Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I learned to rock-climb at fifty not because I longed for adventure but because I had a schoolgirl crush on the climbing instructor. I had seen him in the audience during my one-woman show: his shock of silver hair and handsome, weathered face in the front row were hard to miss. Several days later he showed up at the print shop where I work. Suddenly I lost all confidence and came down with a severe stammer. No amount of deep breathing could stop my heart from racing. Whenever he came into the shop to pick up or drop off an order, I tried to avoid talking to him, but we eventually had several conversations. His name was Jack.
Finally I confessed to Jack that I was uncomfortable around him because I found him attractive. He said he was flattered and then left. His exit had been so abrupt, I was certain he’d gagged on his way to his car, but a week later he came into the shop with an envelope for me. He leaned over the counter and whispered in my ear, “Take a chance and say yes.”
In the envelope was an invitation for me to enjoy a day of rock-climbing as his guest. I had Mother’s Day off and decided it might be fun to bring my daughter Claire and enjoy the beautiful spring weather in the Columbia River Gorge.
We met Jack and several young men at Lewis and Clark State Park early Sunday morning and spent the next several hours getting familiar with the equipment. The harness, which had leather straps that went between my legs, was less than flattering. Thankfully Jack was all business. Claire thought he was cute “for an old guy.”
The rock face looked more like a cliff. I started to think about all the dark, spider-filled places where I would have to put my hands if I really wanted to climb it. Jack was becoming less attractive by the minute.
When it was Claire’s turn, she calmly assessed the situation and said, “No, thank you.” I was secretly trying to find the courage to say no myself, but when my turn came, that silly crush clouded my judgment. Besides, I had come this far, and part of me wanted to try something dangerous.
As I approached the rock, Jack stood right behind me. Feeling the heat from his body against mine, I became giddy, but I put all that aside and reached up to grasp the rock. I struggled to climb a couple of feet, then stopped. Jack came up beside me.
“I’m not doing too well,” I said.
“You’re a dancer!” he told me. “Dance with the rock!”
The concept inspired me. I forgot my fear of spiders and looking stupid and falling to my death, and I danced with the rock. My sudden flexibility and strength surprised everyone, me most of all.
When I reached the top, Jack was already there. Claire shouted, “Hurrah!” from the ground. I looked out over the beautiful Columbia River and breathed in the fresh spring air.
I’d done it. I’d faced my fears. I wanted to do it again.
I was at a train station in Andalusia, Spain, waiting to board a train for Madrid, when my sister-in-law and I spied a handsome couple dressed in black and locked in a long embrace. Five minutes went by. Ten minutes. Fifteen. At thirty minutes we were laughing but also spellbound. It was one of those great European moments. Every time it seemed as if the man and woman were going to part, they’d cling to each other with even more passion.
That couple’s behavior seemed absurd to me at the time, but now here I am, a married woman with children, at a dusty train station an hour from my house, locked in an equally passionate embrace with a close friend who’s also married. We both took our wedding vows when we were young, because that’s what you did; we never considered the gravity of our decisions. Now here we are breaking those vows. But the way he holds me, the feel of his hands on my back, the words we whisper in each other’s ears — I had assumed this sort of intoxication was relegated to my past. For the first time I understand that Spanish couple’s never wanting to let go. We are risking everything we have, yet we still want the embrace to last forever.
Last year my wife, Patti, was diagnosed with a malignant breast tumor. The doctors put her through an exhausting battery of X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans, followed by surgery, which brought good news: the stage-I tumor was small, and no lymph nodes had been affected.
But our oncologist, the top breast-cancer expert at his celebrated university cancer center, dictated a full course of radiation followed by aggressive chemotherapy.
“What if I go without chemo?” Patti asked.
“It’s risky,” he said. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“What if I skip radiation?”
“I’ll strap you to the table.”
Patti and I stepped up our research and got a second opinion: Her prognosis was good, but there might be residual cancer cells. Radiation would reduce the possibility of a recurrence but would have no effect on her long-term chance of survival and might cause heart damage. Chemo would increase her chance of survival by a few percent, but she would be flooding her system with poisons that would cause nausea, hair loss, and possibly cognitive and systemic impairment. For us, the decision was easy: no radiation, no chemo.
Shortly afterward we learned that the oncologist was running a clinical trial on, coincidentally, the same chemo medications he wanted to prescribe for Patti.
That settled it. She found a new oncologist.
Every night, after coming home from a stressful day at work, I surfed websites that listed positions teaching English abroad. I saw one ad for a job at a new American school in Morocco — Casablanca, to be exact. I’d always wanted to learn Arabic and already got along well in French, having studied it for nine years. I wrote a brief query and clicked SEND.
I got a response right away from the woman who was starting the school. Barbara had run an elite-sounding private school in the U.S. for years, and she liked my résumé. There was an elementary teaching position available, but I’d never taught small children before. To make matters worse, she kept changing which grade I would teach: fourth, second, a combination of second and third. I was confused, but being an expatriate in Morocco sounded better than what I was doing, so I accepted.
I began packing, reading books about Morocco, and trying to find someone to rent my house while I was gone. It was hard to figure out what would be acceptable dress for a woman over there. I worried that I wouldn’t have the freedom to take a walk. I still didn’t know exactly which grade I’d be teaching.
I finished up at my job and said goodbye to friends, but I hadn’t heard from Barbara in two weeks. I sent an e-mail asking when I would receive my airplane ticket and who would pick me up at the airport. No answer. I e-mailed again and again. Finally she replied: “Buy your own ticket, and we’ll reimburse you. Construction is going slowly — Moroccan time, ha-ha. You’ll probably have to share an apartment. Someone will meet you at the airport. Don’t worry! It’s fascinating here!”
I still hadn’t found a renter. I had lost ten pounds and was looking as haggard as I felt.
On the day of my departure, just as I was about to take off for the airport, the phone rang. It was Barbara.
“I was just about to walk out the door,” I said.
“You might not want to come,” she said.
“What? Oh, no, I’m coming. I’m all packed. I’m ready.”
She hadn’t been able to find an apartment for me, she said, and because the school was taking longer to build, they didn’t have enough students. “You might not want to come,” she repeated.
I didn’t go to Morocco. Still, I had gotten out of a job I didn’t like anymore, and now my life was going to change. I just had no idea how.
I began to sabotage my mother’s drinking during the summer between fifth and sixth grade. When she wasn’t looking, I poured the remaining beers in the fridge down the drain. I also found a water bottle filled with vodka in the bathroom closet, and I emptied it into the sink, then refilled it with tap water. I was afraid she would catch me. It was the most I’d ever asserted myself with her.
My mother confronted me about the missing beer, but it wasn’t much of a fight: she asked if I’d poured it out, and I said yes, because she’d had enough. She went back to her room, where she may have had other bottles hidden.
When my father got home, she told him what I had done. He leaned his head into my room and quietly, so she wouldn’t hear, thanked me. We never talked about her drinking.
I don’t know if she realized the vodka had been replaced with water. It’s possible that she was drunk enough not to notice.
The next time I poured my mother’s beer out, she got into her car to go buy more. After I had gone to bed, the phone rang. My father answered it, then came into my bedroom. “I have to go to the police station to pick Mom up,” he said. “She was arrested.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because she was drinking and driving,” my father said. He kissed my forehead, which was unusual. “I love you, baby.” (He never called me “baby.”) “Mom loves you too.” Then he left. I didn’t tell my father that I was the reason Mom had gone to buy more beer. Perhaps I thought he would get upset. She certainly would have blamed me.
After my mother died, my father discovered bottles of beer rolled up in a comforter in the linen closet, where I wouldn’t find them.
My family had just moved to Adana Air Base in Turkey. It was 1957, and we were only the seventh family to be stationed there; most servicemen did not have their wives and children with them. There was no school yet, and my brother Billy and I, ages nine and ten, had not met any other children. We were desperate for playmates.
One afternoon we were sitting on the steps of our silver Airstream trailer, which was parked in a long row of others just like it, when three children came out of the trailer next door and began to jump rope in their driveway. I knew how to jump rope, but the way they did it was different: they used two ropes and had a rhyme for each move they made. There were two girls and a boy, all around our age, but we didn’t dare approach them. We’d been raised in Alabama and Florida, and the children next door were black.
We had never been specifically told not to associate with a “colored” person, but we knew the unspoken rules. Our grandfather had been on the Birmingham police force, and every black man knew to step off the sidewalk and remove his hat when Big Daddy approached. So we didn’t say a word to the children next door, even though we were only thirty feet away all afternoon.
The next day, though, our natural instincts took over, and I began jumping rope with the girls while Billy played with the boy, Ralph. Patsy was the younger girl, and Sylvia Ann — called “Syvvan” — was my age. They taught me all their singsong rhymes.
We continued to play with the Johnson children after that. One day I invited Syvvan into our trailer. This was uncharted territory, but Mama said nothing. Another time Ms. Johnson came to our front door to ask Mama something. In Birmingham a black person never came to a white person’s front door, only to the back. Mama spoke to her through the screen with obvious discomfort, but she did not get mad.
By the time we left the base a year and a half later, Billy and I regularly ate bologna sandwiches and drank sweet tea for lunch in the Johnsons’ trailer. In the evenings we had the Johnson children over and watched Syvvan dance to our 45s or try to plait Mama’s hair. (I’ll never forget that.) It was a huge step for Mama. Without the societal restrictions of the South, the natural human desire to connect could emerge.
But Ms. Johnson never entered our trailer, and Mama never entered hers.
I married young, right after college. My husband worked in urban planning and rose quickly in his career. By the time he was thirty-two, he had become director of a multi-million-dollar job-training program. We had a daughter in preschool and had just purchased our first home.
Yet my husband felt unfulfilled. He was disenchanted with a field that required frequent moves and was dependent on partisan politics. He’d always wanted to be a lawyer but felt that he was too far along in his career to start over. He feared his age would be a disadvantage in landing an entry-level job, and he’d be impatient with the typical five-year partnership track. Nevertheless, to keep his options open, he applied to law school.
That winter he was diagnosed with a stage-IV malignant melanoma. The treatment went well: the surgery left clear tissue margins, and his lymph nodes showed no signs of cancer. Two months later the law-school acceptance letter arrived. My husband now had new fears: What if the cancer returned and spread? Would prospective employers not hire him once they found out about his medical history?
“Go,” I told him, with a certainty and resolve that surprised us both. I was usually the deliberator, slow to move into new territory, always hedging bets. But not this time. “We have to behave as though you are going to live,” I said.
We moved to a new city, and he enrolled as a full-time law student two weeks before our daughter started kindergarten. We had a second child, who was perched on my hip as his father received his law degree.
Twelve years later, in the midst of my husband’s flourishing legal career, we found out the cancer had returned and had spread to his spine and brain. He died within six months.
Encouraging my husband to take that chance has been one of the proudest moments of my life.
Spring Valley, California
It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was carrying a load of laundry down the walkway of the apartment complex where I lived when I heard angry yelling coming from the unit above mine. Between the man’s shouts I could hear the cries of an infant.
Once before, I had intervened when I’d seen a father attacking his son, and the result had been a harder beating for the boy, but I couldn’t just ignore the baby’s cries. I dropped the basket of laundry, bolted up the stairs, and pounded on the door. The yelling stopped, and the door inched open. A tense, anxious young man’s face appeared.
“You need a break,” I told him. I offered to take the baby downstairs while he went for a walk to cool down. The baby would be safe with me, I said. Without a word, the relieved young father lifted his son from the crib and placed him into my arms, then fetched a bottle and a diaper.
I went downstairs and left the door to my apartment ajar while I walked the infant back and forth, talking softly and offering him a little of the bottle. He fell asleep almost immediately, and I nestled him between two pillows on my couch while I folded clothes.
About an hour later the baby’s father tapped softly at my door, his eyes red from crying. I invited him in and learned that his wife was a nurse and he was unemployed. He was embarrassed by what had happened. He loved his son and didn’t want to hurt him, but sometimes he lost his temper. His voice trembled as he spoke.
Not everyone is good at child care, I told him. I suggested maybe a relative could watch the baby while he found a job. I assured him he would be a good father, and when he left my apartment cradling his sleeping son, I felt the baby was in good hands.
The next day the young man appeared at my door with his wife, who thanked me for coming to the rescue. Not too long after that, I heard they had moved away to be closer to relatives.
You always said you would never marry because you didn’t want to be divorced. Your parents had been married three times apiece. The word divorce itself had a clinical, surgical precision that you didn’t want associated with the romantic, idealistic image you had of yourself. Not to mention the actual incision.
So it’s no wonder that, the night before your wedding, you were thinking, It’s not too late. It’s not too late.
The next day, at age thirty-six, you stood in the vaulted dome of San Francisco City Hall across from your future husband, whose family of twelve you had never met (except for one sister, whom you’d picked up from the airport six hours earlier). At thirty-four your husband-to-be had never been in a long-term relationship in his life. You’d met him while traveling in Oaxaca the previous summer and exchanged sporadic e-mails. Then, three months ago on your birthday, he’d arrived from Mexico to offer himself as your present.
This man could draw people closer to him whenever he picked up a guitar. He also sometimes got lost in the sand dunes of delusion and took medication to find his way back. He’d lived through child abuse, the loss of his hearing in one ear, and the trauma of discovering his older brother’s body after a suicide.
But at city hall that day you took the chance. You wore a vintage dress; he wore suspenders and an old-fashioned hat. The scent of gardenias was in the air. You’d prepared all the food yourselves and decorated the cake with blue borage flowers you’d picked. Your husband sang to you at the wedding.
Three years later your husband has experienced a psychotic breakdown and returned to Mexico. But you are still legally married. You are not divorced.
As the homeless go, Sarah was pretty well-off. She had a car that ran, some savings, and a dog named Fannie, who was big enough to ward off strangers. We got to know each other at the local park, where I brought my dogs during the off-leash hours. I’m a retired social worker, so Sarah’s story of marital abuse and childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather was nothing new to me. I gave her a list of resources and let her decide how much help she would seek. Because of her dog, shelters were out of the question.
Sarah assured me that Jesus Christ would take care of her, and she spent hours reading the Bible and listening to religious radio programs. When I suggested a more practical approach, she looked at me pityingly and promised to pray for me.
Then came an especially rainy winter for northern California, and Sarah’s money began to run out. She was finding it hard to cope with the constant mud and dampness, and her brave attempts at staying organized began to fail. That’s when I came across her crying as if her heart were broken. I brought her home. Sometimes you just can’t turn a person away.
My rules were simple: Sarah would have to find a job, and her stay with me would be temporary. Whenever she could, she would pay a nominal amount to cover food and utilities, but it was more important that she set aside money to get her own place. And I wanted her assurance that she would not push her religion on me. Sarah agreed.
It was hard to have Sarah and her dog in my small home. She was very neat, totally honest, and happy to help with housework, but I felt her constant presence and her emotional neediness. Home didn’t feel like home while she was there.
Sarah got a job as a waitress but lost it when she chased after some customers to find out why they hadn’t left a tip. (She claimed she just wanted to know how to improve her skills.) At her second waitressing job she complained to the owner that his wife was being “unchristian” by taking all the good tables. Sarah lost that job too. Meanwhile she was sending money orders to television evangelists in gratitude to God for having helped her find shelter with me. She couldn’t understand why I would find that frustrating.
I pulled a few strings, wrote a glowing recommendation, and got Sarah a job as a caregiver for an elderly disabled woman. Sarah already knew basic cooking and housekeeping; I taught her bathing, wound care, bed transfers, the use of medical equipment, and range-of-motion exercises. More important, I taught her not to proselytize, give unwelcome advice, or take over her clients’ lives. Gradually Sarah got her name on lists that kept her working fairly steadily. I had hopes that she would soon leave.
Her departure was strange and sudden. When it became obvious that Fannie, her dog, had adopted me, Sarah went ballistic. She packed and left in the space of an hour, leaving a garbled letter about preferring to be free of my overwhelming influence. I felt grateful to have my home to myself again.
Sarah still works as a live-in caregiver. Between jobs she lives in her car, but never for very long, and she always greets me with perfect friendliness, as one professional to another. I’m glad I took a chance with her. And I hope I’m never called to do it again.
Santa Rosa, California
The night we talked in the living room until 3:45 A.M., I should have kissed you.
The night we talked on your bed until 4:30 A.M., I should have kissed you.
The night we stood side by side at the concert, pinkies touching, I should have kissed you.
The time we practically spooned and my shirt was unbuttoned, I should have kissed you.
The time your face was inches from mine, I should have kissed you.
The time I played you that new song and you fell in love with it, I should have kissed you.
The time you put your hands on my shoulders to dance, I should have kissed you.
The time I drove you 112 miles home and waited for you to go through the gate of your apartment complex, I should have turned off my car and run to the gate and yelled your name and told you how incredible you are and how I consider you more than a friend and how you make me happy every time I see you or even think of you, and I should have jumped that gate and kissed you and kissed you and kissed your lips and hoped you would kiss me back.
Santa Cruz, California
I opened the box of photographs my mother had given me. There were several of me as a toddler outside the hotels where she and my father would meet. In one I was by the pool; in another I was in a parking lot, squinting to keep the sun out of my eyes. I reached into the box and pulled out a black-and-white image of a man in uniform holding an infant. He was handsome, assured, and proud; the baby looked small and confused. I copied the photo and sent it to my mother, asking if it was a portrait of my dad and me. She called a few days later to say yes, it was.
Most of my life I had been angry at my father for abandoning us. We’d never lived together, because my father had another family: a wife and son and daughter. When I was seven, my father died, eliminating any chance I might get to know him. As a teenager I was reckless, irresponsible, and depressed. I felt cheated out of my place in the world because I’d never known my father.
Now, holding the photograph of him and me, I wanted to find out what I could. I was forty-seven years old. I had a grown daughter of my own and had, with the help of therapy, escaped my victim mentality. It was time to find my father’s other children: my half brother and half sister.
My mother thought my half brother had gone to medical school, and I knew he had the same name as my father. I sat down at my computer, typed “Dr.” in front of my father’s name, and clicked SEARCH. A couple of candidates popped up on the screen. I picked the more likely one and sent him a card saying I was doing genealogical research and giving my father’s name and history. A week later I received a reply via e-mail: “Yep, that’s my dad.”
My mother thought it was unlikely that my half brother knew of my existence. I worried he might not believe I was his sister. How could his father, a war hero, have had a secret family? I wrote my brother a careful e-mail and sent it a few days later. I told him his father’s name was on my birth certificate, and I wanted to find out who he was — who I was.
He wrote back immediately and said his mother had told him and his sister about me when they were teenagers, and that he would help me get to know my father. Within days my brother had sent me many photographs and a copy of a scrapbook of my father’s World War II service. I learned I had two nieces and a nephew, all in their thirties, and that my father’s sister was alive and well at age ninety-three.
My sister wrote and said she’d had a burning curiosity about me ever since her mother had shown her my photograph. After her mother died, she had looked for me off and on for years.
One time I asked my sister, “What did Daddy’s voice sound like?”
She hesitated, then answered, “To tell the truth, he didn’t talk very much at home.” She said she felt she had never really known him. Though I was sorry for her, I also found this deeply comforting.
Two years have gone by, and we are still in frequent contact. I am grateful for my new family and fascinated by these people who look like me. I attended my nephew’s wedding, and at the reception I danced to the music of a live funk band with my sister, my husband, and one of my nieces. My niece and I got a little groove going. I smiled at her and saw myself smile back. I caught my breath and kept dancing.
Nancy J. Buron
I was doing laundry when he called. With detergent in one hand and the phone in the other, I heard the words that I had been waiting to hear for five years: “I am coming to see you — to fight for you. I want to be with you forever.”
John was my best friend and high-school sweetheart. Everyone expected us to be married. We were John and Suze, the model couple who took kids to summer camp and led Bible studies; who didn’t smoke or drink and abstained from sex to set a good example. If I said yes to him, I knew who I would be, where I would live, and what the rest of my life would be like.
But over the past couple of months at college I had met someone: a neighbor who lived in an apartment the size of my bedroom, went fishing every weekend, and was quite content with his job as a shoe salesman. He was sarcastic and brash and had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. Together we drank wine and grilled clams on the barbecue. It seemed we had little in common besides loneliness, but when I was with him, I was a new person.
I gripped the phone a little tighter and told my (suddenly ex-) boyfriend not to visit, that I was seeing someone. I hung up filled with the excitement of stepping into the unknown.
I married my neighbor two years later.
Now my high-school sweetheart is married to a woman from our hometown, and they still live there, close to their parents. They have two kids and a house in the suburbs. She stays home and drives a minivan. They don’t speak to me.
I have moved four times in seven years and currently reside in the Netherlands. My husband develops performance running shoes, and our daughter was born in our bedroom into the hands of a Dutch-speaking midwife. We rent a small apartment above an antique store. I ride a bike or the bus. My life is in a state of constant change and adventure. I am so glad I took a chance.
The biggest chance I ever took was marrying my husband and moving to the Ivory Coast, his native country in West Africa. Marriage itself is a huge adjustment, but marrying into a culture so different from my own was a sea change I could not have imagined.
Abidjan, the capital at the time, was a city of 2 million people from all over West Africa. We lived in a high-rise where the elevator and hot water worked only part of the time, but the neighbors were friendly all of the time. We did our grocery shopping at both the air-conditioned supermarket, which stocked imported goods, and the open-air market, where we bargained for fresh fruits and vegetables.
I had expected to have a lot to learn about my adopted country, but I had not expected the effect the move would have on my carefully constructed young-adult identity. People told me, “You’re not Mademoiselle So-and-So anymore; you’re Madame Zunon.” And, “We’re not going to adapt; you have to change.”
Although I had majored in French at college and spoke it fairly well, the dialect spoken in the Ivory Coast was unintelligible to me. My husband had gotten me a job teaching English at the local university, but I could not pronounce my students’ names. I was uncomfortable with the lecture style of teaching, and the faculty were expected to be infallible and to know the answer to any question. Outside the classroom it was the same story: No one saw me as an individual. I had no identity apart from my husband.
Gradually I began to adapt and reinvent myself. I learned a few phrases in Bété, my husband’s melodious mother tongue. His relatives would beam when I used simple phrases like “I’m cooking rice.” I met other foreign wives who were dealing with the same culture shock that I was. Throughout my struggles to fit in, my husband’s family was wonderful. When I had to undergo emergency surgery for a tubal pregnancy, a delegation of in-laws came from my husband’s village by bush taxi, bringing a live sheep as a get-well gift.
I quit my teaching job and went to work for a local nonprofit agency, where I helped manage a revolving fund for female market vendors. With a team of local staff, I ventured into the poorest neighborhoods of Abidjan to recruit the women, collect their loan payments, and discuss ways to improve their businesses. The resilience and quiet confidence these women displayed made my own self-doubt seem immature.
In the late 1990s the political situation in the Ivory Coast began to deteriorate, and I returned to the U.S. with our son and daughter, unsure whether my husband would agree to join us. The children and I stayed with relatives until I got a job and apartment. My husband shuttled between the two continents for a couple of years, trying to make up his mind.
Then, on Christmas Day 1999, we received a phone call: a military coup had overthrown the president in Abidjan, and the city was in chaos. My husband was in the U.S. and decided to remain.
He has completed the drawn-out immigration process, and in six weeks he’ll be sworn in as a U.S. citizen. We still hope to go back and visit the Ivory Coast someday, but I know it will not be the same place I knew thirty years ago as a newlywed, when I took a chance and stepped off a plane into the warm West African wind.
Albany, New York
© Sandra Nydegger
Mark’s wife, Karen, told me he shook the pistol in the air and yelled that there were no bullets in it. She was six months pregnant, already a mother of three little ones. It was New Year’s Eve, and guns were being fired into the dark sky all over the reservation.
Mark fired his into his own head.
Somehow the bullet skidded crazily through his brain, missing the frontal lobe. Mark, the best kachina-doll carver for many miles, lay in the ER with his eyes taped shut and a tube in his mouth. His recovery was slow. He had to relearn how to walk, talk, and use a fork. Loud noises made him crazy, and Karen spent a lot of time shushing the kids.
Five months later Mark came over to my house to show me the first kachina he had carved since the “accident.” My display case housed at least ten of Mark’s previous creations. This chunky one with her uneven paint looked like an ugly stepsister, but I bought her anyway.
Mark sat on my couch, looking at his hands. I stared at the dime-sized scar on his temple and asked him why.
“I guess I didn’t care if I lived or died,” he said, his words slow and thick. “I rolled the dice.”
I was born and raised in Moscow, the heart of Soviet Russia. Even during the Communist era, it was a popular destination for travelers from various parts of the world. Foreigners always stood out in the Moscow crowd, not just because of their clothes and their language, but because of their posture and the look in their eyes. They exuded freedom.
I never felt oppressed or restricted growing up in the Soviet Union, perhaps because I never had the desire to take chances. Like the planned economy, my life was all set. After college — where my classes were selected by the department and changing majors was not an option — I planned to get a job and possibly stay in it until retirement, like most people. I would live in the apartment that my grandparents had passed on to my parents. In the Soviet Union, moving to a different apartment, let alone a different city, was almost impossible. And salaries were equally low across the country, so why move? It may not have been an exciting life, but it was safe and stable.
After graduating in 1991, I got a job with an American accounting firm that had just moved to Russia. The salary was decent, and the company provided lunch. What more could I ask for?
Then on August 19 a group of Communist hard-liners attempted to seize power and remove General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Paratroopers descended on the government’s headquarters, tanks rumbled down Moscow streets, and rumors spread of arrests of pro-reform politicians. As always in times of turmoil or the death of political leaders, Soviet television showed the Swan Lake ballet.
Three days later, with the active help of Muscovites, the coup was defeated. It was the first time in my life that the Russian people had changed the course of political events. Within weeks the Soviet Communist Party was banned, the U.S.S.R. was dissolved, and the new Russia had embarked on a path of radical economic reforms. The whole country was taking a chance at a new beginning.
I realized soon after that I did not have to spend the rest of my life in the same apartment and the same job. I moved to the Russian Arctic and worked as an interpreter for a Canadian oil company. Feeling empowered, I took an even bigger chance and went to graduate school in the U.S., where I earned a doctoral degree. I now teach American college students.
I will never forget walking to the Metro the day after the coup was defeated. I saw the expression in the eyes of Muscovites that I used to see only in the faces of foreigners: freedom.
I grew up in a project in South Philadelphia, raised by a father who thought all “niggers” should be lined up and shot — except for the children; they should be given to white people so they could be raised “right.”
I married at fifteen and had two children by the time I was twenty-one. My father died when I was twenty-five, and my mother died two years later. After crying daily for more than a year following my mother’s death, I decided to see a therapist.
In my family going to therapy was considered ridiculous: something bored suburban housewives did because they had nothing better to do. But I was desperate. I called a therapist someone had recommended, and he gave me an appointment for that afternoon.
When I walked into his office, I backed up a little and leaned against the doorjamb. Then I started to sweat and could not speak. The therapist was black. My father’s hateful words came back, urging me to get out of there.
I didn’t listen. I walked in, sat down, and introduced myself to the man who would literally save my life.
It’s 2 A.M., and I’m following my brother north on I-25 to Fort Collins, Colorado. He passes the Harmony Road exit, but I take it, and the race is on: who will get to his house first?
As my speedometer approaches ninety-five, I notice flashing red lights in the rearview mirror, at least a half mile back. I know these back roads well and feel confident I can ditch the police. But why add evading an officer and reckless driving to a ticket for doing forty over the speed limit? Besides, I have another plan.
I slow to a stop on the shoulder. When the patrolman walks up to my open window and shines a light inside, I tell him I was heading to the hospital and point to my wheelchair in the back.
“Follow me,” he says.
He escorts me to an emergency room, where I wrestle my chair out of the car, unfold it, and climb in. The trooper ushers me through the empty waiting room.
“I think I’m going into hyperreflexia,” I explain to the attendant loud enough for my escort to hear.
A nurse leads me to an examination room, where I go through a procedure to relieve my nonexistent symptoms. Thirty minutes later they release me. The patrolman, who has kindly waited, asks if I’m feeling better. I tell him I am. Then he shows me where to sign my $150 speeding ticket. Two weeks later I receive a $430 bill for the ER visit.
My brother won the race.
At the end of the riding lesson, the three girls sit straight in their saddles and ride single file out of the ring toward the wooded trail to the barn. The last horse stumbles, and the horse my ten-year-old daughter is on gets spooked and takes off.
The teacher calls out, “Whoa!” but the horse continues to streak through the woods. My daughter bounces, slips out of the saddle, and begins to slide down. I will her to hold on and somehow stay above those pounding hooves.
She crouches forward, hugging the horse’s neck, her red ponytail streaming from beneath her helmet. Surely she senses the danger of her situation, but I see no sign of panic. She is no helpless rag doll. She presses herself into the horse and keeps her head down.
I want to protect her, but I can’t. I always stay close to her as we bicycle to school each morning along the highway. Now she is completely out of my reach and alone.
The horse speeds through the open barn door, hooves clattering on the concrete floor. Then I hear a terrible crash.
I run up to the barn and enter breathlessly: no horse, no daughter. I walk in the direction the horse had been going. There, outside the barn, the riderless horse is panting. My daughter sits on a stool, and another instructor asks her, “What part of your body did you fall on?”
“My knee and elbow, I think,” she says.
“I just want you to sit here for a few minutes before you try to get up, OK? Did you hit your head when you came down?”
“I don’t think so,” my daughter says calmly.
I hug my shivering daughter, then pull off my fleece jacket and slip it on her. For once she does not object.
“You don’t have to,” the instructor says to her, “but I would recommend you get back on this horse before you leave tonight. That’s both for you and the horse.” My daughter, girl of few words, stands up and walks toward the horse. I watch in awe as she gets back on.
I carry a mountain of fears that some danger will befall my child, that I won’t be able to keep her safe. But I look at my daughter differently now. I know she can save herself.
Two years ago my ninety-two-year-old mother was living in a nursing home. I’d vowed that I would never send her to one of those horrible places, but her health had deteriorated so much that I could no longer take care of her by myself. After two months of lying in a fetal position, she was tired of living.
My mother’s roommate had a serious eye condition, and their curtains were always closed, making the room dark and dreary. My mother had loved to watch the birds and squirrels through her living-room window at home. During one of my visits she whispered to me, “I would give anything to go outside.”
Why not? It was a beautiful evening with a cool breeze blowing. But the head nurse informed me that moving her was out of the question; she was too fragile. I told the nurse that this might be my mother’s last chance to experience the outdoors, and I was willing to take a chance.
Three nurses brought a hoist into the room to lift my eighty-two-pound mother from her bed onto a gurney. I followed as they rolled her to the patio, where she could feel the cool breeze and hear the chirping crickets and the wind chimes. “This is heavenly,” she whispered, and she smiled for the first time in a long while.
My mother died one week later.
I cried three times while reading the Readers Write on “Taking Chances” [June 2010]. My chest heaved, and the tears ran from their ducts and fell like the rain that pelts my roof outside and drips off the bamboo and makes the birds in the bushes sing and chirp. I feel better.