The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
In the early seventies, when my BA in English wasn’t getting me a job, I decided to learn carpentry. I was unprepared for the degree of discomfort many male carpenters felt seeing a woman do “their” work. To steel my resolve, I told myself I was making it easier for the next female to take this path.
In my third year of apprenticeship I got hired to work on a subdivision in the Chicago suburbs. Herb, the foreman, had several strategies for convincing people who “didn’t fit in” to quit. Sometimes he’d saddle me with a project that required two people. Other times he’d partner me with the cantankerous drunk who had bigoted opinions on everything. The junior foreman, Troy, taunted me like a grade-school bully. Once, trying to unnerve me, he shook the post that supported the elevated beam on which I was standing. They all persisted in calling me “Susie” instead of my real name.
After a couple of months I pulled in five minutes late one morning. At the 9:30 break Herb waddled up with a look of triumph on his face and handed me my last paycheck. “You’re paid until noon,” he told me, “but you can leave now.”
I took a deep breath, pocketed the check, and picked up my hammer. “What was the measurement on that joist again?” I asked my partner.
Herb shifted uneasily. “I said you can leave right now.”
“If you’re paying me until noon, I’m working until noon,” I told him. No one said another word.
When I was a teenage girl, it wasn’t unusual for my mother to leave me by myself while she traveled. Soon after my sixteenth birthday she left for a ten-day trip to India. On the ninth day she called to tell me she wasn’t coming home.
“When’s your new arrival date?” I asked; she often changed her plans when traveling.
“No,” she replied, “I mean I’m not coming back at all. I’ve decided that I need to stay here with my guru.”
Once I’d confirmed that she was completely serious, we discussed the arrangements. Then we hung up, and I sat on my bed and tried to absorb the news: She was gone. She had been my tormentor for years, and now I was free of her. I should have been jubilant, but instead I felt a confused mix of rejection, humiliation, and hopelessness.
My basic survival needs were met: my mother paid the bills and allowed me to use her credit card freely; the house was cleaned by a woman who would sometimes leave me home-baked bread. But I still felt isolated and lonely.
I was about to turn seventeen when my mother returned from India for a visit. She planned to stay for only a month before going back to her new home at the foot of the Himalayas.
One night I ventured into her room to speak to her. She was lying there with a book, her long brown hair fanned out on the pillow, and she invited me to sit on the edge of her bed. We spoke about her life in India and what she had learned. She assured me that her time with her guru had been transformative; she was now “90 percent quiet inside.”
Her apparent equilibrium angered me: she had abandoned me and didn’t seem to care how I felt. Not once had she asked what my life had been like in her absence. So I decided to tell her.
As I spoke, I could see her struggling to stay calm. At one point she started to shout, but she caught herself and settled back onto her pillow.
“It just seems like you don’t care about me,” I said at last.
Her eyes flashed with rage, but she took a deep breath before speaking. “Well, it’s too bad that you feel that way,” she murmured.
“Right,” I said. “You just don’t care.” I got up and started to walk away.
I heard a shuffling behind me and turned to see an ornamental rock sail by my head. It knocked a hole in the wall and hung there, stuck. Then my mother seized me by the shoulders, slammed me into the door, and hit me open-handed across the nose. “Don’t ever tell me I don’t care about you!” she screamed.
In middle school I wore rainbow-striped sweaters that had belonged to my mother in college. (It would be years before they would be considered “vintage” and “cool.”) The girl who sat next to me in school called me “Rainbow Brite,” after the cartoon character. It was my first real encounter with the fashion police.
In ninth grade it was my socks. They too were hand-me-downs from my mother and matched my outfits, which were often purple. A girl in my homeroom teased me relentlessly about them.
One day my class took a field trip to the University of Maryland. I dreamed of the freedom and acceptance I might find on a college campus as a student. In the bookstore I saw a pair of rainbow-striped socks adorned with the school’s mascot, a turtle. I bought them without hesitation and wore them to school the next day, along with my purple shorts and sneakers. I pulled the socks up as far as they would go and walked proudly into my homeroom. As I took my seat, my tormentor turned to face me.
“Nice socks,” she said with a snicker.
I stretched out my legs for a good long look, then stared her right in the eye and said, “Thank you.”
Leah R. Berkowitz
Durham, North Carolina
I was nearing the end of a ten-year marriage to a good woman — far better than I deserved. We’d married young, and the little differences in personality that had initially sparked our attraction had since become chasms between us. She’d been the best wife she knew how to be. I, on the other hand, had lied, cheated, and been selfish to a degree that will shame me till the day I die. (I hate hindsight, especially when it shows me what an ass I am.)
As we lay in bed one night, I announced that I was leaving her for another woman. I blamed my wife for nagging me to pay the bills on time and buy clothes for the children. She was always complaining about how I spent money on myself and ignored the needs of our family, and I’d had enough. Having said my piece, I went to sleep.
The next morning I awoke to find my wife sitting on the bed with a cup of coffee, staring at nothing. “I didn’t sleep last night,” she said in a cold, distant tone. On her nightstand lay the pistol that I kept on the top shelf in the closet. Rings of copper gleamed from the cylinder, confirming that it was loaded.
She took a sip of coffee and continued: “I sat here all night long with your gun in my hand, thinking about blowing your brains out as you slept.” She fell silent, as though she was still considering the matter.
“I’m real glad you didn’t do that,” I managed to say. Then I got up, quietly dressed, and left.
Whenever I part with my kids or my husband, I always try to say something loving, because I imagine a car crash or someone’s heart giving out, and I know how I would feel if the last words they’d heard from me had been impatient or distracted. But I also don’t want my “I love you’s” to become automatic. I want to create new ways to say goodbye that mean “I love you” but that feel unique and intimate and genuine.
For several years when he was little, one of my sons used to say to me, “Fare long, old crumpleweed, my friend,” whenever he left the house. I have no idea where he got this from, but those are last words I could live with.
It’s late, and my father and I are driving to a bar in a neighboring town to pick up my mother, who has called and asked for a ride home. This is unusual. I am along out of a sense of duty.
My mother hates my father for good reason; she has suffered his betrayals countless times. My parents fight incessantly. Hardly an evening goes by without a battle in which my siblings and I play referees.
When my father and I arrive, we find my mother waiting in an apartment above the bar with a man. I’m surprised that I don’t have to restrain my father from beating him to death. I assume my mother just met the man tonight. I do not think that it is in her nature to cheat, however badly she might like to.
Five minutes into the ride home the inevitable happens: a wrong look or word, and my parents’ tempers erupt. I feel a heat that starts in my chest and spreads throughout my body. When I can’t take it any longer, I pull back and smash the window with my forearm. The glass shatters onto the passing highway and disappears into the night.
My parents manage to stop fighting long enough to look with amazement at the damage. I don’t hold out any hope that this will be a turning point for them; that they might realize the harm they’ve done to their children with their fighting; that they might change their ways. I just want them to shut up.
“This is for you, Terrie. I think it may help,” my soon-to-be-ex husband says, handing me a bulging envelope at my front door. Help with what? I think as I take it.
Frank and I are separated, and over the past few months he has sent me many nasty e-mails. Every time I read one, I end up wasting half the day composing a searing reply that I never send. Now he has come by unannounced to deliver this package. I wait for him to pull out of the driveway before I tear it open. Inside is a cassette tape labeled, “Session with Simone, re: Terrie.” Simone is a local psychic. Frank mentioned to me several weeks ago that he’d seen her and that the experience had been “amazing.”
There’s also a long, handwritten message describing his internal debate over whether to share this tape with me. He finally decided to do it, out of “love and compassion,” but he wonders if I will really hear what is being said. He asks that I listen with an open mind to Simone’s insights about me, because they “validate” what he has been thinking, and he “feels strongly” that I need to hear them. “I am doing this because I truly care about you as a person,” he concludes, “and I want you to be alive, happy, fulfilled, and a best friend to yourself.”
Fantastic: fifteen minutes of Simone’s insights, and I will be happy and fulfilled. I hold the cassette, which once had an old Pink Floyd album recorded on it, and feel a bit sick. I read the card again. What does he mean that Simone “validated” what he had been feeling and thinking? I’m the one who asked him for this divorce. Will the tape confirm my inability to love, or will it say that we are meant for each other? I can’t deny I am curious. The only way to find out is to listen. It might even be worth the aggravation if I can dissect the entire episode with a girlfriend later and smoke a well-deserved cigarette. But I am tired of reacting to him. Wearily I head to the garage, where the boombox sits on the workbench, collecting dust. I keep going past it to the garbage cans and toss the cassette into the trash.
Santa Barbara, California
As a volunteer for a relief-and-development nonprofit in Uganda and southern Sudan, I seemed to spend all my time saying yes: yes, I could write this grant; yes, I could adjust the terms to meet the donor’s needs; yes, I could visit field projects to observe implementation.
Toward the end of my six months I spent two weeks in a small town in northern Uganda, where decades of civil war had forced more than a million people to live in crowded camps, dependent on the protection of government soldiers and the goodwill of relief agencies.
On my last morning, shortly before I returned to the capital, a Ugandan staff member approached me at the office compound. Mary was a single mother who was struggling to support herself and her young son on a part-time income. “Please,” she said, “can you help me with some small thing?” She held out her hand shyly. She wanted money — not from the organization or anonymous donors in faraway countries. From me.
This was not uncommon, and I had gotten used to saying no to strangers who asked for handouts. My rationale had always felt just: I’m not rich, and I can’t help everyone. How can I decide whose needs are greatest? But Mary was not a stranger. And as modest as my finances were, a small amount from me would have made an enormous impact for her. Here was my opportunity to create a personal connection, without bureaucracy or red tape. I could stay in touch with Mary, send money for her son’s schooling, make a tangible difference in their lives.
Outside, a car was waiting. Mary’s hand was open in front of me. I suddenly felt uncomfortable. “I’m sorry,” I said, and I left and got into the car to go to the airport.
I wish my last word had been yes.
Brooklyn, New York
My father was a tyrant, and no one crossed him. My parents divorced when I was nine, but I was subject to his emotional abuse every other weekend. I also lived with him for a month every summer and for my entire junior year of high school, when my mother’s new marriage blinded her to my peril.
My father began to sexually abuse me when I was sixteen. I was too scared to say anything, but eventually I made my escape by graduating from high school early and leaving home. I still stayed in contact with my father, however, as I had not yet found my anger.
I applied to Mount Holyoke College and was accepted. My father paid my tuition, but when I refused to come “home” to his house over winter vacation, he threatened to stop paying. In distress I turned to the college psychiatrist and explained my situation. He asked if he could tell the dean of students, Ruth Warfel, and I said yes.
The dean summoned me to her office and told me she’d spoken with my father, who’d repeated his threat to cut me off. I still remember her words: “He said to send you home, that you’ve been a ‘very bad girl.’ I told your father that at Mount Holyoke we don’t send girls home simply because they can’t pay their bills. And then I told your father exactly what I thought of him and hung up.”
She and Ruth Payne, of the financial-aid department, arranged for a generous scholarship-and-loan package that would carry me through college.
The night before I was to run in the San Francisco Marathon, I got an e-mail from my cousin saying that my father was dying in a hospital in Massachusetts: two forms of pneumonia and an erratic heart. It didn’t look like he’d pull through, my cousin said.
I wasn’t sure what to do. It was already 11 P.M., and I had to get up at 3:30 A.M. to be at the starting line on time. I didn’t want to lose sleep over this. I’d seen my father just once in the previous three decades. During my childhood he’d swerved in and out of my life, disappearing for years at a time. I remember him shouting at me, “You’re so skinny! You need to put on weight! What’s wrong with you?” At five I couldn’t figure out why he was so angry or why my body was inadequate.
When I was sixteen, my mother died of a heart attack, and my father showed up again, a tall can of Budweiser in hand, to announce his plan to stick around and be a good dad. The next day he vanished.
Eighteen years later I tracked him down and invited him out for lunch. I wanted to make peace with him and let go of my long-simmering anger. It was summer, and, determined to show him that there was nothing wrong with my body, I wore a tank top; I’d taken up weight lifting, and it showed. My father had changed, too: he was now a sickly old man with emphysema who couldn’t walk more than twenty steps without stopping to catch his breath.
Over lunch I asked if he ever thought about my brothers and sisters and me: did he wonder how we’d fared after our mother’s death?
He rose out of his chair in a fury, pointed his finger at me, and said, “Don’t you point your finger at me!”
“I’m not pointing fingers,” I said, biting down on my anger. “I’m trying to understand why you left us.”
Honestly I don’t think he understood why either, though I could see he was haunted by my questions. “I bear you no ill will,” I was able to say by the end of the afternoon, and I meant it. I didn’t so much forgive him as abandon my resentment. I just couldn’t see the point of continuing to hate this defensive and guilt-ridden old man.
Now, with the marathon just hours away, I paced anxiously around my apartment. It was almost midnight before I dashed off an e-mail to my cousin: “Please tell my father, or ask someone to, that I send love and strength. And that all is forgiven. And that his youngest son is tough as nails and is running the San Francisco Marathon tomorrow morning. And that I will think of him and send him good wishes when I’m running. Even if he’s unconscious, please tell him. And squeeze his hand for me.”
The next morning I ran in the race and set a personal record for time. When I got home, I called my cousin. “Your father died last night,” he said. My note had arrived too late.
I am sorry that my father didn’t get my message, that I didn’t send him off into the beyond with a clean slate. I’m also sorry that, after all these years, a part of me still wanted to get in the last word, to say, See, you were wrong. Look how tough I am.
San Francisco, California
When I was thirteen, my favorite pair of jeans were so big that the cuffs dragged the ground and the waist would have fallen to my knees if I hadn’t cinched it with a belt. I thought the jeans made me look smaller by comparison, but they embarrassed my mom.
That year we took a trip to see family in England, and I planned on wearing my baggy pants nearly every day. I packed the night before we left, and in the morning, while my mom showered, I checked my bag to see if she had taken anything out. Sure enough, my jeans were missing. I looked in my dad’s dresser, in my mom’s closet, under their bed, and at the bottom of the dirty-clothes bin. No pants. In the kitchen I paused in exasperation, and something made me look up. The fluorescent-light box above the sink seemed different. Climbing on a chair, I pushed open the cover.
Hours later, as we were fastening our seat belts on the plane, my mom leaned back and said with a smile, “I have something to tell you: I took your jeans out of your suitcase.”
“I know,” I replied. “I found them and put them back.”
After having a few theater reviews and garden articles published, I heard of a job opening for an art critic at a local weekly newspaper. I knew little about art, but I sent some writing samples and got the position.
My first assignment was to cover an opening at a local gallery. I worked assiduously on the piece and turned in what I thought was the right kind of review, with plenty of abstract, academic language. It was back in my mailbox the next day with red marks all over it. The editor had cut my review in half. Whole paragraphs had been sliced, along with most of my best phrases and metaphors. Outraged, I went into her office ready to fight for every single word. If she wouldn’t reconsider, I would calmly say, “I quit.”
The editor listened to me with forbearance, uttering an “Mm-hm” here and there. When I was finished, she handed my article back to me and said, “It’s not negotiable. Just type it over.” I was about to offer my ultimatum when she repeated, “Not negotiable. Get it?”
Speechless, I turned and left. I did type it over, studying her marks and trying to understand why she’d made those changes.
The editor and I fought mightily over many more reviews to come, but I didn’t quit, nor was I fired. Slowly I started to get it. My academic vocabulary and complex sentences disappeared. Within a year I no longer found red-stained drafts in my mailbox with orders to retype, and I started to be assigned features, book reviews, and occasional gardening pieces. It felt good.
One day I heard that the editor was moving on. She’d had it: the fights with writers, the wannabes who couldn’t even spell, the deadlines. Knowing the part I must have played in her decision, I felt a need to say something. I had to choose the exact right phrase: nothing polysyllabic or sentimental or cute. On her last day I surreptitiously put a piece of typing paper in her mailbox with just two words on it: “Thank you.”
Forest Knolls, California
It was exciting to be back in Moscow, this time as an American visitor.
“When did you emigrate?” the chauffeur asked me. I told him: 1993. “Oh, everything has changed since then,” he said. “Look!”
I saw what he was talking about: the fancy nightclubs, the ornate wooden awnings decorating the once-dreary kiosks, the people dressed like Westerners, the cellphones in every other hand. A new glass roof covered the old railroad station, making it look like a giant greenhouse.
“Wow,” I said.
The driver stopped and let me out so I could walk around the station, but beyond the grandiose new entrance was the same old place where I had waited for trains. People pushed each other with the same fierceness. The women wore better makeup, but underneath was a familiar hunger and toughness and need.
No matter how much the chauffeur pointed out what was new, I saw only the country I’d left behind.
“So, why are you here?” the chauffeur asked. He was a burly Russian with tiny eyes.
“I’m doing research,” I answered.
“What sort of research?”
“It’s for a book I’m writing,” I told him. “A novel.”
The plot was about a timid Soviet Jewish teenager who falls in love with an anti-Semitic boy. But I didn’t feel comfortable discussing those details with a stranger, even in this new Russia.
The chauffeur worked for a family friend of mine: Clown Levushkin, a former children’s-TV star and the Soviet equivalent of Big Bird. Now Levushkin was a producer and was letting me borrow his chauffeur for three days while I ran around the capital with my trusty notebook and tried to collect the smells, sights, and sounds of my past.
The next day I told the chauffeur about my son’s asthma, and he shook his head in sympathy and told me about his own three children. He said his job wasn’t that demanding, and the hours were good. Levushkin paid him well. “Those Jew-boys, you know how they are,” the man said, leaning toward me confidentially. “They always have extra money lying around.”
I stiffened in my seat, incredulous. Those Jew-boys, you know how they are. I’d heard worse. Still, I was swallowing back tears. This was the reason I was back in Moscow instead of tending to my sick son: to write about how this felt.
Don’t you see the Star of David around my neck? I wanted to shout. Don’t you know Levushkin and I are friends? Don’t you even realize that your words are offensive?
But I didn’t shout. I didn’t even whisper. Like the shy heroine of my novel, I kept the words to myself.
While I sat there, ashamed and steaming, the chauffeur slowed down before a beautiful, recently restored church.
“Do you mind?” he asked. “I’d like to go in and say a little prayer.”
“Sure,” I said, fingering the Star of David.
“You can come too,” he said.
“OK, I’ll step in.” I grabbed my notebook and a pen.
“What,” he said, frowning at my notebook, “you don’t pray?”
“We Jew-girls pray in our own way,” I said.
We drove the rest of the day in silence.
Manahawkin, New Jersey
When I was eight years old, my father was transferred from the Midwest to rural Mississippi, where we knew no one and nothing of the culture. At school most of the children did not welcome me — I was a Yankee and a Catholic to boot — but I made friends with a girl and a boy, both black. The white children at school became even less friendly toward me after that.
I invited the girl to spend the night at my house, and a day later her mother knocked on our door. When my father answered, she shouted, “What are y’all trying to do: get my daughter killed inviting her over here?” After she left, my father, in a rage, came to find me. I had broken a rule that I hadn’t known existed.
One boy in the neighborhood, a sixth-grader, began trying to intimidate me every time he saw me out riding my bike or skateboard. He said I loved black people, but he used a racial slur in place of “black.” He also began talking about the Civil War to me. I knew little about the Civil War, so I looked it up in the encyclopedia.
The next time I saw the boy, he said, “The only reason you Yankees won the war was that you had more people!”
I replied, “The reason we won was that we were right!” He shoved me off a small bridge into a ditch, but it was worth it.
© Chris Ellinger
My husband walked into the day-care room at the school where he worked and found Paulette, an aide, lying on the floor, dead. She’d had a heart attack at her desk as a roomful of preschoolers slept quietly on cots. She was forty-three.
Paulette’s family asked my husband to be a pallbearer at her funeral. We’d never been to a black Baptist funeral before. The minister told us that after the eulogies were over, we would file out of our pews to view the open casket, but first Paulette’s son would come in to view her body. No one was to speak to him, call out his name, or even look him in the eye, the minister instructed. We would sit quietly in our seats until he was finished.
Later, as soon as the eulogies ended, I heard the church doors open, and I turned to see guards enter carrying automatic weapons. A young man followed wearing a bright orange jumpsuit and leg irons. He was sinewy and had teardrop tattoos.
As he made his slow, measured walk toward the open casket, there was silence except for the sound of his chains scraping the wooden floor.
At the casket he stood and looked down at his mother. Then he bent at the waist, placed his face close to hers, and whispered something I couldn’t hear. After a long pause, he turned and made the walk back: scrape, clank; scrape, clank. He exited first, then the guards. The sound of the door closing echoed through the church, and the organist began to play.
Geraldine Chemes Dorfi
La Mesa, California
The TV announcer excitedly described how to use a glass-cutting kit to make a gleaming set of amber glasses from old beer and wine bottles. I was a new teen bride, and the ad appealed to both the would-be artist and the bargain hunter in me. I had visions of serving drinks in handcrafted glassware at my next fondue party.
When the kit appeared on the shelf at the local hardware store for just $6.99, I bought it. At home my moody twenty-year-old husband spied my purchase and said, “Total waste of money.”
I pleaded my case, describing the new glasses I would make for almost nothing.
“I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “You make three glasses by tomorrow night, and you can keep it.”
The next day was disappointing. Bottle after bottle cracked and broke no matter how carefully I scored it. The ones that didn’t break were either too short, too long, or just plain dangerous. I petitioned the neighbors for more bottles, and by five that evening I’d produced one intact amber glass. It wasn’t perfect, but it was usable if you didn’t mind the rough edge.
My husband was not impressed. He tossed the glass into the trash. I cried. The kit sat untouched on the basement shelf for the two remaining years of our marriage.
After the divorce my ex and I stayed close for the sake of our young daughter, and over the years we formed a friendship. By the time we hit our forties, not a month went by without a phone call. We laughed about our disastrous marriage, chatted about our daughter, and compared job woes. There was still an aloofness about him, though. It was always hard to tell how he felt about anyone.
In 1996, at the age of fifty-two, my ex-husband died of cancer. My daughter and I went to his house to go through his belongings and make arrangements. I was clearing his desk when I saw it: my old amber beer-bottle glass with the rough edge. Apparently he’d rescued it from the trash. It sat in front of his computer with a small piece of paper rolled up inside. I unrolled the paper to find a handwritten list titled “My People,” with names and numbers of everyone he wanted called if something should happen to him. My name was first and was marked “Important.”
Oregon City, Oregon
On a snowy January afternoon I was sitting at home, feeling sick and anxious. I had lost my job and been without pills and money for four days. Now the mail carrier had just brought my last paycheck, and I wanted to get high.
I called a friend and asked him to bring me some pills, but he wouldn’t come out in this weather. There was already two inches of snow on the ground, and it wasn’t supposed to stop until the next day. I couldn’t wait that long.
I called my girlfriend, Cindy, at the Pizza Hut where she worked. I hated to bother her there, but I had no choice: I was sick and needed pills. I left a message for her to call me, saying it was important.
I was watching the phone when it rang. I loved the sound of Cindy’s voice, even when she was mad at me. She said she didn’t want to drive in this weather, but I fussed, cussed, and begged until she agreed. Before we hung up, she said, “If you don’t do something about yourself, you are going to be all alone one day.”
I waited for hours to see her car in the drive, but Cindy never showed up. I went to bed furious.
The next morning I woke to the sound of a knock at the door. It was Cindy’s brother, who explained that she had been in a wreck the night before.
We buried her that Thursday.
I sometimes visit her grave after my Narcotics Anonymous meetings, just to let her know that I finally did something about myself.
My father was a native Bavarian who left Germany in 1927 and established a refrigeration-contracting business in Cincinnati, Ohio. During my teen years he and I had many loud confrontations about politics, boyfriends, my driving abilities — you name it. I knew Dad loved me dearly, but he could never quite accept me as an adult, even after I was married and gainfully employed.
In the 1970s I began taking German courses for fun. I did well, and Dad was proud that I was showing an interest in our heritage. My professor, a descendant of Martin Luther’s uncle, was a stickler for academic excellence. During the time I was studying with her, my cousin’s son Helmut came from Germany for a summer visit with my parents. I tried out my German on Helmut, using some fancy grammatical constructions I had learned in class.
My father immediately jumped in to correct my grammar. “You are speaking in the past tense, and you need to use the past tense,” he said.
“I am getting straight As in German from Gisela Luther,” I replied. “Don’t you think she knows the German language?”
His face grew red, and he yelled, “Who do you think you are, telling two native Germans how German is spoken?”
He’s over seventy, I thought. This has to stop. In an attempt to defuse the situation, I said playfully, “I’ll bet you five marks that I am correct.”
He laughed and agreed.
I soon forgot about the argument.
At the end of the summer my parents took Helmut back to Germany, and when they returned, my mother told me that Dad had gone to the head of a school there to ask about the grammatical construction I had used the day of the argument. The professor had smiled and said that it was an academic usage, but correct. Mom said Dad had seemed very surprised.
Shortly thereafter my father came to me and apologized for the argument. “Dad,” I said, “it’s no big deal. Forget it.” But he wouldn’t. He had been wrong, and he needed to make it right. He reached out and put a five-mark piece into my hand. I will never forget his face. On it was a look of wonder and — I was taken aback — respect.
I carried that coin in my purse for years.
My father’s mouth works behind the oxygen mask, trying to speak. What does he need? Is he in pain? Can he breathe? Yesterday he looked worried and kept reaching weakly behind him. When I asked the nurse about it, she suggested that he looked worried because I did, and she advised that I put on a happier expression. A few hours later she discovered that his rectal tube had slipped, leaving his flesh excoriated.
“What are you saying?” I ask my father now, pulling away the oxygen mask. His mouth moves, but it’s dry and sticky, and he has no air. I swab his gums with a sponge. “Daddy, take a big breath and try again. Try to yell it.”
Deep breath. Then, in a rasp: “Gin. And. Tonic.”
Jesus. That’s what put him here in the first place. For just a moment I had let myself hope that, after his two-week coma, he might be filled with wonder at sobriety and life. But no.
I force a laugh. “You’re ridiculous, Daddy. You failed the swallow test with a teaspoon of water today! I’m putting this mask back on you, and I won’t take it off again.”
Later, when the night nurse comes in, I tell her what he said, certain she’ll be appalled.
“I’ll bet that sounds pretty refreshing right now,” she says, looking sadly at him.
I’m seized with gratitude toward her for seeing my father, in his last hours of life, not as an addict but simply as a thirsty man.
La Cruz de Huanacaxtle
When I lived on campus in college, a large group of us would eat dinner together in the dining hall. Fifteen years later I can recall only one conversation from those nights: About halfway through the meal I was holding court, trying to be funny by describing my (made-up) fear of midgets. No one was laughing, but I continued with my routine anyway.
“There should be a word for my fear,” I concluded. “Dwarphobia or something.”
“There is a word for it,” my friend Matilde said. “It’s called ‘ignorance.’ ”
David G. Allan
Brooklyn, New York
My ninety-four-year-old mother and I have a standing lunch date on Tuesdays, yet she is surprised every week by my appearance at the nursing facility where she lives. When she spots me, her face brightens with recognition. No one is ever as happy to see me as my mother.
“Oh, Kath’een, Kath’een,” she’ll say. “I’m so glad you’re here. Oh, boy. I’m so lucky. Where are we going?”
Almost fifty years ago a head injury from a car accident robbed her of much of her short-term memory and mobility, along with the ability to pronounce the name she gave me. One thing she does remember is that my arrival signals an outing.
I am always careful not to mention what day it is. If I do, she will tell me that she can’t go to lunch with me, because Tuesday is the day she plays cards with her friends. And for decades it was. The old routine remains fixed in her long-term memory.
In the parking lot the transfer from wheelchair to car is complicated by my mother’s terror of falling.
“Have I ever dropped you?” I’ll ask.
“I don’t know,” she’ll answer truthfully. “Ho’d me, ho’d me, ho’d me,” she cries as I ease her into the front seat.
After she’s settled in with the battered tissue box that contains her comb, brush, and tissues, we head for Peet’s, where I buy us a latte to share with lunch.
My mother is always in a hurry. That she can’t remember where we’re going doesn’t seem to matter. She is stuck in 1960, when she was a busy career woman with a husband, two teenagers, and an active social life — a person with no time to waste. “Come on. Come on,” she says to the traffic signals. “We can’t afford to sit here.” When it is our great good fortune to hit a green light, she says, “Oh, good, you made it.”
Every week, when I ask her where she’d like to go for our picnic, she responds, “It’s up to you.”
We’ve gone as far as Santa Cruz, an hour away, but lately we’ve been going to a small city park near where she lives. It’s always her first time there. “Oh, boy,” she says when we arrive. “This is lovely.” She enjoys looking out over the grassy field surrounded by oaks and redwoods. We sit in the car and eat the sandwiches I’ve packed.
Our conversations don’t vary much, but every so often she’ll bring me up short. “Where’s Daddy?” she asked recently, referring to my father.
“He died,” I reminded her.
“Oh,” she said.
I wondered for a moment where she thought he’d been for the past twenty-five years, but then I realized that it takes courage for her even to ask. For all her cognitive limitations, she has a sense she should know such things.
After lunch we run errands — that is, she sits in the car while I run errands. She is always happy to accompany me and would be disappointed if I didn’t have any shopping to do. Whenever I leave the car to go into a store, I tell her how long I’ll be gone. She always responds, “Take all the time you want.” Before shutting the door, I’ll say, “And keep your shirt on.” She’ll look at me with a puzzled expression until I remind her of what happened one warmish spring day a year ago: I returned from Neiman Marcus to find her nude from the waist up. When I asked why she had removed her blouse, she said, “I was hot.”
Since then I always seek a parking spot in the shade. But really I could never fail to please her in my choice of parking place. In fact, I cannot fail my mother in any of my choices: type of sandwich, destination for our outing, and so on. She thanks me for every little thing I do.
Having more stamina at ninety-four than I do at sixty-four, she’d be happy to ride around all day, but I have other places to go, so we eventually head back to the nursing home. When she asks where we’re going, I tell her that we’re returning to Pilgrim Haven. I’m incapable of calling the lovely facility where she lives “home.”
The thought of having her live with me, as she once did, enters my mind whenever I begin the transfer routine in the parking lot. Sometimes the process is difficult.
“I don’t know where I live,” she’ll say anxiously.
“Right there,” I’ll say, indicating the white wooden building with pink shutters. “See where the white posts are?”
“No,” she’ll say, becoming more agitated.
Her concerns will escalate once we’re inside. “Where will I go?” she’ll ask, beginning to panic.
“I can take you to your room, or we can see what’s going on in the lounge.”
“Yes, but where will I go?” she’ll ask again, beginning to cry.
Thankfully there are many more good days than bad ones.
“Go home to the children,” she’ll say on a good day, and she’ll start to wheel herself down the hallway before I can tell her goodbye.
“Be good,” I’ll say.
“That’s impossible,” she’ll retort.
“I love you,” I’ll call as she rolls back to her room a couple of inches at a time. I don’t remember telling her I loved her much during my childhood or during my young-adult life either, but it’s important to me now to speak the words. Sometimes she replies that she loves me too. Other times she just shrugs her shoulders, which is more her style: as if she can’t be bothered to tell me something that so obviously goes without saying.
Palo Alto, California