In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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The morning before my court date, I began to pack. The idea of being a fugitive was frightening, but it was better than the likely alternative: a ten-year prison sentence for the relatively minor offense of robbing a drug dealer.
Everything was set for me to flee the country: all I had left to do was say my goodbyes. I spent the day getting stoned and driving around with a friend to visit all the people who were important to me. Some of them supported my decision; some didn’t. My closest friends knew I was avoiding the consequences of my actions yet again, but they didn’t lecture me about it.
At nightfall, as my friend drove off, I thought about what I was about to do. Once I took this step, all I had ahead of me would be more problems with fewer people to help me. I had grown used to running away, but at that moment, standing in front of my parents’ house, I was tired of it. I stumbled inside, determined for once to do the right thing. I was twenty-one, and for the first time in my life I would choose the difficult but responsible path.
That was nine years ago. In eight months my sentence will be over. Life in prison hasn’t been easy, but if I had chosen to run, I believe I’d be dead right now.
“Do you want to feel better than you’ve ever felt in your whole life?” he asked.
I hesitated. Better than I’d ever felt? That sounded good. Better at all would have been pretty good, in fact. I was seventeen and living in a strange city three thousand miles from my family. Though no stranger to pot and psychedelics, I had never even seen cocaine before that night. Now I was considering letting someone I’d just met inject it into my arm.
Beads of sweat shone on his forehead. “C’mon. I promise you’ll like it. You can’t not.”
We were sitting on a futon, our voices hushed because my housemates were making chili on the other side of the door. He rested a blackened, bent spoon on top of a dictionary between us, pulled two orange-capped syringes out of his bag, and handed one to me. He popped the cap off his, stuck the needle in a glass of water next to his bed, and pulled water up into the syringe. With shaking hands he unfolded a pink piece of paper and tapped the powder inside it into the spoon, then squirted the powder gently with water from the syringe.
“The works are brand new,” he assured me. “And I’ve got alcohol swabs.”
I thought of a friend who had died in a car accident a year earlier, just before I’d dropped out of high school. After that, I had promised myself I’d live life as fully as I could. How could I pass up this opportunity and still say I was keeping my promise?
When he stuck the needle into the spoon, the sound of metal scraping against metal made me shiver.
He held up the syringe full of cocaine, tapping it to get the bubbles to rise. Then he repeated the process with the syringe I was holding. When he was finished, he handed mine back to me. I accepted it hesitantly. Would this change my life?
“I’ll do the first shot, just in case it’s bad,” he offered, already rolling up his sleeve. I watched as he wiped his arm with the alcohol swab and injected the cocaine. After he’d pulled the needle out, he set it on the bed and lifted his arm to his mouth, licking the blood. He turned to me with bulging eyes. “You’ve got to do yours,” he breathed. “It’s great.”
A voice inside me still protested.
“I’ll do it if you don’t want it,” he said.
Wait, wait: I had to think. This wasn’t a good idea. But I didn’t want to miss my chance. What if I died the next day? Would I regret not having had this experience?
“C’mon, babe,” he whispered. “It’s now or never.”
University Park, Maryland
My three-year-old daughter, Devon, was excited about my mother’s visit. Devon had met her grandma only once and had no memory of it. She happily played in the airport while we waited for Grandma’s plane to land.
I was looking forward to my mother’s visit as well, but for different reasons. I had a three-week business trip to Asia coming up, and I wouldn’t have been able to go if Mom hadn’t been willing to stay with Devon. I couldn’t have imagined entrusting my daughter to anyone else for that long.
When my mother arrived, she rushed to scoop her granddaughter into her arms, and Devon squealed, “Grandma, you’re here! Do you like where Mommy works?”
My mother and I exchanged puzzled glances. “But, honey,” my mother said to Devon, “we’re at the airport. Maybe tomorrow we can go and see where Mommy works.”
“No, Grandma, Mommy works here. She works on airplanes.”
I realized then that my child was three years old, and I had missed much of her life as I’d jetted around the globe. I loved my job, but that day I went home, called my boss, and resigned. My mother, my daughter, and I spent the next three weeks getting to know one another as a family.
My patient sits opposite me and tosses her hair behind her shoulder. She has striking features, teal blue eyes, and intractable epilepsy. No matter which medication I prescribe for her, she either still has seizures or becomes too sleepy to function.
She is also an unmarried mother, and we have talked about her finding someone to live with her, in case she has a seizure, but she says she can’t. Her seven-year-old son prances around the room, then rolls a magazine up into a tube and asks me to “talk into the microphone.” I tell him I need to speak to his mother right now. I am trying to explain to her the importance of seeing an epilepsy expert who can evaluate her for surgical treatment. Her son pushes the rolled-up journal into his mother’s face, and she says, “Mommy loves Teddy. Mommy is speaking into the microphone for Teddy.”
I look at my watch. My next patient is waiting. “It’s important that you consider this treatment,” I tell her. “The mortality rate for status epilepticus is 50 percent.” Status epilepticus is a state of continuous seizing and can occur anytime an epileptic stops taking anticonvulsant medication. This patient frequently forgets to refill her medications on time.
She leans forward, grabs her son around his waist, and pulls him into her. “He takes care of me now. There really isn’t anyone else.”
I repeat that she needs to consider this surgical treatment.
“Yes, yes,” she says. “Next time we can talk about it.”
My youngest sister, my wife, and I were in Juárez, Mexico, trying vainly to arrange for my brother-in-law to fly from Athens, Greece, to Mexico City. Kaled was stuck at the Athens airport without any money, having just deserted the army of a Middle Eastern country. He had only a few hours before he would be discovered and apprehended.
After four Mexican travel agencies failed to get us a plane ticket, we decided to go back across the border to an agency in El Paso, Texas. I looked at my watch: time was running out. I hoped our agent wouldn’t be too nosy; we couldn’t tell her that we were helping a deserter escape.
With extraordinary efficiency, the agent in El Paso purchased the ticket and thirty minutes later confirmed that Kaled had picked it up.
At two o’clock the next day, we drove to the old Juárez airport, which was like something out of Casablanca. Kaled came through customs without any trouble, and we were halfway to the revolving door when an official came over and asked Kaled to come to his office.
I told Kaled to give me all his papers, everything. Then I handed the pile of papers to the official, asking casually if we might have a few moments with Kaled while he checked the documents. Once the official was distracted, we disappeared into the crowd of travelers, leaving all of Kaled’s documents — and his identity — behind.
Back in the late 1970s and early ’80s I worked part time as a saxophonist in the casinos of Reno and Lake Tahoe, Nevada. I was what they called the “added tenor”: most house bands had only four saxophones, but when a big-name act came to town, an extra tenor sax would be added to beef up the section.
One day a bandleader called and asked me to play for Tony Bennett, who had a two-week run coming up at Harrah’s in Reno. I had never played for Tony Bennett, and I happily accepted. Within a couple of hours, another bandleader called and asked me to play for Frank Sinatra. I was thrilled, until he told me the dates: Sinatra was opening in Tahoe the same night Bennett was scheduled to open in Reno. I asked if I could call him back. He said sure, but he needed an answer within a half-hour.
What to do? I’d agreed to the Bennett job first, but I wanted to be able to tell my grandchildren someday that I’d played for the incomparable Frank Sinatra, and I might never get another chance.
I called the first bandleader back and explained my situation. He was gracious and told me he would release me from the Bennett gig if I wanted, but he advised me against it. He said Sinatra was a legend, but he was also moody. Working with him could be a pleasure, or it could be miserable. On the other hand, Bennett was always a sweetheart. I decided to stay with Tony Bennett.
On opening night the rehearsal went well, and Tony Bennett couldn’t have been friendlier. I was relaxing with the other musicians in the band room before the show when in walked several saxophonists who’d been hired to play for Sinatra. We asked what they were doing in Reno so close to showtime. It turned out Sinatra had been in a foul mood at rehearsal. He’d fired the entire saxophone section.
My one-time lover Judy loves to kiss and eat and laugh, but now her mouth is so filled with thrush that she can barely talk. An intravenous feeding tube hangs from her arm, and her last solid meal was weeks ago, before the ambulance was called.
Though painfully modest about her body, Judy uses the commode beside her hospital bed in front of me, her tangled tubes pulling aside her gown, leaving her exposed. She is winded by the exertion of getting out of bed and indifferent to the strangers walking past the open door. Dark red lesions cover her breastless chest. I close the privacy curtain. I still love her so much. Maybe more than ever.
When I’m away from the hospital, I call the nurses’ station at all hours for updates. I don’t know what it is I hope to hear anymore. Judy is forty-seven years old, and all I want to do is take her in my arms and rock away her loneliness and fear; the indignity and fatigue from this years-long battle; the many losses and betrayals, including my own.
Mostly she is sedated and dozing. This makes me anxious, because time is running out, and I want to spend as much of it as I can with her. Yet I’m relieved, because Judy likes to sleep and suffers less when she does. I cover her swollen legs with a sheet.
Judy is a published author, a winner of literary awards who gets paid to teach others how to write. I’ve long wanted to be a writer, but I’m afraid to let people read my work. I scribble down my life in secret and worry about who will find my notebooks when I die.
I’m reading out loud to Judy from the newspaper about how her beloved Cleveland Indians beat the Boston Red Sox ten to seven when she stirs, opens her brown eyes, and looks at me intently, pointing an English-teacher finger in my direction. “Time to start writing,” she says.
Her hoarse voice is almost inaudible, and I consider pretending I didn’t hear. I want to protest, but her gaze is steady, waiting.
Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
I stand in my kitchen and sip the last bit of coffee from my cup. Outside, the Montana winter sky is as gloomy as my mood. I look at the clock, sigh, and prepare to face another day as a high-school English teacher.
It hasn’t always been this way. I used to have idealism and passion. I worked to create a program to help at-risk students — but that program got axed. Then I worked with honors students, many of whom tried so hard to succeed that they became depressed, or developed eating disorders, or practiced self-mutilation. Now I work mostly with seniors whose apathy and disdain toward school have drained away any passion I had left.
I’ve made many connections with students, but it isn’t enough to make me want to stay. It doesn’t compensate for the hours and hours of grading and lesson planning I must do at home. It doesn’t make up for the students who resent my presence in their lives and see me as an interruption to their cellphone calls. Layer the mind-numbing school bureaucracy on top of all this, and the job becomes unbearable. I’m ready to quit.
But here’s the problem: I am forty-eight years old and have been teaching only thirteen years. I am too young for retirement benefits but too old to have many more chances at a new career. If I stay, though, I’m frightened of what I might become. I’ve seen teachers who have hung in there after disillusionment has set in, and I can’t bear to think of myself skulking through the days like that, either having dropped all pretense of teaching kids, or making them the target of my quiet, desperate rage.
I have come to the conclusion that this is my last chance to pursue a new career path. The decision to leave teaching has been as painful as the decision to leave my first husband. It all feels so familiar: the shock, the denial, the anger, the grief. This job, like that marriage, has broken my heart, and it’s time for me to go.
My father was an expert at dodging the consequences of his abusive behavior. His worst episodes were often followed by such severe depression and self-recrimination that we ended up comforting him. He sometimes threatened to kill himself by circling a “death day” on the calendar. He’d say life was not worth living unless “things changed.”
Just before Christmas the year I turned nineteen, he circled a new death date. My mother was out for the evening and had not yet seen it. I knew that when she did, she’d turn to me and say, “Now see what you’ve done!” And she’d roll her eyes, sigh in exhaustion, and pamper him without ever mentioning the circled date.
I decided to ignore his latest threat, and my hurt father walked out of the room, shoulders hunched. A few minutes later the electricity went off. I froze, terrified that he’d electrocuted himself. But then our tenant John, whose apartment was also in darkness, went to the basement, found the fuses Dad had removed from the fuse box, and put them back in.
As the evening progressed the blackouts continued, and the fuses were better hidden each time. John and I shivered as we crawled around the cellar floor, searching under heavy table saws and in bins of nails. John was more amused than irritated, calling my father “quite the prankster,” but my anger grew with each incident.
The fourth or fifth time, we couldn’t find the fuses. We scoured the basement for almost an hour before John gave up and went to look for my father. He found him in his camper in the driveway, drinking from a gallon bottle of wine and refusing to surrender the fuses. John came back and suggested we do without electricity. “He’s feeling really bad. I wouldn’t bother him.”
But I’d been frightened of my father for too long. I got his .45 handgun — the one he always threatened to use to end his life — and I loaded it by candlelight. A small voice warned me to stop, but the feeling of power and purpose was exhilarating.
I picked my way over the snow and ice to the camper and went inside. “Not getting enough attention?” I asked my father.
He didn’t answer. Then I pointed the loaded pistol at his heart and offered to kill him right there.
His first reaction was a grin, but it faded when I cocked the .45 and told him I was tired of his threats. My voice and hands were shaking. I brought my left hand up to support my right. “So this is it: your chance to end it all. Just say the word, and I’ll fire. Let’s get it over with, or I never, ever want to hear another threat from you.”
We stared at each other for a long time. Finally I took his silence for an answer, and I placed the gun at his feet and said, “Just in case you change your mind.”
As I walked back to the house, I braced myself for the sound of a shot, but none ever came. The electricity was back on within half an hour. My father never circled another death day.
Twenty years later, after my father had died of natural causes, my mother told me he’d once said that I’d given his life back to him.
Fred was the perfect man for me in every way but one: he didn’t want children. He’d had three by his first wife, and that was enough, he said. He told me this one evening when we were camping with some of his work buddies near Yosemite National Park.
I had already been through a brief marriage in which my husband had kept putting off having children until finally he’d said that he would leave me if I got pregnant. After the divorce, I dated a man for three years who would have been happy to get me pregnant, but he was still married to his estranged wife and frequently abusive.
Now here was Fred: sweet, kind, handsome, gainfully employed. We had been engaged for a few months and had talked about having his vasectomy reversed. But as we walked through the woods that night, he said no.
Looking back, I know that was my chance to tell him I wouldn’t marry him unless we had children together. Who knows: he might have changed his mind. But I was terrified of losing him. I didn’t say it. I never had any kids.
South Beach, Oregon
“I know I’m going to die,” I say. “I’m just sorry that it’s taking so long.”
I look around the circle at my friends and my sister, all either tearful or angry or shaking their heads. They want me to go to rehab.
The interventionist takes a deep breath and says, “In that case, what have you got to lose?”
“My sanity,” I reply, laughing. My biggest fear is that I will wind up on a locked ward.
I’ve been on a heroin binge for the last eighteen months, and I’ve convinced myself that it’s time to die. I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do: I’ve been a ballerina, a bartender, a writer, a filmmaker, and a student of various fascinations. I’ve traveled to Italy, Thailand, and Mexico, had many love affairs, and fulfilled all my fantasies, both hedonistic and altruistic.
My thirty-five-year, on-again, off-again relationship with heroin has left me exhausted and frail. I cry as these loving women read letters they have written to me. I am grateful that I’ve had my morning hit, because it would have been impossible for me to sit and listen without dope in my system.
Now I must decide. There’s a seat on a plane and a bed in a treatment center waiting for me.
I have been lonely in my addiction. I have broken the hearts of people I love. For them, I will start trying to live instead of trying to die.
Dad sits in his mechanical lift chair, where he spends most of his time now that cancer has weakened his bones to the point that he can barely walk from bedroom to chair and back. He and I are watching home movies of my mom, who died ten years ago, and my twin brother and me at age five or six. I’m surprised at how confident and outgoing I appear on the screen, despite my memories of being a timid girl. In my teens and young-adult years, I was always unsure, always afraid of being wrong, always certain that others were right.
Dad says he worries that he showed preferential treatment to my brother as we were growing up.
“Well,” I say, caught off guard, “you sure did point the camera at me quite a bit.”
At night, though, lying awake, I see that it’s true: my parents preferred my brother to me. Even I always thought of him as more intelligent, funnier, more creative. They bent over backward to be fair, but he always was their favorite — and now Dad has admitted it.
After I allow myself to feel the hurt and anger, a new feeling emerges: a rush of freedom, a lightness. I’m not crazy or exaggerating! The suspicions of a lifetime have been confirmed. I laugh out loud and fall into a peaceful sleep.
The next morning, I get up late. After lunch my stepmom will drive me to the airport for my flight home. I’m uncertain when my next visit will be, and I wonder if this will be the last time I see Dad alive. I know that I need to revisit the conversation from last night.
I plunk myself on the couch and ask Dad, “Why did you bring up what you said about preferential treatment?”
“I worry that it fostered jealousy between the two of you,” he answers.
I tell him I’ve struggled with jealousy all my life. It comes with the territory of being a twin and competing for attention as a child. But as an adult I’ve learned not to let my jealousy distract me from more-important things.
As I speak these words, a look of relief appears on my father’s face, as if a weight has been lifted.
Schenectady, New York
I am lying between rumpled sheets in a San Francisco hotel, watching my husband pack his suitcase. The week before we left on this trip, I consulted an attorney about escaping from my marriage. My attorney advised me not to cancel the trip: “Just give it one more try. Divorce is no fun.” My husband knows nothing of this. He believes the marriage counseling is working.
Things have gone surprisingly well. Although our days have been spent at a dental convention, we’ve managed to fit in some romantic dinners and a cable-car ride to the wharf. We even held hands as we walked the streets of this beautiful city. Removing ourselves from our everyday conflicts has allowed us to be a couple again. But today we’ll return home, and the conflicts will still be waiting for us: power struggles; disagreements over money; the dramas of our respective adult children (this is the second marriage for both of us); his anger when I try to organize his clutter; my need for attention, which he seems unable to give.
I think about the lists the marriage counselor asked each of us to make: of the qualities we don’t like in each other, and also those we admire. I run down my list in my mind as my husband packs and hums to himself. I watch his hands folding his clothes, pressing them into his case, the muscles of his forearms flexing. I think of how gentle and steady those hands are when he works with patients, how they feel as they caress me.
My decision has been made.
Rancho Santa Margarita, California
I was thirteen when my mother, my two siblings, and I were forced to leave Baghdad, Iraq. We’d moved there four years earlier from the former Czechoslovakia. As soon as the first bombs of the Gulf War started to fall on Baghdad, the Czech government ordered all its citizens to return.
I didn’t want to go. Czechoslovakia was no longer home to me, and we would be leaving behind my father, an engineer who had an eight-year contract with an Iraqi power plant. I’d also be leaving all my friends, our beautiful two-story house with its orange grove, and the street dogs I fed and played with. The dog I liked best was one I’d named Spot, an orange chow mix with a curled tail. I’d often sneak him into my bedroom when my mother wasn’t looking.
Days passed, and the bombs continued to fall as we waited for our opportunity to leave. The street dogs disappeared one by one, killed by bombs or gunshots. I found Spot dead in a puddle of blood by our front gate. A few days later, I took a last, tearful glance at our home in Baghdad, and we drove to the airport.
© Mark Townsend
I was walking home from Venice Beach, California — no makeup, shorts and a faded T-shirt over my bikini, my hair a tangled rats’ nest — when a shiny convertible pulled up alongside me, and the driver leaned over.
“Are you an actress?” he asked.
He was middle-aged and balding, with doughy features and sunglasses. I was 98 percent sure he was just an average pervert, but the other 2 percent of me held all the irrational hopes of an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.
“Here’s my card,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect you to just believe me, but I’m a pretty famous director. Check me out and then call me.”
When I got home, I checked him out. The name on the card belonged to a moderately famous director with a few acclaimed films. A picture from a fan site showed it was the same man. I called his number, and we agreed to meet for brunch at his fancy hotel in Malibu. I couldn’t help but feel excited.
I ordered a fruit-and-cheese plate and tried to steer our conversation to my acting training at NYU, my theater experience, and my thoughts on the art of performance. But the director seemed more interested in discussing women’s intimate grooming habits.
“I think body hair is sexy,” he said. “Why do women shave their armpits and wax their pubic hair? European men appreciate hair. They don’t try to infantilize their women.”
“I spent a summer backpacking around Europe,” I said. “I actually saw a play in Madrid that —”
“What drugs have you done? What are your favorites?”
I feared I’d disappoint him in this area. “I followed the Grateful Dead on tour for a while,” I said. What did all this have to do with acting, anyway?
He leaned in closer and plucked grapes from my plate. “So, what can you do right now to show me that you are fearless, that you could play the uninhibited, open-to-anything female lead in the film I’m writing?”
I suspected he wanted me to say, I’ll strip naked and run around the restaurant, or, I’ll take any drug you give me, or, I’ll go back to your room and blow you. Instead I said, “Like what?”
“I think you know what I’m getting at.”
So he was a creep. But he was also a respected director who could help my career. I thought maybe sleeping with a director was something all actresses did, a rite of passage that you couldn’t avoid.
“Come on,” he said. “How bad do you want it? It’s now or never.” He folded his napkin and placed it next to his plate.
I wanted to believe that there was another way to achieve my dreams, but even if there wasn’t, I knew my answer.
“I guess it’s never,” I said.
My first lesson as a volunteer hospital chaplain was that not every patient wanted to talk about God. Most wanted to talk about their families or the hospital food or the nurses.
Gail was different. When I walked into her room, she was sitting up in bed wearing a pink nightie with a pink ribbon in her hair, and she engaged me in a lively discussion about God’s presence in the world. She was so thin that the skin on her face was taut and her arms were like sticks. She told me that she suffered from anorexia and depression, though she didn’t seem depressed. She read several passages to me from her small library of books about spirituality. Everybody has a mission in life, she said, an individual contract with God that he or she must fulfill. I wondered what she thought hers was, but I didn’t ask. As I left her room, it seemed to me that she was in good shape — spiritually, at least.
Since I volunteer weekly, and patients are rarely in the hospital for more than a few days, I didn’t expect to see Gail again. But she was back in the hospital two months later, and we had another long conversation. Although her enthusiasm was high, her physical condition didn’t seem to have improved.
Four weeks later, Gail was hospitalized again. She told me she had been thinking about suicide, and the only reason she hadn’t killed herself was that her daughter needed her. I suggested that perhaps caring for her daughter was her mission in life, but she was no longer interested in speculating about God’s plan.
Less than a month later I saw Gail on the critical-care unit. She was so thin and weak that she couldn’t lift her head or speak above a whisper. She had none of her books with her. When I asked if she thought God had a message for her, she nodded.
“What’s he saying to you?” I asked.
“Now or never,” she whispered.
“What do you think that means?” I asked, but she didn’t answer me. Gail died the next day.
As a child I had difficulty expressing my thoughts verbally. I was so quiet that teachers and peers often forgot that I was around.
In junior high a teacher gave me an assignment to memorize the Gettysburg Address, which I would then recite in front of the class. I was terrified and immediately began thinking of ways to avoid doing it. Maybe I could feign an asthma attack.
After several days of worrying myself sick over the assignment, I thought about the events surrounding that cold Pennsylvania day, November 19, 1863. I thought about the Civil War and all the soldiers who’d fought bravely in the bloody conflict there. I thought about President Lincoln and how he’d had the courage to deliver the address at a time when he was blamed by many for the war.
When it came time for me to recite the Gettysburg Address, I walked to the front of the room and imagined being President Lincoln. I took a deep breath, “turned on” my voice, and said each word in succession until I was finished. I hesitated once, but I refused to panic. As I went back to my seat, I received looks of surprise and admiration.
I still struggled with speaking after that, but now, when I need to say something requiring bravery, I remember the Gettysburg Address, and I am able to speak.
Mt. Pleasant, Iowa
During my third year as a fledgling organic farmer, I met George, who had been farming organically for about forty years and owned a health-food store in New York City. He had a seemingly endless knowledge of agriculture, and he taught my friend Al and me one lesson after another.
Al began organizing educational programs for farmers, and he scheduled a field trip to George’s farm. A couple of days beforehand, however, George backed out. He said he wasn’t going to give away for free to a bunch of strangers all the farming secrets it had taken him a lifetime to learn. The field trip was canceled. We hoped maybe the next summer we would be able to convince George to participate, but that November George had a fatal heart attack.
In the twenty years since then, I have shared my knowledge with many other farmers, and I never keep what I’ve learned a secret.
That’s another lesson George taught me.
Port Royal, Pennsylvania
Five years ago, the memories of my childhood abuse caught up with me. I felt numb and isolated and couldn’t function at work. Medication didn’t do much for me, and therapy was only slightly helpful. I was cutting and hurting myself, and it was getting out of control. I didn’t want to die, but living was agony.
Finally I took the drastic step of checking myself into a psychiatric hospital. I wasn’t convinced it would help, but it would keep me safe, and I had no alternatives. I spent two weeks on an inpatient, trauma-specific psychiatric ward. When I was ready for discharge, the treatment team strongly recommended I go to the three-week outpatient program. I wasn’t convinced outpatient could help me either, but caution won out, and I agreed.
The outpatient program started on a Monday. It was a three-and-a-half-block walk from my apartment to the Metro station, where I got on a train to Union Station. There I had to board the commuter train to Baltimore. At each stop along the way I wanted to turn around and go home, but I reminded myself that the program was my best chance for sanity.
I arrived at Penn Station in Baltimore and hailed a cab. A ten-minute ride later, I got out, walked across the lawn, and entered the building that housed the program. I filled out some paperwork, wrote my name on the sign-in sheet, and sat down. I didn’t make eye contact with the ten or so other patients, several of whom I remembered from inpatient. Five minutes later the treatment facilitator came in and started the first group.
Going to the outpatient program was the hardest thing I have ever done. I don’t know where I got the courage to make that journey, but it saved me.
My son has one more year of high school, and then he’ll be gone. After all these years of caring for him, I’m finding it hard to let go. But he needs to find his own way in life, and I need to find a new relationship with him, one in which I stop telling him what to do and worrying so much. My inability to do this is driving us apart.
Tonight, for example, I could offer to drive him to his girlfriend’s house instead of trying to stop him from going because it’s a school night. It’s all right to bend the rules every now and then, I tell myself. The phrase “Have fun” could come from my mouth once in a while.
Rather than badger him, I could trust that he’ll either get his schoolwork done himself or suffer the consequences and learn from them. If I did that, he might even want to come and visit me after he moves out. At the very least, we could get along better for now. Soon he’ll be gone. I don’t have much time.
Buffalo, New York
In ninth grade, I had a terrible secret: I was in love with my friend Melody. It was 1969, and a girl in love with another girl was unthinkable.
Melody seemed to love me too — or at least to like me a lot. She sparkled in the hallways when she saw me, and she passed me funny notes to cheer me up in history class. Sometimes, if I looked depressed at school, she’d even call me at home to make sure I was OK.
At night I would fantasize that something horrible had happened to me, and Melody was there to comfort me. She would hold me and rock me and sing me songs. At school I’d roam morosely from class to class, stealing looks at Melody whenever I could, especially in choir. I began to wonder what our lives would be like if she knew how much I loved her. I decided it would be better to suffer the consequences than never to find out. One night I reached for the phone and dialed Melody’s number.
When Melody answered, I said, “Hi, it’s me.”
“Oh, good,” she said. “I was going to call you.”
“You were?” Tell her, a voice in my head urged.
“Yes, you’re not going to believe this,” she said. “Stanley just called and asked me out!”
“Oh, no, Melody,” I said, as though this were the worst news in the world.
“What’s the matter?” she asked. “Aren’t you happy for me?”
“Of course,” I said, and I retreated behind my facade once more.
When Melody started dating Stanley, I withdrew from her and hung out with the kids who smoked and took drugs in the parking lot. Melody was hurt, but I couldn’t tell her why I wouldn’t talk to her — that I wanted her to love me, not Stanley.
Twenty-five years later I attended a high-school reunion hoping to see Melody once again. I’d heard that she lived in Florida and was a choir director and had never married. But Melody wasn’t at the reunion. An old friend told me she had died of breast cancer just six months earlier.
Driving me back to college after Thanksgiving break, my father kept noisily clearing his throat.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just having a little trouble swallowing, that’s all.” He saw the concerned look on my face. “Aw, come on. Don’t you worry about your dear old dad. Just concentrate on getting your grades back up this semester.” He touched my arm. I knew how important my success at school was to him; my older siblings had disappointed him by either flunking out or not pursuing a higher education.
Back at school, I couldn’t shake an ominous feeling. Every time I called home, I got false bravado from my mother: “He’s fine. Don’t worry. We’ll see you at Christmas.”
Late one night, I took a break from studying for my midterms and called home from the pay phone in the common room of my dormitory. This time my mother admitted that my father had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and was scheduled for surgery the next day.
I debated what to do: stay at school, take my exams, and risk never seeing my dad again — or hitch a ride in the morning and possibly flunk some classes. I didn’t deliberate for long. My father was more important than my grades.
The next day, on the way into the ICU, the doctor told my mother and me that they had removed all the cancerous lymph nodes, and the prognosis looked good. Dad held my hand on one side of the bed and my mother’s on the other and told us morphine-induced stories of “big men” who’d visited him in the night and how he had gone to the cafeteria and eaten lobster that morning. We laughed and cried with him until it was time to let him rest. “I love you, Dad,” I said as my mother and I left to finish our Christmas shopping.
Over dinner at a Chinese restaurant, that ominous feeling returned. The waiter was taking too long to bring the check, and I became agitated.
“For God’s sake,” I said, “the place is empty.”
“Would you relax!” my mother snapped.
Back at my parents’ apartment, as I struggled with the door key, I heard the phone ringing inside. We burst through, shopping bags in hand, and Mom answered it.
“We have to go back,” she told me, the receiver still in her hand. “Something’s happened.”
I drove us back to the hospital, weaving in and out of traffic while my mother sat silent.
A “complication,” the nurses told us when we arrived: a blood clot had gone to his heart. He was dead.
I failed two classes that semester, but I have never regretted my decision.