Charlie was the love of my life and a die-hard procrastinator. Almost everything he did was at the last minute. I, on the other hand, do everything yesterday, having been raised by a strict father for whom “Be home by midnight” did not mean 12:01.
This difference between Charlie and me was apparent on our wedding day. By the time the guests started arriving, I had been dressed for hours. The church hall looked festive. The food was ready to serve at the reception. There was only one thing missing: the groom.
The hands of the clock ticked by: five minutes past the hour, ten, fifteen. At the twenty-six-minute mark I heard the crunch of gravel in the driveway, a car door slam, and feet running into the hall. Charlie was panting, winded, embarrassed. He swore he’d left plenty of time to go to his apartment to dress, but when he’d gotten there, he couldn’t find his keys. The best man had boosted Charlie to the porch of his second-floor apartment, and he’d broken a window to get in.
A year or so into our marriage, Charlie and I attended a workshop in Gestalt therapy. One group session focused on couples-counseling: each couple in attendance was asked to share a relationship problem with the group.
Charlie and I still had just one major problem: his procrastination. What a dull subject to bring up, we thought, but neither of us could think of anything else to disclose. So, rather apologetically, we presented our issue.
There was laughter around the room. Almost every couple there had struggled with the same dilemma: one partner was a procrastinator, and the other was compulsively punctual. If this was the worst glitch in our relationship, I realized, we were mighty lucky.
Charlie and I were married for thirty-two years. Now that he is gone, I regret all the time I spent feeling angry with him for being late.
Hendersonville, North Carolina
soon after arriving in Philadelphia as a newlywed with no immediate job prospects, I found part-time work with a private courier service, delivering packages to locations around the city. This was in the 1980s, when you had to rely on maps and people’s directions to get around. My unfamiliarity with Philadelphia streets put me at a disadvantage, and the dispatcher used me only as a last resort.
I was ready to quit and focus on getting a full-time job when, early one Saturday morning, I was awakened by the phone. The dispatcher said they had an emergency delivery, and no one else was available. Could I pick up a package at the airport and deliver it to the hospital? I started to balk, but the dispatcher pleaded, and I needed the money. My wife said she’d come with me; we could get breakfast afterward.
It was a beautiful fall morning as we drove to the airport, where I picked up a plain cardboard box labeled “Medical Supplies.” Because I’d been awakened abruptly and was still groggy, I didn’t inspect the address carefully and just drove to the only hospital I knew of in Philadelphia, at the University of Pennsylvania.
I pressed the intercom buzzer at the delivery entrance. A man’s voice said they weren’t expecting any deliveries and asked for the street address on the package. I read it out loud.
“That’s Jefferson University Hospital,” he said. “Do you know how to get there?”
A minute later the man came back on the intercom and gave me directions. “They’re waiting for you in surgery,” he said.
“Really? What am I delivering?”
I quickly drove to Jefferson, where the surgeon came out to meet me. He was thankful and relieved to have the box. Needless to say, he didn’t linger to chat about the pleasant fall weather. He had work to do.
After she graduated from high school in West Berlin and before she returned to the U.S. to attend college, my daughter Laura took a year off to live in Paris. She’d arranged to work there as an au pair. Our family had lived there in the early 1980s, leaving when Laura was fourteen, and she loved the city.
On one of Laura’s infrequent calls home, her voice quavered. I asked what was wrong. She said not to worry; she was all right. But she needed to tell me what had happened two days earlier.
Returning from her second job, as a stage manager, she’d gotten off the train around 10:30 PM. No one else got off. The platform was empty. She left the station and headed home. It was a cold night, so she had her hands in her pockets when a man grabbed her from behind. She felt a knife at her throat. “Shut up,” her attacker whispered in French. Laura obeyed, and he steered her toward some nearby woods.
As they walked, Laura realized her right hand was touching a small canister of pepper spray. The au pair who’d preceded her had passed it along as an afterthought: “You never know.”
Laura turned the tube over in her hand until her finger found the trigger.
When the woods loomed dark in front of them, the attacker’s knife hand relaxed just a bit, and Laura twisted away and sprayed a full blast into his face. Then she screamed for help and fled back to the train station.
My daughter’s voice cracked as she finished telling me this over the phone, and she wept quietly for a moment. I fought my motherly inclination to go get her and bring her home, to keep her safe from all harm in the world — as if I could.
Laura would never have agreed to come home even if I’d insisted. So instead Laura’s father, her brother, and I traveled to Paris. We wanted to hold her close, reaffirm how grateful we were that she was OK, and remind her that she had triumphed in the end. I wondered if the city would ever be the same for any of us.
After we’d spent a few days with Laura, her father and brother returned to work and school, and I stayed on. My daughter and I walked past our old apartment and reminisced. We ate mille-feuilles and chocolate éclairs from the neighborhood patisserie and drank café au lait at our favorite sidewalk cafe. On my last night there we strolled arm in arm down the Champs-Élysées. The traffic was loud, and we were pleasantly jostled by tourists and Parisians alike. It was a Saturday night in the heart of Paris, and I threw my arm up and said, “Just look where we are. Just look at this magnificent city!”
At that precise moment the white lights covering the branches of the trees came on all at once, from the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe. We took it as a sign that everything was going to be OK.
Pebble Beach, California
It’s been more than forty years since I met my mother-in-law. That first meet-the-parents dinner was tense and disappointing for everyone. Although I had spruced up and even worn a bra for the occasion, my long hair and wire-rimmed glasses betrayed my left-leaning politics. My future in-laws showed home movies featuring my fiancé’s former girlfriend, who was still their favorite. By the end of the evening it was clear that I was not the daughter-in-law my fiancé’s mother had in mind.
Through the years my husband and I managed to keep family visits cordial by avoiding discussions of politics, and my in-laws and I learned to tolerate each other. About ten years ago my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Then her husband died, and family members rallied to care for her. Initially she seemed kinder and more affectionate, but as her condition worsened, she became sad, frustrated, and angry. Seeing her deteriorate caused my remaining grudges and resentments toward her to fade.
A few months ago I traveled to her retirement home to see her. My brother-in-law had warned me that she probably would not remember me. Nevertheless she and I chatted and looked at photographs from better times, in which younger versions of ourselves smiled at the camera. It soon became clear that she thought my husband had remarried, and I was his new wife. She was eager to hear how we’d met and why she had missed our wedding.
As I was leaving, she gave me a hug and said, “Welcome to the family.”
Without hesitation or irony I replied, “Thank you.”
One cold December morning my husband was catching an early flight to Los Angeles to pick up a friend’s motorcycle and drive it down the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. We live on an island, and I drove him to the ferry in my nightgown and bare feet. It was cold out, but it would be a quick trip, and I would soon be back home in bed.
When we got to the ferry, we realized there was no 6:20 AM boat on Saturdays, only on weekdays. To cross the bridge and drive to the airport would take an hour and a half. We had enough time to make it, but I didn’t have my purse and wasn’t dressed. My husband offered to drop me off at home and take our other car to the airport. At first I agreed, but halfway home I said no; I would drive him.
We spent the next hour and a half in the warm car, talking about our life together and how lucky we were: Our three sons had all recently gotten married to wonderful women. We loved each other and had much to look forward to in the years ahead.
At the airport I got out of the car in my bare feet and gown and hugged him hard.
Two days later my husband had a heart attack in the remote desert, crashed his motorcycle, and died. My greatest comfort is that last-minute decision to drive him to the airport.
Bainbridge Island, Washington
On January 17, 1991, I wrote in my journal: “I’m listening to the Voice of America. We are bombing Iraq. They are calling this Desert Storm. What will school be like today?”
The school where I taught English as a second language was across the dusty road from my home in Doukoula, Cameroon. I was in my final months as a Peace Corps volunteer in this predominantly Muslim west-African village. I’d had difficult days teaching. Sometimes the students had mimicked my voice behind my back, and some of the males had refused to show the customary respect by standing when I’d entered and exited the classroom. Maybe I would’ve earned their respect if I’d sent the disruptive students to the discipline master, but the usual punishment was for them to kneel in the 130-degree heat, arms extended to their sides, and not wobble for thirty minutes. My fellow volunteers and I had tried this at parties, and not even the hardiest among us had lasted more than ten minutes.
When the school bell rang that January morning, I slipped on my sandals, grabbed my lesson plan, and headed out the door. As I was locking it behind me, I looked through the window and spied my shortwave radio on the table. On impulse I went back for it, then headed out.
As I walked into my first class with the radio, there was mumbling in the room. I called for silence, placed my radio down on my desk, and asked the students if they knew what had happened that morning while we’d all been asleep.
One young man raised his hand and said, “Your country is bombing the Muslims in Iraq, Miss.” His seatmate smacked him on the arm as if to say, Shut up.
I nodded in agreement. “Yes, my country has begun a war, I’m afraid.” Instead of a formal lesson, I told them, we were going to listen to the coverage from the Voice of America and the BBC on my shortwave radio. I asked if anyone had any objection to this. No one did, so I let the radio play for the rest of the period.
With a few minutes left in class (my first of three that morning) I asked if the students had any questions or statements. A student in the back, who rarely participated, raised his hand. “Miss, your George Bush is a very, very bad man,” he said.
All eyes were on me for a response. “That is an opinion I believe many of my fellow Americans might hold this morning,” I said. “See you tomorrow, when we will return to our lessons.” As I grabbed my radio and left the classroom, every student stood.
Mary Beth Simmons
West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania
My husband had researched which items inmates were not allowed to have with them when they arrived at the federal prison: no watch, no money, no phone. All he could bring were his reading glasses. At fifty-six he couldn’t see a book or computer screen without them. So he put them in the cup holder between us as I pulled out of our driveway and turned south to begin the 150-mile trip.
We didn’t talk much on the ride. We’d already said it all in the preceding weeks. Sometimes we held hands. He texted friends, said some farewells. Our dog stretched out on the back seat, happy not to have been left behind.
Since my husband was self-surrendering to the lowest-level white-collar facility, I’d thought I would be able to drive into the parking lot and say goodbye at the prison door, but the guard at the outside gate wouldn’t let our car through. He pointed to a concrete bench inside the gate: my husband would have to wait there alone until someone came to get him. I could see razor wire and security cameras a few hundred feet away.
The guard watched impatiently as my husband took off his belt and sweat shirt to leave them in the car, said goodbye to the dog, and kissed me. I was crying and shaking.
“It’s going to be OK, baby,” my husband said as he backed away from the car. “We’ll get through this.”
He stood by the bench wearing a black T-shirt and old jeans. I put the back window down so our dog could hang his head out. Then I turned the car around and left.
Halfway home I noticed my husband’s reading glasses still in the cup holder, where he’d so carefully placed them.
A week before my due date, I lie on my back on the examining table in the obstetrician’s office, my feet in the stirrups and my pregnant belly exposed beneath the fluorescent lights. The doctor moves the stethoscope around my abdomen, then invites my husband to listen.
“I’m sorry,” the obstetrician says.
The doctor sends us home to wait for the contractions to start. I’m horrified at the thought of a dead fetus floating in my womb.
On the morning I go into labor, we race to the hospital, where my body pushes our stillborn child into the world. The nurses unwind the cord from around his neck, wrap him in receiving blankets, and place him in my arms. They say it’s important that I hold the baby and bond with him, so that I can grieve properly.
I look down at his perfect face, his button nose. Even in death my child is beautiful. Then they take him away, and pain fills the hollow he has left behind.
Susan U. Cabello
I was just a year old in 1941, so I don’t remember the World War II air-raid sirens that signaled Londoners to race for the safety of basements, bomb shelters, and tunnels. I have only my mother’s stories of that time, including one in particular that she told often:
Whenever the sirens wailed, she would take my brother and me to a cramped, musty cellar. The older couple who lived in our duplex also sought refuge there. One night, while everyone sat quietly together underground, my mother realized that her bladder was nearly bursting. There was a pot nearby, but she wasn’t about to hike up her skirt and yank down her knickers in front of the neighbors. So she made a bold decision to rush to the upstairs lavatory. Surely a bomb wouldn’t hit in the two or three minutes it would take her to go and return.
In no time she was back in the cellar, weak with relief.
That’s when she heard — and felt — the thundering explosion directly above, followed by dust and debris falling all around.
After the skies had quieted once more, the welcome shouts of rescuers came. We were lifted out over mounds of rubble. The lavatory, along with the rest of the building, had been completely demolished.
My mother would always finish the story by saying, “I didn’t even pull the chain!” and I would laugh. It was funny to me then, but now I think how close I came to growing up without her.
Alta Loma, California
My husband, our four kids, and I adored living in Casablanca, Morocco. When it came time to leave after four years, it was hard to go.
Living in a third-world country had taught us to reduce our belongings to the bare essentials. We decided to give away nearly all our books and furniture and take only a few clothes with us.
One thing we could never leave behind in Africa, though, was our dog, Buddy. Despite her boy name, Buddy is a she, a short-haired, tailless mutt we’d rescued from a local shelter. She’d been our companion through many hardships.
Our flight out of Morocco was delayed, leaving us with a tight layover in Frankfurt, Germany. We were told the airline had arranged a special shuttle to whisk us to our next flight. “Run fast!” the attendant said.
Buddy was down in the cargo hold with our luggage. As we ran through the airport I silently prayed they would bring her to us.
At the gate a tall, stoic German woman told us we had just minutes to get on board. I asked about our dog. Rolling her eyes, she made a quick check and said our “luggage” wouldn’t make it. I asked her what flight Buddy would be put on. She said the earliest Buddy could depart would be the following day; our beloved pet would have to spend the night in the Frankfurt airport alone.
Our twelve-year-old daughter let out a shriek. No way was she leaving Germany without her dog. I asked if we could all spend the night and fly out the following day, too. The gate attendant said, no, there were no open seats. If we didn’t take this flight, we’d have to stay in Germany two more days.
My husband glared at me: everyone was waiting for us back home.
I glared back: Was he really asking me to leave Buddy all alone in Germany for the night?
The gate attendant asked again what we wanted to do. Our daughter squeezed my arm and said she wasn’t leaving. My husband grabbed my other arm and started pulling me toward the gate. The woman held our boarding passes out to me. “Ma’am, decide now,” she said. “What are you going to do?”
With my daughter wailing and my husband angry, all the emotions of the past several days surged forth, and I began crying and swearing. Just then the desk phone rang, and the woman’s assistant answered: “Uh-huh. . . . OK. . . . Thanks.” He hung up and yelled, “We got the dog!” A cheer rose up, not just from us but from a line of passengers who’d been watching the drama unfold.
Cindy K. DeBoer
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Years ago I was a nurse working the night shift at an inpatient hospice. One of my patients was a woman who had lost her daughter to cancer and then raised that daughter’s son. He was now a soldier serving in Afghanistan, and my patient’s final wish was to see him before she died.
Social services had worked with the Red Cross to locate the woman’s grandson and was negotiating permission for him to return stateside. Progress was slow, though, and I feared it was already too late. Each day the nursing staff agreed there was no way his grandmother could last, yet night after night she lingered.
On my hourly rounds I paused at the woman’s doorway to listen to her breathing. One night I detected changes in the pattern of her breaths that signaled death was near. I wanted to stay with her so she wouldn’t be alone, but I had too many other patients to care for. Who could I summon to be with her? I was considering the options when I was startled by the sound of clomping feet in the hallway.
There was her grandson, impossibly tall and young and weary, still dressed in his fatigues and dusty boots. I led him into his grandmother’s room, where he pulled a chair to her bedside and dropped into it. In the circle of light from the lamp he placed his large, tanned hand over her small, pale one.
“Grandma?” he said, his voice hoarse. She did not open her eyes, but the hitch in her breathing eased, her face softened, and her fingers curled to grasp his.
On my last round, as the dawn light was beginning to filter through the blinds, I found him slumped in the chair, asleep. She was gone.
I wish that, at the last minute, I’d said, “I don’t,” instead of, “I do.” Then I wouldn’t have spent the next two and a half years trying to extricate myself from a physically and psychologically abusive marriage.
I didn’t back out at my second wedding, either, and I spent eighteen years trusting a man who ultimately betrayed me.
Though I vowed never again to say, “I do,” I did. I have spent the last seven years with a good man, but one who does not know how to show appreciation or affection.
At seventy-five I’ve run out of chances. I don’t expect that love will show up for me now, at the last minute.
The phone rings, and I sit bolt upright in bed. The hospital is supposed to call my pager in the middle of the night, not my home phone. They’ll wake my kid.
I snatch the receiver. “Hello?”
“Dr. Boss?” It’s Nila in the neonatal intensive-care unit. She says they are doing CPR on a baby.
My bare feet hit the floor as I ask what happened. She says they’re not sure: A few minutes ago his heart rate and oxygen levels tanked. They are doing chest compressions and drawing up epinephrine.
I grab my emergency stash of scrubs, underwear, and socks and fly down the stairs, feeling lightheaded from just waking up. On the eight-minute drive to the hospital, I run several red lights and troubleshoot the situation by phone with my colleagues: His heart rate is still low. He’s not responding.
Parking my car at the hospital entrance, I throw my keys to a sleepy security guard and run to the neonatal ICU. As the automatic doors to the ICU open, the faces I see show confusion, anxiety, and, in some cases, resignation.
A crying young woman in a hospital gown — the child’s mother — sits near the infant’s bed, watching everything. I touch her knee as I move to examine her son. His monitor shows no heart rate, no detectable oxygen level. The team has already done everything we can. The thought creeps over me: This baby is dead.
But then, as I turn to his mother to begin to have the terrible conversation, I think I see his leg move. Surely the nurse must have bumped his foot. But what if she didn’t? I ask everyone to step away from the bed. There it is again. His leg did move! The monitor still registers no heart rate. What are we missing?
I recall a picture in a textbook: a diagram showing how fluid can sometimes get trapped in the thin sac around the heart, making it hard for the monitor to detect the heartbeat.
“I think it’s cardiac tamponade!” I say. “Get me a needle and a syringe.”
As I prep the shot, it hits me that I am about to stick a needle into an infant’s heart. Am I sure this is the right thing to do? Despite years of rigorous and exhaustive medical training, no doctor is prepared for every imaginable complication. I’ve never even seen this done before; I’ve only read about it. But the baby has no other chance.
Taking a deep breath, I insert the needle below his breastbone, aiming up and toward his left shoulder — farther, farther. Nothing. No fluid. I’m about to say I must have been wrong when a yellowish liquid fills the syringe, and the monitor beeps. Then the beeping grows faster. The baby’s oxygen level rises. He moves. He’s back.
I hug his mother, this woman I have just met, and both of us cry.
When I pick up my keys from the security guard to head home, my world is a different place. I have saved a life.
After college I moved to Manhattan and worked in publishing for five years but couldn’t get the promotions I wanted. So I gave away everything I owned and moved to the Caribbean, where I freelanced as a crew member on private yachts. In search of a job one day, I noticed a good-looking sailboat with an even-better-looking deckhand on it. “Need any crew?” I asked. He went and got the captain, who said they were just about to cast off for the weekend, but he would hire me if I could leave right now. I ran to grab my pack and jumped on board the Absolut Freedom. Within a year I had turned thirty and married the deckhand.
My new husband soon told me he wanted to quit sailing and move to Manhattan to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming rich in the stock market. I agreed to go back to New York only if we left the city when I turned forty, no matter how much money we had. We’d move to some third-world country and open a yoga retreat on a beach. It was a deal, he said.
Nine years later, on New Year’s Eve, I pointed out that I would be forty in two months, and I reminded my husband about our agreement. He said he remembered but had changed his mind.
At a minute before midnight I told him I was leaving New York without him. And I did.
Wilmington, North Carolina
I stand at the phone and will myself to pick it up. In the other room my seventeen-year-old dog’s nails tap the hardwood floor, interrupted by an occasional thud as she runs into a wall or a chair.
For months I have dreaded calling our veterinarian to come to our home and euthanize Lucy. The years have taken their toll on her, clouding her once-bright eyes and quick mind. And now she has become incontinent, needing frequent trips outside with someone to guide her.
I vowed to call the vet last week after a morning spent cleaning Lucy’s feces from the carpet and the hardwood floor. But then my husband saw Lucy roll onto her back and kick her legs, as if to say, Life is good, and I couldn’t make the call. I would just have to get up in the night and take her outside.
This past weekend we had family staying over, so Lucy was more active than usual. When she went to bed on Saturday, I was sure she would sleep through the night, but about midnight she got up. I took her outside, and afterward, rather than go back to bed, she continued her frenetic patrol of the house. Desperate, I wrapped my arms around her and lay with her, cajoling her to relax. Her heart was thumping, and I could feel the bones beneath her thinning fur. When she started to calm down, I carried her to her bed, but she staggered back to her feet, driven to continue pacing.
Sunday night, after our company left, my husband and I agreed that Lucy’s bad days outnumbered her good ones, and we were resolute about making the call. Then she slept all night and seemed much calmer Monday morning.
Now I pick up the phone, the vet’s number in hand. Lucy gives a familiar muffled bark, and I hang up and put on her leash for the trip outside. She gropes her way down the stairs, her feet searching for each step. Watching her, I think: Here is a conscious, sentient being who is still able to adjust to limitations and overcome obstacles. Her body and mind are old but working. Who am I to decide when to end her life? Lucy will choose when it is her time, not us.
Martha L. Roggli
At his wife’s funeral I stare at him across the grave. He is burying her after forty-six years of marriage. Her long decline seems to have left him exhausted and drawn. He sits with their sons, his eyes closed.
Forty-some years ago he and I had a short, passionate affair. No one ever found out. That eighteen-month romance was one of the most erotic adventures of my life. He was tormented by guilt the whole time, but not me. I loved our many hours together. They belonged only to us.
The affair ended abruptly over some silly spat I can’t remember, but we stayed friends. Over the decades we’ve shared vacations, holidays, and family events. I’ve longed for him often and still thrill to the memory of our illicit liaisons. Sometimes, when I saw him kiss his wife and proclaim his love for her after too much wine, I’d feel his phantom kisses on me.
I fantasize that, after her funeral is over, he will break away from his sons at the last minute and come to my car window. “Give me a year or so,” he’ll whisper. “Enough time to grieve, and we’ll pick up where we left off. No regrets.” I’ve pictured this moment so many times.
But in reality I watch his boys lead him away from her grave, his face slack, his expression vacant. Alzheimer’s has left him unable to remember what I cannot forget.
Lying on the floor, I felt my body shutting down. I was having a rare adverse reaction to a blood-pressure medicine I’d been taking for years. It had started with a rapid heartbeat, swelling in my mouth and throat, and a sharp prickling in my hands and feet. I’d checked my blood pressure with a wrist monitor: too low to register. Then I’d developed such profound dizziness that I’d fallen to the floor and couldn’t lift my head for fear I’d pass out and never wake up.
Now my stinging hands were turning blue. I had two choices: try to get to my cellphone on the kitchen counter and call 911; or get to the epinephrine injector in my purse in the hall closet and self-administer the injection that might save my life. I reasoned that, by the time the paramedics arrived, it would be too late, so I dragged myself to the closet and grabbed the purse’s hanging strap, sending its contents tumbling onto the cold slate floor in my front hall. I found the device and injected myself.
In the seconds before the epinephrine kicked in, I thought of my daughter and grandson finding me dead on the floor if I failed. But I didn’t have long to think. The feeling of life flowing back into my body was indescribable.
Mary Jane Janowski
I was twenty-six years old, jobless, and recently divorced from a jealous, unfaithful husband. Since my early teens I had reassured myself that if life ever got really bad, I could always “check out.” Now it had gotten that bad.
My plan was to drink a bottle of cabernet and drain the blood from my wrists. I decided to commit this act on the roof outside my bedroom window, beneath the night sky. I was calm and resolved.
I waited for a night when my five housemates were all out, then got out the wine and a kitchen knife. As I uncorked the bottle, the phone rang. Why I decided to answer it, I don’t know. It was Mark, a friend of my housemate Kevin. Mark was working for a canoe outfitter on the Canadian border and had a job offer for Kevin. I told him Kevin was already working for a lumber company that summer, and we said goodbye.
A few minutes later Mark called again and asked if I wanted the job. I was taken aback. Had he somehow intuited that I was in trouble? He explained that they needed a cook to feed their campers and staff and told me how much it paid. He also described the peaceful north woods, the deer and moose that meandered through the camp, and the howls of the wolves at night.
When I hesitated, he asked, “Do you have anything better to do?”
I pondered the bottle of wine in my hand and the knife waiting for me on the roof. I agreed to think about it.
Two days later I was on a bus. The job wasn’t easy, but the camaraderie of my co-workers and the big, beautiful lake on the Canadian border brought me back to life. After I returned home, I resumed seeing my therapist and resolved to stop clinging to the idea of suicide as an escape from my problems.
It was a sunny Saturday morning, hot but beautiful. If not for the weather reports, we wouldn’t have known that a powerful hurricane was headed across the Gulf of Mexico, straight for our city of New Orleans. Katrina was being called a “monster.” The sensible thing to do was to get out of the way. So Michael and I packed suitcases for ourselves and our two daughters, ages nine and eleven — enough for what we assumed would be a three-day visit with my in-laws, farther inland.
We drove separately. On the way out of the city I called Michael on my cellphone: I’d just realized that all our family photos were in boxes on the bookshelves downstairs; it would be a shame if they got water-damaged.
“Let’s go back,” he said. “It won’t take a minute.”
We turned around and headed home, where I ran in and grabbed the boxes filled with photos of happy moments. I moved them onto my daughter’s bed upstairs, away from windows and seemingly safe from harm. Then we got out of town.
It was several weeks before we were able to return home. Michael went first, using a friend’s “essential service” pass to enter the city, which was under a state of emergency. He called me from our neighbor’s porch. “It’s bad,” he said. Our home had taken on about three feet of water. The oak floors had buckled so badly that Michael had to force the front door open. Inside, the furniture had floated and resettled, as if a giant had picked the house up and shaken it.
Weeks later, when I finally made it home and went upstairs, I found my daughter’s bedroom had been spared. There on the bed were the boxes of photographs, evidence of those happy moments before Katrina had disrupted our lives.
New Orleans, Louisiana
The last thing you said to me was “Thanks for thinking of me.” You were still getting settled in your new apartment after our separation, and I’d brought you some things you needed: a snow shovel and a computer mouse. We were getting a divorce after twenty-three years of marriage. The night before, you had told me about your depression and apologized for the pain you’d caused me and the boys. It was the most sincere apology you’d ever given me. But then you’d said that your back hurt and you were going to see the doctor on Monday. I knew that meant another prescription. Your addiction to painkillers was what had driven me to leave.
Had it not been for the boys, I might have ended my own life to avoid being pulled into the depths with you. I’d thought about it, after I’d begun to dread waking up in the morning. But I couldn’t do that to our children. Finally, when the boys were both out of the house, I decided to leave. I found an apartment. I was free.
I wanted us to remain on good terms. I really did. I wanted us to continue to be coparents to the boys. I prayed you would get clean so that we could be friends.
Four days after I last spoke to you — and two days after that doctor’s appointment — I got the call from your brother. He’d been trying unsuccessfully to reach you. When he drove by your apartment, your car was there and your lights were on, but you weren’t answering the phone. I called the police and raced over.
They broke in and found you in full cardiac arrest. The EMS workers resuscitated you and brought you to the hospital, where two doctors told me that if your heart stopped again, it would be pointless to resuscitate you. After a couple of days in the intensive-care unit the boys and I watched your heart monitor register a straight line. The nurses turned off the machines. It was so hard watching you die and seeing the boys experience that pain.
It’s been eight months now. It took me two weeks to stop crying every day. The last time I cried was when I was taking our oldest to graduate school, and we stopped to visit your grave site. The headstone had finally been put into place, just in time for your fiftieth birthday.
Dad and I had different ideas about what I should do after I earned my English degree: He wanted me to get a good job and live at home while I saved money for a place of my own. I wanted to set off immediately and have drunken misadventures like my hero, Beat author Jack Kerouac. A couple of friends had a decrepit house they were renting in Baltimore. One of them kept calling to let me know they had a free room.
I knew Dad wasn’t going to be happy about my moving out, so I put off telling him until the night I left: August 1, 1995. It was clear he felt I was betraying him, but I was determined.
After dinner I packed my clothes, books, and CDs and hit the road. As I drove, I realized I had nothing to sleep in — no bed or even a blanket to cover me on the floor. I decided to buy a sleeping bag, but where could I get one on a weeknight?
I ended up at the Army-surplus store, where I found a blue-and-gray “mummy” bag rated for twenty below zero. This appealed to my Kerouac fantasy: no bedsheets or dust ruffle for me. I paid $135 for it, using the credit card I would soon max out.
I was naive about money — and a lot of other things — back then. For example, I thought my friends in the city wanted me around and weren’t just looking for a one-third reduction in rent. And I didn’t know — or had conveniently forgotten — that when Kerouac wasn’t living the bohemian life on the road, he often stayed with his mother.
I’d finished nursing school with top grades and was about to start my clinical rotations when I suddenly had doubts about my career choice. Already in my fifties and retired from social work, I worried I wasn’t prepared for the physical challenges of nursing. I’d recently helped transfer a three-hundred-pound man into his bed, and my back was still feeling the strain. It was common for women and men in their fifties to retire from nursing on disability, and here I was just starting out.
Shortly before taking my certification exams, I quit. My teachers and fellow students were astounded that I would throw away three years of study, but I’d made my choice.
Instead of becoming a nurse, I spent the next several years doing freelance hospice care. I worked only when I wanted, with the patients I chose. I also worked with physically disabled children in schools.
My nursing studies proved useful many times: a friend who needed rehabilitation after paralysis, a family pet with diabetes, my partner’s heart attack. Those years hadn’t been wasted at all.
When my daughter became pregnant, I volunteered to be her labor-and-delivery coach. During her labor, my training as a nurse helped me recognize the warning signs, and I summoned the doctor. It turned out the umbilical cord was knotted around the baby’s neck. Only an immediate cesarean section saved him.
Lenore M. Pimental
Santa Rosa, California
“Izaiah, come and eat, please.”
As on most nights, I was pleading with my two-year-old son to eat. I’d made his favorite meal, and at first he’d sat down at his table willingly. But as soon as I turned and walked away, he ran past me. I took him back to his seat again. And again he jumped up, laughed, and dashed to his room. With a sigh I went after him.
Sighing is my default when I’m frustrated with Izaiah. It’s a bad habit, but I tell myself it’s better than screaming.
On the fourth (or fifth?) time I put him back in front of his dinner, I got down to talk to him at eye level so he would know I meant business. I was just about to make threats when I saw the silliness and wonder in his chubby face, and my aggravation dissipated. Instead of demanding that he eat, I turned into the “Mommy monster,” crawling after him on my hands and knees and making him giggle. He hid from me under his table, and when I prowled closer, he screamed.
Then I did something unusual for me: I screamed back — not at my son, but with him. I felt the tension I’d been holding in all day leave my body.
Sometimes screaming is better than sighing.
When my father-in-law, Sam, was dying, my daughter and I visited him in his elder-care facility. He had recently fallen and could not walk, and he sat on the edge of the bed in a white gown. A doctor had told us that Sam would likely not know who we were due to severe dementia.
Indeed, although Sam was alert and smiling, he did not recognize us and kept asking our names. During what I sensed would be our last meeting, I felt a sudden desire to express my love for him: I told him my name again and how he had come into my life at a time when I’d needed a father the most. I told him how much it had meant to me that he’d accepted me for who I was. (My own father had always been critical.) I reminded him of the things he had said to encourage me. And I thanked him for everything.
Sam was quiet for a moment. Then he looked directly into my eyes and said, “I meant every word of it.”
Ithaca, New York