Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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I was seven years old, and my family was picnicking at Will Rogers State Beach in Santa Monica, California. While I played in the shallow, rocky surf, my brother and sisters jumped over the swells farther out. Between us was the “ditch” — an underwater trench probably only a few feet deep, but an impassable barrier to me. I asked my dad to carry me over it, as he had done many times before, so I could float in the gentle swells.
This time he refused. “Cross it yourself. You can swim. You’ll be safe.”
I attempted to cross several times, but in each instance fear swept me back to the shore. I whined and pleaded for help until at last my father said, “If you don’t cross by yourself, I’ll never bring you back.”
Desperate, I plunged into the ditch, gulped salt water, and reached the other side. I was proud. I had been carried across for the last time.
Dad is now eighty-eight and succumbing to Alzheimer’s. Shuffling steps have replaced his once-confident stride. On a recent visit, he held my hands and looked fearfully into my eyes as I led him toward a ramp to go outdoors. He stopped at the threshold, unable to will his feet over. With a trembling voice he said, “I’d better go back inside.”
If I can’t get you across today, I thought, I’ll never be able to take you outside again. But it would have felt cruel to pressure him, so I let him retreat to his chair.
My friends don’t understand why a missed cellphone call at dinner from my sister-in-law Jenny has me so panicked. My brother Matthew, Jenny’s husband, suffers from depression and has been suicidal. I try to call back but can’t reach her. Throughout the meal I eye the phone on the table beside me, willing it to ring again.
When I finally reach Jenny later that evening, I am relieved to hear that my little brother is still alive. Jenny is in Pennsylvania, and Matthew is at their home in Washington, D.C., but she’s managed to extract from him a promise that he won’t commit suicide this weekend.
I drop my plans and fly to D.C. On the plane, to calm my fears, I assure myself that Matthew has to stay alive to pick me up at the airport; he wouldn’t leave me there all alone. When I see him waiting for me, I burst into tears.
Since Jenny is out of town, Matthew and I have the whole weekend to spend together. He laughs in the morning when he finds me asleep on my back in the sofa bed, legs together, arms out to my sides. “You sleep like Jesus,” he tells me as I sit up groggily. I am just happy he’s here to laugh at me.
Matthew’s been depressed since he was about twelve years old, but he’s always had a biting sense of humor and is the one person who has unfailingly looked after me. Lately his medications have quit working for him, he says. He’s trying new combinations, which cause stomach problems and headaches. It’s enough to make a healthy person depressed.
We spend Saturday at the museums, keeping our minds busy so we don’t have to talk too much about our emotions. In the east wing of the National Gallery of Art, we stand together and look up in wonder at the Alexander Calder mobile, creaking in the sunlight. It’s not until we get back to Matthew’s house that evening that we discuss why I’m there.
I ask him not to do it, but he won’t promise me anything. I tell him I could have him committed to a hospital, but I also know my little brother could convince the doctors he’s sane, then come home and kill himself anyway; the only difference would be that he’d hate me first for having betrayed him. I try to pull rank on him as his big sister. I try to set conditions: not until after Thanksgiving; not until after his thirtieth birthday this fall; not until after my wedding. (He laughs at the last one, as I am perpetually single.)
Then I start in on the reasons to live: the next Harry Potter book; afternoons at the museum beneath the Calder mobile; our mother’s chocolate desserts. Matthew humors me, but I have suffered depression myself (the medications worked for me), and I know that the pleasures of the world are not enough to relieve it. As his big sister, I have beaten up bullies for him. I have done everything I can think of to make his world more bearable. But this I can’t fight.
On Monday Jenny is back from Pennsylvania, and we all go to group therapy together. Then on Tuesday morning I have to go to the airport and return to my job. Though I know we haven’t changed Matthew’s mind, Jenny is hopeful. It’s sunny out. Matthew is headed to work. “I wish you wouldn’t,” I whisper in his ear as I hold him close.
Matthew committed suicide the following Friday.
I spent the better part of my senior year of high school under the influence. I’d start drinking or smoking pot first thing each morning and continue well into the night. I made bad decisions, had run-ins with the law, and experienced blackouts, yet I have few regrets. Any time that I spent drunk or high was time I didn’t feel the psychological pain of my childhood. And, being a shy and lonely girl, I had a lot of fun that I never would have had sober.
One night that spring, my sister Laurie and I were driving around with our friends Pete and Deb in our parents’ red Ford van with the tinted windows. We listened to music and passed bowls of dope. (If anyone had bothered to vacuum the carpet in that van, they would have heard a tick, tick, tick as hundreds of dope seeds were sucked up.) It was one of the first warm nights of the year, so we had the windows open, and the blossoming trees and bushes smelled good. My usual worries — an unrequited crush on Pete; what I was going to do after graduation — weren’t troubling me that night.
Then it started to rain, hard. Up ahead, at the bottom of a hill, the street was flooded by the heavy downpour. The water was at least three inches deep. One of us — it wasn’t me — suggested we stop and get out.
I stepped hesitantly from the van and into the huge puddle. The rain continued to come down, and in an instant we were soaked, hair plastered to our heads, clothes clinging to our skinny bodies. We danced and laughed and splashed one another, not caring whether we looked cool. Nothing mattered, but in a good way. All of our adolescent worries were released in the deluge. I lay down on my back and let the cool water fill my ears. It was a moment of pure ecstasy and joy. I had the strange sensation of knowing who I was and rejoicing in it.
In the months that followed I would lose my virginity, go through a bout of depression, and start the first in a series of meaningless jobs. That night would be the last time I felt truly free.
My girlfriend Kathleen’s mother escorted me to the guest room for the night, explaining that, even though her husband was away, I still had to obey his rules and not sleep in the same room with their daughter. I made knowing eye contact with Kathleen as I thanked her mother for letting me sleep over. By morning the snowstorm would have blown through, and I’d be on my way back to the military base.
After Kathleen’s mother had gone to bed, I waited two hours, then slipped out of the guest room and followed the light of the television down the stairs. In the living room, Kathleen was alone on the couch, a long T-shirt pulled over her knees. Her face lit up when I appeared, and she cast an imaginary fishing line and reeled me in. She hooked her fingers into my jeans and ran them back and forth along the inside of the waistband, brushing against my erection. Then she unbuttoned my fly and lifted her shirt, and we rolled onto the floor.
Kathleen and I had broken her stepfather’s rules many times before and had never been caught. We weren’t caught that night either. At dawn I was in uniform and on the road.
That was the last time I crept down those stairs, saw the enthusiasm in Kathleen’s eyes, and felt the power and pleasure of ejaculation. A few weeks later I was injured in a freak accident and permanently paralyzed.
Parents usually mark their children’s firsts — first food, first words, first steps — but lasts often slip by unnoticed. I don’t remember the last time I carried my son up the stairs in the crook of my arm. Or the last time I read him a bedtime story, closing the cover of Goodnight Moon when I was done. Or the last time he and I kissed on the lips or crossed the street hand in hand. Or the last time he called me “Daddy.” I don’t remember because I didn’t know it was the last time. Had I known, I would have cherished it more. I would have held on tighter.
Saxtons River, Vermont
The first time my husband and I danced was at our wedding. Actually, we didn’t dance; we just posed for the camera. During our marriage I twirled around the house while picking up after the kids, but Russell, though he loved music, just wasn’t a dancer. When he was in a playful mood, he sometimes did what he called “sit-down dancing” — staying in his chair and moving his feet to the beat.
The kids grew up and moved away, and Russell and I were making plans for enjoying our retirement when he suddenly fell ill and had to have major surgery. To brighten his hospital stay, I brought him a portable CD player and a few CDs.
One evening as visiting hours drew to a close, Russell put in his favorite CD, grabbed my arm, and danced me around his hospital room: our first dance in twenty-five years of marriage. Then he walked me to the elevator, and we kissed good night in an unusual public display of affection.
A few hours later the phone woke me. Russell had died — a hemorrhage of his carotid artery due to a postsurgical infection. Our first real dance had also been our last.
Friendship, New York
Sue and I met in a meditation ashram, where we were assigned to be roommates. That first night in the kitchen after dinner, I was wiping the counter with long, sweeping arcs of my sponge when Sue came by with an armful of dishes. Seeing my careful technique, she said, “You love this, don’t you?”
It was as if she had glimpsed a deeply hidden secret.
We became lovers, and on weekends we would drive into town under the pretense of “shopping,” park on a shaded side street, and make out. We held hands as I drove back but always let go upon entering the ashram’s long driveway: sexual contact wasn’t allowed in the monastic environment.
When we made love at night, we would stifle our moans, though we were sure the devout woman in the single room across the hall was on to us. In retrospect, I think the whole ashram knew. We were protected, however, by the house rule against speaking of our personal lives.
I saw a future for us together, but Sue became progressively more troubled by our love affair. She saw me as a temptation that she had failed to resist.
One weekend in early May, Sue and I rented a house near Provincetown, Massachusetts. On our last night there, she poured a small bowl of olive oil, placed it by the bed, and used it to take me to new heights of ecstasy. Afterward we lay together and stared up at the skylight above us.
“We can’t be lovers anymore,” Sue said firmly.
I said nothing.
“My spiritual practice is the most important thing to me, and celibacy helps me keep my focus,” she explained.
I began to cry, and so did she. Although we lived together, in and out of the ashram, for most of the next decade, that was the last time we made love.
My father was bigger than life, a tall, broad-shouldered man who could belt out a song at the piano with gusto. He read five newspapers a day while watching two televisions and listening to the radio, all at the same time. There were six of us in our Brooklyn home — my paternal grandparents, my parents, my older brother, and I — but my father was the dominant presence. My first memory is of waking up in his strong arms as he carried me to my crib.
Always a sharp debater and more aware of current events than most teachers, my father had high expectations for me in school. At home he insisted I play the dutiful granddaughter to his ailing parents. Disappointing him was easy. The older I grew, the less acceptable I became. By the time I reached adolescence, my father had become a brooding storm to be avoided. Whenever I heard his car pull up in front of the house, I ran upstairs to my room.
As my father’s once-successful sales career began to decline, his physical and mental health plunged as well. Tension filled our house, and at night I would sit at the top of the stairs and listen to the yelling in Yiddish and English from two flights below, where my parents and grandparents exchanged recriminations.
My brother and I grew up and moved out. After my grandparents died, my parents enjoyed their first year on their own in thirty years of marriage. A peace settled over them, and my mother opened a store in the house.
But their new beginning was short-lived. My father was diagnosed with colon cancer just before his sixtieth birthday. We had cake and opened presents in his hospital room. By then he had shrunk in body and spirit, his booming voice barely a whisper, his yellowed eyes wise and sad.
One day I was feeding him cooked cherries in bed. Like a baby, he opened his mouth for the spoon and swallowed appreciatively. Then he started to choke on a pit. Terrified that I had killed my father, I moved to summon a nurse, but he managed to swallow the pit. I wept to see him breathe and told him I loved him. “Me too,” he whispered.
The next day my father lapsed into a coma, and a week later he died. The last time I saw him, he was unconscious and breathing as rapidly as if he had run a race. The daddy I’d adored, the father I’d feared, and the parent I’d ultimately made peace with were like three different men. I said goodbye to all of them.
After my mother became a widow, she created a new identity for herself, going by her first name only — Rosie — and saying she would no longer be defined by any man. She had some good years, free to find the person she was meant to be without the burden of her in-laws’ and her husband’s needs. My mother and I had always been close and only grew closer as I grew older. She used to say we were “one soul in two bodies.” She buoyed me up when broken marriages weighed me down, and I was the one person to whom she could reveal her true heart. Though we lived many miles apart, we remained “one soul” — until disease took from us what distance couldn’t.
My mother’s mind unraveled in a frightening manner. “Organic brain disease” was the term the doctor used as I stared uncomprehendingly at his kind face. He told me to “find a good home” for her and handed me a brochure, like a road map to a land of confusion and pain.
As my mother declined, she and I lost our connection, and she became hostile toward me, aiming her angry words like missiles. My brother and I moved her first to an independent-living facility, then to a nursing home, and finally to an Alzheimer’s ward, where she became emaciated and haunted. My frequent walks down that ward corridor were the hardest steps I ever took, and I often collapsed against the wall as I left her room.
The last time I saw my mother, she tried to hit me with the one hand she could still move, and she hissed, “Go to hell, you bastard.” I am already there, I thought.
After many years of feeling alienated and uncomfortable around my father, I’d been able to find peace and acceptance with him before the end. After many years of cherished closeness with my mother, I was left with only guilt and misery at her death.
A few years ago, my daughter and I drove my fourteen-year-old black Lab, Fergus, down to the river. He had been acting cross lately. Arthritis, deafness, and intermittent incontinence were taking their toll.
We stood by the river’s edge and waited for Fergus to plow past us and take his customary plunge, but he stopped just shy of the bank. My daughter tried to coax him into the water by throwing a stick. Instead he turned around and wandered into the bushes, where he lifted a quivering leg.
Recently Fergus had begun having “accidents” and had been banished from the house. My daughter would tattle on him as he walked down the hallway, leaking a smelly trail on the carpet. Though he’d once liked being outdoors, he now wanted to be as close to us as possible. In the mornings I’d often find him snoring on the landing to the garage.
It was late when we got home from the river that day. A host of domestic duties awaited me: animals to be fed, dinner to be started, laundry to be done. I fed Fergus in the garage and forgot about him. That evening, when I went to take out the garbage, Fergus tried to force his way into the house.
I was tired and cranky. “No!” I yelled at my deaf dog. Again he tried to push past me. “No, damn it!” I shouted, kneeing him and shoving him away from the door. Then I pushed him again for good measure. I just wanted the day to be over.
The next morning my mood was brighter. Remembering my fight with Fergus the night before, I went outside to make it up to him, but he wasn’t there. I made coffee and came back a few minutes later. Still no Fergus. Something was wrong. I searched for him in all the usual places without luck. Finally I found him lying in the ditch with a stiff, contorted grimace on his face.
I fell to my knees, took his lifeless body into my arms, and begged his forgiveness.
I grew up near a park called “the Round.” It was the place neighborhood kids went to play tag, chase dogs, or have water fights. In our teens we flirted with girls under the palm trees or smoked pot while lying on our backs and looking up at the clouds. I always felt safe at the Round. If life got hard or confusing, I could go there and forget my problems.
All through high school my friends and I played baseball in the park. Three eucalyptus trees formed roughly equidistant bases, and home plate was a chubby palm. We used tennis balls to spare ourselves the wrath of the drivers whose cars we hit. Nobody wore a mitt. There were two ultimate joys: One was catching a fly ball hit into the magnolia tree that swallowed all deep shots to center field. The ball would bounce from branch to branch on its journey back to the ground, and to snag it before it landed required intense focus. The second was hitting a “double-roof shot” — a home run that landed on the second-story roof of the house behind left field. You were lucky to get one or two a summer.
I went away to college, where there was no re-creating the magic of the Round. After I’d graduated, I returned to my hometown to figure out what to do with my life. Many of my old friends did the same, and we played baseball together once more. Late that summer I hit a double-roof shot. As I was jogging around the bases with a smile, one of my friends grabbed the ball and waved his arms. “That’s it,” he said. “That’s the way it’s got to end.” Our baseball games at the Round were officially over.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I walked to the Round, sat down next to the home-plate palm, and wept.
Few families with kids can afford to live in that neighborhood now, and the park is used mostly by adults doing martial arts or sunbathing. Fifteen years later those of us who grew up there have remained close, but we haven’t played baseball at the Round since.
Santa Barbara, California
The last time I felt safe was on the morning of May 1, 1934. I was eight years old, and all across Germany the Nazis were celebrating the first of May with a parade of troops.
High-stepping young Germans in brown shirts and carrying swastika flags filed down the main street of our small village, past my family’s weaving mill. They shouted in unison, “Heil Hitler! Kill the Jews! Heil Hitler! Kill the Jews!” Helmeted SS soldiers roared past on motorcycles that gleamed in the sun. There were no bands, only our neighbors leaning out their windows, cheering.
My parents, my two sisters, and I gathered in my father’s office and watched through a slit in the curtain as the Nazis condemned us to death. The sons of my father’s longtime employees, and even some of the weavers themselves, were marching. “There is Hans,” we whispered. “And Fritz also.”
We retreated from the window long before the parade ended. Our father and mother surrounded my sisters and me, shielding us with their bodies in a tight embrace. Until that moment I had always believed that they could protect us.
Renate G. Justin
Fort Collins, Colorado
The first time my son stopped breathing was on a gray January morning when he was eight months old. He was fussy and began to cry as I nursed him. Then no sound came out, and he turned blue. I tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation but couldn’t get any air in. He went limp. In a panic I placed him on the carpet and ran to call an ambulance. When I returned, I fumbled through CPR, which I had learned as part of my nurse’s training, but who can count breaths or chest compressions when it’s your own baby who’s not breathing? My compressions were too hard and too many, and the head position was wrong.
Despite all my mistakes, my son gasped and inhaled. By the time the ambulance arrived, he was breathing freely and had a good pulse. At the hospital, he gurgled and gnawed on objects as if nothing had happened. His doctor did not even want to admit him, and the residents hinted that maybe I’d only thought he’d stopped breathing. But I insisted on admission. There was no way I was going to take him home that night.
The following day, when the lab technician came in to draw my son’s blood, it happened again. This time a full team of medical professionals resuscitated him. Within a few minutes he was pink and normal-looking. I was relieved that someone besides me had seen him stop breathing. Perhaps now the doctors would figure out what the problem was.
But two years later, after numerous hospitalizations, no one knew what was causing the episodes. Each hospitalization resulted in more home equipment for us to use when his vital functions stopped: an oxygen tank, a suction machine, a nebulizer, a breathing monitor. His nursery looked like an ER. Sometimes he’d go two weeks without an incident, and then it would happen twice in one day. I’d stopped calling for an ambulance after the first few times.
Late one night my son was on my lap drinking a bottle of eggnog when his breathing stopped — only this time I couldn’t get it to start again. Frantic, I woke my husband, who called for an ambulance while I performed CPR. Once the paramedics took over, my son finally gasped for breath, but he was as stiff as a board; I couldn’t even bend his legs or arms to get his pajamas on. He remained rigid the entire ride to the hospital.
The doctors wanted to admit him, but when my husband and I found out that the first tests they would perform were both painful procedures — blood gases and a spinal tap — we elected to bring him home. He had already been hospitalized six times. He’d been examined by cardiologists, pulmonologists, endocrinologists, neurologists, gastroenterologists, urologists, and allergists. I couldn’t face the thought of more specialists, more needles, more physicals, more lost days in waiting rooms. I still felt guilty for having allowed painful tests that had yielded little useful information in the past. He wasn’t a guinea pig for doctors’ experiments — he was my son. At some point before that night I had made a vow: No more hospitals, no more tests. He would live a normal life at home with our family.
By this time my son was asleep and breathing normally in my arms. After signing an “against medical advice” form, we wrapped him in a hospital blanket, brought him home, and put him to bed. The next morning he was fine.
And it never happened again. Ever. For many years, we kept that hospital blanket as a souvenir of the last time our son stopped breathing.
When I was fourteen years old, my parents divorced, and my mother and I moved from Arkansas to California. I was thrilled to leave my home state, where we’d attended a conservative Southern Baptist church and I’d been teased for being a “sissy.”
I visited Arkansas for a week or two most summers. At first I stayed with an aunt and uncle, but as I grew older, I became determined to establish a better relationship with my father, so I stayed with him.
My father and I had never been close. An alcoholic who suffered from depression and a lack of self-assurance, he’d tried to conquer his demons but with little success. I’d grown up believing I needed to conceal his addiction. Our times together were awkward, but I am grateful that we had them.
In the summer of 1982 I was living in San Francisco and growing comfortable with my homosexuality, but I still hadn’t come out to my father. I’d heard through the grapevine that my cousin — my father’s twin brother’s son — had revealed to his parents that he was gay. During my visit with my father that summer, I mustered the courage to ask how my uncle had reacted to my cousin’s coming out. Had he disowned him?
My father gently said no, of course not, that his brother would always love his son.
I now feel certain my father knew I was gay, too, and that this was his way of saying that he loved me.
That trip was the last time I saw my father. He shot himself later that year.
New York, New York
My partner and I had been together for over a decade when we decided to take a steamboat cruise down the Mississippi. He was seventy-nine, and I had just turned sixty-eight. Toward the end of the cruise, after an evening of dancing to the music of jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain, we made love.
A few weeks later I hosted a party to celebrate my partner’s eightieth birthday. During the toast I revealed to the guests that we had enjoyed a “romantic” evening on our recent vacation. (I had to be subtle because children were present.) My partner beamed, turned pink, and puffed up like a rooster.
He developed an enlarged prostate gland soon after, and that cruise turned out to be the last time we were able to make love. But we still enjoy dancing, holding hands, hugging, and kissing, and we’re looking forward to another big party in the spring — to celebrate his ninetieth birthday.
Rock Hall, Maryland
The last time I took drugs, I was under court-ordered supervision while awaiting sentencing for two counts of vehicular assault committed under the influence: I’d hit two women who were walking their dogs through my neighborhood; both were injured, and I’d killed one of the dogs.
As part of my probation, I had to submit to random urinalysis, but I never once considered the consequences as I sifted through the pills to find the ones I wanted. I never thought, I could lose my daughter. I could be sentenced to even more time in prison.
After I’d sobered up, I ran to the Internet to search for information on how long drugs stay in your system. I typed, “Benzodiazepines in urine,” and, “Urinalysis, what will they find.” According to the websites, I was sure to get caught. Maybe I could tell my probation officer I’d taken the pills by accident, thinking they were aspirin. I wondered how many times he’d heard that one.
I drank vinegar. I drank water (including some with bleach in it) until I was sick to my stomach. I drank coffee until I had heart palpitations. I did everything short of buying the Whizzinator. Finally I lay in bed and whimpered, trying not to wake my daughter. What is wrong with me? I thought.
Four days later, to my surprise, I passed the test. I haven’t taken anything since. But I still feel like a drug addict, and I am still going to prison.
In the months before our parents’ nineteenth wedding anniversary, my younger brothers and I pooled our allowances and baby-sitting money to buy them a present. We’d never spent our own money on them before.
I rode my bike to a shop downtown. Within three minutes I had picked out the perfect gift: a pair of champagne flutes with “Mom” etched on one and “Dad” on the other. The saleswoman wrapped the box in silver paper, violet ribbon, and a gigantic white bow that I had chosen. I was sure it would be the most thoughtful present my parents would ever open.
And they were touched. But besides commenting on how pretty the glasses were, they didn’t say much — speechless with emotion, I figured. My siblings and I asked them to make a toast, and they lifted the empty glasses to each other.
Just three days later they announced they were separating. They split most things equally: custody, carpooling, even their respective glasses. Their first anniversary gift from their children was also their last.
Lynn E. McNish
Grove City, Ohio
After a year and a half of waiting to adopt, I traveled to India to spend a month getting to know Sahiti, the toddler who’d been chosen to become my daughter. I watched her play with a key chain from my handbag, and I cooed to her in my language as she babbled in hers. I imagined someday telling her about this time we’d spent together at the orphanage, where wonderful people had cared for her while we’d waited to become a family.
At the end of each two-hour visit, a female caretaker approached and signaled that it was time for Sahiti to eat — and time for me to go. Sahiti always cried during these transitions, and I felt sick to my stomach with helplessness and frustration. I wanted nothing more than to feed Sahiti myself, to change her diaper, to put her to bed and tuck her in.
After a month, we came to the last visit before I would return to the United States and await final court approval. Sahiti was sprawled on my lap, covered from head to toe with coconut oil to protect her dry skin. She squirmed into a sitting position and reached for my earrings, tugging them toward her. Then the caretaker appeared: time to go. As I reluctantly stood up to leave, Sahiti grabbed my legs. The caretaker said something quick in Telugu and swept Sahiti up. Sahiti arched her back and stretched out her arms to me. I knew I should hustle away, but I stood there paralyzed.
“Don’t worry,” I whispered under my breath. “Before you know it, we’ll be together again.”
Sahiti wailed and peered over the caretaker’s shoulder at me. I listened to her cries grow quieter and quieter as they moved farther and farther away.
That was the last time I ever saw her. A baby-selling scandal in a neighboring state caused the courts in that part of India to halt all international adoptions, whether lawful or not.
I didn’t want another child. The birth of my first son had been difficult — nearly twelve hours of labor followed by a C-section — and I was terrified of another traumatic experience. But my husband wheedled and cajoled and convinced me that our son needed a sibling. So I got pregnant again. Sick more often this time, I longed for the pregnancy to be over. I got my wish sooner than I’d expected.
Liam’s due date was March 8, 2001. At 2 P.M. on February 22 I sensed something was wrong. I hadn’t felt so much as a wiggle from Liam for several hours. I tried drinking fruit juice, eating, resting: nothing, not even a twitch. At 4 P.M. I put in a panicked call to my OB-GYN’s office. A testy nurse told me there was nothing they could do this late in the day; I should go to the hospital.
I paged my husband, who agreed to meet me at the emergency room. Then I threw some clothes in a bag, grabbed my three-year-old son, Evan, and rushed to the car. All the way downtown, I made deals with God: Let him live, and I’ll be a better mother. The kids will be my life; I won’t worry so much about my career. I know I said I didn’t want another child, but I didn’t mean it. I will love him. Please don’t let him be dead.
From the back seat came a calm voice: “Don’t worry, Mommy. It will be OK.”
Evan’s words sustained me until I got to the hospital, where a young resident hooked me up to an ultrasound and a fetal heart monitor.
“Well, there’s a heartbeat,” he said.
I closed my eyes and whispered, “Thank you.”
“But he’s not moving like we would expect. Let’s run a strip.”
A few minutes later, the resident’s calm demeanor gave way to a flurry of activity. The baby’s heart was racing; he was in distress. The supervising physician explained that an emergency C-section was the only option.
One of the nurses leaned over to me and whispered, “Is this your last one? Because if it is, we can do a tubal.”
We were in a Catholic hospital; sterilization procedures were not supposed to be performed there. “I thought —” I began.
“We can do it if you want,” the nurse said firmly.
I almost agreed. This was supposed to be my last, right? But what if this baby didn’t live? Could I really say for sure?
Seeing my hesitation, the nurse said, “Maybe you shouldn’t decide that right now.”
My husband had to stay with Evan, so he couldn’t be with me in the operating room. I would have to face this on my own. The anesthesiologist numbed my spine so fast I felt a jolt all the way down to the soles of my feet. I barely heard the chatter of the nurses and doctors as they cut open my belly. I was listening for only one sound.
Anticipating my thoughts, the nurse sitting by my head said, “He probably won’t cry when we get him out, because of the lack of oxygen.”
I made one more silent plea: Please let him cry.
A minute later a nurse lifted Liam onto a table. I didn’t hear a sound, but caught a glimpse of the top of his head: it was blue. Tears pricked the corners of my eyes as the nurses surrounded my son. Then one of them moved aside, and I saw a pink spot bloom at the crown of Liam’s head and spread down to his cheeks. Finally I heard it — a feeble little cry.
Later a nurse wheeled me down to the neonatal intensive-care unit to see the baby. I couldn’t take him out of his oxygen tent, but she positioned me so that my head was next to Liam’s, and I called his name. He turned his head toward me, his cool gray eyes locking on mine.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” I whispered.
“Is he going to be your last one?” the nurse asked.
“Yes,” I said, with certainty. “This is it.”
I’d worked for years with programs that served homeless women and children, and I’d seen what happens when crack takes over someone’s life. People literally lose everything: jobs, homes, kids, hope.
So why, during my thirty-ninth year, did I start to smoke crack? For the same reason so many women do: because their significant others smoke it, and low self-esteem can make you put aside common sense for the sake of being closer to a man, even one who is spiraling out of control. After that, the drug just takes over.
At first I used only when my son was with his father for the weekend. I won’t lie: it was exciting. Sex was more fun, and I felt released from my responsibilities at my job, at my church, and as a parent. Coming down was awful — but usually not enough to make me want to quit.
On many occasions I told myself, This is the last time: after I’d nodded off behind the wheel and wrecked my car just one block from home; after my drug-addled boyfriend had beaten me up; when I stared at my son’s picture, knowing full well that I could end up losing him.
Oddly, losing my job did not inspire a “last time” vow, nor did my boyfriend’s psychiatric hospitalization after he’d threatened to hit me with a hammer. When he was released a week later, he went on a binge, and I refused to let him come home. I’d realized while he was gone that the only way for me to stop using was to stay away from him. He went to his parents’ house, where he was arrested for threatening their lives.
After three months in the county facility, he was sentenced to a boot-camp-style program run by the New York State Department of Corrections. I stood behind him, still hopeful that he could undergo a transformation. When he got out, he was his humorous, sexy, wonderful self again. I actually believed I could marry him.
It is now one month later, and he is out using. He knows better than to bring it into my home. I have given it up for good and am waiting for him to stop. I wonder when I will give up waiting, too.
I sat in the restaurant and studied the menu. My friend was late for our dinner date. As the minutes ticked away, I contemplated whether to get up and leave or go ahead and order.
A familiar feeling of inevitability came over me: if I stayed and ordered, I would surely eat too much, and then I would have to go to the bathroom and throw up. I willed myself to get up and walk out, but it was no use. I succumbed to the mysterious need to stuff myself full of food — especially the bad kinds — and then eliminate it from my body.
I’d been bulimic for eighteen years. How many times had I told myself, “This is the last time”? If I’d binged and purged an average of once a day (not a bad estimate), that would be 6,570 bulimic episodes. Let’s say I’d given myself the “last time” story every tenth day or so. That would be 657 failed promises. Because, of course, it never had been the last time.
A few days after that night in the restaurant, I realized I hadn’t binged since. A small voice whispered, Maybe that was the last time. I hardly dared to listen, afraid that I would only disappoint myself once more.
Days passed, then weeks, and the voice grew louder: Maybe it really was the last time. Then it was a month. My steadiness and confidence grew.
I don’t know how many months passed before I truly knew, but seventeen years out, not a shred of doubt remains.
In 1987 I signed my first contract as an English teacher at a quiet rural high school where the worst behavior problems were students dipping snuff behind my back. Then I left to attend graduate school and accepted a teaching position in the inner city. Suddenly I was the one getting an education. I saw things I had never known: tenth-grade classes in which the students could barely read or write; kids who practically needed to be tied to their seats or locked out of the room altogether; police helicopters flying over the football stadium on game nights.
Throughout all of this, I did my best to focus on the students. I remember one named William: tall, thin, seventeen (a little old for eleventh grade), usually wide-eyed but sometimes sleepy, with a flashy gold smile. He read at a fourth-grade level but was determined to make it through The Scarlet Letter. He couldn’t spell but wrote poetry. He missed many classes, but when he came, he concentrated and stayed after to ask questions. He let the white lady teacher see the vulnerable boy inside him. He gave me hope.
One day I was called into the office, and there sat William, sandwiched between the principal and a police officer. “Was William in class today?” the principal asked me. “No,” I said, wishing I could have told him otherwise. William glanced aside in shame, but then he looked at me, his eyes pleading for forgiveness.
“That’s all,” the principal said to me.
I never saw William again. Later they told me that he had been caught with hundreds of dollars in his pocket from selling drugs. I couldn’t believe I’d been so naive about him. I wanted to argue that they were the ones who didn’t know William, but the evidence was on their side.
William’s death a month later received just a short blurb in the paper: “man” killed by middle-school student on school grounds in broad daylight; a drug deal gone bad. Could this really be William? He had wanted to be so much more.
Apex, North Carolina
One morning shortly before my grandmother died, I stopped by her hospice room on my way to work. My dad had put some corn outside her window for the squirrels, and though Gramma was dying of colon cancer, we talked mostly about the squirrels’ antics. I remembered how, when I’d visited my grandparents’ farm in western Minnesota as a kid, they’d always had corncobs nailed to planks on the cottonwood trees for the squirrels and gourd birdhouses hanging from the linden tree for the wrens.
That was my last conversation with my grandmother. Since her death, I’ve been angry. I regret not expressing all the gratitude and love I felt toward her. I never thanked her for being my lifelong pen pal, for teaching me to brew loose tea, or for giving me Old Mother West Wind books on my birthdays.
But then I remember that my grandmother and I talked and wrote openly and honestly my entire life. She knew how much I appreciated her. No, my anger isn’t from regret. It’s because I need her now. My marriage is falling apart, my job is mind numbing, and I’m floundering through life. I need her wisdom. And the last thing we talked about was those damn squirrels.
I’m learning that there is no real last time. I can still talk to my grandmother, as long as I keep brewing my Earl Grey and reading Old Mother West Wind to my children. And I’ll never, ever chase the squirrels off my bird feeder again.
South St. Paul, Minnesota