I was running twenty-five minutes late, and blinking icons on my laptop told me that my next two patients were already waiting in their examining rooms. But I wasn’t yet ready to leave the patient in front of me.
Ms. R. continued to weep as she described how, two nights earlier, her husband of twenty-two years had come home, eaten a plate of reheated pasta while standing at the sink, taken a long pull from a beer she’d handed him, and then announced that he’d met another woman and would be moving out that weekend.
“He took another beer and left,” she said. She wiped her eyes with a tissue, careful not to smudge her eyeliner. “Since then, I just feel awful. My whole body hurts.”
Over the years I’ve become an expert at gently communicating to a patient when an exam is over. I usually gather up all my notes and tap them into a neat pile on the desk. If that doesn’t work, I loop my stethoscope around my neck and say, “I am so sorry, but we are out of time.” But here’s the thing: sometimes a patient’s problem requires more than twenty minutes.
Ms. R. described a pressure she’d been feeling in her chest since that night and a sensation of not having enough air. I listened to her heartbeat (slow and regular) and slid my stethoscope across her back to check her lungs, which were fine. She couldn’t eat, she said. Even her favorite food tasted like dust, and nausea gnawed at her. A dull, constant headache kept her awake at night. I checked her organs and tested her strength, sensation, reflexes, coordination, balance, and alertness. Her exam was normal, I reassured her.
She let out a long sigh, got dressed, and sat with her coat folded across her lap. We talked about other tests we would do, and I prescribed some medication. But mostly I listened as she wondered if her marriage was over; if her husband had been with other women over the years; if her kids knew. “How can I tell my parents?” she asked. “Or my friends? They all adore him.”
I had no answers, so I sat with her in silence. It was not yet time to move on.
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
It’s after two in the morning, and I am lying awake in bed in San Francisco, drunk but not wasted. My head actually feels quite clear, and the alcohol allows me to observe my emotions in a detached way, turning them over in my mind. After a while I become aware mostly of sadness and guilt.
Three days ago my beloved pet rat, Josephine, broke out of her cage, and I haven’t seen her since. Jo Rat is a prime specimen, jet-black and petite, with a quick mind. This is not the first time she has managed such a prison break. Usually I find her perched on a bookshelf or huddled under my dresser, but this is the first time she has stayed gone for so long. Her disappearance is especially disconcerting because tomorrow, after six years, I am moving back to my hometown in Southern California to begin graduate school. There are many things I am hoping to leave behind in San Francisco; Josephine is not one of them.
I have already dumped the bike-messenger boyfriend who sometimes works as a chef and uses acid as a party drug. I have sold the custom fixed-gear bicycle I purchased from Japan with last year’s tax return. I’ve removed the septum ring from my nose, eyes watering as I clutched the pliers. (I’m thankful that when I got the urge to shave half my head a few weeks ago, I couldn’t find the clippers.) My beloved Jameson shots with a cheap-beer chaser have slowly been replaced by chilled white wine. And I have admitted that, deep down, I have always felt a certain distance from my San Francisco friends, who come from broken homes full of anger and sadness. To my embarrassment, I grew up with two loving parents who fretted over minor details of my mundane-but-happy childhood.
After college I bullheadedly decided that I wouldn’t accept any help from my mom and dad. I wanted to make it on my own, as I assumed many of my San Francisco friends did. It never really occurred to me that these people, with their stories of neglect and abuse, were still gladly taking financial help from their parents. I should have suspected something, though. There is no way anyone can afford San Francisco rent and new Apple products on a barista’s paycheck.
Moving back to my hometown does not feel like abandoning who I am or selling out. Rather, I feel as if I’ve been hiding my true self in San Francisco. I will always have a penchant for the darker side of life — I have a collection of animal skulls and an insatiable appetite for true crime — but I’m tired of pretending my life is as dismal as my friends’; tired of being the unsmiling woman clutching a cheap beer in a dive bar.
Mulling all this over in bed, I laugh at my own melodrama. Then I hear a scratching noise and sit up. Could it be? I hear it again, louder this time, coming from the kitchen. I leap out of bed but can’t see the source of the sound. I press my face to the dirty linoleum to peer under the refrigerator, and that’s when I spot Josephine’s hairless tail.
The next morning I get in my mom’s SUV and hold Jo Rat’s travel carrier on my lap. She searches the plastic box with twitching whiskers. Maybe the new friends I’ll make in Southern California will think she is gross, but I could never leave her behind.
Los Angeles, California
When I was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, my girlfriend, Samantha, asked me to promise to call her every Sunday. I hesitated. Fifteen years seemed like too long for a woman of thirty to wait, especially one who often talked about starting a family.
“Promise me!” she said.
So I did promise, and Samantha was excited to take my calls. She was stubbornly loyal, whereas I would have sold my own mother for a hit, a pill, or a drink. But before long I began to let my Sunday calls grow further apart. At one point, when I hadn’t called for six months, she was still waiting anxiously for the phone to ring and told me how eager she was for me to come home so we could have a romantic dinner and afterward make love, to which I replied, “How about we fuck first, then eat?” This got a tearful laugh.
But those fifteen years were my sentence. I didn’t want her to serve them, too, sitting by the phone. Finally I stopped calling altogether. When Sam tried to visit me, I turned her away. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, knowing that I could’ve touched her face, inhaled her familiar fragrance, seen her smile at me with those happy blue eyes. If I’d been particularly mischievous that day, I might even have stolen a kiss.
Twelve years into my sentence, I heard from a mutual friend that Sam was happily married with two beautiful children.
A year before my husband died in an accident, I drove my car to the shores of Lake Washington and hurled my wedding band into the water. He never even noticed the ring was missing.
Our marriage had been dissolving for a long time, but most people we knew believed — and still believe — that he was a loving husband, an engaged father, and a kind person. I knew a much different man: one who told lies repeatedly and blamed me for his actions; who turned the key in the door at 2 AM after a long night of “work”; who found excuses to leave the house on weekends rather than spend time with his family. When I’d finally started mentioning divorce, he had attempted to change his behavior, but he’d only ended up depressed and even more detached.
Then he was tragically killed. When I received his personal effects, I immediately searched his phone and found a message to a coworker, written three weeks earlier: “Being a good husband and father requires sacrifices I wasn’t making. I have taken a self-imposed withdrawal from many external relationships — including you, of course.”
“Many” was an understatement. Digging into his computer revealed files full of pictures of women. Some of them I knew, and some I didn’t. A few were hanging from stripper poles or lying scantily clad in hotel beds, surrounded by nearly empty bottles of expensive whiskey — my husband’s favorite drink. I found a chat in which my husband admitted to a friend that he’d been cheating, and I made a late-night phone call to that friend, who laid it all out: my husband had a sex addiction going back nearly two decades, to his first marriage.
Three weeks after his death I was at the gynecologist’s office getting a full STD test. Wasn’t I meant to be grieving?
I’m genuinely sad for our children. The youngest won’t remember her father at all. But I have to be honest: I am relieved to be out of the marriage. No more struggling to keep up with his lies. No more ignoring my intuition. The anger I feel toward him has overshadowed any love I had left.
People continue to ask me, “How are you?” each word heavily weighted, as if there were no way I could be doing well; as if my late husband were my sole purpose for living; as if moving on weren’t an option for me. When I report that the girls and I are doing great, thank you, I often get back a look that indicates I must be lying or kidding myself. I can assure you, I am not.
Yelling was the norm in our house when I was growing up, along with demeaning comments and whippings with a belt. I learned not to leave fingerprints on a cabinet or step off the plastic runners strategically arranged on the white wool rug. Neither the stairs nor the bathtub would ever be clean enough, and the neat lines on the freshly cut lawn were always just a hair off. The day I was inducted into the National Honor Society, I wore an ivory dress I’d borrowed from my mother. The tiny blueberry stain I got on it at the reception, and her ensuing fury, overshadowed any pride I might have felt.
I left home at eighteen. My parents had been telling me for months to get out, but when I did, they seemed almost surprised. For many years I went back a few times a week to mow the lawn, wash their car, and generally make myself useful. Our conversations were strained, the atmosphere on edge.
The old pattern continued: at every major event in my life — college graduation, my first byline, a new job, a new house — my high spirits were brought low by a perceived slight or error on my part.
I’ve ended toxic relationships with partners and friends, but mothers and fathers are different. It feels unnatural to move on from the people who have known me the longest. For them not to be a part of my future is unfathomable. Perhaps we can never really leave our family home, even after we’ve moved on.
For nearly forty years I made a point to keep the same phone number, just in case my parents wanted to reach me.
Rochester, New York
In my twenty-five years of addiction I found myself homeless on various occasions. I knew that I had to keep walking to avoid trouble with the law, but sometimes I just needed a break.
One summer day in 1996 I found a shady spot under a tree in a city park, and I lay down on my back and looked up at the blue sky and the white clouds. When you’re an addict, the world may judge you and push you aside or lock you up, but no one can ever take away the sky or the clouds. It felt good to lie on the grass with the breeze on my face and the birds singing nearby. I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
I was startled awake by two LA police officers, one of whom was nudging me with his baton. I knew the drill.
They asked what I was doing there.
Wasn’t it obvious? I was resting. This was a public park, wasn’t it? Weren’t people allowed to enjoy the surroundings and perhaps even doze off?
The officers told me someone had called 911 about a “suspicious” man. Evidently the caller was concerned about my presence in a park frequented by children. I looked around. There wasn’t anyone within fifty yards.
The police asked if I had any identification. No. They asked if I had a place to live. No. They didn’t take me to jail that day, but they did tell me I had to move on.
I wonder: Would they have taken the sky away from me if they could?
San Gabriel, California
I was twenty-seven when I met F.; he was forty-three. Age wasn’t the only difference between us. He was a Christian, and I am Jewish. He was a registered Republican, and I’m a lifelong Democrat. But we got along and quickly became a couple. After two years we moved in together, then bought a house. We eventually married, shortly before we would have become common-law spouses.
Now, at seventy-seven, F. has dementia. I come home from work never knowing what sort of emergency I’ll find. I’ve also become partly responsible for his divorced, childless, mentally ill brother. And I’m helping to care for my elderly, widowed father. Sixty-one and still working full time, I’m exhausted, cranky, irritable, and ready to end this relationship that isn’t a relationship anymore. But I know that if the situation were reversed — if F. were healthy and I were ill — he would take care of me.
I wish I could move on and enjoy life, or even just have a little time for myself and an occasional adult conversation. But for now I’m stuck, and I’m not going anywhere.
I left my parents’ home in Pennsylvania and headed west to California, driving across the country alone, following a leisurely schedule. In Ohio, Indiana, and Kansas I stopped to spend nights with friends and family. In Oklahoma I paid twelve dollars for a campground site, where I slept in my car. I woke in the early-morning hours with a migraine and then drove on through fog as the sun rose behind me.
The beauty of southwestern Colorado in late September reinvigorated me. My high-school friend Dave and his wife, Martha, lived there in a log cabin they had built themselves. They were archaeologists, and the hard, dusty work in that arid climate had left them looking lean and strong.
The day after I arrived, I tagged along with them to a party for the crew of a large dig. The other guests, mostly around my age and attractively sunbaked, kept a polite distance, all except for Marshall, who was several years older than the rest. He wasted no time making my acquaintance. He and I ended up messing around in his truck, parked on a bit of high ground amid the soybean fields. I had been seeing someone back home, but it wasn’t serious, and we had said our final goodbyes before I’d left. Marshall offered a welcome diversion.
It turned out he was married but separated. Or his wife was away on a long trip. Anyway, she hadn’t been around for months. Marshall lived like a bachelor in a patched-together schoolhouse, circa 1890, way back on someone else’s property. If there had ever been a woman in the household, all vestiges of her were gone. He had a hot shower and a waterbed and a couple of days off, so I decided to stay with him for the rest of my visit. This did not please Martha and Dave, I could tell, but it got me off their couch.
On Sunday Marshall introduced me to a pony he had trained to travel in the back of his old pickup truck. We hiked through forests and investigated a kiva — an underground Pueblo dwelling — that he said no one else knew about. At dinner we visited a friend of his, who fed us vegetables from his garden and venison steak. Afterward, as the moon rose and Venus shone brightly beside it, Marshall’s friend strummed a guitar and sang a decent rendition of “Wild Horses.”
Monday morning dawned with a thirty-degree drop in temperature. A patch of wild sunflowers beside Marshall’s front door shook in a sharp breeze. He looked up at the heavy clouds and remarked that there might be snow before evening. Then he served me coffee with canned milk while I gathered my belongings.
I wanted to stay. What more could Los Angeles possibly offer me than what I had already found in Colorado? But Marshall wasn’t asking me to stay. He couldn’t.
Before leaving, I checked back with Dave and Martha, vaguely hoping they would suggest I find a place to live in Colorado and look for a job. Dave waffled a bit, but Martha was definitive: I needed to move on to California. I believed her, and I went.
Bonna Newman Read
In 1962 I was in fifth grade. That year my classmates and I learned about the Soviet Union’s plans for world domination, and we regularly had duck-and-cover drills in which we crouched under our desks with our arms shielding our heads. That was also the year I read Hiroshima, by John Hersey, in which he described what ordinary Japanese citizens were doing at the moment the atomic bomb hit. I began to pick out moments in my own day and imagine what I would do if a Soviet attack came right then. I might be getting out of the bathtub and think, I’ll grab all the towels to cover myself. Or I’d be walking to school and think, I’ll crawl under that porch.
This went on well into adulthood. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1990, I was still imagining from time to time what I would do in the event of a nuclear war. Only recently did I realize that I hadn’t thought about it in years.
I now have a teenage son, and his high school has had bomb threats, lockdowns, and active-shooter drills. He has already told me how he plans to react if someone starts shooting.
I wonder how many years it will take him to stop waiting for an attack.
St. Louis, Missouri
My soon-to-be-ex-husband and I were in the process of getting divorced when we decided to climb a mountain. After eight years of marriage Norman was living with his new girlfriend, Wendy, and I had my own apartment. We had once been so close that leaving him would have felt like slicing off my right arm, but our relationship had been sunk by betrayals.
I’d agreed to drive to Maine with Norman to look over the property we still owned together and would soon sell. The night we arrived, I slept in the house, and Norman slept in his old van. The next morning he convinced me to do something we had always wanted to do: climb nearby Mount Abram.
I wanted to get an early start, but Norman, always a procrastinator, found reasons to delay. Finally, at 3 PM, we drove to the trailhead. I knew it was too late for us to get all the way up the mountain and back down again, but I was worn out, as usual, by the effort required to get Norman moving, and I said nothing.
The wide, clear path that wound up the mountain soon narrowed until it was replaced by trail markers. When, after several hours of searching, we couldn’t find the next marker, Norman said, “Let’s just go straight up. That way we’ll be sure to reach the top.”
As we climbed through open woods, the sky got darker and the trees got smaller, but we never did reach the tree line. Finally I insisted that we head down. Night would come early in the deep forest.
On the descent we got hopelessly lost. I suggested we use the last of the daylight to gather wood for a fire. Luckily Norman was a smoker, so he had matches. We had no tent or sleeping bags or extra clothing, not even a water bottle. Our food consisted of half a sandwich and one candy bar. We ate the sandwich and part of the candy bar, then lay on the hard ground, shivering in the cold. We had to hold each other all night to stay even remotely warm. Every time we fell asleep, a rustling in the brush would wake us, or the fire would go out. Finally we ran out of matches.
With the first glimmer of morning light Norman and I untangled our bodies. As I hopped up and down to get my blood flowing, I realized that we might not have survived had we not had each other to hold.
We shared the rest of the candy bar, then started moving downhill. Much sooner than expected, we came across the trail, and in another hour or so we reached the parking lot. At that moment the old van felt like the height of comfort and civilization.
The fiasco on the mountain had confirmed for me all the impossible things about Norman, but in spite of everything, I felt close to him. That evening, when we arrived at my apartment in the city, I asked him to come up, thinking we would make love. I even saw a real possibility that we would get back together.
I made tea and we talked for a while. Then Norman said, “Well, Wendy is waiting for me. I’d better go.”
New York, New York
From the morning TV news I learn that today is Drug Take Back Day: the police will be collecting unused prescription medications to keep them off the street. For more than two years I’ve been holding on to eight bottles of cancer-related prescriptions, and I decide to dispose of them now. In the pine cupboard in the bathroom, behind the hydrogen peroxide and the acetaminophen, are lorazepam, tramadol, hydrocodone, and several other anxiety and pain medications. I drop them all into a ziplock bag.
In 2015, after the removal of a malignant lump in my right breast, these pills were part of my daily routine: two in the morning, one with food at midday, and another one or two before bedtime. Clustered in the plastic bag, they look innocuous. They rattle in their orange vials.
Why have I held on to these drugs that only remind me of a time I wished I could forget? Perhaps for the same reason I still have twenty-two hats and a dozen colorful scarves in a cedar chest at the foot of my bed: I fear I might need them again. Recurrence is not unusual, my oncologist reminded me during my last checkup. Eighteen percent of patients will get cancer again.
And there’s this: while undergoing treatment, I contemplated ending my life, thinking I might bring peace to myself and those around me. No doubt ingesting all these pills would have done the trick. It frightens me to admit that I felt so desperate.
And perhaps holding on to these bottles was a way to prove to myself that I am not an addict. During my illness I took only what was absolutely essential, because I believed that if I took too many pills, I would succumb to addiction. I have a son in recovery and three sisters who have battled substance abuse and a mother and a grandmother who remained active alcoholics until their deaths and a father who still drinks himself to sleep each night. The untouched pills on that crowded shelf declared that I am stronger than they are.
But I no longer want the visible reminder. My body is strong, and I keep my pain at bay with exercise. I feel ready to move on.
At the police station I find a handwritten note saying that Drug Take Back Day is held at the dump. I was going there anyway.
Parked in the mud behind the trash compactor, a black police cruiser idles. The officer behind the wheel chats with a few locals about deer season. As I approach, ziplock in hand, he points to a cardboard box lined with plastic. “Just drop them in,” he says. I hesitate a moment, then release the bag. Climbing back into my car, I pull up to the compactor and unload the rest of the trash.
Alstead, New Hampshire
I was the last person in the family still talking to my father. I made the drive every week or so to his home deep in the mountains. The rooms I’d grown up in were quiet and dark, my mother and siblings all gone. The frequent visitors had long ago stopped coming. I visited only out of a sense of obligation.
Every time I walked in the door, I expected to find his lifeless body. Every time I saw an unknown number on my phone, I expected it to be the sheriff, telling me how my father had killed himself.
He hadn’t always been like this. He had once been industrious, mischievous, curious. An outdoorsman from a large family, he’d majored in geology so he could spend a year abroad in a place with great skiing. He and his brothers would ride motorcycles into New York City, racing through Prospect Park on the way to the bars. One of his first jobs was building storefronts for the leather-goods company he would eventually turn into a fashion empire.
Now he was the last man standing in a castle everyone else had abandoned, the wildness and passion we had admired replaced by ruthlessness, narcissism, and addiction. He told me he felt like a wolf backed into a corner, snapping at everyone because it was the only thing he knew how to do. I told him he was more like a hunter caught in his own trap.
Finally I wrote him a nine-page letter, warning that he was in trouble and that I would stick around only if he packed his bag and headed to rehab. I drove to deliver it in person. He took the envelope, threw it on the floor, and told me his dad was an addict, and he was an addict, and I would be one, too.
I walked out and closed the door behind me. That was the last time I spoke to him. I was nineteen years old.
Los Angeles, California
There was a time when I could not wait to start adulthood. I dreamed of having a career — something my mother had never quite managed to do — and also having children and a husband.
But now my career feels stalled, and at the age of fifty-eight I can see retirement up ahead, waiting with a big yawn. My kids are grown and excited to start careers and get married themselves, and I miss having them at home. When they were younger, we had bustling Thanksgiving dinners and Passover seders. For a solid decade one kid or another was curled up in the overstuffed armchair, reading Harry Potter. There were piles of Legos on the living-room floor and soccer gear all over the mudroom. There was endless drumming from the basement and not-quite-as-constant flute and violin practicing. There were school plays and concerts and Halloween costumes and what seemed like five thousand chocolate cakes with HAPPY BIRTHDAY spelled out in purple or pink or green frosting.
Now all of that has passed. My kids are out there pursuing their own happiness, figuring out what is right for them, and I am living in the space they left behind. I probably have another thirty years left — maybe twenty-five of them healthy — in which I can go to the movies and read books and sleep in on the weekends, but it turns out I don’t want to do those things, which had once felt like such delicious luxuries.
My husband still likes our home, where he has claimed two of the children’s bedrooms: one for his workout routine and the other as an office. At last he can find a stamp or an envelope when he needs one! But I don’t want to know where the stamps are. I want to pursue new dreams. I want to live in a cabin in Maine. I want to go to Africa and fight Ebola. I want to move to Haiti and learn to speak Creole and sleep in a hammock — anything but stay in this house, with its memories of children who needed more from me than I thought I could give.
My daughter, Andrea, and I were at dinner. Over chips and salsa and margaritas, I told her about a woman I had met that morning who had lung cancer. A nurse she had gotten to know asked her why she fought so hard to stay alive, and, thinking the nurse must have admired her bravery, the woman described what helped her through the ordeal. The nurse replied that if she got cancer, she planned to just die.
I thought what the nurse had said to this woman was awful, and I expected Andrea to agree. Instead she said, “Do you mean like when you told your oncologist you weren’t sure you wanted treatment?”
“I said that?”
My daughter reminded me how I’d asked the doctor what would happen if I chose not to have surgery or radiation.
“Really?” I replied. “What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Then you’ll die.’ ”
Andrea looked at her plate as I sat trying to remember this conversation. Then she finished the story: When she had found out she was pregnant with my grandson, I had taken it as a sign of life to come, and I’d started treatment.
That part I did remember.
My first year in prison, I turned apathy into my armor. I didn’t need friendships or love or trust. All that soft shit was for the weak. Prison was a hard place, and I needed to be hard to survive it. I fell asleep with a stomachache every night.
As I moved into my second year, I made a friend. We told each other stories of our old lives and laughed a lot. One morning the guards found him dead in his cell, overdosed on heroin and pills. I cried that night, not sure if my tears were more for him or for me.
In my third year I watched a man get his face stomped in. The whole unit did, in silence. Later, when we heard the man had died, someone said, “Welcome to prison.” I laughed a little too loudly and for too long.
Every song, TV show, and movie taunted me with stories of intimacy and romance. In the privacy of the shower stall, I masturbated to fading memories of ex-girlfriends. Then, during my fourth year, I started writing one of my ex-girlfriends, telling her she was my soul mate. She said I was hers, and we made plans for when I would get out.
In year five she stopped writing me back.
I became a Buddhist in my sixth year. The monks who had renounced worldly desires became my role models. But when I meditated, I felt no unity with the universe, only a clearer sense of isolation.
In year seven my neighbor got killed. His homeboys came with smiles and handshakes and left him with purple lips and shit in his pants. I took the chair out of his cell and put it in mine, so I would have two. I figured he didn’t need it anymore.
I’ll be released in six months. I’m more afraid now than when I came to prison. The world out there is alien to me. This place of violence and death and loneliness has become my home. What if I can’t take off this armor I’ve worn for so long?
My father seemed inseparable from the place where I’d grown up on the Texas coastal prairie. In his seventies he lived by himself on fifty acres, riding his old tractor and tending to flowers and bushes he had planted in the yard. We communicated our affection for each other through our mutual love for the natural world, sharing discoveries about growing things and quirky animal behavior.
One October afternoon he told me about the egret skulking around the small pond in his backyard. Though shy and cautious, the solitary white bird learned that my father was an easy source of food: Dad would catch small fish with a net and toss them up on the bank, where the egret would eagerly swallow them in one gulp. As hunger won out over the egret’s natural aversion to humans, he developed a wary trust of my father. Dad began to feed the bird from a bowl.
Free fish or not, the egret would stay only so long, and one day it was time to go. Seasons passed, and my dad did not really expect to see his elegant companion again. But early one fall day, a familiar white bird with an expectant manner appeared at the pond.
“I think he is an old bird,” Dad said, not explaining how he knew this. One afternoon I came to visit wearing khaki-colored slacks like Dad always wore, and at his urging I tested his theory that the egret could tell him apart from other humans. I mimicked my father as best I could, quietly sitting on the ground and holding a bowl of fish forward. The egret approached cautiously, but despite temptation, he would only come so close before he skittered nervously away. My father laughed, his point made.
Several days later, the egret disappeared and did not return. Although it was clear that Dad missed his wild friend, he never mentioned the bird again.
In the spring of Dad’s seventy-ninth year, as we walked in his yard beneath the blooming crab-apple tree, he said matter-of-factly, “Gina, I don’t think I am going to live to see eighty.” I was surprised. Although he had spoken of a persistent pain in his hip and occasional dizzy spells, he was as active as ever.
He died the following April, nine months before his eightieth birthday.
Even now, when I visit the place that was once his, I can see him striding through the autumn prairie grasses, past the pond and the crab-apple tree, until he disappears from sight.
When I rolled into our nation’s capital in June 1998, the town was submerged in the sticky humidity that I recalled from summers growing up in D.C. All my belongings were jammed into the Honda Civic I’d bought used four years earlier. The air conditioning had broken, and I didn’t have the money to fix it. D.C. traffic doesn’t confine itself to the quaint notion of “rush hour,” so even at 2 PM I couldn’t pick up enough speed to generate a breeze. I felt a fluttering sensation in my chest that I knew was excitement, edging toward anxiety.
I’d just been through a brutal divorce. The man I’d married had won me over with an invented persona while we were dating, but once we were married, he simply couldn’t sustain it. I’d walked out barely fifteen months after our wedding. The divorce proceedings had lasted longer than the marriage.
Now I was moving back to D.C. to start over. I had no place to stay, but when you’re an educated, middle-class white woman, being “homeless” isn’t cause for despair. Between couch surfing and house-sitting, I kept a roof over my head until I earned enough to rent a room. When my inflatable mattress was stolen out of my car, I had to spend precious dollars on a new window and a replacement bed, but by that point I was almost cavalier about it. Life could knock me down; I’d always find a way to stand back up.