I once blocked a federal-court doorway to protest the war in Iraq. For my act of civil disobedience, I spent a week in Philadelphia’s federal prison. Afterward I brought the newspaper clippings about my arrest to a family reunion in a Tennessee state park and hung them conspicuously on a wall in the main cabin, anticipating that some of my relatives would disapprove.
Instead everyone threw me a surprise party and presented me with a gift: a large metal file, so I could saw my way out the next time. Those who disagreed with me were as gracious as the rest, and all honored me for standing up for what I believed in. I was both moved and chagrined: I wouldn’t have given them such a warm reception had they been arrested for blocking the door to an abortion clinic.
Back home I attended a morning demonstration to welcome another war protester as she left prison. By noon she still hadn’t been released, and a policeman, who seemed tired of watching us and ready to go to lunch, asked me how much longer we would be. We struck up a conversation. He said he’d voted for Bush and supported the war, but also felt that we needed a third, less-corrupt political party. He believed unborn babies were the true innocents. The memory of my gracious relatives still fresh, I listened and kept my peace.
Later, when the protester was let out of prison and we were leaving, the policeman and I shook hands.
Janeal Turnbull Ravndal
Yellow Springs, Ohio
When my son’s friend Josh came to our door after school one day, I almost turned him away. Though only eleven, Josh made me nervous. His family had recently moved into a rented house near our upper-middle-class neighborhood. His parents drove an old car, and both worked during the day and were often gone in the evening. Josh had shoulder-length hair with dyed highlights and wore jeans that hung down low on his butt. I’d heard he had a “girlfriend,” and that they were more serious than sixth-graders should be. I complained to my husband that Josh was encouraging our son Ethan to push the limits of our rules: to ride his bike farther and to stay out later. Ethan thought Josh was cool.
Josh reminded me of many kids I’d known growing up. I, too, had parents who were gone a lot. My older brother and I were used to coming home to an empty house, making a sandwich for dinner, and watching TV or hanging out with friends. After our dad died, our mom worked evenings as a nurse, and my sixteen-year-old brother and his friends filled our house with empty beer cans and drug paraphernalia — which we’d clean up minutes before our mom got home at eleven.
Although I enjoyed the company of my brother’s friends and had crushes on a few of them, I also saw the sadness in their lives. One by one they dropped out of school, or got a girl pregnant, or were sent to jail. I spent more and more time with my own friends, who invited me into their warm, comfortable homes whenever I showed up. I ate supper and did homework there. Their parents always made me feel welcome.
So when Josh knocked on the door that afternoon, I let him come in for a snack while Ethan finished his homework. I asked Josh about school, his family, and what he wanted to do when he grew up. He answered eagerly and seemed happy for the attention.
The next night I invited him to stay for supper. By the middle of the meal, it was obvious Josh hadn’t had many family dinners: he picked up rice with his fingers, chewed with an open mouth, and interrupted our conversations to start his own. Even Ethan reminded him to use his fork.
I figured that my behavior at age eleven had probably been no better than Josh’s. My family never ate at home, and I’d never been taught table manners. I realized that had my friends’ parents been less compassionate and more judgmental, they might have sent me home, and my life might have turned out differently.
I told Josh he could eat with us whenever he wanted.
When I learned my wife was pregnant, I panicked. How could I care for a baby when I could barely take care of myself? What about watching football, sleeping in, and traveling on a moment’s notice? Would I have to give up the low-paying job I loved for something soulless in order to afford baby clothes, doctor bills, and a college fund? What would become of our steamy sex life (which is what had brought us to this point in the first place)? I felt resentful.
But from Odin’s first few minutes struggling for breaths under an oxygen hood, I was hooked. I hadn’t anticipated how deeply I’d fall for him: his long, wide-eyed gazes; his vulnerability. I also hadn’t foreseen how Odin would bring me closer to his mother. Though most of our conversations involve his schedule, sleeping patterns, and stool color, my wife and I share a bond now that transcends words. I watch her while she breast-feeds; she watches me play him songs on the mandolin. We are falling in love all over again.
Santa Barbara, California
In September 1962, my daughter entered the afternoon kindergarten program at our neighborhood elementary school. She eagerly went off to school each day, walking the three blocks by herself while I stood on the porch with her baby sister in my arms.
That October, President Kennedy announced that the Soviet Union had built nuclear-missile installations in Cuba. The U.S. would place a naval blockade on the island nation. It seemed as if a war might break out at any moment.
One afternoon my daughter cried and refused to go to school. She told me her class had practiced how to “duck and cover.” They’d been instructed to get under the table when the alarm sounded. And if she saw a bright light as she was walking home, she should go to the nearest house and ring the bell.
I tried to calm her fears, telling her that these things weren’t going to happen, though in my heart I wasn’t so sure. Then I bundled her up, asked a neighbor to watch the baby, and set out to walk her to kindergarten.
When we reached the crosswalk near the school, my daughter refused to go another step.
“You need to show her who’s in control,” the crossing guard said to me. “Just get her over here and turn around and go home. I’ll see that she goes to school.”
I looked at my daughter’s once-happy face, now streaked with tears. She’d thought of school as a safe place. (In a few days, she’d think of it that way again.) I couldn’t do anything about the missile crisis. But I could do something to make my little girl feel safe. I took her by the hand, and we went home.
San Diego, California
The last time I tried to kill myself, I was thirty-one. I’d recently left my violent husband and moved to Oregon with my dog Beau Beagle. Since the move, I’d found a job and made a few friends, but I still felt hopeless and believed I’d never again be happy.
One night I decided I’d had enough. I opened a bottle of tranquilizers and swallowed them with vodka, then climbed into my sleeping bag in the middle of my bedroom floor. Beau Beagle snuggled up next to me, and I drifted off, relieved to be done with this life.
Thirty hours later I woke up with Beau’s head resting on my chest. His eyes gazed into mine, and his tail thumped the floor. I began to cry as I wondered what would have happened to him had I been successful. Lying there stroking his head, I realized I wanted to know what was going to happen next, no matter what it might be. I’m fifty-nine now. I still want to know.
My husband, Pat, had never been more content. He had a faithful dog, a pond full of fish, a property that kept him busy, a job he relished, and a good marriage. I, on the other hand, sensed a void in our life together. Pat had so far rejected all my proposals to fill the void: having a baby, adopting, getting a puppy, keeping bees. He feared my ideas would ultimately become his responsibility. But my true quest was to find something that would bring us closer together.
My latest scheme was raising chickens. I prepared my case by reading a book about urban chicken coops. Then we sat down to talk about it. Pat listened without much comment, but he didn’t say no, which I took to be a positive sign.
A few days later, Pat awoke in the middle of the night with a raging pain in his chest, worse than any heartburn he’d ever experienced. He thought he might die. Finally the pain subsided, and he got back into bed. The next morning I heard fear in his voice as he described the ordeal. (I had slept through it.)
Soon after that, Pat and I made a date to look at chickens. I was excited, but Pat seemed tired and reluctant to go. I thought he should have been in good spirits: an EKG earlier that day had shown that his chest pain wasn’t heart related.
We got to the market thirty minutes before it closed and immediately heard the peeps of many chickens. Pat picked a few chicks up and gently held them to his cheek. He was smitten. The woman told us the chicks would be available until summer; no need to rush. After we’d left, Pat casually mentioned that he’d had chickens when he was a boy, and he shared his fond memories with me. I went to bed that night feeling reconnected with him already.
By four o’clock the next day, Pat was gone. The heart attack was sudden. His change of heart had been his last gift to me.
When my wife, Beth, and I moved from the suburbs to a warehouse loft in the center of a large city, Beth embraced every aspect of urban life — even the sirens, the parking problems, and the car alarms at night. The homeless people made me nervous, but Beth learned their names. The only neighbors who bothered her were the guys who ran the tattoo parlor across the street. They got into traffic-stopping fights, harassed women on the sidewalk, and intimidated men. They were the reason Beth didn’t walk on that side of the street. For two years she glared out our window at the row of men sitting in front of the shop and fantasized about shooting out their tires.
Then one day she called me at work to tell me she was getting a tattoo. She’d never wanted a tattoo before and had even taken pride in being one of the few people in our group of friends with no body art. Though surprised, I said OK. Later she called me back and announced, “I did it.”
When I got home, Beth excitedly showed me the delicately inscribed words “Love thy neighbor” on her wrist. She explained how she’d marched across the street and gone into the tattoo parlor. The walls were covered with drawings of skulls, bloody knives, naked women, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Manuel, the proprietor, was working on somebody’s backside. Beth introduced herself as his neighbor and asked if she could watch. He said sure.
After a while, she went outside and sat in front to study the world from their perspective. The guy next to her asked what she was getting done.
“ ‘Love thy neighbor,’ ” she muttered.
“Why?” he asked.
“Well, you guys are my neighbors, and I’m having trouble loving you. You kind of scare me — you know, with the fights that break out over here and all.”
He ushered her back into the shop and announced, with complete sincerity, “Manuel, dude, we’re scaring our neighbors! We got to stop fighting.”
Manuel was defensive — until Beth explained that she didn’t want to change him; she just wanted to get this tattoo.
Manuel showed her a picture in a magazine of “Love thy neighbor” tattooed on a man’s inner forearm — with bloody knives in the background.
“Not exactly,” said Beth.
After they’d settled on a design, Manuel began to do his art on her wrist. Then he stopped. “How do you spell thy?” he asked shyly. “I didn’t go to school.”
The other tattoo artist piped in, “Dude, it’s not because you didn’t go to school. It’s because you don’t read the Bible!”
From then on Beth would wave to the tattoo artists as if they were old pals. The music from across the street was not so grating to her nerves. No more fights broke out. The sidewalk felt safe.
Four months later, Beth took our car in for an oil change and saw Manuel talking to the repairman behind the counter. As she began to remind him who she was, he stepped forward and gave her a warm hug. “Hey,” he said to his friend behind the counter, “this is my neighbor, the one I was telling you about.”
San Diego, California
Though I grew up in a girl’s body, I knew I was really a boy. I thought God was playing a joke on me, and one day he’d tire of it and give me my real body. I believed this until I was thirteen. Hiding in a toilet stall in high school, racked with menstrual cramps, I finally saw the truth: I was a girl and would grow up to be a woman. I cried.
Luckily, when I got to college in the sixties, women were no longer expected to wear makeup and dresses and tease their hair. I gratefully shucked the bras and pantyhose, got a job working for a large-animal veterinarian, tended bar, and became a university lab technician. I was reasonably happy, made good money, and even had a girlfriend. But still I disliked my female body. My hips were too full. My breasts embarrassed me. Every month I bled my way through another miserable menstrual period.
Then I read an article about a woman who’d become a man. In the accompanying photo, she was grinning the way I imagined I would if I were her. Him.
Wanting to meet people like me, I went to a meeting of a transsexual support group. Seven men, in various stages of transformation into women, sat around the room. A tall, lanky blonde complained about the requirements at the Stanford Gender Reassignment Program: before she could get her surgery, she had to live for three years as a woman. But she didn’t have the typing skills to be a secretary and couldn’t make enough money waitressing to pay for her hormone treatments. That left prostitution, which was dangerous without her female surgery.
“Is that what being female means to you?” I blurted out. “You can’t be a secretary or a waitress, so you have to be a prostitute? Why don’t you just do anything you want to, and be a woman while you’re at it?” I heard my own words echo back to me. It wasn’t the fifties anymore. What did it matter whether I was male or female?
After that, the “girls” and I actually had a good time. I’d never worn a panty girdle in my life, and here was a roomful of men dying to dress like my mother!
As I walked home in the late-afternoon sunlight, I saw my shadow on the sidewalk ahead of me. I realized that my body was healthy, and tough, and had good orgasms. It would be a shame to put it under the knife. Why not learn to love it the way it was?
So I did.
St. Joe, Arkansas
When my husband and I split up after seven years, we said it was just temporary, but I knew it was final. For the first time in years I felt free of anxiety and insomnia, free of my husband’s expectations, free to be the passionate bohemian I was born to be.
But our four-year-old son was not impressed. Living equal time with each of us, he became moody and confused. I tried to convince myself he was better off with a happy mother and no fighting at home. My therapist assured me I wasn’t a criminal for wanting a divorce.
One night, when my son was asleep at his dad’s house, I began fighting with my estranged husband on the phone; then I drove to his place to fight with him in person. After a while, we stopped yelling and talked mournfully about our marriage, reviewing all the reasons we couldn’t stay together.
Sometime after midnight, exhausted and defeated, I got up to leave. As I was putting on my coat, my husband said, “For some inexplicable reason, I want to sleep with you tonight.” I couldn’t find a reason to say no. I took off my coat.
In bed we cried in the darkness and comforted each other. Then we made love, weeping and touching each other’s faces. The next morning we awoke to find our son standing by our bed, gazing at us in joyful disbelief.
Nine years later, we’re still married and still don’t understand what brought us back together.
I worked on the maintenance crew of a local hospital. Sometimes I had to go to the psychiatric ward, usually to repair something a patient had ripped off the wall. The ward was understaffed, and they couldn’t always keep patients from accosting me.
Angie was a “302” — involuntarily committed. About my age, she had wild auburn hair, a perpetually runny nose, and fierce dark eyes. A nurse warned me that she might “say stuff.”
And she did. She’d pace the halls, swearing and yelling. Although she was never physically violent, she would tell me what she would do to certain parts of my body if she had a sharp object. Sometimes her threats were incoherent. Other times she spoke in a weird “language,” as if putting a curse on me. I would sneak into the ward, but it didn’t work; she always found me.
Then one day I decided to try a different tack. Instead of ignoring Angie, I’d be kind to her. As she came down the corridor, I waved and said hello.
She got right in my face. “Are you a witch?” she asked.
“Only on weekends,” I said with a smile.
After that she eased up on me. Instead of making threats, she’d return my wave, and sometimes even wave first. I actually looked forward to seeing her and began to sense how terrible it must have been for her, suffering such strange delusions.
One day as I was leaving the ward, I waved goodbye to Angie. She broke into a beautiful smile and waved back, then turned to another patient and said, “He’s my friend!”
When she was in eighth grade, my younger sister Nancy was consumed by her desire to become a lawyer. She saved her allowance and baby-sitting money to buy law books advertised on TV. (“Twelve volumes for just $9.99 each. Payment plans available!”) She lined the books up on the shelf in her room one by one and read the paper every day, clipping articles on civil-rights issues, Martin Luther King Jr., and racial strife. She was determined to do something about the injustices in society.
Nancy had an infectious smile, brown hair that swung when she walked, and a round figure. (We sometimes called her “Butterball.”) Though I was older than she by two years, I remained oblivious to what was happening in the world. Drawing and painting were my obsessions.
On April 5, 1968, Nancy and I were home from school for a teacher workday. I got up late and went into the dining room, where my mom was having coffee in her paisley robe, looking a little sad. She told me Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.
After breakfast, on my way back to my room, I stopped to check in with my sister, because I knew she admired King. I knocked on her bedroom door. Silence.
“Nancy?” I called. No response.
I thought I heard something: a whimper, perhaps. I tried the knob, but the door was locked.
I went outside and looked in her window. Through the gap in the curtains I saw my sister’s empty bed and her desk across from it. Then I spotted her, huddled in a ball in a nest of bedding on the floor, her shoulders shaking.
That afternoon my dad came home early and went right to Nancy’s room. Around dinnertime my father reappeared, said that Nancy would be OK, and took a tray of food back to her.
The next morning when I got up, my sister’s door was open. I stuck my head in to talk to her, but she wasn’t there. The room was clean. The bed was made with stuffed animals on the pillows. The shelf, formerly filled with law books, held only dolls and clothing accessories.
The next week my sister went on a diet. She started having fights with my mother about how much makeup she could wear. Clothes became very important to her. She never mentioned the law or civil rights for the rest of the time we lived in our parents’ home.
My husband, Jerry, had cystic fibrosis and never went very long without coughing. In the last few years, he had gotten worse. Once, after a two-minute coughing bout that left him bent over and gasping, I asked if he needed anything. “A new set of lungs,” he replied.
Then came news of a revolutionary treatment for cystic fibrosis: Stanford University had begun transplanting a heart and both lungs into patients and was looking for candidates for an experimental program. We went for an interview. There was no guarantee that Jerry would be called to receive donated organs in time to save his life, or that the operation would be successful. They told us that, if he did get the operation, he’d be trading CF for a host of new problems. I was frightened, but Jerry was eager.
Jerry was accepted into the program, and several months later we got the call that they had found suitable organs for him. We got on a private jet and arrived at Stanford two hours later. The surgery was performed immediately. Overnight his coughing stopped, the color came back to his fingertips and toes, and he no longer needed the oxygen tank.
During his recovery, Jerry was diagnosed with diabetes and battled an unidentifiable infection. But after twelve months he was strong enough to return home. We had made it through the first year. We were the lucky ones. Some transplant patients were never able to leave the hospital.
Giddy with hope for the future, Jerry and I wanted to start a family, revive our careers, and reconnect with friends. But once home, Jerry experienced severe depression and violent mood swings — both thought to be possible side effects of a heart transplant. I could no longer reach him. He blamed me for his problems and eventually said he wanted out of the marriage.
During the transplant, I had vividly imagined Jerry’s beating heart held in the surgeon’s hands. That image came back to me during the divorce, only this time it was my heart.
The news of Jerry’s life that occasionally reaches me now isn’t promising. I wonder if I will ever again be able to offer my love to someone in the same way. Jerry had the transplant, but I ended up with a new, more cautious, heart.
Buddy kissed my cheek at my locker in ninth grade.
He’d been wanting to carry my books, hold my hand, or get a kiss from me since we’d met the year before. He was a little goofy and kind of a loudmouth but easy to be around, and we had soccer and singing in common.
I’d rolled my eyes at Buddy’s advances and lectured him many times that we were just friends — especially because he was a Mormon and I was a Baptist. I’d been indoctrinated enough by my church to know there was no sense in starting anything with him: we were religiously incompatible.
But then Buddy stole a kiss on my cheek, and something changed. When his hot breath touched my skin, I felt what it was to be desired. I began to notice little details about him — his lanky gait, the muscles in his calves, the milky quality of his tenor voice. That kiss had awakened something in me.
To my surprise, after that, Buddy stopped trying to kiss me and hold my hand. Maybe he’d gotten what he wanted and was ready to move on to someone else. Or maybe he saw the pathetic doe eyes I made at him when I thought he wasn’t looking. Or maybe he knew that I’d never admit how I felt about him, because we were being raised with different beliefs about God.
Throughout high school Buddy and I remained pals — even excruciatingly so at times, with that familiarity that breeds meanness in hormonal teenagers. I had other boyfriends and other kisses that went even further and ran just as deep. But sometimes now, when I look at my children, who are still shy of the age I was when Buddy kissed me, I can’t help but wonder about the choices they’ll make in the years to come. What opportunities will they take or dismiss based on the values I instill in them? What will they write about when they’re thirty-six years old and sitting in bed on a Sunday morning?
Marin City, California
While my older sister drew pictures of her future family — the little redhead she would name Erin, the two sons — I ran around with my brother, scalping her dolls. The “baby” in the family, I was not the nurturing type.
I graduated from high school in 1974 and dreamed of living a bohemian life. I worshiped the Beats and idolized strong women like singer Grace Slick, actress Jane Fonda, and Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.
Though I got married at twenty, I didn’t want children. I laughed when a friend likened infants to “large pink larvae.” Babies made me uncomfortable, and I felt I was above all that ridiculous cooing. I had ambition.
At twenty-five I moved to Manhattan to go to acting school — which had been my dream since the age of five. Without the support of my family and friends, the depression I’d been fighting since my teens took over. My husband assured me I was talented and bound for great things. We wrote and read poetry together, marched against nuclear weapons, and became vegetarians. But he wanted children, and I eventually told him I wanted a divorce.
Seven months before the divorce became final, I got together with Jack, who was a friend of a friend. It felt wrong at first, then more wonderful than any other relationship I’d known. But the final divorce decree brought back old problems for me in bed, caused by sexual abuse in my past. I worried I might lose Jack. One night I made love to him without birth control, afraid that stopping to get protection might spoil the mood.
I knew immediately that I was pregnant. Jack told me he would support me, whatever I decided. There was no doubt in my mind: still depressed and anxious, I knew I was not mother material. I had an abortion.
Two years later, we again risked unprotected sex for the sake of spontaneity. Again I knew. This time I had a more in-depth conversation with Jack, who had felt conflicted about the first abortion. Our finances weren’t good, I pointed out, and he agreed. I felt much sadder this time, but, still convinced that I would not be any proper kind of mother, I made the same decision as before. I felt as if a soul had come knocking on my door, and I had to tell it, “I’m not ready for you,” and send it back.
At thirty-seven I at last found a career that bolstered my sense of self-worth. My co-workers all had families, and I found myself working with children and loving it — loving them.
One month my period was late. When I told Jack about it, we both became giddy. We agreed that we’d be crazy to have a baby now — our financial picture was still less than stellar — but if it happened, we’d make it work.
The following Sunday, my period came.
The next time we made love, I used no birth control. With every molecule of my being, I prayed, If you’re still out there, please come to us now.
That was more than a decade ago. Today I drove around listening to a mix CD that our twelve-year-old son made for me. He is as fine a human being as you’d ever want to meet.
When I first moved to Eugene, Oregon, I was just out of college and unable to get anything but a dishwasher job. I lived in an attic room of a ramshackle house and shared a bathroom and a kitchen with three other boarders. They were a strange lot. One was a fifty-year-old alcoholic. Another smoked so much pot in his room he kept setting off the fire alarm in the hallway. (I had to unhook the battery at two in the morning to get some sleep.) The third was an elderly tennis instructor who went off to work each day in a three-piece suit and a fedora. I mostly sat on my bed, strumming my guitar.
The landlady tossed the pot smoker out one day for not paying his rent, and a man my age moved into his room. I ignored the new arrival the same way I did the other boarders. None of us was very neighborly. That night, however, when I came out of the shower, the new boarder was standing right there.
“Hello, I’m Steve,” he said and offered his hand.
“Dave,” I said, shaking with my left hand because my right was holding up my towel.
Over the next three days, Steve kept trying to make conversation — even through the bathroom door — and I kept brushing him off. Once, he followed me to the store, jabbering all the way. I just wanted to be left alone. Though I felt lonely sometimes, I didn’t appreciate anybody trying to push his way into my life.
That weekend Steve asked if I wanted to go to the Saturday Market.
“I’m busy,” I snapped. “Fuck off. Leave me alone.” Actually, I’d been planning to go to the Saturday Market myself, but now I changed my mind. I went to the grocery instead and bought some bread and eggs. Steve was in the kitchen when I got back, and I glared angrily at him, hoping he would finally get the message.
Late that night, before bed, I went to the bathroom. As I passed Steve’s door, I heard him strumming a guitar and singing, “Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river.” Somehow I’d never heard a Leonard Cohen song before. I listened to two verses. Steve’s singing voice lacked polish, but it was just right for that lyric.
As he started the third verse, I rushed back to my room and got my guitar. Feeling sheepish, I knocked on Steve’s door. The music stopped, and he opened it. I lifted my guitar. “You think you can teach me that song?”
I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d slammed the door in my face. Instead he smiled and invited me in.
St. Petersburg, Florida
In spring of 1991, I took a backpacking trip with my boyfriend, Don, on the rugged wilderness coastline of Kauai, Hawaii. We were alone on the Kalalau Trail, which was rocky, crumbling, and precipitous, but also unspoiled and spectacular.
After a grueling four-hour hike, we made it to the campsite. Sweaty, muddy, and sore, we plunged into the cool water under the falls and let it pour over us like a baptism.
Laughing, I blurted out, “Don, will you marry me?”
His face broke into a huge grin. “Yes. Yes, I’ll marry you!” We kissed long and hard under the falls.
The next morning, we woke in our tent, huddled together for warmth. The mood had changed. Don stared past me at nothing. “I had a bad dream about Kathy,” he said. His ex-girlfriend. “I realized I’m not ready to commit to you yet. I’m sorry. I need more time.”
I felt deflated, hurt, and angry. “It’s OK,” I said, even though it wasn’t. We agreed to talk about it when we got back to town, several hours away by foot. On the hike back, we had to cross the raging Hanakoa Stream. Don led the way, jumping from rock to rock. But on the last rock, he slipped and fell.
He sat up holding his arm and looking at me blankly, as if in shock. I quickly crossed the stream to help him. His wrist was already swelling; he’d probably broken it. I searched my pack for an appropriate splint, found our wooden spoon, and tied it to his arm with my bandanna, then made a sling from a T-shirt. There was nothing more we could do but continue to hike out. I gave him a few Motrin and moved some of his gear into my pack.
Don struggled with his pain. I struggled with my guilt. Part of me had wanted him to hurt just as I was hurting, and now he’d broken his arm. The extreme exertion of carrying a fifty-pound pack in ninety-degree heat seemed like the price I was paying for having wished him pain.
As the hike wore on, the struggle became rewarding to me somehow, the sweat and effort a kind of ritual cleansing. The beauty of the Hawaiian coast opened my heart. By the time we reached town, I’d forgiven Don.
Five months later, lying naked under a quilt, both of us still glowing from early-morning sex, Don asked me to marry him. I said yes.
In my freshman year at the University of Washington I marched in the street in support of the Vietnam War. I had high-school friends who were in Vietnam, and I knew some guys who’d died there. An eighteen-year-old from conservative Spokane, I believed in America and in our military, accepted the domino theory, and feared the “Red Peril.” So I was shocked to see older, long-haired students, some of whom I knew, calling me “Murderer!” and “Fascist pig!” I wondered how seemingly intelligent people could hold views that were so diametrically opposed to mine.
In the years that followed, world events forced me to question everything I’d previously believed. Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X were killed. Civil-rights marchers died fighting for the right to vote. The papers and television news were full of photos of dead Vietnamese civilians, many of them women and children. There were allegations that the Johnson administration had lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which had been used to justify escalating the U.S. involvement in the war.
In May 1970, now a senior, I participated in an antiwar march. About ten thousand of us gathered by the university library, surrounded by dozens of policemen with menacing nightsticks. We were protesting the recent killing of four student demonstrators at Kent State and the April 30 invasion of Cambodia. We marched to the I-5 freeway and shut it down. Later we spoke with some suburbanites and tried to help them understand our views. One of their main gripes was that it had been wrong for protesters to block the freeway. I was appalled: thousands of young American men were being killed in Vietnam, and all they could think about was a few trucks being delayed on the freeway. Then I realized that, just a few years earlier, I might have said the same thing.
On the day Jack married our mother, my brother Art and I threw the rice overhand in hopes of hitting our new stepfather in the eye or at least stinging his skin. We sang under our breath, “Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back.”
Mom seemed happy. Whatever. I never really paid attention to how she felt. I remember vaguely the night she woke me to tell me Jack had proposed. She was excited and wanted to share it with me, her daughter. I mumbled something and went back to sleep. I was twelve.
Jack called me “Kid.” I called him “Old Man.” He was a cowboy, uneducated but wise. We bet each other a dollar on the World Series each year. One time we went to Santa Fe together to play the ponies. We used our winnings to buy a steak dinner, and when Mom asked where we’d been, Jack didn’t tell her. It was our secret.
In 1971 my grandmother died, and we went to New York for the funeral. Mom stayed on to be with family, and Jack and I flew home together. We ran into detours and a snowstorm; the six-hour trip took us close to twenty-seven hours. Through it all, Jack never ranted or complained. I felt safe.
During my divorce, he took me out for drinks and supported me. Then there was the time he spotted me coming out of a hotel room with a one-night stand. I ditched the man at breakfast and spent the day at the track with Jack. I never felt judged by him.
Every Sunday, during my weekly phone call to Mom, she would make Jack and me talk. We acted as if it were a bother.
“Hey, Old Man, what’s up?”
“OK, love you, Kid. Stay out of trouble.”
When Jack called after Mom’s heart attack, he said there was no need for me to come home — she would be fine. She’d always taken care of him, and now it was his turn to take care of her, he said.
When Mom died, he said, “Come now, Jan.”
I came, and Jack and I cried in each other’s arms. “What will we do?” he asked over and over. “What will we do?”
I’ll be fifty soon. I’ve known Jack for thirty-seven years, and though I hated him at first, I’ve loved him for most of that time. After all, he’s been like a father to me.
Bowen Island, British Columbia
My husband, Randy, was in the late stages of lung cancer when his radiation and chemotherapy treatments caused congestive heart failure, and he was rushed to the hospital. The ICU nurse told me he’d been given enough sedative to put him in a coma, but he was still awake and disturbed. As I approached his room, I heard him yell, “Please, let me have a cigarette!” He pulled hard on his restraints, his wrists raw and bloody. Bald and scrawny and dressed only in a diaper, he looked like a madman.
Confusing Randy’s distress with pain, his oncologist prescribed morphine, which made my husband even more confused and agitated. He hallucinated, calling out to his brother and sisters to untie him so he wouldn’t be late for school. When he saw me, he panicked: “Judy, get out while you can! If you stay, they’ll stick you with probes and tie you up. They do human experiments here.”
A doctor took me aside and told me my husband would probably live only a week. “You should take him home,” he said.
I felt heartbroken, but also afraid. Randy was so full of anger, I wasn’t sure I could handle him. On the other hand, if I left him there, I worried they might move him to the psychiatric ward. A social worker gave me a list of nursing homes and described each one. They sounded worse than the hospital. Then she told me about hospice and the possibilities for home healthcare, but I still doubted my ability to cope with Randy’s wild behavior.
Meanwhile my mother-in-law passed out in Randy’s room, causing a commotion. Doctors and nurses rushed in to assess her condition and argued about whether to put her in the bed next to Randy. Finally two orderlies came and took her to the ER to be checked for heart problems.
After everyone had calmed down, I had a change of heart and decided to bring Randy home. The nurses stopped giving him morphine and removed the restraints. Little by little, my sweet husband returned. My daughter rolled her dad up and down the hall in a wheelchair. A door to the outside whooshed open as someone entered, and Randy sighed with delight. “Fresh air,” he said. He drank a glass of cold milk, then three more.
The next day Randy came home smiling. He lived peacefully for forty-two more days.
During my first lunch at a Buddhist retreat, I looked around the dining hall from person to person, judging the motives of each one. Across from me sat a couple of young girls, giggling quietly and wearing tight clothing. I wondered why they were here. A young man at the end of the table stared straight ahead, stone-faced. He wore the garments of someone who’d “taken the precepts” and seemed already to think of himself as a monk. I assumed an older gentleman sitting nearby must be experimenting with different faiths during his retirement. I wondered what the woman with the perpetual grimace hoped to find here.
Each day we all rose to the same bell at 5 A.M. and sat in silent meditation together. Well, almost silent: Stomachs growled. Noses sniffled. Bodies shifted to relieve the discomfort of sitting. We helped each other when we got lost on the grounds, couldn’t find our place in our book of verses, or weren’t sure what was in the bowl that had been passed to us. We bowed in gratitude to each other as we received a pot of soup or a napkin.
At our last meal together I looked around the dining hall again. The monks had told us many times to try to see the “Buddha nature” in everyone. I saw that these people were all the same as me: full of love and wanting only to be loved. The thoughts I’d had about them before were gone. My eyes filled with tears.
On my way home from the monastery, I stopped for gas at a truck stop. The sudden transition from silent retreat to noisy filling station was jarring. Yet even among the rushed, angry, tired travelers, I saw only people all looking for the same thing.
Nevada City, California