Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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My cellmate stayed on his bunk and out of my way as I packed two laundry bags with everything I wanted to take. I went through my prison footlocker, tossing out unimportant papers and useless slivers of soap. I had already given away my good sneakers and my old watch to inmates who needed them.
I was getting out after sixteen years, and though I tried to act calm, I could not keep my hands from shaking. The free world had changed: I knew because I’d watched it on television. I’d listened on the radio as the second airplane had hit the tower in New York City. But knowing about the changes and living with them were two different things. I didn’t know how to drive, find a job, or do my taxes.
When a prisoner leaves, sometimes his buddies will throw him under the shower and smear lotion and baby powder all over him as a way of saying goodbye. I’d asked my friends not to do that — I was too old for such games — but now I wished they had. It would have been a sign that they cared.
The next morning, when the doors opened after count, I went by each cell to say goodbye. When I stopped by Jack’s cell, his towel was over his door because he was on the toilet. He stuck his hand out to shake mine and wished me luck. (He told me later in a letter that he’d been crying and hadn’t wanted me to see him.)
The corrections officer summoned me to go to the administration building, where I would wait several hours for my release papers. Donnie, who had been my cellmate for a while, helped me carry my laundry bags, heavy with books and papers. We stopped outside the administration building, and I gave him a hug. As bad as I wanted to be out, I would miss him. I would miss a lot of the men I was leaving behind. My hands trembled. Returning to the free world was scarier than my first day in prison. Who would have figured?
St. Petersburg, Florida
My big brother and I lived with our grandparents and hadn’t seen our mother and father since they’d moved from El Salvador to the United States in 1990. Now it was 1999, and they wanted us to come live with them in Las Vegas, Nevada, so the family could be together again.
We’d heard that the journey to the U.S. was long and dangerous and could kill us. We’d heard stories about how people traveled in the back of big trucks without windows or holes to let in air. We’d heard that we would have to walk long distances and run from immigration officers. To prepare ourselves, my brother and I walked everywhere we went: to the store, to school, to the capital of San Salvador. When we would go to the lake or the beach, we would practice holding our breath underwater, just in case we had to ride in a truck where there wasn’t enough air. I began saving fruit we could eat on our journey. My brother collected cans and sold them so we would have money.
When the day came for us to leave for the United States, we learned that our parents had arranged for us to travel by bus, car, and airplane. All the preparations we’d made were for nothing. We didn’t have to walk across a desert or ride in the back of a truck. We didn’t suffer like so many others.
Las Vegas, Nevada
I was at basketball practice the first time I got my menstrual period. I remember running down the court and suddenly feeling as if I were leaving my body. (In a sense, I was.) An unfamiliar dizziness came over me, followed by a wet itch in my crotch. When I went to the locker room, a small brown spot on my underwear confirmed my fears. I stuffed toilet paper in my panties and went about the rest of my school day feeling panicked at the possibility of visible spotting on my clothes — and at the thought of dealing with this every month for the next forty years.
I’d been amply forewarned. Two months earlier, my stepmother, Diane, had sat me down at the kitchen table and officially prepared me for it. She had purchased a young woman’s starter kit, complete with various types of pads, panty liners, and tampons. And she presented me with the book Dear Diary, which answers a young girl’s questions about her first period. I listened obediently, but I didn’t feel ready. Secretly I believed it would not happen to me — at least, not for a very long time.
Twenty-two years and roughly 260 periods later, I walked down the corridor of the oncology unit to Diane’s hospital room. My father sat at her bedside, crying quietly and taking notes as she told him, in her orderly way, what she wanted for her funeral service: cello music by J.S. Bach; a single red rose for each woman in attendance; a reading from Proverbs.
When Diane died eighteen days later, she was ready. But we weren’t. This wasn’t supposed to happen for a very long time.
When I was a child, it seemed that every frightening event was preceded by the command to “get ready.” So when my mother told me to put on my Sunday dress, I nervously asked why.
“Never mind. It’s a surprise. You’re going to Aunt Mae’s while I take care of some business.”
The mention of “some business,” combined with a “surprise,” made me even more uneasy.
I put on my best dress, white knee-high socks, and shiny black patent-leather shoes, and we drove through town to the narrow street of row houses where my aunt and cousins lived. When we walked in the front door, my two cousins were sitting on the couch, both dressed as if for a special occasion. Tom, who was seven (a year younger than I), sat still, while Janet, only four, played with a wheeled toy on the end of a stick that rang bells as she rolled it back and forth.
After my mother had left, Aunt Mae went into the kitchen and came back with a plate of cookies: “You can each have two; that’s it.” Then she sat down opposite us, brushed her apron across her lap, and said, “Now, Uncle Buddy’s coming home today.”
She didn’t sound happy about it, which puzzled me. She loved her brother almost as much as I did. I thought he was the most handsome man in the world in his U.S. Air Force uniform. When he would come home on leave, we’d visit him at Grandma’s, and he’d play with us till he was exhausted and had to take a nap on the couch in the back room. He’d warn us not to come in and bother him, or else he’d cut our ears off. I’d crack open the door, peek inside, and giggle. Uncle Buddy would open his eyes and make a scissors motion with his fingers, and I’d close the door fast.
After we’d eaten our cookies, Aunt Mae gave us each a little stiff cotton flag on a stick, and she had us sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“Now let’s do it again,” she said when we were done, “and when we sing, ‘Glory, glory, hallelujah,’ let’s really wave those flags!” We sang and marched and waved our flags, and Aunt Mae got up and marched in front of us, like the majorette of a band. For a while I forgot to worry about where my mother had gone.
When she returned a little while later, we piled in the back of the dusty blue Plymouth and rode across town to a beautiful house with a long driveway. A man came to our car and opened the doors for us. I felt like a lady. It was the most beautiful house I’d ever seen close up. There were gardens all around, and everything smelled fresh and clean. We ascended the steps of the deep porch, and another man in a suit opened the door for us and greeted my mother formally. I wondered if Uncle Buddy was going to meet us here, but I was afraid to ask.
We were shown to a large room with many chairs and a lot of flowers at the far end. While my mother went up to the front alone, my aunt bent low and told us that Uncle Buddy’s soul had gone to heaven, but we could see his body here. “What you see is just a shell,” she said. “Don’t be afraid.”
Scarsdale, New York
After I’d graduated from high school, my controlling mother made it clear that she and my father would not pay my college tuition if I moved out of their house. Afraid I couldn’t support myself on what I earned as a waitress, I chose to suffer her physical and mental abuse for four more years.
In my last semester of college, with my diploma in sight, I secretly made plans to get my own place. Gleeful with anticipation, I found a roommate and put a deposit down on an apartment. In my free time between classes and waitressing, I purchased cheap plates, glasses, pots, pans, and utensils, which I stored at my boyfriend’s house. I felt powerful and cunning as I transferred most of my savings out of the joint account my parents had cosigned with me when I was sixteen and into a new account of my own.
Two weeks before my move, I told Mom. She was incensed, called me a “slut,” and said I couldn’t leave. When I told her I was going, she tried to hit me. Instead of ducking her punch as usual, I grabbed her wrist in midair.
“Don’t you ever try to hit me, or you will never see me again!” I said in a steely voice.
In that moment, all her power over me drained away. For the first time, I saw her clearly: a frail, aging, unhappy woman worn down by life. Instead of rage, I felt compassion. I was free.
It was my wedding day. The gauze of my dress itched me as I teetered on treacherously high heels. My mother pinned on my veil, gave me a gentle kiss, and left the dressing room to be seated in the church. She assumed I was ready, but I wasn’t so sure. At the age of nineteen, I’d flunked out of college and, having little idea how to support myself, had decided to marry an equally clueless twenty-one-year-old.
I went into the church foyer, where my stepfather, Paul, waited. I seldom saw him in anything other than the coveralls he wore when he worked in his gun shop. The sight of his burly body stuffed into a tight black suit might have made me laugh if I hadn’t been so nervous.
Paul was in his sixties and had been married twice before, with no children of his own. When he’d married my mother, he’d gotten more than he’d bargained for: a passel of teenagers with whom he would wage a steady and stubborn war. As a stepfather, he’d frequently been insensitive, narrow-minded, and unkind.
Under pressure from my mother, Paul had agreed to pay for my wedding and reception. To my surprise, he’d even offered to walk me down the aisle. Now he took my arm, but he did not move toward the open door to the sanctuary. Instead he leaned his balding head toward me and said softly, “You don’t have to do this.”
He didn’t point out that I was too young and hardly in love, nor that my fiancé was no more ready for marriage than I. He simply said, “You can walk away right now. You don’t even have to face them. I’ll tell them for you.”
“But the invitations, the party, all that money.”
He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll take care of it.”
His concern left me speechless, but not for long. I took his arm and turned toward the door. “Let’s go,” I said. “I’m ready.”
Paul was silent as we began our walk down the aisle.
My stepfather never mentioned that moment again. Forty years and two marriages later, I still marvel at his generosity and wisdom.
It is October 1962, and I am thirteen and attending a boarding school for girls in northern New Jersey. My classmates and I sit at small wooden desks carved with graffiti while our teacher, Miss Elfman, tells us in methodical detail about the power struggle between the Soviet premier Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy has set up a naval blockade against the Soviet ships that are headed for Cuba with a cargo of missiles. If the Soviets don’t retreat, the U.S. has promised to attack. We may be on the brink of nuclear war.
Later, in the dorm room I share with six other girls, I look at my reflection in a full-length mirror. My baby fat has receded into curves; my small features are almost beautiful. I am not ready to be erased from the planet.
Mary Beth, who sleeps in the bed next to mine, has a plan. If we don’t want to die virgins, she tells another roommate and me, then we should dress in tight jeans and sweaters, tease and spray our hair, and climb out the window with her once the other girls are asleep. She is going to meet Pete, the boy with sleek black hair who works at the gas station down the road. He may have friends for us.
It is cold when we sneak out. We land on a stone path and run across a wide field to the dirt road. But the gas station is closed, and Pete is nowhere in sight. Above us the moon is bright and almost full. We race back across the grass, laughing, and finally fall to the ground and lie on our backs, out of breath. My mind is free of fears and plans about the future. I feel the warmth of the girls on either side of me and see the broad expanse of starry sky above.
New York, New York
When the second line appeared in the window of the pregnancy test, I felt as if the molecules in the room shifted and realigned themselves. This was big, bigger than anything in my life so far. George stumbled sleepily into the bathroom — it was 6 A.M. — and I thrust the test into his hand.
George and I had been seeing each other for only three months and had just moved in together a couple of weeks before. The house was still under construction: we had insulation and a wood stove, but little else. I was miserable in my job, made little money, and had no health insurance. But somehow this pregnancy made sense. I was soon thinking of the bundle of cells in my womb as “the baby.” As the weeks went on, George would pat my belly, hold me while I threw up, and crow, “We’re going to have a critter! How cool is that?”
And then the test results came back. Something was not right. Ultrasounds showed a massive swelling in the baby’s abdomen, clubfeet, and other possible abnormalities. They couldn’t find all four chambers of the heart. We scheduled an amniocentesis, to confirm that there were genetic defects. George and I held each other and cried and talked of nothing else. We scoured the Internet for information and left messages for genetic counselors. And we waited: for an appointment with the perinatal specialist; for the results from the amniocentesis; for someone to tell us that this wasn’t happening.
We prepared ourselves to be the parents of a child who might need more care than we could give, though we would give him all we could. We braced ourselves for risky and invasive surgeries to save his life. We considered turning down the life-saving surgeries and giving him back to whatever mystery had brought him to us. We got ready to fight hard for his life, and we got ready to say goodbye.
Brooktondale, New York
When the neurologist used the word dementia, my first tack was to try to persuade him — and myself — that it was sleep deprivation that had caused me to fail the tests: I’d worked all night at the shelter because my replacement hadn’t shown up. The doctor, of course, didn’t buy it. They expect denial.
It took me a while to accept the diagnosis. I kept thinking of those times back in high school when I’d forgotten to go to gym class. Maybe I’d always had this cognitive impairment.
But I knew it wasn’t that simple. I started taking the pills that might give me a few extra years before the most debilitating symptoms set in. And I began keeping a journal, to cope with my fears and emotions. I debated whether to tell people. If they knew, I wouldn’t have to cover up my memory lapses. But what if they felt sorry for me, perhaps even avoided me? I had many questions: Would it be better to simplify my life, or did my mind need challenges to keep it functioning as well as possible? Could I stay in good humor and learn to accept my shrinking capacities? Could I, a dedicated social worker, continue to feel worthy when I was receiving help instead of giving it?
It’s been more than a year since my diagnosis. I’ve moved to retirement housing in a town closer to my children. I don’t often tell people I’ve been diagnosed with dementia, but I make no secret of my failing memory. I allow myself simple pleasures, like a walk to the store every day. I still write poems, with a lot of help from the thesaurus. I’m getting ready, I hope.
Yellow Springs, Ohio
David and I had eight children and were often so busy juggling bills and babies that we neglected each other’s needs. After twenty-seven years, our marriage had grown stagnant. Then, in June 2006, David was diagnosed with stage-IV oral cancer, and doctors recommended immediate surgery.
I was shocked when I first saw him in the intensive-care unit with stitches across his jaw and up the side of his neck where the surgeon had removed the tumor and the adjacent lymph nodes. He looked as if someone had knifed him in an alley.
Though I had never left our children with baby sitters before, for eleven consecutive days I arranged care for them so that I could be with David in the hospital. Because my husband was unable to speak, I found myself searching his brown eyes for every nuance of feeling. Before, I had always urged him to hurry up and get to the point. Now I waited patiently while he labored to write messages on a dry-erase board. I spent hours holding his hand as he slept or watched television. I found I enjoyed spending time alone with him in that hospital room, away from our house full of children.
I began getting ready to see David each morning: I rubbed fragrant lotions on my skin and spent an inordinate amount of time on my hair and makeup. I abandoned my usual loose shirts and jeans and started wearing the skirts and dresses that had been shoved to the back of my closet. It dawned on me one day, as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, that I was courting my own husband.
I hadn’t seen my daughter since I’d given her up for adoption when she was a newborn. Then, a few months after her eighteenth birthday, I made contact. We exchanged pictures, talked on the phone a few times, and finally planned to meet at the local botanical garden.
With just a couple of days to get ready, I was nervous and excited. It would be such an important moment, and I wanted every detail to be right. Most of all, I wanted her to like me. I joked that it was the most important blind date of my life. I went from store to store, looking for just the right skirt: one that would be hip, comfortable, and feminine. I’d already sketched the family tree, gotten together the pictures I was bringing, and arranged a play date for my kids.
Underneath it all, there were more important preparations for me to make. I had a grown daughter who’d been gone from my life for eighteen years. That was nearly two decades of grief to work through.
The day finally arrived, sizzling hot and bright. I double-checked the directions to the restaurant where I hoped we would go for lunch and balanced my checkbook to make sure I had enough money. I cleaned the trail mix and library receipts from my car in case she rode with me. I checked the batteries in my camera, packed bottles of water, and finally left for the botanical garden thirty minutes early.
In the gazebo, where I would wait for her, I dropped my heavily laden purse on the bench. It was ninety-five degrees, and the air was still and silent. Each time a car drove by, I perked up. Finally one parked, and I heard footsteps. I stood up and saw a tall young woman in jeans and a T-shirt, her hair in a ponytail, striding toward me. She looked happy.
Greensboro, North Carolina
In 1957, the day after my eighteenth birthday, my mother helped me pack the trunk I would take with me to the cloistered monastery where I would become a nun. We’d purchased all the items I’d been told to bring: one dozen long-sleeved undershirts, three black flannel slips, three black cotton slips, six yards of bird’s-eye (a dimpled cotton the nuns used for sanitary napkins), one dozen towels and face cloths, one pair of black oxfords (to be exchanged in six months for the heavy black sandals of the novice), and one dozen white handkerchiefs.
My mother had always been reticent about her childhood, but as she packed my oxfords, she began to talk: “What I would have given to have had a pair of sturdy shoes like these,” she said. “We were so poor the only shoes I had were stuffed with cardboard to cover the holes in the soles. They were to wear to school.” She told me how, to protect her shoes from wear and tear, she would take them off when her stepmother sent her to the butcher before school to buy a bit of meat. Often her stepmother sent her back to get a better piece. “I’d run all the way, sobbing, because I feared being late for school and having to stay after.” Being kept after school meant getting her ears boxed when she got home.
I’m not sure what loosened my mother’s lips. Perhaps it was the knowledge that after I went behind the cloister doors, we’d never have the chance to communicate in private again; her letters to me would be opened and read, her visits monitored. Whatever the reason, one memory triggered another, and my mother told me how, after her own mother had died, her father had remarried and brought his new bride home to raise his eight children while he left to fight in World War I. My mother’s father was an alcoholic and prone to violence, much of it directed toward Mom, who was one of his feistier children. Even her happier memories were tinged with sadness: She and her siblings were often fed by the Salvation Army, mostly suet pudding or rhubarb, depending on the season. My mother loved rhubarb, but it caused her and her siblings to need to use the bathroom during the night, and at bedtime their stepmother locked them in their room.
I like to think that in sharing her memories, Mom unlocked that bedroom door and found some relief; that as we sat together on the floor, folding garments and tucking them into a trunk, she unpacked one memory after another and entrusted them to me.
Beryl Singleton Bissell
Every Saturday evening when I was a young girl, I’d curl up on my mother’s bed and watch her float around in her white satin slip, getting ready for a performance. She was a singer at a honky-tonk called the Starlite Lounge. All the lamps in the bedroom would be on and the windows opened wide to capture as much natural light as possible. “A necessity,” she would say to me with a wink, “unless you don’t mind looking like a clown.”
My mother’s vanity table resembled the cosmetics counter at Eckerd Drug, with an assortment of perfumes and powders, lipsticks and rouge. She had a large jewelry chest she would carefully pick through, laying spangles across her wrist or holding a colorful rope of beads up to her throat as she turned her head from side to side in front of the mirror.
In her closet were dresses in powder blue, emerald green, royal purple, and drop-dead red. I liked the pale orange one best, with its lace bodice and sheer sleeves. It always made me think of an orange creamsicle. My mother’s dresses were never slit too high at the leg nor cut too low at the neckline. “Always leave a little to the imagination,” she would tell me.
With her outfit chosen, she would pile her thick auburn hair on top of her head and take a long, hot bath. Sometimes I would hear her in there, singing snippets of that evening’s repertoire. Then it was back to the bedroom for the final fit. She wrapped her hair around fat rollers, buffed her nails to a high shine, and carefully applied makeup. The dress always had zippers and clasps that I could help with. She dabbed perfume at her pulse points — the “hot spots,” she called them. Finally she would let her hair down and give it a few quick tosses. That was it. Perfection.
Out the door she would go, her three-inch heels clacking, my father hanging on her arm like an accessory, helping her into the car, making sure her dress didn’t get caught in the door. And I would go to my own bedroom and wait until she returned in the wee hours. I never got to see her perform, but I imagined men dropped at her feet.
Karen Graham McStoots
St. Cloud, Florida
At the age of sixteen I reported for my first day of work as a nursing-home aide. My previous experience with seeing people naked was limited to talking to my mother in the bath, getting dressed with other girls my age, and changing diapers while baby-sitting. I had never seen an elderly person — nor a man of any age — nude.
That first day at the nursing home I entered a room where an old man lay helplessly exposed, pink and shrimplike. I’d been told to bathe him, which involved handling his genitals. His testicles looked like odd, deflated balloons. Later I saw a woman whose body seemed to pool around her on the bed. I saw moles, warts, and other growths on faces, backs, and necks. I saw (and smelled) necrotic flesh in open sores.
That evening, I went to my best friend’s house. Her family had a swimming pool surrounded by a tall fence, and it was a hot summer night, so we decided to go skinny-dipping. I dove in and delighted in every sinuous motion. Our bodies were beautiful, our skin tight and smooth. I ran my hands over my arms and legs and thought, I am young.
At nineteen I was a struggling actress and dancer in Manhattan. My schedule of rehearsals and auditions made it hard to keep a regular day job, so I became a topless dancer. The money was good, and I got to see, in the mirror behind the stage, proof that I was strong and beautiful.
In my thirties I taught yoga and aerobics. I could hike up a mountain without becoming exhausted, and I could still wear tight jeans and turn heads.
Today I am fifty-one years old and have worked in hospice for more than thirteen years. Every day for me is a reminder that human bodies are temporary and vulnerable. I have come to respect decay and decline as part of the process of getting free of a body that can no longer serve us. I remind myself that without death, there can be no renewal. Still, I wonder how I will prepare for my own death.
I will have to learn to let go of feeling attractive by youthful standards. Though I exercise regularly, I know my body is past being appropriate for display. I leave that to the young, reminding myself that I’ve had my turn.
I want to embrace becoming an elder, to marvel as well as grieve as my body ages. I look at my skin in bright sunlight, sometimes even with a magnifying glass, observing its changes with interest. I run my fingers over it and pinch it, finding that it is looser in places, and thinner.
I have watched many people age and die, and I’ve noticed that those who go through the process with awareness and curiosity tend to fare better than the ones who fight or flee from the inevitable. I hope to have similar grace and courage when my turn comes.
Lake Forest Park, Washington
Here is how I imagined it: We would call the kids into the living room the day after Christmas. (It wasn’t my first choice of a time to tell them, but it was one of the few occasions when our older son would be home from college and all three kids would be together.) They would sit on the couch, and my husband, Don, and I would sit across from them in the two armchairs on either side of the fireplace. Don would say, “Guys, this is really hard, but we need to tell you something. Your mother and I have made a decision to separate.” Then, in a strong, motherly voice, I would say, “This can’t come as a surprise. You know Dad and I have been struggling for a long time.”
And it was true. They had witnessed the fights, followed by the days of silence. On more than one occasion, each of them had asked me, “Why do you let him talk to you that way?”
My daughter had been the first to tell me the truth. When she was about six years old, the two of us had shopped for a living-room lamp one Saturday. Back home, while we delighted in our shiny brass purchase, she stated matter-of-factly, “You’d better stand up to him when he tells you he hates it, because we think it’s pretty.” But I didn’t stand up to Don, and the lamp was quietly relegated to the den. I never forgot the look my daughter gave me that day: a mix of disappointment and pity.
Once, after a weekend workshop for married couples, Don and I had embarked on redecorating the living room, merging our individual tastes as an expression of our healed marriage. But the project had never reached completion.
And so, on the day after Christmas, we sat in that half-finished room of our fizzled dreams, our children before us, and began to speak. I had imagined that there would be appropriate sadness, but also immense relief. I had imagined tears and promises to help each other adjust. We would settle smoothly into our separated-but-still-one-family status.
The reality didn’t match my naive vision. The kids were devastated. My younger son, who had angrily asked me many times, “Why don’t you just get a divorce?” later furiously accused me of having kicked his father out. My daughter, who I’d been sure would support me, lost trust in me. When I visit her now in college, where she’s a freshman, she confesses in tears, “I really respect you for standing up to him, but I hate that our family is broken.” I see a six-year-old looking through her eighteen-year-old eyes: disappointed, pitiful.
I did not plan for this.
Mama left us one day in 1963. I was seven, and summer vacation had just started.
On weekday mornings that summer Daddy would call my baby sister and me out of bed to go on an “adventure.” One of our older sisters, who was in her teens, would help us get ready, running our bath water, combing our hair, ironing our clothes, cleaning our sandals, and rubbing lotion on our bodies so that our brown skin would glisten in the summer sun. (Years later she told me that she’d wanted to make sure no one could tell Mama had left us.)
Daddy was a numbers runner, and the adventures we went on were his daily rounds. In those days, before state-run lotteries with multi-million-dollar jackpots, organized crime ran its own lottery in poor neighborhoods: players picked three digits and hoped to match a random number each day.
To prepare for work, Daddy would shave, pat on some Old Spice, slick down his thinning hair with Murray’s pomade, and brush it until the waves mysteriously appeared. He’d put on a short-sleeved, button-down shirt, creased pants, and shiny wingtip shoes. He always made sure that he had three well-sharpened pencils with good erasers. Then he’d take a piece of adding-machine tape, roll it tight, wrap it in a strip of plastic from a Wonder Bread bag, and tuck it in his mouth between his cheek and gum, where it could easily be swallowed should the police stop us. Finally Daddy would place his wide-brimmed hat on his head, and we’d walk out the door, looking like a father and his two girls going to church.
We stopped first at the dry cleaner’s, where Daddy talked to his “friends,” wrote down their numbers on that slip of paper, and collected their coins. Then it was off to the bakery, where he’d repeat the process, and the baker would offer us girls two huge boxes of day-old doughnuts. At the hamburger joint, while Daddy did business, my sister and I would spin around on the counter stools (no one ever told us to stop) and eat burgers on toasted buns and drink Coca-Cola with cherry syrup. The cook always remembered just how I liked my hamburger: well done, pickle on the side.
The routine was the same each place we went: the car dealership, the Pepsi bottling plant, the liquor stores, the car-washes, and the mom-and-pop groceries. The grown-ups were always giving my sister and me little trinkets or spare change and telling us to be good girls. They were hardworking people who hoped to win a little extra money to tide them over until their next paycheck. Most of them never won a thing.
Mama came home that fall, after school had started. I guess she and Daddy worked things out, because she never left again.
Every time my mother calls, she says she’s getting ready to clear off the dining-room table. She was raised in Texas, so what she actually says is she’s “fixing” to do it.
Though I’m seven hundred miles away, in my mind I can see the scattered bills, letters, magazines, receipts, and menus that cover every inch of polished maple. She’s tired of not being able to have people over for dinner, she tells me. She and my stepfather eat in the living room, in front of the television. And every day more paper streams through the front door and pools on the table and the hutch, in the closets and spare rooms.
“I have got to get organized!”
Sometimes she’ll actually start to tackle the daunting mess, but it makes her tired, and she soon gives up.
After my mother’s mother died suddenly from heart-surgery complications, her house in Texas had to be sold. But first it had to be cleaned out. My mother called me in the midst of this chore, exhausted and crying. There were china, linens, and crystal in their original packaging (Grandmother had wanted to get the house more “in order” before using them); closets with clothes that hadn’t fit my grandmother in decades (she was always getting ready to go on a diet); and boxes of unlabeled photographs of relatives whom my mother will never be able to identify (my grandmother had always been meaning to take care of that). It took my mother a full month, with my aunt’s help, to empty the house. Over the phone, my mother repeatedly swore that she was never going to put me through that, ever.
But I’m pretty sure she shipped a lot of the junk she found to her home on the East Coast, where it’s likely sitting in storage. I feel as if her life and everything in it is streaming toward me, and when it arrives, there is no way I’ll ever be ready.
St. Albans, Vermont
It was the first time in a dozen years that conservative South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond had granted a meeting with a “known environmentalist,” and that lucky person was me. I felt as if I had been briefed by every Clean Air Act expert in the country. I knew what I wanted to say and how. I had carefully picked out what I would wear, pressed my blouse and suit, and packed my overnight bag. I had cleaned the house and put several meals in the fridge for my husband, who worked long hours as an anesthesiologist. All I needed to do now was serve tonight’s dinner, clean up, get a good night’s sleep, and board a plane for Washington, D.C., in the morning.
When my husband came home from work, I cheerily greeted him with the assurance that dinner would be on the table in a moment. He moved past me without a word, heading straight to the bedroom. I put dinner on the table and lit the candles, but he didn’t reappear. I called to him as I approached our open bedroom door.
There he sat on the bed with a loaded 9 mm pistol at his temple.
Six harrowing hours later, he finally handed me the gun and told me what had happened: he’d been caught in a dark operating room, hooked up to one of the nitrous-oxide machines. My husband of two years was an addict.
I wasn’t ready for that.
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
“Trust me, someone’s going to cry.”
My best man is holding a Kleenex toward me, folded so it will fit into my pants pocket without making a bulge. He tugs at my bow tie, though it doesn’t need straightening, and slaps me on the shoulder.
Everything is ready. I’ve written and memorized my vows. I have composed an essay on love, to be read by another member of my wedding party. My best man has the ring, engraved “Always & Forever.” The string quartet has the music we picked out. I’ve known my fiancée for three years, lived with her for two, and been engaged to her for one. I’ve told her all my secrets and fears and have heard and accepted hers. Our parents have met and like each other. Even the weather is cooperating.
My best man asks if I’m nervous, and whether I want a drink. I smile and assure him that I’m fine. And I am fine, because I’m absolutely confident that what I’m about to do is right. I know this marriage will be better than my first. All the preparations are complete. The thought that seven years later I might be divorced again never enters my mind.
San Francisco, California
I was fourteen when my best friend showed me her hope chest, filled with items she’d need after she left home and got married. I’d never heard of this tradition. As she displayed the tablecloths her grandmother had given her, I was inspired to become better prepared myself: not for marriage — my parents had gotten divorced the year before, and their loud, violent fights had convinced me that I didn’t want to marry — but for leaving home, which I planned to do the day I finished high school.
Even after my father had moved out, my home life was unstable. My older brother was on his way to becoming our father, exhibiting the same rage, drug use, and wild behavior. My mother was scared of him the way she’d been scared of my dad for twenty years. My sister, who’d always been smart, had developed problems in school and begun taking drugs and sometimes living on the streets.
So I started my own hope chest, preparing to set up house and take care of myself. I got a box and put it in the back of my closet. My Aunt Betty gave me some beautiful flowered plates from the 1920s and some mismatched, silver-plated flatware. I began shopping at thrift stores for dishes, pots, and other items. In home-economics class I crocheted an afghan, which I added to the box.
The summer before I turned eighteen, I graduated from high school with honors, loaded my hope chest into my VW Bug, and drove away to college.
Thirty years later, I am cleaning out the kitchen drawers, and I put the silver-plated flatware from Aunt Betty into a pile for Goodwill. My ten-year-old son watches with interest, picking up a heavy fork or spoon and looking at the different patterns on the handles.
“Can I have this silverware?” he says.
“What do you want it for?” I ask.
“For when I have my own house,” he replies.
Now there’s a small metal box in the closet with his name on it.
Haven’t I told myself many times that the surgeon won’t be amputating an arm, a leg, or an eye? Even a tooth is more useful. But my anxiety continues. What is the right breast to a seventy-eight-year-old woman? It has been years since men have leered at the bulges beneath my sweater. My breast has never even suckled a child and should have no sentimental value. But all of this does nothing to relieve my anxiety about looking in the mirror at a wound, closed with staple sutures, where my sagging but familiar breast used to be.
It is not the pain that I fear. Modern medicine has a good handle on pain management, and I’ve had half a dozen surgeries before. Nor is it the risk of general anesthesia that concerns me. No, I dread no longer being able to wear my favorite lavender-striped T-shirt and the pink cashmere sweater that rested so comfortably upon my body.
The surgery is Tuesday. I’ve found some simple camisoles in a catalog and ordered some loose cotton shirts that will not reveal the imbalance. But I will never be ready.
Once again I checked the contents of my tattered suitcase. They were intact — just as they had been the other twenty-odd times I’d checked. I lay back on the bed, but sleep wouldn’t come. In the background was the sound of drunken revelers throughout the run-down hotel. Most of the young men would, like me, be inducted into the military the following morning. Before the end of the year, many of us would be in Vietnam.
In the morning, as I checked out at the front desk, the clerk said, “Be careful out there, son. The streets are filled with protesters.”
I left and headed toward the induction center several blocks away. As I rounded the last corner, a large crowd came into view. They swelled toward me, engulfing me, all of them speaking at once. Mothers holding pictures of their sons in uniform pleaded with me to abandon my destination. Young people waved signs with antiwar slogans. Then a middle-aged woman grabbed my arm and tried to walk me out of the crowd.
“Don’t let them take you,” she said. “They took my son, and he died for nothing. Go to Canada.”
“But I —”
“I’ll give you a bus ticket. Don’t let them draft you.”
“But I wasn’t drafted. I enlisted.”
She looked confused. “You volunteered? But you’re so young. You have your whole life ahead of you. Why?”
I tried to find the words to tell her I was running from something far worse than any enemy in a distant jungle. How could I explain the poverty of my upbringing, or my alcoholic father? How could I convey my limited options for breaking free of my past? As I stammered, her teary eyes met mine and held my gaze for a few seconds. Then her grip on my arm relaxed, and I moved away, pushing through the crowd, clutching my suitcase to my chest. At the top of the steps, free from the protesters, I turned and searched the crowd for the woman but didn’t find her.
“Better get inside,” a policeman said.
I walked through the door. But I never forgot the look in that woman’s eyes.
I was almost forty and had lived by myself for fourteen years when I fell in love at the laundromat. It soon became clear that she wanted marriage and children, but I didn’t feel I had what it took to be a good husband and father. Compromise and selflessness were not on my list of personal virtues.
I was seeing a therapist at the time, a sixty-two-year-old woman who’d been married for decades and had grown children. She was also in remission from ovarian cancer. I confessed to her that though I wanted to commit to this woman, I feared it was beyond my ability. What should I do?
The therapist broke into a hearty laugh and stretched her arms out wide, as if gesturing to a bounty spread before us.
“You need to partake of life,” she said.
I was confused. Was she saying I was ready for marriage?
“This is what people do,” she continued. “They jump in. They play the odds. Now is as good a time as any.”
“But what if it doesn’t work out?”
“What if it does?” she asked.
Twelve years later I’ve learned that nothing teaches the art of compromise and selflessness like marriage, especially when you and your spouse are raising three kids.
I come home late from work, after my wife and two sons are asleep. As on most days, I have been counseling clients for many hours. First I met with a sixteen-year-old with major depression; then with a fourteen-year-old who had swallowed a bottle of pills some years back; then with more children dealing with anxiety and depression. I’m ready to have some time to myself. Lucky for me, the December issue of The Sun has arrived; I run a bath and read the Readers Write on “Getting Ready” while I soak.
As usual, The Sun brings me to tears by revealing our capacity for both beauty and coldheartedness. I read, bathe, cry, feel a sense of connection, and prepare for bed. Tomorrow I will see more kids in pain, but The Sun has given me some strength and energy to continue to do this work for another day.