The small wooden Buddha, barely an inch high, had been carved by a fellow inmate. He’d found the wood on the rec yard, a tree limb deposited inside the fence by a storm. Who knew what improvised implement he’d used to shape it. As he placed it in my hand, he pointed out how the wood was broken, and the faceless head and one shoulder would separate from the torso. It fit back together like a puzzle and weighed almost nothing.
I asked if he was certain he wanted to give it to me. I’d known him only a couple of months, and prisoners don’t often give each other gifts.
“Sure,” he said. “I mean, I haven’t met any other Buddhists since I made it. I figured you’d appreciate it.”
I did. I’d only recently stopped thinking of myself as “studying Buddhism” and begun to acknowledge that I was a Buddhist.
I gave the Buddha a prominent spot on the rail at the head of my bunk, just above my pillow, and I mirrored its posture as I practiced sitting meditation. I felt less alone in its presence, here in this Bible Belt prison where a man who engages in daily yoga and meditation is deeply suspect.
Six months later the inmate asked me to give the Buddha back. He knew I had a transfer pending and feared it would be lost, confiscated, or simply discarded in the move. I didn’t argue, though I was sure I could have smuggled the icon out, and, even if the officers had found it, I could have convinced them to let me keep it as a religious item. If that failed, I’d gladly have paid for the postage to mail it home. But I didn’t tell him any of that. I just nodded and handed him back his carving.
The following day I felt a sense of righteous indignation. How dare he? Though I knew the value of nonattachment and realized my feelings were not doing me any good, I wasn’t able to let go of them.
In the two years since, whenever I come across a Buddha image in a magazine or on PBS, I recall that unassuming bit of wood: fashioned just enough to suggest the form and broken, like me, its flawed nature not immediately visible but no less fatal for being hidden.
As much as a part of me would still like to have that little wooden Buddha, I’m holding on to things a bit more loosely for having lost it. Which was the better gift: the giving or the taking back?
When I was a girl growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s, I often wouldn’t finish my dinner. My parents would hold me captive at the dining-room table long after the rest of my family had gone on with their evening. “There are starving children in Europe who would give anything for the food that you aren’t finishing,” they said. If I asked to be served less, my parents would grumble that I was too thin. I was the only light eater in a clan with hearty appetites.
So I spent many evenings staring at my uneaten food, arranging and rearranging it with my fork in a futile attempt to make the plate look emptier. My parents ignored my tears, my pleas to be excused, my gagging attempts to swallow the congealed mess. I needed to learn the value of what I’d been given.
One night, as I was drooping over a plate of cold pancakes drenched in solidifying syrup, our downstairs neighbor, Minnie, came up to our apartment to visit. Minnie was an elderly woman who sometimes baby-sat me. She knocked loudly and called, “Anybody home?”
My mother, who was crocheting in her living-room chair, replied, “It’s open,” and Minnie let herself in. Seeing me imprisoned in my chair, she asked in a soft voice, “Still here, huh, kiddo?” I looked up at her, my eyes brimming and my cheeks bulging with a mouthful of half-chewed food.
This certainly wasn’t the first time Minnie had found me fretting over my unwanted dinner. On this night, however, she did something she’d never done before: Minnie took the sticky fork out of my hand, speared the remains of the pancakes off my plate, and put them in her mouth. Making a “shhh” gesture with her finger, she chewed and swallowed. Then she winked at me and walked into the living room to chat with my mom.
Stunned, I swallowed what was left in my mouth and joyously hollered the magic words that would set me free: “I’m done!”
Cutchogue, New York
Although I was baptized Episcopalian and forced to attend Sunday school, religion was rarely mentioned in our household — save for my dad’s routine exclamations of “God damn it all,” “for Christ’s sake,” and (my favorite) “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” I was taught that being a Christian was more about the way one dealt with the world and one’s fellow citizens than it was about going to church.
When I was ten, my mother developed a plan to dispatch me throughout our neighborhood to perform good deeds for the elderly. I was under strict instructions to take no compensation of any sort, as this would violate the spirit of the endeavor. This seemed unfair, but I did as I was told. I cut lawns, took out trash, and shoveled snow from driveways, and in return I got rubs on the head, bosomy hugs, and pinched cheeks. If someone asked how much I wanted for the chore, I’d dutifully reply, “That’s OK, I’m happy to do it,” and then I’d return home filled with resentment.
Finally I began to accept remuneration for my work — first in cookies, then in cash. Before long I had a lucrative operation mowing, sweeping, and shoveling. Instead of feeling resentment, I’d walk home with a jingle in my pocket.
I’m not sure how Mom caught on to my deceit. Maybe one of the elderly women dropped off an envelope of cash or a plate of cookies at our house. But sometime after my twelfth birthday Mom declared that our neighbors no longer needed my services. She also said I probably wasn’t cut out to be a Christian.
Peter B. Perkins
Grass Valley, California
When I was growing up in northern New Mexico in the 1960s, my father sold firewood each winter to supplement his unemployment check. I helped him deliver it. The work was hard, and my hands and feet grew numb from the cold, but each snowfall brought us new customers.
Hispanic women invited us inside and offered us warm tortillas or cookies. In the Indian villages, Native American women gave us plum pie and fry bread. I didn’t like delivering wood to customers in Los Alamos, however. Most of them were white and lived in large houses. They eyed us with suspicion and never invited us in. Sometimes they measured the wood to make sure we were being honest.
One day as Dad and I unloaded ten dollars’ worth of wood from our pickup truck, a woman with a scarf around her neck and a big green apple in her hand stood by and watched us. She asked how much for a cord of wood. Twenty-five dollars, Dad told her. Then she asked how much wood was in a cord.
“About three loads this size,” answered Dad.
She said to bring her a cord that afternoon. As she walked away, she tossed the apple core in the bed of our truck and wiped her hands on her skirt.
We went home and put sideboards on the truck so we could load it high and deliver a cord in just two trips. As I finished stacking the second load at the woman’s house, Dad went to the door to ask for payment.
“You’ll get paid when you deliver the rest of my wood,” said the woman. “You told me three pickup loads.”
Dad explained that we’d loaded the truck higher than she’d seen earlier.
“Then take it all back!” she said. “I’m not getting cheated by the likes of you.” And she slammed the door.
Dad and I piled half the wood back onto the pickup in silence.
We’d driven just a couple of blocks when a policeman stopped us and ticketed my father for going five miles over the speed limit. We went to the police station, and Dad paid a ten-dollar fine. All I wanted was to go home.
As we were leaving, a man saw the wood in our truck and asked if we were selling it. Dad said yes, and he had another load the same size he could deliver in an hour.
“Follow me,” said the man.
While Dad and I unloaded and stacked the wood at the man’s house, his wife came outside and introduced herself. By the time we returned with the second load, she’d made hot chocolate and brought it out on a tray. The steam warmed my face.
She asked my father if I was his only child. No, said Dad, he had six other children and one grandson. The man and his wife asked my dad another question in private. Dad nodded, and they brought out a bicycle and offered it to me.
“We don’t have any kids left at home,” explained the man, wiping it down.
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t own a bike. It needed new tires and was a girl’s bike, the woman said apologetically. I told them that was OK; my dad could fix anything.
We left with a bike in the back, money in Dad’s pocket, and a different feeling about the people in Los Alamos.
I used to say yes to almost anything anybody asked of me, because I thought it was the compassionate response. But after years of putting up with selfish or unstable people who took advantage of me, I consciously started saying no to requests that exacted too much of a toll.
Late one night I got a call from a woman I’d worked with years before. I didn’t know Diane well. She was much younger than I was and rather aloof. When she’d left that job, she hadn’t even said goodbye to anyone. Now she was crying so hard it was difficult to understand her. Eventually it became clear that she needed a place to stay that night. She was asking me to put her up.
I explained that I’d moved to a small mobile home maybe thirty miles outside of town. There was no way for her to get to my house without a car (the lack of which was one of her troubles), and really no room for her there if she did. None of that mattered to Diane. She would get to my place somehow, she said. She wouldn’t take up any room. She would stay for just one night.
If I’d still been the person I once was, I would have gotten in my car, picked her up, brought her home, fed her, and let her sleep in my bed, possibly for weeks. Instead I told her, “I’d really like to help you, but it sounds as if you need more than I can give.” I mentioned social-service agencies and professionals.
As I hung up, I felt sad and concerned but also relieved. There are times when the person you most need to be kind to is yourself.
Forest Knolls, California
I had spent three years in Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer, and now I was back there working as a trekking guide. Between jobs I roamed the streets of Kathmandu, helping all the dogs I could find. Often half-starved and tormented by lice, they haunted the narrow lanes and barked ferociously at passersby. A few could be found curled up with street kids under filthy burlap bags, lending warmth and companionship during cold, foggy nights. In Nepal dogs were regularly stoned, beaten, or run over, and also killed by the government, which would throw poisoned meat out in the evening and pick up their stiffened bodies by the truckload in the morning.
I patrolled several neighborhoods with a shoulder bag of bandages, flea powder, and antibiotics, looking for sick and injured dogs that would allow me to get close enough to treat them. Most Nepalis who witnessed what I was doing thought I was crazy, but a few actually helped me locate animals.
One evening I came upon a Tibetan boy who was poking a sick dog with a stick through the gate of his family’s compound. The big house behind him and the Toyota in the drive suggested wealth. When I asked why he did this, he said the animal smelled bad, and they wanted it to go away.
I examined the dog, who was so weak it could barely move. The boy’s mother came out, hands on her hips, and asked what I was doing to this filthy dog and what I was telling her son. I explained my mission, and she watched me for some time as I comforted the animal.
After a while the mother left and returned with an ornamental silver bowl filled with milk. She opened the gate and had me bring the dog in and place it next to the bowl. It took a few feeble drinks then lay on its side and, within a few minutes, died. I bent to pick up its body, but the mother said to leave it. As I turned to go, mother and son put their hands together in front of their foreheads and gave a small bow. I walked away with tears in my eyes for a dog that had found kindness only in death, and for the affirmation given to both of us by that mother and son.
We didn’t see many homeless people in our Los Angeles suburb when I was growing up in the sixties. I’d heard of blocks downtown where men and women lived in cardboard boxes for shelter, but that was a distant problem. The first time I saw a homeless person up close was in the late seventies. A bearded man with long, dirty hair sat holding a handwritten sign in a supermarket parking lot in Mission Viejo, a well-to-do Orange County suburb. Homelessness was spreading beyond downtown.
Once, as my mother and I enjoyed lunch at a fast-food restaurant in another affluent neighborhood, she looked out the window and spotted a man going through the dumpsters for food. On our way out she bought a meal to go. I was concerned about my mother approaching this stranger, not knowing how he might react, but as she walked up to the man, shook his hand, and handed him the meal, I realized she had given him more than something to eat: she had treated him with kindness and respect.
My mother is now eighty-two years old and barely able to walk due to arthritis. I help her with her errands every Saturday morning. Before we leave her house, she decorates an envelope with hand-drawn flowers and writes something on it like “We hope this will brighten your day. Things will get better for you.” Then she stuffs the envelope with about thirty dollars in cash. Because my mother’s eyesight is poor, she relies on me to find the right person to give it to while we are out.
She’ll wait in the car as I take her envelope to a man whose face shows despair. I’ll tell him that my mother would like him to have this cash to help with a meal or two. I’ll offer a handshake and ask his name and wish him a good day. The man will wish me well in return and walk away with a little money and the knowledge that someone cares.
This Saturday errand is the highlight of my mother’s week.
My mother liked to tell me at the breakfast table, “Just wait until you’re in the army and see if they ask you how you want your eggs!” Normally, at the age of fifteen, I would have made a smart remark in reply to anything she said, but I found being in the military so remote a possibility that I just ignored her.
After high school and two and a half years of college, I dropped out. It was the right decision for me, but my timing was terrible. The Vietnam War was at its peak. Instantly draftable, I found an opening in the naval reserve and spent a summer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before receiving orders to report to boot camp.
Great Lakes, Illinois, was cold and dreary. Upon arrival my fellow “shit birds” and I were issued military haircuts and uniforms, given sheets and thin blankets for our bunks, marched and worked to the point of exhaustion, and finally ordered to hit the sack. The lights in the barracks went out and then came back on, seemingly minutes later. It was still dark when we trooped in formation to the mess hall for breakfast.
When my turn to be served finally came, a kid of no more than nineteen, with fair hair and a Southern accent, smiled and said, “Good morning. How would you like your eggs?”
I don’t remember how the eggs tasted. What has remained with me all these years is that nameless kid’s kindness.
During college I worked as a summer intern in Washington, DC, commuting an hour and a half each way from my town in western Maryland. One day on the street a man in a white robe started preaching to me about the Baha’i faith and its emphasis on the spiritual unity of humankind. He handed me a copy of one of their holy texts and wouldn’t take it back. “For free,” he said.
Not wanting to accept something for nothing, I dug in my purse, pulled out my last dollar, and gave it to him. Then I escaped to the Metro station to head home.
When I arrived at my destination, I realized my Metro farecard didn’t have enough money on it for me to pass through the turnstile to leave the subway. I had no cash, and there was no way back then to use a credit or debit card to add value. I couldn’t get out of the station.
I was forced to ask strangers for money. Commuters recoiled at my mumbled plea, wincing as if I were an inconvenient beggar. Finally someone relented and gave me a buck.
I should have taken from that experience a lesson in humility and gratitude for the spiritual unity of humankind. Instead I swore never again to give away my last dollar.
Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson
When I was twenty-two, I spent six months traveling in India. At the end of the trip I volunteered with a group that helped homeless children in Calcutta. Each Sunday we’d wash the kids, cut their hair, mend their clothes, give them a hot meal, and send them off to fend for themselves until the following Sunday.
I remember one little boy, maybe six or seven years old, with a runny nose and a radiant smile. As I was washing his shaggy hair, I saw that it was infested with lice, so I shaved his head. I thought he might be embarrassed, but his smile only widened when the older boys came up and rubbed his scalp.
I had to hide my shock when I watched the children eat. At first they waited patiently, sitting cross-legged with their plates in the dirt courtyard. Once given the OK, they attacked their food. All talking stopped, and the children bent over and ate as though racing to finish. I spotted the boy whose head I’d shaved. He shoveled rice and lentils into his mouth with wild desperation and ate a hard-boiled egg in two bites, his cheeks bulging.
As he scraped up the last of his dinner, he caught me staring at him, and he reached his thin arm out to me and opened his hand to offer me its contents: the last bite of what was surely his only hot meal of the week — bits of lentils mixed with crumbled egg fallen from his overstuffed mouth. I smiled and shook my head, and the boy returned to eating.
It was the most generous offer I’d ever received.
San Pablo, California
I worked at a hospice in an old neighborhood of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and on my drive to work I always passed the home of an elderly woman who fed feral cats that lived under her house. The woman walked with a cane, and I’d see her bending over the cats, talking to them as they came running.
One day I saw a sale on cat food and decided to buy some and give it to the woman as a gift. I stopped at her house on my way to work, but she wasn’t outside. The door was closed, and the cats were all peering out from under the house. I knocked, but there was no answer, so I left the food by the door.
When I drove by the next morning, the cat-food bag was still there. Again I stopped and knocked; again no answer. I walked around the house, but the curtains were drawn, and I could not hear anyone inside. I asked the neighbors if they knew the woman. No one did.
Driving by the house on the way home that night, I saw the cat food was still on the step, only the bag was torn open, and the cats were eating it. I went to the mailbox and got her name from an envelope, then called all the hospitals in the area. Nobody by that name was a patient in any of them.
The next day I called the police. I told them I was worried the woman might be inside the house and hurt, or worse.
When I drove by that night, the cat food was off the step, so I guessed everything was OK.
A few weeks later I saw the lights on in the house and the woman sitting at her dining-room table by the front window, so I stopped. She came to the door, and I confessed that I was the one who had called the police out of concern for her. She started to cry, saying I had saved her life.
The police had pulled the air-conditioning unit from the window in the back bedroom and found her on the floor, where she had lain for three days after a stroke. She’d just come home from rehab that morning.
We both started crying then. She kept thanking me for my kindness, but really it was her kindness to the cats that had made me notice she was missing.
Dana, North Carolina
I was sitting at a red light when I saw a small man who appeared to have palsy attempting to cross the busy six-lane intersection. There’s no way he’ll make it before the light turns, I thought.
Indeed, he had gotten only a third of the way across when the light went from red to green. A nearby police cruiser put its siren on. The Los Angeles police are not known for being overly friendly, and I grew angry, thinking the man was about to get a ticket. To my surprise the police pulled into the middle of the intersection and blocked all traffic until the man had made it safely to the other side.
Los Angeles, California
Bob was an old friend, successful in almost every endeavor: businessman, musician, athlete, father. The only place he’d struggled was in his marriages, but with his third wife, Mary, he’d found a lasting relationship.
Shortly after he retired, Bob had a mild stroke, and Mary stopped working because he “needed her,” she said. He seemed unaffected mentally but did have trouble with his balance and a tremor in his right hand.
I couldn’t help noticing how Mary hovered over Bob, fretting and doing everything for him. If he moved unsteadily, she was there to keep him from falling. If he debated about whether to try playing tennis, she suggested lunch with friends instead. She drove him right to the door so he didn’t have to walk from the car. She even sat next to him at dinner and cut his food.
Bob joked at first that it was easier just to let Mary take care of him. Then he seemed to get used to it. Finally he came to depend on it.
Bob never did get better. With every act of kindness from Mary, it seemed a bit of him disappeared.
As I make my way down the pitch-black alley, I sense a few rats running for cover. Another power outage. It’s 1:30 in the morning, and my neighborhood in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City is asleep.
My two roommates and I — all new teachers at the American International School — have lived in our four-story house for just a few weeks. We call it “the Castle” because of the balcony that protrudes over the kitchen and the view we have of the city from the rooftop deck. The three of us are the only Westerners on our street and have been regarded mostly with wide-eyed wonder by our new neighbors, whose homes are so close we can hear their babies crying and their cellphones ringing.
“Be careful,” the seasoned expat teachers warned us. “Your neighbors will rob you when you’re gone.” So we have placed two padlocks on our outer gate and one on our inner door.
As I arrive at the Castle in the dark, I think about the story I heard earlier at the bar: two Americans were mugged just a few blocks from where the taxi dropped me off moments ago. I hold my keys in one shaking hand and feel for a gate padlock with the other. I try all three keys, but none will turn the lock. My heart begins to race.
I’m trying all the keys again when I sense movement behind me. I whirl and see my neighbor leaning out of the small second-story space that serves as sleeping quarters for her and her three children. She’s holding a lit candle, her arm extended as far as possible across the short span that separates us. She gives me a shy nod — the same nod I sometimes receive as she parks her vending cart on her front porch at the end of the day.
I put my hand to my heart and exhale, and we exchange a little laugh. She knows I thought she was an assailant.
The candle sheds just enough light for me to see the keys. After I’m inside the gate, I turn and wave to her. She smiles before extinguishing the flame.
As a woman hiking the Appalachian Trail alone, I was cautious at first, but the farther I hiked, the more kindnesses I found. Many times I was surprised by “trail magic”: Cans of soda left in a stream on a hot day. A ride into town just before dark. A bag of fresh fruit hanging from a tree.
One day, after a night at a hostel in town, I was hitchhiking back to the trail. A man in a minivan offered me a lift. He wore a wedding band and had a child’s car seat in the back. As he drove, he asked if I’d had any trouble getting rides from strangers. No, I told him. People had been very kind.
He pulled over at the trailhead, and I stepped out of the van and shouldered my pack. As I reached back in for my walking stick, the man told me I looked really good and asked if I wanted to have sex.
After four months on the trail, this was my first such proposition. Shocked, I managed to say no thanks. Then I spun around and headed for the woods.
He called after me, “Well, then, how about a quick flash?”
“Sorry,” I said and leapt up the trail, hiking as fast as I could, frequently looking over my shoulder.
Years later, when I thought back on all the kindnesses I’d received on the trail, I came to realize that this man’s proposal was one of them. He reminded me to remain cautious and not to take trail magic for granted.
It’s a bitterly cold winter’s day in New York City, and I am riding the subway home from work, still bundled against the freezing temperatures on the street and fairly immune to the presence of others around me. The train stops, and a woman, much too lightly dressed for the weather, enters our car. As she makes her way through the crowd, I hear the familiar plea for money. A few people, myself included, offer up a dollar or some loose change. Then a well-dressed man stands up. I assume he is getting ready to exit at the next stop, but instead he removes his heavy wool coat and scarf and drapes them around the woman’s shoulders.
I am shocked by his generosity and ashamed of my own paltry charity. The woman seems embarrassed. She tries to give the coat and scarf back, but the man refuses. Everyone on the car has stopped talking to watch. The woman bows her head in gratitude, and the man smiles and bows in return. The silence gives way to applause.
Santa Barbara, California
She is a self-described “angry old lady.” Much of her anger is directed at the stupidity of organizations and the “idiots” who run them. (How can they possibly close the library for a month for renovation!) Nice people are “ineffective noodle-heads,” she says. Some who know her will walk the other way when they see her coming. The hospital staff had to restrain her from attacking the technician who misread her grandson’s sonogram.
In her spare time she goes to bicycle-rental places and fills her trunk with cast-off helmets. When she sees a “damned fool kid” riding without one, she pulls him over, terrorizes him with stories of brain injury and paralysis, then plants a helmet on his head and sends him on his way.
Kindness comes in many forms.
My father recently died at the age of eighty-five. We were very close. Throughout my life he was my biggest supporter and always there for me, even if he didn’t quite understand some of my choices. Just five days after his death, I receive a call at work from an attorney my father once considered a trusted friend. This attorney now represents my father’s mean-spirited widow. We argue over his will, the attorney threatens me, and I hang up.
The call leaves me shaken. Not wanting to fall apart in front of my co-workers, I wander to the courtyard outside my office building. It’s midafternoon on a beautiful summer day, but few people are about. I see a young father skipping with his little girl, which makes me happy but also sad, because they remind me of my childhood. Lucky girl.
A lone man applauds the girl as she dances with her father. Wiping my eyes, I start to walk back to my office.
“Ma’am?” a deep male voice says.
I know it’s the lone man, trying to get my attention. He must have seen me crying, and he wants to help. I pretend to not hear. I don’t want to speak with anyone, especially a stranger. There’s nothing he can do.
“Ma’am?” he asks again, his voice closer. Not wanting to be rude, I stop and wait. As he nears, the compassionate look on his face causes my tears to flow again. Damn him.
The stranger has short-cropped hair and a small firefighter’s insignia on his shirt. “Are you all right?” he asks. I can’t respond except to shake my head. “I’m sorry,” he says with genuine feeling. “Do you work up there?” He looks toward the county-administration building. I nod. “Yeah, working there can be rough sometimes,” he says.
I laugh derisively and tell him my job is easy compared to dealing with my family.
“Families are meant to break our hearts,” he says.
Speechless, I nod in agreement and suddenly wish he’d hug me. I begin to turn away, but the man puts his hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry for your pain,” he says.
Tears spill off my chin, and I mumble a thank-you and walk back to work, sniffing.
Inside my building I head for the restroom, hide in a stall, and let myself bawl. After I’m cried out, I splash water on my face and marvel that a stranger was able to offer me such empathy and understanding — a stranger who behaved very much like my father.
My ’95 Saturn broke down in rush-hour traffic two hours from home. I was en route to a city another hundred miles away, where I had a business meeting the next morning. My supervisor was coming to the meeting for my annual evaluation. I had to get there.
Some burly men pushed my car into a convenience-store lot, and a couple of older men in overalls opened the hood and had me try to start it. No luck. Could be the fuel line or fuel pump, they said. I needed a mechanic, but it was now 6 PM. The garages were all closed, and the nearest car-rental agency was thirty minutes back in the direction I’d come.
I asked the convenience-store clerk for a phone book, explaining my dilemma. She said her husband worked on cars; if I was interested, she could give him a call. I leapt at the offer. She tracked him down, and he arrived in a white work van thirty minutes later.
His name was Alan, and he was slight and shy. Despite the drizzle, he took out his tools and set to work. I sat in a pink plastic booth by the window and waited.
At 8:40 PM Alan had an assessment: timing belt and water pump, probably. There was an auto-parts store on the far end of town, but we would have to hurry; they closed at nine. I climbed into his passenger seat and saw a framed senior yearbook photo of a young man fastened to the dash.
We got to the parts store just in time and returned to my car by 9:30. It was raining harder. I was wondering how long it would take when Alan told me he had an idea: He had a car at his house, an older model, but it ran great. I could take his car to my meeting the next day and return it when I was finished. Hopefully by then my car would be repaired.
On the way to his house in the country, Alan told me how he and his son, Alan Jr., had been planning to start a business together when Alan Jr. graduated from high school the previous June. Then, just a few months into his senior year, Alan Jr. had been killed in a car wreck. Alan told his story plainly, without bitterness, but I could feel his profound sadness. His son’s photo looked out at me from the dash.
A few minutes after 10 PM, I found myself behind the wheel of a vintage Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Alan gave me the keys and wished me luck, and off I drove.
The meeting went well, and the next evening at Alan’s house my Saturn was ready to go. The new timing belt and water pump had done the trick. When I wanted to settle up, Alan resisted taking any payment. I figured I owed him at least three hundred dollars. He would not accept any more than a hundred. As I handed over a check, awed by this unassuming man’s generosity, he excused himself to run into the house. He returned with a handful of laminated bookmarks adorned with some of Alan Jr.’s drawings alongside Bible verses. He shared them with people, he said, to honor his son.
My father was an outdoorsman and had a great love for animals, which I shared. As a young girl I would never harm a living creature, not even a spider. I felt a certain pride that I’d inherited this from my father.
One day he and I were walking hand in hand in the woods when a robin began darting around us. We looked up and saw that its nest had been disturbed. Then my dad spotted a baby robin on the ground beside us. It had fallen or perhaps been snatched and dropped by a predator. The tiny, featherless creature was bloody and gasping for breath.
I bent and picked it up, carefully cupping it in my hands. “Can we take it home and make it well?” I asked my dad.
He kneeled beside me and gently took the bird. “It’s suffering, Karen,” he said, “and there is really nothing we can do to save it.”
I stroked the bird’s head, wishing we could help, but I knew my father was right.
My dad stood up and turned away from me. Then he held the bird close and made a quick twisting motion. It was over.
As we buried the baby bird in the woods, I wondered if I could ever be that kind.
Pleasant View, Colorado
I was lonely. That’s my excuse. I’d been alone for eight years and thought that I’d gotten used to it, but on this particular night I was really lonely.
I stopped in at the Blue Heart, had a beer, and left with Jim. His room was close by, and it wasn’t long before I was naked from the waist down and Jim was grinding his face into me in an unpleasant manner.
“I’m not having fun,” I said, as nicely as I could, but Jim kept going. So I tried again: “I’m sorry, but that doesn’t even feel good.”
Jim looked up. “Maybe we’re both getting too old for this,” he said.
I had been thinking the same thing, but I wasn’t going to admit that to him.
It was at this point that he asked why I still had my top on. I told him the truth: I was worried no man would find me attractive after my breast-cancer surgery.
“Hmm,” Jim said. He pulled my T-shirt off over my head and fumbled with the clasp of my bra. Then he leaned in and gently kissed the spot where my right breast had been. It was a sweet gesture, but I still didn’t want to spend the night with him. We could talk, he suggested, or watch a movie, or sleep naked together and cuddle.
Actually I’d fantasized about a man saying something like that to me. But not this man.
Going home with Jim may have been a mistake, but this is what I choose to remember: A man was not dismayed by my lack of a breast. He kissed me gently and asked me to spend the night.
When my husband was dying of AIDS in June 2003, I went to the hospital twice every day: once in the morning to bring him the newspaper, and then again in the afternoon to visit. Sometimes, when he was asleep or too sedated to know I was there, I would walk down the hallways or talk to the nurses — anything to relieve the boredom.
One morning I passed a woman in a wheelchair, and she reached out and gripped my arm but didn’t speak. I looked into her clear blue eyes, which seemed sad and anxious at the same time. She had long silver hair, but her skin was smooth. As she kneaded my forearm, I became increasingly uncomfortable. A nurse walking by said, “She’ll just keep you there if you let her,” and she asked if I needed help to undo the woman’s hands. I saw hurt and disappointment in the woman’s face when my arm was freed.
The nurse said the woman didn’t know who I was or where she was, but I kept thinking about the way she’d looked directly into my eyes, as if there was something she wanted to tell me. The following morning I went back to her hallway and found her, in bed this time. I went into her room and gave her my arm to hold. I asked who she was, who she thought I was, and if she wanted to tell me something. No answer, just those blue eyes and a slight whimper. After a while my arm became sore, and I pried her fingers off and went back to where I belonged.
But I returned to her room the next day and the next. I believed I saw recognition in her face when I entered. I started telling her how my husband was sick and how I felt about it. I told her about our family members and the different ways they were dealing with their grief. I’m not sure why, but when I spoke, the anxiety in her eyes lessened.
The last time I saw the woman, the day my husband died, one of the nurses said, “You’re very kind to come by and spend time with her.”
Was I? “She’s a good listener,” I said. The nurse just laughed. I think she thought I was kidding.
During World War II I was stationed aboard the USS LeHardy, a destroyer escort designed for antisubmarine warfare. Her area of operation was the South Pacific near the Marshall Islands. Night and day she roamed those waters, her sonar alert for any echo that might signal a lurking submarine. Our ship had just been outfitted with the latest radar equipment, which made her top-heavy and increased her tendency to roll on the waves. Many years later, when my children asked me, “What did you do in the war, Dad?” I answered, “Vomited mostly.”
For reasons I could never understand, the LeHardy was overmanned: there were more sailors than there were bunks. As you were going off duty, you climbed into the bunk of a man going on duty. Since we were near the equator, this meant you found yourself lying in a warm pool of sweat from the previous occupant. To avoid this I often slept “topside” on the bare steel deck in only my skivvies.
There is no darkness like that of the ocean on a cloudy night. Lying in the pitch black, I would hear the sounds of the on-duty men hurrying to their stations, their footfalls echoing past me. One night someone stopped suddenly next to me. Aroused from sleep, I felt the man gently lift my head and slip a folded blanket underneath it. Then the footsteps disappeared into the night.
People were kind to soldiers during the war years. At the USO, unattainable girls danced with you. Hitchhiking in uniform, you never failed to get a ride. But if asked which kindness I remember most, I would have to say that black Pacific night when some anonymous sailor gave me a makeshift pillow for my head.
Robert E. Yim