whipped.
The first time I spent the night at a friend’s house, I wondered what punishment awaited us the next morning.
“I smell bacon!” my friend hollered when we woke, and he ran downstairs. I wanted to crawl back under the covers and hide, but I mustered the courage to follow him.
In the kitchen his mother was indeed cooking pancakes and bacon. His father poured juice with a smile. “How did you guys sleep last night?” he asked.
“Take a seat at the table,” my friend’s mother said. “Breakfast will be ready in a minute.”
I’d seen that sort of scene only on TV. Even the family dog wagged his tail.
Later I figured my friend’s family had been putting on a show. Nobody is in such a good mood in the morning. When I told my brothers about it, they agreed: those people must have been faking it.
New York, New York
I idolized my father, who could be arrogant and proud, but was also my only source of comfort in childhood. I grew up to be just like Dad in many ways.
He committed suicide when I was thirty years old. At the wake several relatives commented on how alike my father and I were — and how worried they were about me. I returned home still in shock, convinced I was destined to take my own life. I became obsessed with the details: devising ways of getting enough sleeping pills to cause an overdose and deciding when and where to take them.
I stayed at my boyfriend’s house for a few days, while his mother was visiting. A Honduran, she had a quiet assuredness and a comforting demeanor. I was still deep in despair, but never said a word about my dad’s death or my suicidal feelings. One day this woman stood in front of me, put her face within inches of mine, and said in a slow, measured tone, “You are not your father.” Then she turned and walked away.
At that moment I came to.
The seed of awareness those words planted continues to grow twenty-three years later. My life has expanded to include twelve-step programs, psychotherapy, and meditation. I will always carry my father within me, but I will not follow in his footsteps.
Every month Jane cut my hair at a salon down the street. I looked forward to my appointments because she was always so cheerful, so I was surprised one day when I could tell she’d been crying. I asked how she was, and she told me that her husband had become a cocaine addict and had drained their bank accounts. He was now in detox. She had no money, and maybe no marriage, and didn’t know what to do.
I normally tipped her five dollars, but this time I gave her twenty-five, an astonishing act for me, because I was normally very stingy. She smiled widely.
The experience awakened me to the power of generosity. For an extra twenty dollars I’d both helped Jane and given myself a week of happiness — something thousands of dollars of therapy could only occasionally grant me.
Beverly Hills, California
In the sixties I fell in love with and married an urbane, charming, successful young man who truly seemed to love and respect me. Our life looked wonderful from the outside: we had a large house and a beautiful daughter, entertained often and well, and were active in our church. But there was little intimacy between my husband and me. We rarely had sex, and I felt unappreciated as a woman.
My husband didn’t like working for other people and eventually tried to go out on his own. He traveled a lot and spent money we didn’t have, refinancing the house to fund his business venture. I went back to work to help pay the bills, all the while growing more unhappy with our relationship. My unhappiness led to acting out: I began flirting with friends, had a brief affair, and sank deeper into despair. Still, I struggled to hold the relationship together and blamed my husband for not doing more. He remained depressed, moody, and withdrawn. When our daughter entered college, his traveling increased, and I decided our marriage was beyond saving. I left him.
What happened next felt surreal. My husband accused me of being a “home-wrecker” and a “slut.” (He’d found out about the earlier affair.) He refused to speak to me and even locked me out of my own house. After a contentious divorce (a financial disaster for both of us), he moved away.
Fourteen years later, my ex-husband died unexpectedly. He had never remarried. I accompanied my grieving daughter to his home to help with the funeral arrangements. Soon after we’d arrived, my daughter received a phone call from a man who told her that he and her father had been in a twenty-year romantic relationship.
My awakening began at that moment. Twenty years meant that this relationship had begun long before our divorce, during the time my husband had been traveling on “business.” I met with his lover and learned of my ex-husband’s double life as a gay man in a heterosexual marriage. There had been other lovers, including an eight-year relationship with a friend of the family. I hadn’t seen what should have been so obvious: our marriage had been a cover for his secret. When I’d left him, I’d become the object of his subconscious anger and hatred toward himself.
Learning the truth allowed me not only to express my own anger but also to acknowledge that he’d been a wonderful father and had loved me as best he could. It was the repressive culture of the sixties and his traditional religious upbringing that had made him hide his homosexuality. We’d both been unwilling to admit the truth: he’d refused to admit he was gay, and I’d refused for a long time to admit how miserable I was in the marriage. We paid a high price.
My father returned home from World War II an angry man. He was angry at my mother; at her parents, who lived with us; and at me, his five-year-old daughter.
My fussy eating habits became a favorite target for my father’s rage. In letters to him in the South Pacific, my mother had described the difficulty she had getting me to eat. Now my father took up the challenge. Each morning he would order me out of bed and assail me with all my transgressions from the previous day. Then, as my mother slept, he would sit me at the breakfast table, place a bowl of dense, sticky oatmeal in front of me, and tell me not to get up until I’d finished it.
The smell of the oatmeal made me gag, and I often ran to the bathroom to vomit. When I came back, my father would shove me into my chair and order me to eat. I would spoon the cereal into my mouth while crying hysterically, afraid I would throw up again if I swallowed. He would shake me and slap my face and scream at me to swallow the food and keep it down.
When our morning ritual was over, my father and I both went to school. He was the school doctor, who looked after the health and well-being of children for a living.
Even when my mother came into the kitchen, she was unable to protect me. My father would smack her, too, if she didn’t obey him. At one point, she left home for a week to get away from him, and didn’t take me with her. While she was gone, my father forced me to eat a hard-boiled egg, telling me that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t see my mother again.
Today, many soldiers returning from Iraq have problems with anger and violence. They have been damaged by war in much the same way my father was.
During the Vietnam War, I wore a button that said, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”
I am wearing it again.
Brooklyn, New York
When I was four years old I frequently wet the bed. I’d wake up each morning with damp pajamas, surrounded by my stuffed animals. Mom and Dad would be in the kitchen making breakfast, and my brothers would be watching cartoons. I’d lie in my warm, wet bed and try to think of a way to conceal what I’d done.
To keep me from wetting the bed, my father, a college football coach, began waking me in the middle of the night and taking me to the bathroom. Gently he carried me down the hallway to the bathroom, my head resting on his shoulder. In the morning I’d wake to a dry bed.
I came to anticipate my dad’s middle-of-the-night arrival. I’d hear him shuffling across the hallway, and I’d shiver with excitement: Here he comes, just for me. His warm hands would reach down, and I’d wrap my limbs around him and snuggle my head into his neck. There was no substitute for the feeling of being carried by Dad: his smell, his strength. I was happy.
Eventually my father figured out I was awake and waiting for him.
“You up?” he’d ask. “C’mon. Let’s go potty.”
I’d climb out of bed and walk to the bathroom on my own, his guiding hand on my head. After a few nights of this, he explained that when I woke up, I could take myself to the bathroom.
I don’t remember wetting the bed after that, but I remember waking up at night and wishing my dad would appear.
He died when I was eleven.
I still wake up in the middle of the night. Sometimes I just lie there waiting.
The first night my mother spent in my house, I did not sleep. I dreaded what lay ahead. She was ninety-eight, bedridden, and nearly blind, and I had moved her in with me to economize on nursing care. My mother wore diapers around the clock. She hated to be disturbed and sometimes bit her caregivers. Now I would have to wipe and wash her, change her soiled pajamas, and become the object of her resistance and anger at what had been the sweetest part of the day for me: the solitary dawn hours when I drank my first cup of tea, watched the sun rise over the valley, and wrote in my journal.
Twice I got up to check on her, praying she wouldn’t be awake, which would force me to speak. My mother and I were not close. She was rigid and fanatical about her beliefs, unsympathetic to illness or pain. As a child I had concealed the agonies of headaches and menstrual cramps. She never hugged me. When I left for college, we shook hands.
At sunrise I slipped quietly into my mother’s room, not wanting to wake my partner, Nick. As I pulled a clean diaper from the stack, my resentment and revulsion rose. Her soiled diaper held more than urine. What was she doing living so long? Why must I take care of her? She had never taken care of her own mother. How many weeks and years of this lay ahead? Why had I volunteered?
When I looked up, Nick was standing on the other side of the bed, smiling at my mother. “Mrs. Webb,” he said, “time to wake up!” Her eyes opened, and he smoothed her hair with his big hands as though she were a child.
Nick had always helped lift my mother into and out of her wheelchair, but I’d never expected he would join me in caring for her. Yet as I pulled back the blankets, he cradled her in his arms and distracted her with his teasing: “Were you out dancing last night? Did I see you doing the polka?” My mother laughed and ignored me. Nick was saving us both. My mother could pretend she didn’t know her own daughter was changing her diapers, and I didn’t have to deal with an angry old woman.
When the job was done, Nick held her tomato juice while she sipped it through a straw.
My mother lived three months more, the best months she’d had in years. Often I wanted to flee from the diaper changing, the odor, the relentless schedule, but then I would look over at Nick, smiling and accepting on the other side of the bed, and I’d be able to carry on. Each day my gratitude and amazement returned anew. The last words my mother spoke were addressed to him: “I’m so lucky. I’m so lucky.”
At thirteen, I developed an eating disorder that caused my weight to drop to that of an eight-year-old. My ribs, hips, and shoulder blades protruded grotesquely, and my cheeks became hollow and gray. I could wrap my right hand around my upper arm and touch thumb to forefinger. I thought I looked beautiful.
Yet for all the pleasure my emaciated frame gave me when I looked in the mirror, it haunted me at night. In the dark, I knew I was courting death. I laid my hand on my chest and felt my heart’s slow thumping. How much longer would it keep beating? My frail body trembled. I wanted to run to my parents for comfort, but I knew they would only cry too. Even they could not save me. I struggled to keep my eyes open, hoping that if I didn’t fall asleep, I would stay alive. To stay awake, I counted my ribs: “One, two, three . . . Dear God, please don’t let me die. Four, five, six . . . I don’t want to die. I’m only thirteen. Seven, eight, nine . . .”
I awoke to my mother shaking me the next morning. “Oh, you’re awake,” she said with relief. “I didn’t know if you were going to get up.”
Neither did I.
“What’s today’s date?” I heard a woman’s voice say. Then I saw my husband, Michael, standing over me. “You’re OK,” he said, as if he doubted the truth of his own words. Another woman said, “I’m going to put a couple of stitches in your ankle. You won’t feel a thing.”
I started to panic. “What happened?”
“What day is it?” Michael asked. His tone gave the question unusual weight. I wasn’t sure, but I reasoned it out. “I remember the people who came to stay with us for graduation. It must be near the end of May.”
“It’s the middle of July: July 15,” he said.
I started crying then. How could it be July 15? I didn’t even remember July 4!
Michael stroked my hair. “You’ve had an accident. Your memory is a little messed up.”
The accident had occurred that morning: Our son Geoff had bought his first new car, and I’d driven him to the dealership to pick it up. Pulling out of the dealership, I’d been hit head-on as Geoff watched from his new car. He’d yanked me, screaming, from my wrecked vehicle and sat with me for two hours — on the side of the road, in the ambulance, in the emergency room — holding my hand and answering as I’d asked repeatedly, “Why are you here? You live in Vermont.”
I’d forgotten the previous two months. (I still don’t remember them and likely never will.) It astounded me to realize that my memory was what made me conscious of passing time. Without it, I had no experience of my ongoing existence. Beginning to panic again, I grasped at what I could remember. “If it’s July,” I asked, “have they arrested Karl Rove yet?”
Michael laughed and went to get Geoff.
South Deerfield, Massachusetts
When my parents told my sister and me that my father had a tumor and needed brain surgery, we urged them to get a second opinion. They already had gotten a second and a third opinion, they said. When we asked why we hadn’t been told earlier, they told us they hadn’t wanted to ruin our Christmas.
The surgery was a common one, though tricky. The biggest risk was damage to the delicate nerves around the pituitary gland, including the optic nerve. One false move and my father could be blinded, or worse.
The morning of the surgery our family sat in a hospital holding room using humor to cope with the fear, aware that this could be the last time the four of us would be together like this.
“I hope this doctor got a good night’s sleep,” Dad joked. “If I’m a goner, will I even know it?”
“More important, how will we know it?” I said.
“Let’s have a secret password,” Dad suggested. “If I feel normal when I come out of the anesthesia, I’ll say the password.”
“How about ‘firetruck’?” I said.
During the operation the surgeon phoned us in the waiting room to assure us it was going smoothly. Another anxious family got a call, too, but their news was not so good: the same day, the same surgery.
Finally a nurse told us we could go in to see my father, one at a time. I walked slowly down the corridor. No matter what I found at the end, I knew my life was already changed. I would never again complain about my job. I wouldn’t sweat the lack of groceries in the fridge or the piles of laundry on the floor. I would hug my friends and family more often.
Looking through the glass door of Dad’s ICU room, I was horrified to see him staring at the ceiling and talking to himself. I assumed the worst. “He’s talking to himself,” I said to his nurse.
“No, he’s talking to you,” she said. The nurse explained that his head was held in place, and he couldn’t turn it, so he appeared to be speaking to no one. “Go on,” she said.
Because he’d had a breathing tube down his throat during the surgery, my father could barely speak. I leaned down to say hello, and he whispered, “Firetruck, firetruck, firetruck.”
Married for what seemed like forever, I was bored with my husband, my kids, and my job and spent a lot of time fantasizing. A butcher at the local grocery flirted with me, and I invited him over for dinner. Everyone in the family liked him. When he and my husband became friends, the butcher stopped flirting, but I pursued him anyway, pouring my heart out in letters. I told him how cold my husband was, and how alive I’d felt when I’d first seen him, how he was my soul mate. The letters grew longer, and stranger. He never responded. The more I pushed, the more distance he sought.
Two years later, I fell in love with a dancer. She suffered my romantic poetry with good humor, but told me she would never desire me in a sexual way. All I got from her were a few hugs and a chaste kiss on the cheek.
Not only were these affairs of the heart evidence of my disloyalty to my husband, but they took me away from my children. When my kids talked to me, I’d respond automatically, all the while imagining making love on a bloody butcher’s block or dancing with my ballet friend. Sometimes I stayed in these daydreams all day. I slept with my husband at night, but I wasn’t really there.
I don’t know exactly why I woke up. Did I look at my husband and realize how shameful it was to treat him this way? Did I grow too old to keep detailed diaries about my desire for people who shouldn’t matter so much to me? I burned my diaries, ashamed of the person who’d written them, and concentrated on my kids, who were now grown. I’d missed parts of their childhoods, and I vowed to catch up. Now I listen carefully to what they have to say.
I’ve changed in small ways, too. Classical music has replaced rock-and-roll. I no longer find most love stories interesting. The stories I like these days have characters who wake up and change their lives.