In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Since going through a divorce in January, I have been solely responsible for the fifteen hundred ducks, one hundred chickens, fifty-five geese, forty turkeys, two pigs, and two cows on my farm. The divorce was my idea. This is my mess, my doing. I kept the property and still owe my ex a good chunk of money for his share. To pay him back, I work twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Still, I wonder how I will save up enough to get through the winter. Why in the world did I think I could make a living raising animals?
The ducks need bedding laid down, the geese are in the road, the hay and feed need to be unloaded, the egg cartons need to be ordered, the egg license needs to be renewed, the water sample needs to be taken in, and the eggs need to be delivered. Meanwhile the turkeys are fighting, the garden weighs heavily on my mind, the barn is filling with water, the pigs keep pushing their trough into the middle of their pen, the heifer could drop her calf any day, the other cow doesn’t appear to have gotten pregnant after all, and those hundreds of eggs the chickens lay daily aren’t going to clean and pack themselves. There’s sweeping and laundry and bills to do, and the dishes are breeding in the sink. At least I gave away the goats.
I tell myself I will get through this year. I still intend to prove that I can make it as a farmer.
Khaiti E. Hallstein
My dad lost both feet in March 1945 on a hill in France, about five miles from the German border. Shrapnel destroyed his left ankle in the early evening, and the other leg got hit just before dawn while he lay bleeding on the ground, surrounded by the dead and dying, praying for a bomb or bullet to finish him off.
At the medical facility he asked the doctors to save his knees so he’d have an easier time walking on prosthetics. While Dad healed and learned to walk on artificial legs, the rest of his unit rolled into Germany and liberated one of the death camps.
He returned to the U.S., met and married my mother, obtained an engineering degree, and had seven kids. Every weekday morning when I was a girl, Dad got up, pulled the heavy woolen socks over the stumps that ended halfway down his calves, put on the prosthetic legs (with socks and shoes attached), and went to work at his job, designing electrical systems in military aircraft. During heavy snowstorms my mother admonished him to stay home, pointing out that men without disabilities were probably taking the day off, but he paid her no heed.
World War II vets were often told to forget what they’d seen, to keep looking ahead and be happy. There were houses and televisions and cars to buy. Life was good. But sometimes, while sitting with us, my father would go somewhere else. My siblings and I called it the “Dad Zone.” His post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was part of who he was.
If my father ever wallowed in self-pity, he didn’t let anyone see. From his example I learned not to give up when life got tough. Sometimes that lesson has worked against me, such as when I stayed in a bad marriage because I was sure I could fix it.
In September 2001 I was working in the North Tower of the World Trade Center when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the building. I knew there was a real possibility that I would die, and I decided I would die running. So I ran. Many of my co-workers did not make it.
After the attacks I developed PTSD like my dad. The frightening images of that day replayed themselves in my mind. If my father had been alive, maybe he could have advised me on how to handle it, but he had died of a heart attack two years earlier. Shortly before his death Dad had undergone a painful surgery to remove infected bone in his legs, and he had been going to physical therapy in anticipation of being fitted for a new set of prosthetics. Fifty-five years after he’d lost his feet, my father died determined to keep walking.
Laurie E. Spencer
Shrewsbury Township, New Jersey
The first time I visited my brother at Fairton prison, it was snowing, and I got off the New Jersey Turnpike too soon and added an hour to the normally four-hour trip.
The next time, I forgot to bring quarters for the vending machines, and I couldn’t even offer him a soda or a plastic-wrapped sandwich.
Three months later it was summer and ninety-eight degrees. I arrived in shorts and flip-flops, and the guards wouldn’t allow me past the entry because I wasn’t wearing “proper attire.”
Eventually I got the routine down: Go only on Tuesdays, because it’s less crowded and quieter. Organize everything the night before — map, gas, clothes, flashlight, lunch, water, and chocolate bars for the late-afternoon drive home. Try to fall asleep early. (Wine helps.) Ignore the bad dreams. Leave by 5 AM and aim to be at Linda’s Diner on Black Horse Pike by 7:15. Order the farmer’s breakfast special to stave off hunger during the dismal five-and-a-half-hour visit. Remember my brother’s Social Security number to make the sign-in process faster. Wear a wireless bra to avoid setting off the metal detector. And make sure there are tissues in the car, because even after two decades of seeing my brother behind bars, I know I’ll need them once I leave.
Tuckahoe, New York
He and I were two twenty-somethings, full of lust and promise, but we both had reasons we couldn’t get married. So we waited. Then, after a few years, he cheated on me. The other woman got pregnant, and he married her to “do right” by his son. He swore to me that after she and the baby were settled, he would leave them, and we would be together. In the meantime we saw each other often. I was unable to walk away from this man because I believed he was the only one for me.
Years went by, and nothing changed. I decided to move a thousand miles away, thinking it would break our bond, but he visited every few months, still swearing his undying love and saying he needed a little more time. During one visit he dazzled me with a diamond ring and made the classic proposal, down on one knee. I was ecstatic, but he still didn’t leave his wife. (I would later learn that he’d had a second son right around the time he’d given me the ring.)
I’m embarrassed to confess how long I waited for his promises to become reality. Eventually his visits grew fewer, and I could tell he was losing interest. After more than two decades, I abruptly told him I was done. He was shocked, angry, and sullen, but he didn’t try to win me back. I felt sad but also relieved to be free of all the longing and unrealized promises.
Another sixteen years went by. I had just one brief relationship in that time, but I felt content with my life. Then, as I approached retirement, I grew nostalgic about people I’d known in decades past. I had a desire to right wrongs and not let anyone harbor grudges against me. So I found an e-mail address for my old lover, and we started to correspond.
We spent the first few weeks pouring out our emotions. Pretty quickly I realized I still had feelings for him. He was married to the same woman but told me it had been sexless and loveless for many years. They stayed together as a matter of financial convenience. He’d been planning to leave her — not for anyone else, just to free himself. Now that we’d reconnected, he had somewhere to go. He wanted to be with me.
I had nothing much planned for retirement: travel, volunteer work, hobbies, reading the hundred or so books that I’d never had time for. And now here was a second chance to have the relationship I’d wanted so badly for most of my adult life.
The rest is easy enough to guess. The months continue to go by with more words of love and lust but no concrete actions.
Is this perseverance on my part or simply insanity?
The summer after eighth grade I received a form letter that changed my life. It was an invitation to try out for the high-school football team (probably sent to every incoming freshman boy). I thought I wouldn’t mind tossing the ball around with the guys, so I showed up for practice on a hot August morning, weeks before school actually started. There were hundreds of prospective players, from freshmen to seniors. I was soft and pudgy, not a natural athlete or at all in shape, and clearly not prepared for what I was about to experience. The coaches made us run in the ninety-degree heat as if we were in Marine boot camp: laps, calisthenics, wind sprints, and the “bear crawl” up and down a hill. They yelled angrily at us the whole time. I overheated to the point of near delirium and seriously thought I might die. But I couldn’t quit in front of my peers. If I could just hang on until practice was over, I’d never go through that again.
At the very end, all the freshmen had to run a quarter mile as fast as we could. I finished second to last and staggered to the locker room, just glad I’d survived.
That night, though, I thought about all the guys I knew who would be back the following afternoon. Would I be the only one who quit? Maybe I could try one more day.
I kept going back for “just one more day.” I wasn’t any good, but I’d heard those who stuck it out for four years got a “charity letter” — given to senior athletes even if they’d never played in a game. Then I might even have a shot at dating a cheerleader.
There were so many freshmen on the team that they didn’t have enough uniforms for us all. By the end of the season I’d improved enough that I was allowed to suit up, sit on the bench, and watch. The following summer I worked out, mainly because I didn’t want to suffer as much once practices began. During the school year I went out for wrestling and track to stay in shape.
By the time I was a senior, I was the starting varsity wide receiver on the football team and (unbelievably) the number-one quarter-miler on the track team. I got my letter sweater and dated one of the most beautiful girls in school. I was even elected an officer of the Letterman’s Club. But the biggest reward was a lesson that has helped me ever since: that if I just kept showing up and improving a little bit each day, things could end up better than I’d imagined.
Michael G. Bennett
La Valle, Wisconsin
It starts with the inability to do something small, something so inconsequential that most people don’t even give it a second thought — like opening a jar. I can’t do it, and it frustrates me so I want to throw the jar on the floor. Sometimes I can’t make a sandwich, open the dryer, pick something up off the carpet, or unbuckle my pants.
When I leave the house, I must concentrate on each deliberate, painfully slow step: Don’t hunch your shoulders. Keep your head up but eyes down to scan the ground for cracks in the sidewalk, slippery gravel, uneven terrain, a slight decline or incline. Be ready for the stumble, the dragging foot, that sudden giving way of either leg. Try not to lock the knees. Use the ball of the foot, even though you can’t feel your toes. Listen for cars, footsteps, darting children, dogs.
I could stay home, but I need to make myself useful. Going to the grocery store, the bank, the church, I feel like a soldier reporting for duty.
I must analyze doors before I open them: What kind of handle does it have? Does it open in or out? Can I use my hip? Can I jam my walker into the doorway to hold it open slightly? Can I swing the door wide and then scoot through before it shuts? If I hold on to the door to steady myself, will some helpful citizen pull it open without warning, throwing me off balance?
If I approach a curb, I first look for a curb cut. How far away is it? Is there a puddle or a big gap in front? Are people crowding the curb cut waiting to cross? If there’s no cut, perhaps there is a parked car that I can use for balance as I step onto the curb. But if I lean on the car, will an alarm go off?
Wherever I go, I try to call ahead and make a plan, but I also have to be flexible because most people don’t pay attention to the small obstacles that are no trouble for them. It’s likely I will have to ask for help and be thankful for the assistance, even when I’m shaking and embarrassed. Sometimes I just get tired. Really tired.
I struggle to stay in the here and now and avoid thinking about the future. I find myself watching people who are strapped into powered wheelchairs, their minds trapped in bodies that are nearly immobile, and I think, Could I do that? Will I be strong enough? Who will lift me, feed me, clean me?
In the meantime I will not let anxiety rob me of what’s good in life. My disability is only a part of me, not all of who I am. I ride out the feelings of shame for being “dependent” and “needy.” I must not let my disability disable my spirit.
Carol M. Schnaubelt
San Diego, California
At the age of seventeen I had my first car — a four-door Plymouth Reliant. It was a boring steel box on tires but perfect for my needs. I worked in the floral department of my hometown grocery store, and one afternoon at the end of my shift I discovered someone had smashed the back end of my car. It was drivable, but the trunk wouldn’t close.
I was so mad I marched back into the store and called my dad, the cops, and the insurance company. The cops took a quick look and said, “Good luck.” The insurance company was ready to cut my dad a check, but I wanted justice. I asked around to see if anyone had witnessed an accident in the employee lot. No one had. I investigated the scene and found yellow paint in the dent. I calculated the height of the bumper that had done the damage and took pictures of the tire tracks in the dirt — probably a truck. For the next two weeks I watched the vehicles in the employee lot. Then came the day when I saw a bright-yellow truck all the way in the back corner. I pulled in next to it and found my car’s paint on the bumper.
I tracked down the owner, a scruffy guy in his late thirties who managed the dairy department. When I confronted him, he offered to pay me off. He asked if he could fix it. He told me he was one ticket away from losing his license. If he couldn’t drive, he’d lose his job. If he lost his job, he’d lose his house. If he lost his house, his wife would take the kids and leave. He begged me not to turn him in.
I’d wanted justice, but I’d never imagined this. I didn’t say another word about the accident to anyone.
The dark-skinned Chicano boy roars into the megaphone, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, these racist cops have got to go!” I hold a rainbow flag with a Black Power salute at its center. Car horns blare as they pass us. Pedestrians either shout profanities or raise their fists in solidarity. Jasper sits on the concrete beside me, using red lipstick to scribble onto a piece of cardboard the name of Sandra Bland, a black woman who died in jail after a routine traffic stop. Claudia shouts at the cops who stand on the other side of North El Dorado Street.
I recall the first time a white classmate told me that I should trust the police. I wondered what it was like to grow up in a society that was designed for your safety. I often feel anxious simply in the presence of authorities. Not here, though.
The sun burns low on the horizon. An elderly black woman passes around candles, and we light them. The faces of individuals murdered by police are held up while we speak their names: Oscar Grant. Tony Robinson. John Crawford. Tanisha Anderson.
We bow our heads for a moment of silence. My heart is heavy but strong. I am meant to be here, demanding change and fighting inequality. I will not give up.
Eleven months of fertility drugs. Twenty-three months of basal temperature readings and scheduled sex. Three hundred thirty-five days of artificial hormones (along with the accompanying mood swings and irrational behavior that almost cost me my job). Six years of trying, waiting, and hoping against all odds. Two minutes of listening to the doctor deliver the news of my infertility. Eighteen hours of crying afterward. One year of debating whether to take an aggressive medical approach. Eleven months of bruising from daily injections of progesterone. Fourteen weeks of carrying a baby who doesn’t make it. Two hours of lying on my back while the doctor scrapes away his tiny, lifeless body. Three weeks of deep depression and mourning. Twelve minutes of lying still while the doctor implants another fertilized egg in my uterus. Eight months of bliss as I feel my child growing and moving inside me. Two days of sheer terror after we find out the cord is wrapped around her neck three times. Two hours on the operating table for the C-section before I can finally hold my daughter in my arms and whisper, “Hello, my little girl. Hello.”
El Sobrante, California
Much of my childhood was defined by the physical challenges of cerebral palsy, causing me to need a wheelchair. I was determined to walk. I remember taking my first all-by-myself step in fourth or fifth grade and how I cried with joy when I told my mom. I managed to do more and kept careful count: three, five, twenty-one, fifty-five. Secretly I believed the numbers would eventually reach infinity. At each visit to my orthopedic doctor I would proudly announce my latest record. He may have smiled and nodded, but he did not encourage me.
At my aunt’s house I used a metal step stool as a walker. She sent it home with me, and later my parents bought me a real walker as an occasional alternative to my wheelchair. It took me half an hour to walk to lunch in fifth grade. Some kids stared and jeered, but others gave me support.
After elementary school my ambitions faded. I was falling a lot at home, getting a new bump on my head once a month or so. The fast pace of junior high didn’t allow me to walk between classes, and my parents bought me a new wheelchair. I attended college out of state and upgraded to an electric scooter. Though I earned a bachelor’s degree, I had little vision for myself after graduation.
Three years later a psychotherapist told me, “I don’t think you’ve accepted your disability.”
I looked at her incredulously. I’d lived with cerebral palsy all my life. Of course, I’d accepted it. I asked how she could say that.
She told me that it seemed like I still imagined a future without my disability.
That was twenty-five years ago. It was what I needed to hear to begin my journey to acceptance.
Webster, New York
In the early 1980s, after I lost my job and the bank foreclosed on my house, I sat at the kitchen table looking at a ten-dollar bill: the last money I had in the world.
I wanted to spend it on something memorable. A friend had told me about windsurfing — riding a surfboard with a sail attached. He’d described it as dancing with wind and waves. I had never even seen someone windsurf before, but I liked the idea of dancing on the water.
My friend had said I could rent a sailboard at the lake for eight dollars an hour. The man at the marina strongly encouraged me to take lessons for sixty-five dollars first. He also suggested I come back on a day when the wind wasn’t so strong: he’d charge thirty-five dollars if he had to rescue me, and if I damaged the expensive sailboats anchored nearby, the repairs could range into the thousands. But he took my ten-dollar bill.
I pushed the sailboard into waist-deep water and climbed aboard. When I started pulling up the sail, it flew into my face, and I hit the water with a loud splash. I jumped back on the board and got flung off again.
By now I had the attention of people on the beach. My dramatic failures brought cheers and catcalls. I caught sight of an old man gliding effortlessly toward me, perhaps to offer advice to a novice windsurfer.
“You don’t know what you’re doing!” he shouted. “Go back to shore!”
And throw away my last ten dollars? No way. Over the next forty-five minutes, to the delight of my audience, I discovered all the ways one can be thrown from a sailboard. I also learned the importance of starting with the wind at my back. Then the wind picked up and carried me dangerously close to the sailboats. A few feet from an expensive-looking hull, I managed to steer the front of my board toward open water. I finally found myself gliding across the lake, holding tight to the boom while waves licked my back. This was not dancing; it was flying!
After twenty minutes of bliss, I maneuvered back to the marina. I’d been out fifteen minutes longer than I’d paid for. The only change I got from that ten-dollar bill was within.
Bob Van Oosterhout
After breakfast on the psychiatric ward, the staff left the dining room, and the conversation turned to “what works.”
“Phenobarbital,” said a woman with chestnut hair that hung down her back. “But it’s hard to get.” She described how disappointed she’d been to find herself still alive the morning after taking an overdose of other prescription meds.
A petite woman dressed in fuzzy pink slippers and pajamas with blue bunnies on them said that if you could get a doctor to prescribe MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors), there was a whole list of foods it would kill you to eat.
“Cheese. Wine. Chocolate.”
The table fell silent as the women contemplated the prospect of death by chocolate.
At group therapy we were each supposed to say a little something about ourselves and tell why we were there. A slight man who slouched in the chair across from me said he was a vegetarian. The woman next to him asked why he was there, and he swiveled his head toward her like an owl and answered, “The voices.”
The woman who had suggested phenobarbital said she had an obsession with her chestnut hair: she’d tried to kill herself because she had gotten some bleach on it.
I explained about the two men up in Alaska: my harsh and abusive husband, with whom I’d spent twenty-five years; and the shy woodsman with whom I’d spent one arctic night the previous spring. I wanted to end my marriage, but I’d vowed to stay “till death do us part.” So it seemed the only way out was to kill myself. I called to say goodbye to both my husband and the woodsman. Only one of them called the police. It wasn’t my husband.
On the ward we were not allowed shoelaces, belts, or anything metal, including jewelry, combs, fingernail files, or coat hangers. Visitors couldn’t bring flowers in a glass vase or any food with caffeine, including chocolate. (How did they expect anyone to get well without chocolate?) I knew I would not be receiving any visitors anyway. The chestnut-haired woman’s parents had come from Philadelphia to see her. The vegetarian’s parents had come all the way from New Zealand. My parents were dead.
When the social worker came to my room, I talked for an hour and a half about my marriage. Then she said, matter-of-factly but sympathetically, “What you have is not a marriage. Your marriage has been over for a long time.”
I admitted that I hung on too long to everything. I didn’t know when to quit.
The counselor said that because I wouldn’t break up the marriage, something else had to break: “You did — you broke.”
I could only nod, my tears flowing.
The next day at group we had to name one of our strengths.
The vegetarian went first. He said, “A sense of humor.”
“Perseverance,” I said.
My brother Mike was not a born athlete. When he got to high school, our divorced mother was afraid he would fall in with the wrong crowd, so she convinced the swimming coach to put him on the team. The coach signed him up for the grueling long-distance event, assuring my mother that, after practice every day, my brother would be too tired to get into trouble. It worked. Mike found his niche in swimming and a substitute father in his coach, who took pride in his accomplishments.
Mike continued to challenge himself physically as an adult. So it wasn’t a surprise to me when, past the age of sixty, he started training for Ironman triathlons, which combine a 2.4-mile rough-water swim, a 112-mile bike race, and a 26.2-mile marathon. The biggest, baddest test of a triathlete is the Kona Ironman race in Hawaii. You have to qualify in another triathlon before you may participate in it.
My brother’s first qualifying attempt was a disaster. Fearing dehydration, Mike overhydrated, which left him nauseated and dizzy. He had to turn his head several times to vomit. Though he still managed to finish, his time was nowhere near good enough.
His second attempt was successful, but he overtrained and developed a serious case of plantar fasciitis, which causes pain in the heel. With the Kona three months away, Mike modified his training to accommodate the hurt foot, and went ahead with the race. I traveled to Hawaii to cheer him on.
His wife, Lydia, and I watched him dive into the water with the other competitors. Approximately an hour and twenty minutes later, the racers began to emerge from the surf and search for their bikes, and we caught a quick glimpse of my brother amid the crowd of cyclists heading up the street to the coastal highway.
After four more hours we went to secure a spot close to where the bike race transitioned to the marathon. At five hours there was still no Mike. At six hours we started counting the minutes. Finally we went to look for his number on the big screen that showed the competitors’ times. He had come in just a few minutes earlier, and somehow we’d missed him.
It was getting close to dusk when Lydia’s cellphone rang. Mike had pulled himself out of the race after suffering severe leg cramps. He needed us to pick him up at the medical tent. I’ll never forget the sight of my younger brother staggering out to greet us, wrapped in a mylar blanket.
That night, stretched out on the hotel bed, Mike told us that he might have to hang up his running shoes. He could no longer justify the hours of training and the cost of competing. At least he had made it to Kona, a claim only a small percentage of triathletes could make.
Two years later he decided to try one last time. The night before the qualifying race, he was scouting the bike route when he hit another cyclist coming the wrong way down the path. At the emergency room they stitched up a two-inch cut in Mike’s forehead and warned him that he might have suffered a concussion. The next day my brother tried to race, but his right arm froze as soon as he started to swim. He was going in circles and running out of energy when the rescue boat spotted him and brought him back to shore.
“I just don’t think it’s in the cards for me to go to Kona again,” he told me afterward. “I think I’m going to have to hang up my running shoes.”
I’ll believe it when I see it.
Martha L. Roggli
One summer, to earn money for college, I worked the graveyard shift at an Oregon wood mill. I was nineteen and the only woman there most of the time. I clocked in just before midnight and descended a steep ramp into the “press pit,” a two-story hole underneath a press that formed wood chips and glue into particle-board. High above me twenty or so trays were filled one at a time with a slurry of hot wood and synthetic adhesive and then lowered slowly into the pit. Once all the trays were filled, they were compressed to form boards; any excess material spilled over the sides and flowed into a drain, but the drain would inevitably get clogged. My job was to unclog it.
The press pit was lit by one insufficient bulb and a red alarm that flashed periodically. I wore goggles and earplugs — the press was loud — and couldn’t see or hear much besides the trays being lowered toward me. When the press neared its lowest point, the alarm went off, and I scuttled like a cockroach to flatten myself against the perimeter while the foul excess material oozed out. Wearing rubber boots, I waded in and set to work shoveling soggy loads of formaldehyde-impregnated sawdust. I’d fill a wheelbarrow, push it up the ramp, dump it, and go back for more. Fill and dump — that’s how I spent most of the night. Near dawn the press-pit floor would finally be bare, and at 8 AM I would go home to sleep.
Every night I told myself that this one would be my last. But every afternoon I woke after not enough sleep and decided I could do it one more time.
Sometimes they let me drive the forklift while the regular driver took lunch. Once, while he was on vacation, I drove the forklift all night, offloading pallets of boards as they came down from the sander. I spilled some loads, but I got better. About three weeks before the end of the summer, a new hire inherited my press-pit duty, and I moved up to full-time forklift driver.
My favorite part of the job was near the end of my shift, when I drove out to the fuel dock at the far end of the warehouse to get a load of propane. I would pause to watch the sun come up. The sky was blue and pink and still, the world outside the mill asleep. My breath clouded the chilly air. Beyond the river to the west were the snowcapped peaks of the Three Sisters and Mount Bachelor. Birds sometimes chirped in the distance. I made it through the rest of that summer one dawn at a time.
Allison Hart Lengyel
There are twenty-four parts to my new sewing machine. I bought it because I am going to learn to sew; then I am going to make all of my clothes; then I am going to win Project Runway. But first I have to figure out how to thread the machine.
My grandmother had an old-fashioned sewing machine in her living room. She used it to hold the mail and the TV Guide. My mother took sewing lessons until one day she stopped, and her sewing machine became a handy place to throw coats. Perhaps it is in my DNA to want to sew yet be unable to do it.
I’ve been trying for years. First I borrowed a machine from a friend, who explained how to wind the bobbin and put the thread in. I retained none of this information, and the sewing machine stayed in its box for years. When I gave it back, the friend asked if I’d used it, and I said, “No.” She didn’t question me further.
Then I found a sewing store that allowed customers to come in on Fridays and work on a project using the store’s equipment. The helpful owner was there to guide me when things went south. One Friday I showed up at the store and found it had closed.
I bought my first machine while I was still married, and my mechanical-minded husband threaded it for me. After we divorced, I’d call him to come over and rethread the machine, but he eventually got tired of doing it.
Now here I sit in front of my new machine, which is supposed to be “simple.” I have the manual. I have my iPad to watch videos on YouTube. I am ready. Let’s do this.
I turn the “hand wheel” toward me and watch the needle rise. Next I insert a spool of thread and guide the thread down and up. I quickly hit a problem: I am to put the thread through the “take-up lever,” but my machine has no such part. I check the manual. I check YouTube. I turn dials and press buttons. Twenty minutes later I touch the right spot by chance, and the take-up lever reveals itself. I sink back on the couch in triumph, then reward myself with a snack.
When I come back, I manage to push the thread through the needle’s eye. Using the hand wheel, I plunge the needle down and up to catch the bobbin’s thread. All good. I place a scrap of material on the “needle plate” and gingerly tap the foot pedal. The machine whirs to life. As soon as I guide the material forward, however, the whir becomes a screech. It’s jammed.
I yank everything out, rethread the needle, and try again. Again a screech. The bobbin was wrong, I decide. I get another one. That one doesn’t work either. I wind a new bobbin. I rethread the needle. I remember a boyfriend who always had a large magnifying glass at the ready. “What do you need that for?” I asked. Where is he now that I need him?
I should leave this for another day. But no, I am determined to make those seersucker, elastic-waist, zipperless pants that I may never be able to wear outside a circus act.
Three hours after sitting down to thread the machine, I hold a swatch with a perfectly sewn straight line. Good enough. Making actual clothes will have to wait for another day.
I turn off the lights and go to bed, exhausted but, on a very small scale, victorious.
It’s a cold, gray New England day, and I am rushing to visit my husband in the nursing home before the arrival of a winter nor’easter later this afternoon. At the age of seventy-four Bill is in the end stages of multiple sclerosis. While I drive, I think back to our teens and how excited he would be at the advent of a snowstorm. As soon as the roads were clear, his parents would drive him to the next town to go skiing. I, on the other hand, would be at home with an afghan and a good book.
At the nursing home I chat with the other wives and the husbands they are visiting. The conversation quickly turns to the impending storm, which will bring more snow to shovel. We are all weary of the winter weather. One husband says how glad he is that he won’t have to lift a shovel. Another says he is grateful to be warm and safe inside. Bill looks up at me and asks who is coming to bring him home so he can do the shoveling. I assure my husband, who is confined to a wheelchair and requires a lift to transfer him in and out of bed, that our daughter will stop by with her snowblower to take care of it. Then I drive home with tears in my eyes to await the arrival of the storm.
Harriet Nelson Teichert
The first time I was a customer at the plant nursery, I felt energized. I felt surrounded by love. I mentioned the good feeling the place gave me to the man who showed me around, and he asked if I had seen the FOR SALE sign at the road.
I bought the plants I had come for and got the phone number of the real-estate agent on the way out. Later that same day I brought my wife and my father back to see the property. I was as excited as a teenage boy after his first kiss, but they were not impressed. Then I brought my uncle and his friend, who had started a nursery together twenty years earlier. They were not impressed either.
I returned many times over the next six months, becoming more confident on each visit that this was my place. I was young, however, and didn’t have the resources to buy it. So I did the next-best thing and got a job there. I labored for seven months, moving young plants into containers, then transporting those containers to the growing area and later the sales area. I learned each plant’s name and needs. It was good to be outside all that spring and into summer. There was just one dark cloud: real-estate agents continued to show the property. I would mentally send prospective buyers a message: Hands off. It’s mine!
July came, and the property was still available. In desperation I offered to buy the business slowly over time. The owners laughed and said they weren’t interested. Then, in October, they changed their minds, and I committed all I had.
A year and a half later my grandfather died, and my mother lent me some of her inheritance for a down payment so I could purchase the property outright.
That was forty years ago. I’ve divorced and remarried since then, and my wife and I have raised four children on this land. We enjoy frequent visits from six grandchildren, who love to dig in the mud, ride bikes, and play hide-and-seek. I expect I will die here, and my descendants will scatter my ashes in the nursery. It is exactly what I wanted.
Santa Rosa, California
I was laid out in a chilly operating room while surgeons removed a tumor that was growing on the back of my left ovary and had perforated my bowel. They also removed a second tumor from the internal membrane of my abdomen, along with a stretch of my intestine, some lymph nodes, my appendix, and all my reproductive organs.
I was lucky: I had a brilliant surgeon; the cancer was stage III, not stage IV; and my condition was considered treatable. I asked not to be told my exact prognosis, only whether there was a chance I would live eight more years — long enough to see my daughter graduate from high school. The doctors said yes.
I made it through sixteen weekly sessions of chemotherapy, blessing every drop of poison that flowed into my veins. After the treatment ended, I slowly began to build my strength and stamina with yoga, walking, Zumba, and workouts with a trainer. I needed to be strong and vital so I could fight for my life again if necessary.
To celebrate two years without a recurrence, I went to Costa Rica on a surfing trip. I had been a clumsy beginning-level surfer for about twenty years and was used to the small, weak waves at the beach near where I live. The waves in Costa Rica were bigger and stronger — even more so than I had expected — but I felt ready. I hired an instructor and gratefully launched myself into that clear blue water. I suffered a few bumps and bruises, but, hey, what’s a sprained knee compared to cancer? So a stingray got me on the foot. That wasn’t going to stop me from doing what I had traveled so far to do.
A few days into my trip, I made it out beyond the breakers without getting crushed. Seeing a big wave forming, the instructor told me to turn toward the shore, paddle, and not stop. I asked if he thought I could really do it, and he said yes. I decided to believe him. “Stand up on three,” he told me. I heard him say one and two, but by three I was out of earshot. I stood up on my own, angled to the right, and dropped down into the curl. I crouched low, shouting with joy as I rode that giant wave. I had done it. I was back.
Kim J. Hecko
Santa Cruz, California
I was farm-sitting in the mountains near Lillooet, British Columbia, when I was introduced to The Sun: a well-perused stack of issues was stuffed into a nook by the woodstove. The very first piece I read happened to be by my niece, Khaiti E. Hallstein [Readers Write on “Perseverance,” December 2016]. The synchronicity was palpable.
I soon subscribed and have been moved by your interviews and writing. I truly need these honest voices. Thank you for offering something that cuts through the glossy bullshit of our times.