The voices start before I take my running shoes out of my backpack: You don’t have to do it today. It’s muddy out there; you’ll probably slip and fall.
I pull out my sports bra, leggings, and top, then change in the bathroom at work, where I have been on my feet for six hours.
It’s not like you sit at a desk all day. Your feet are tired now; how will running help?
I lace my sneakers and head out the door, taking my first steps and beginning to breathe in a rhythm.
What’s the point? You still haven’t lost any weight. You should go home and clean the house.
I hear the sound of the creek next to the trail, smell the wet, fertile soil. Keeping my abdomen tight and my hips tucked under, I try to land lightly on my feet. The voices finally grow quiet, and I go.
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
I was working at the bar the first time I saw him: six foot four and 250 pounds, with a stripper under each arm. That is too much man for me, I thought. But for many nights to come I would think about his thick arms, broad chest, golden hair, and reddish beard, and how he commanded the room.
I also worked as an elementary-school phys-ed teacher. One of my favorite students, Hunter, often ran amok. When I reprimanded him for pushing a girl down the slide, he replied, “She was taking too long.”
Hunter was acting more hyper than usual one day because his dad was picking him up. A Harley rumbled up to the school yard, and Hunter ran toward it. I recognized the rider as the man from the bar and was overcome with infatuation as Hunter and his dad rode away.
I soon started seeing this man everywhere — the school, the market, local hangouts — but we never spoke, even at Hunter’s mother’s funeral the following year.
Hunter spent many days and nights at my home, because he and my youngest were friends. Still, his father, Matt, and I had only had one conversation — by phone. It wasn’t until the kids were in sixth grade that we began talking and discovered that we both loved road trips, surfing, and skating. Before long I had fallen in love, but Matt was surrounded by beautiful women vying for his attention.
In those days I had many men myself: One to cry with. One to take out my trash. Four or five to play with, depending on my mood. My attitude was “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.” Eventually, worn out by my own selfishness, I swore myself to celibacy.
After winning a battle with cancer, I felt I had nothing to lose and began pursuing Matt. I flirted for two weeks before I made my intentions clear, but I told him I wasn’t going to sleep with him: “You have other women for that.”
And so we began dating.
Matt’s other women fought for his affections. He confessed to me over lunch that he had feelings for one of them and didn’t want to hurt me. I respected Matt’s honesty. The old me would have stayed and competed for him, but instead I backed off and changed my routine to avoid seeing him. I cried alone at home, feeling angry but strong.
Three months later I received a text from Matt: “Where you been?”
We began dating again. I was in his bed one morning when he asked, “What are we doing here, Sunny?”
“Why don’t you tell me?” I said. I asked if he was finished with the other women.
“I’m done,” he replied.
That was ten years and five wedding anniversaries ago.
Laguna Beach, California
At twelve I began attending a prestigious Catholic girls’ school. Coming from a chaotic home, where every day I heard obscenities and threats of violence, I felt like I was visiting another planet.
“I expect you to devote four hours each day to quiet study, prayer, and homework,” a nun told us at orientation. As if that were possible. I worked after school: babysitting, doing housework, shoveling snow. And there was no question of my studying at home. The bus ride to school was my only quiet time.
From the age of twelve I was responsible for my own expenses, including my clothes, uniforms, books, and often food. The nuns talked to us about organization and time management, but they didn’t have to take baths and do laundry in the middle of the night. They didn’t have to take their mother to the hospital after their sister hit her with a vase in self-defense.
The nuns preached sacrifice and told us to offer up our suffering for our past sins. There was no counseling and no lowering of their rigorous academic or religious standards.
For four years I turned down every invitation to attend a party or to study at a fellow student’s house, because I could never reciprocate.
In lieu of learning typing and shorthand, I chose an academic course load, forging my parents’ signatures on the permission slip, just as I did on my report cards. (I’d do the same five years later with scholarship and fellowship applications for college.) As difficult as my high-school days were, they showed me what life could be like. I studied hard, taking what was valuable while rejecting the strictures of my teachers’ religion.
I became a social worker, placing foster children with loving families. I understood the difficulty the children had adjusting to their new, stable homes, and I trained the foster parents for the hard job of breaking a child’s cycle of violence and abuse. Many kids’ transformations bordered on the miraculous. Boys and girls who could barely read caught up with their peers. Violent children learned new ways to channel their anger and frustration. Lost kids found themselves.
Santa Rosa, California
As a family doctor, I provide prenatal care for many patients, especially those who prefer a female physician. With one of my pregnant patients, I detected no fetal heartbeat during her final prenatal visit, and we decided to induce labor. Several days later she gave birth to a well-formed, lifeless boy. It was her first pregnancy.
Two years later, at the end of her second pregnancy, I once again helped her through labor and delivery. Though this pregnancy was free of complications, her anxiety was high. She agreed to be induced but tried to control what the nurses and I did.
Since she was unwilling to have a male doctor, I managed her care day and night, spending an hour or more at her bedside every day, discussing next steps, answering her questions, and trying to explain why she wasn’t making obvious progress in her labor. She reluctantly agreed to have a balloon placed in her cervix to help with dilation, but she still didn’t dilate past five centimeters. Her epidural provided no pain relief. Then a fever and high fetal heart rate developed.
Finally, on the fourth day, I mentioned the option she least wanted to hear: cesarean delivery.
“I hate all of you,” she said. “I never wanted to be induced. I should have gone home yesterday.”
I convinced her to try for four more hours, with antibiotics and all the pain control we could muster, then decide about the cesarean. Before I left for home, I let her know that the nurse would check her at 9 PM. If she hadn’t progressed, I would ask the female ob-gyn to evaluate her for a C-section. “You might not see me again tonight,” I told her, certain she would end up with a cesarean. Thoroughly depleted by caring for this anxious patient on top of my usual workload, I went home.
I called the nurse that night and learned that my patient was fully dilated and ready to have her baby. I rushed to the hospital and helped her deliver a healthy boy. The sight of her holding him erased my exhaustion.
I later felt tempted to vent to my coworkers about the demanding patient whose long delivery I’d endured, but I held my tongue. What about the endurance required of her?
After an eighteen-hour flight across the Atlantic, the Alps, the Mediterranean, and the Sahara, I stepped off the plane into oppressive humidity. My dream of going to Africa had become a reality.
For six months I would teach in a small college in southwest Uganda. My suitcases were full of textbooks and handouts. I’d also brought a pillow, on the advice of others who had lived in similar places. But nothing I might have packed could have prepared me for what I’d encounter.
Several days a week I walked down a steep road from the hilltop college into town. Weaving in and out of bicycles and livestock, I was greeted by children dressed in hand-me-down T-shirts printed with Mickey Mouse or gym logos. Crossing a soccer field, I passed stubborn cattle and barefoot students playing with balls made of plastic garbage bags. I saw children searching for food in mountains of trash. I encountered women who hoed fields with babies on their backs. What I observed was persistence in the face of difficult, if not unbearable, circumstances.
My own ability to endure was far less impressive. Even in the comfort of a three-bedroom house, I wasn’t sure I would last the entire six months. The showers were cold, the nights often pitch-black due to scheduled power outages, and water sometimes ran out for days. The daily ritual of making coffee in a French press I’d found became a rare connection to home and helped me believe I could make it. “Slowly by slowly,” as they say in Uganda, I found a rhythm and learned to adapt.
There was joy, too: A classroom full of students expressing hope. An encounter with a gorilla. Being awakened by the sound of drums. But I never got used to knowing that someone was eating out of my garbage. Where do you put the shame as you come face-to-face with starvation while sitting on the porch of a high-end restaurant?
Hamburg, New York
At the gym I take a challenging class that promises strength, balance, and endurance, and I come home feeling energized. When I am physically strong, I find it easier to be mentally strong as well. I have to be, to keep up with my bipolar son.
For the past eight months he has been refusing help or medication, and all of my energy has gone into keeping him out of jail or the mental-health ward. I panic when I see an unknown number on my cell phone. I dread his roommates’ calls. It’s rarely good news. I’ve driven hundreds of miles to find him running from himself.
The other day at the gym I went through the motions but had a hard time focusing. I was too busy wondering about the other women in the class. Did they share any of what I’m going through? When the instructor reminded us to breathe, I inhaled deeply and fought back tears.
A few days ago my son was at my house in such a state that I called the sheriff, who came to pick him up and take him to the hospital. It was not the first time I’d seen my son hauled off like that, and I doubt it will be the last. Only after the sheriff had driven away did I break down and cry.
I got to see my son in the mental-health ward over the weekend, peeking through a little window into a padded room where he was finally getting the sleep he needed. I felt reassured yet shaky.
Back in class the instructor had us get down on our yoga mats to do some final stretches. A little bit of yoga at the end of a tough workout is always good, and I released built-up tensions. Then she asked us to get into child’s pose. That was more than I could endure.
The bus pulled into the entrance just past midnight. There were cement walls topped with barbed wire and military guards with rifles. One by one we filed off like scared cattle. The young woman in front of me tripped going down the bus steps, and I let out a nervous laugh. Within seconds the drill sergeant was inches from my face, asking if I thought this was funny. I laughed again.
“We got a real comedian here!” he yelled. Soon I was surrounded by three more drill sergeants, all screaming at me. I thought of my dad, who twelve hours earlier and 1,200 miles away had waved goodbye with tears in his eyes and said, “Don’t let them get to you. It’s all just a mental game.”
I stood tall. A female sergeant walked over and said, “So this is our comedian?” She was the scariest-looking person I’d ever seen. I held my breath and looked straight ahead. She shouted for all of us “maggots” to line up and climb the three flights of stairs to our dorm.
In a large room with fluorescent lights, we were told to stand next to our metal beds and face the lockers. The sergeant barked at us to open our bottom drawer, take out a black marker, and write our name on our locker.
When I opened my drawer, it didn’t have a marker. I froze. Within seconds she came at me, asking what my problem was now. I whispered that I was missing my marker. She yanked out my metal drawer, threw it across the room, and shrieked at me to pick it up.
I quickly gathered the contents and thought again of the moment I’d hugged my dad goodbye. What had I gotten myself into?
The next few nights were more of the same: in bed at 9 PM, awakened at 1 AM by the drill sergeant’s voice over the loudspeaker, then again at 4 AM. One night, during our few hours of sleep, I heard someone crying in the corner of the room. This was common, but something about this woman’s sobs was different. I took my government-issued flashlight and went over to see her wrists were bleeding. I ran to get help. The next day she was gone.
Day after day I stood with my fellow recruits in the sweltering Texas sun, thinking, It’s all just a mental game. I will survive this.
He leaves before daybreak on a rainy November morning, his belongings packed into his pickup.
Three days later a flock of wild turkeys lands in my yard. I don’t want them here. They eat all the seed I put out for the smaller birds, tear up the grass with their claws, and leave droppings everywhere. A week later the first winter storm blows in, bringing several inches of snow. I expect the turkeys to move on, but they stay put, huddled together with their heads down.
More snowstorms come, dumping at least a foot each week. Because I have limited mobility and problems with balance, I can’t operate snow-removal equipment, so I hire a guy to plow a path to the mailbox. There’s still plenty of shoveling to do after he leaves, and I’m amazed what I can accomplish with the side of my body that still works.
I read that the only way to get rid of turkeys is not to feed them, so I begin feeding other birds on the deck, right beside the house. The turkeys aren’t brave enough to come that close, but still they fly in every morning from their roosts in the trees and peck the snow-covered ground where the feed used to be. As temperatures dip below zero, they stand on one leg.
After months of severe weather and little food, a few of the turkeys raid the deck and clean up the sunflower seed and corn. I scare them off, but they’re smart and watch and wait in the trees nearby. As soon as I go inside, they come back.
Finally a monster storm blows in, burying the yard beneath ten-foot-high drifts. I assume this will mean the end of the turkeys, but the next morning they are in their usual spot. Later, while shoveling snow, I hear one gobbling on the deck, mocking me as it steals another meal. Or maybe it’s acknowledging a fellow survivor.
My grandfather Feliberto was readying Bessie’s and Champion’s harnesses when I got to the barn. “Buenos días dele Dios,” he said: May God grant you a good day.
Bessie and Champion would pull the hay wagon to start the hauling and storing of this season’s second cut of alfalfa. But first it was time for breakfast: fried eggs, potatoes, bacon, and my grandmother’s half-inch-thick, oven-baked tortillas. Gramma insisted I clean my plate; at twelve I was expected to eat enough to last me until a second breakfast, five hours later.
After I ate, I led a flock of fifty sheep to a fenced pasture, then met Grampo at the field to load the first of three wagons of alfalfa. This routine at our northern–New Mexico ranch would continue for several weeks.
My childhood in the fifties and sixties exposed me to the cultures of Native Americans, Hispanics, and Anglos. Our white neighbors — the Tarletons, the Bastions, the Johnsons — all spoke Spanish, just like the Romos, the Martinezes, and us. I thought everyone was bilingual.
It wasn’t until I left home that I became aware that we Hispanics were viewed differently, and I had to choose which so-called part of America I wanted to belong to. I didn’t know how.
Memories of my childhood years comfort and sustain me as I endure our current societal rifts. I am an American — always have been. My ancestors have lived in northern New Mexico for more than three hundred years. But my last name and my bilingual ability cause others to treat me as if I were from somewhere else.
Rudy V. Garcia
Gilpin County, Colorado
As a long-distance runner, I am often asked, “Why would you do that?” And I think about the man I was in a relationship with when I started running marathons.
He was in his mid-forties, ten years older than I was, and unemployed. He stayed up all night smoking pot and playing video games and slept until 3 PM. When we went out to eat, he complained about how expensive it was, even though I paid for us both. He dismissed my creative pursuits, saying, “I did that shit twenty years ago.” When I corrected his use of the wrong pronoun to refer to a friend of mine who is transgender, he said my friend’s identity was disrespectful to him. When I bought him a fancy jar of mustard and included a love note, he said my gesture was meaningless because I wasn’t doing the “real work” required of a relationship.
This man, who didn’t exercise, called my race medals “pieces of shit.” He admitted that he was mean to me on purpose to provoke a reaction, that seeing me happy made him want to take me down a peg. He acknowledged that his behavior was wrong. Yet he never changed. I finally left.
When I answer the question “Why?” about my running, I usually say something generic, but what I think is: Compared to being in that relationship for two years, running 26.2 miles is nothing.
Durham, North Carolina
After my mother’s death, I spent my high-school years helping my dad with shopping lists, cooking, vacuuming, and other chores. I’d come home from school to find all-caps notes from him: my next set of orders. Swamped with grief, he never asked what life was like for me after the loss of my mother. When I asked how he was doing, I got no response, only felt the weight of his sadness when I saw him sitting alone in front of our old Zenith TV.
One night my best friend, Janet, sat at our yellow Formica kitchen table, watching as I chopped onions and sautéed vegetables to re-create my mom’s marinara sauce. When the spaghetti was ready, I raced upstairs to change clothes and then back down to ask permission to go out. My dad sat at the dining-room table, plate of spaghetti and salad before him, President Nixon on the nightly news. I wrote down where I was going and when I’d be home. “Have fun,” my dad said.
Finally released, I dashed down the front steps and into my friend’s green Volkswagen. We hit the drive-through for cheeseburgers, piling on the mustard and pickles. Neither Janet nor I knew what the future held. Her mom had died, too, and we often comforted each other. We would listen to Cat Stevens or the Youngbloods as we drove past the houses of kids who had “normal” lives — or, at least, parents who were both alive. The night passed too quickly, and soon we were rounding the horseshoe-shaped court where my house stood, its outside illuminated with glaring spotlights.
My dad hadn’t gone to bed. He sat up in the fluorescent-lit kitchen, his eyes red. I’d kept him awake with worry, he said. How could I be so inconsiderate?
At eighteen, two days past my high-school graduation, I told my dad I was leaving. To my surprise, he didn’t rail against it. Instead he pretended my moving out was just temporary.
I walked down the steps to Janet’s green Volkswagen, afraid I would be forced to turn around and come back. Only after we pulled away did I let out a long breath.
A few years ago I hiked the Appalachian Trail for almost six months. Along the way I began dating a fellow hiker. Completing the hike was relatively easy, but staying in this relationship has been a real challenge.
At thirty-five I’d never been with anyone longer than fourteen months. I would always tell myself the guy didn’t know how to express his feelings enough, or we weren’t compatible. Twice I was madly in love with wonderful men but convinced myself it was too soon to settle down. I now see that I let some beautiful connections slip away — the kind that don’t come around too often.
Really I was scared of commitment, which seemed oppressive to me. From the age of three I was raised by a divorced mother who said she’d never remarry. My deeply religious father had insisted on her subservience and suffered from untreated mental illness. I’d never been exposed to a healthy relationship or seen the benefits of having a loving companion.
Ignoring the familiar voices in my head that whispered, It’s time to move on, I decided to give commitment a try and married the man I’d met hiking. And now, for the first time, I am experiencing what it’s like to have someone to depend on, to set goals with, to grow with. But some days, when that inner voice rears up, I think I’m ready to call it quits. That’s when I write my fears in my journal.
My husband knows all of this and is supportive, which is one of the reasons I love him and am choosing to stay. We’re not the best match imaginable, but we show up for one another and try to make this relationship work. I’m grateful that, knowing my history, he took a chance and immigrated to Canada to be with me. But I wonder how he would feel if he were to read the past three years of my journal and see just how afraid of commitment I am.
Ms. Anne pushes herself up in bed, her nightgown hiked over one hip. She is inspecting the adult diaper that I will need to change soon. Confused, she lets her arms go limp and falls back onto her pillow. She is ninety-three and has Alzheimer’s disease. Sometimes I walk into her room just to make sure she is still breathing.
I’d love to paint myself as a hero who bravely took this job knowing it would challenge me and change my outlook on life, but I can’t. In all honesty, I was out of work and money, and being a home caregiver required little experience or training. As far as I knew, I would be cooking and cleaning for Ms. Anne and keeping her company. I had no idea what an emotional connection I would develop with her.
When I started, Ms. Anne could walk, eat on her own, and hold conversations, most of which consisted of her telling me to “get the fuck out” of her house. Now she sleeps about 80 percent of the day and needs help getting from one room to another. She can barely lift a spoon.
Sometimes she says, “I love you,” but she couldn’t possibly know who I am; she can barely remember the names of her children. Maybe she just knows that I am with her for some reason, even if she can’t remember what it is, and for her that’s enough. I sit on her bed, hold her hand, and tell her I love her, too. She says she doesn’t want to be alone, so I stay with her until she falls to sleep.
As I drive home, the sky is orange and pink above the strip malls and shopping centers, and the clouds look like feathers. I think of Ms. Anne, who is sweet and fragile and a constant reminder that none of us lives forever. I think back to my junior year of high school, when I skipped almost fifty days of classes. (Nine was the maximum allowed without a doctor’s note.) At seventeen I didn’t have the words to say, “I have depression,” or, “I have an anxiety disorder.” Mostly no one noticed I was gone. I maintained good grades and was well behaved enough that I escaped consequences.
I was afraid of death, but not my own. I knew the people I loved would die someday, whether when I was seventeen or fifty-eight, and I feared I would not know how to handle it. Any reminder of mortality would send me spiraling. I either couldn’t sleep or slept all the time.
When it’s quiet at night, Ms. Anne often asks for her mother. My boss told me when I started this job that I had two options in such situations: I could be honest, or I could lie. I almost always lie and tell her that her mother is on vacation up north and will be home soon. This response, which is quickly forgotten, prevents Ms. Anne from mourning the death of her loved ones every night. (To my own future caregivers: Please do not tell me my mother is dead, no matter how dead she may be.)
In moments of clarity Ms. Anne will tell me about her childhood as the daughter of a doctor and a nurse. Her parents cared for sick people who couldn’t afford treatment. She danced on Broadway as a young woman and could play the organ like a professional. She shows me pictures she or her husband painted, or furniture she made. She lived enough to have had a full life before I was even born.
Although my teenage fears ultimately faded, I still have anxiety. I calm myself with deep-breathing techniques and self-affirmations that took years to master in therapy. When Ms. Anne tells me she is ready to die, I am able to accept this.
I could have gotten a job at Target or a coffee shop, and maybe I would have found meaning in that, too, but then I wouldn’t have the love I feel for this person whose hands have held mine, who raised three children and traveled the world, and whose eyes light up at the mention of ice cream.
It was a sunny Colorado spring afternoon. My family was on vacation, and after a day of skiing, we walked back to our cabin with sore shins and carrying heavy ski boots.
Before we headed indoors, my mom pointed to an empty trash can at the end of the driveway and asked, “How many acorns do you think could fit in that?” Questions like this were not uncommon from my mother. I was a curious nine-year-old with an endless supply of energy that, in her opinion, needed channeling. “Why don’t you get your sisters and find out?” she said.
We scavenged the yard for acorns, then the neighboring woods. Using bath towels as knapsacks, we meticulously gathered nuts, but the trash can seemed bottomless. Hours passed. Handful by handful, we raced to finish before the sun dipped below the tree line, giddy that we might complete our mother’s impossible task.
As we placed the final acorns atop our pile, one of my sisters ran inside to retrieve our mother. The rest of us waited with pride and anticipation for her to see the results of our efforts. Dragged outside by the hand, she looked at the overflowing trash can, turned to me, and asked, “Well, have you counted them?”
A mother’s most important job is to keep her child alive: Don’t run in the street. Get that out of your mouth, or you’ll choke. Put a jacket on, or you’ll catch pneumonia. I successfully raised my only son to adulthood as a single mother, but I still felt like I’d failed when he slumped against the wall of his kitchen and suffocated from an asthma attack at the age of twenty-five.
His loss left a void in my life. Within a year I quit my job. Then my sixty-year-old brother, who had helped raise my son while I got a college degree, was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer. I nursed him after a complicated surgery and took him to chemotherapy appointments. We shared laughs and tears. “I can’t believe I’m dying before Keith Richards,” my brother said.
After he died, I tried to bring joy back into my life through hormone-replacement therapy, grief counseling, teaching college, moving to the beach, losing ten pounds, running each day, dating, hosting small dinner parties, writing a novel, and creating a patio garden — all within a year.
Finally I met the man I am now married to. He has one son, three daughters, and eleven grandchildren who call me by a word I never thought I’d hear: Grandma.
Before my husband and I were married, he was a commercial fisherman operating off the coast of Canada. I worked with him as a deckhand for a couple of seasons. On a good day we’d catch and freeze roughly a thousand salmon; on an average day, maybe three to four hundred.
In northern British Columbia the days were long. Dawn arrived at 4 AM, and it stayed light till nearly 11 PM. We were on board the boat at daybreak, ready to get the first bite. Two of our four-person crew worked on deck while the other two went below to stack the fish in the freezer. It was hard to say which was worse: being outside in the freezing rain or down in the dark, subzero fish hold.
While at sea, for about a month, we used salt water to wash virtually everything: the fish, the boat, ourselves. There was little time for personal hygiene anyway. A calendar hung inside the galley door, and every evening when we trooped in, I took great pleasure in marking another day gone.
We worked hard but all got along, cracked jokes, and pulled pranks. No one knocked off until everyone’s work was done, no matter how tired we were. When the hold was full, we’d deliver the fish to market in Prince Rupert, get a shower, buy groceries, do laundry, and then head out again within a few hours.
The others loved fishing, but I didn’t. I was there because I loved the skipper. We’ve been married thirty-two years now, which takes endurance of another sort.
Victoria, British Columbia
As I hiked through a remote area of the Himalayas, climbing stairs carved into the side of the laurel-covered mountains, I gradually grew accustomed to the thin air. On footpaths wide enough for one, I followed villagers with feet clad only in flip-flops, lugging heavy loads on their heads and backs.
I was by no means an athlete, but I had told myself since the age of eighteen that I would someday trek through Nepal. That year my marriage had failed, my father had died, and I needed to prove to myself I could survive.
“Bistari, bistari,” my guide said — Nepali for “slowly but surely.” We ate only one meal a day, after miles of intense hiking. I contracted dysentery from contaminated water. We traversed hanging bridges and a recent landslide, my guide leading me across by the hand, telling me to put my feet exactly where he put his. In below-zero weather, I positioned myself half in and half out of a chimney-less hut, so as not to die from hypothermia on the one hand or smoke inhalation on the other. I bid adieu to my father from a high peak.
When I made it back to Kathmandu, I realized I had not only survived but grown, slowly but surely.
I met him at a party the night his father died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Our paths crossed again the next day, after he’d learned of his father’s death. I felt pity for him — I was twenty years old and couldn’t fathom losing one of my parents — but I wasn’t even remotely attracted to him. He didn’t wear shoes, so his feet were black with dirt. He rarely shaved or, I suspected, bathed. He chain smoked and forgot to comb his hair.
Without my asking, he cleaned himself up, and we fell in love. Within a year we were married. I was twenty-one, and he was twenty-four, both of us still in college.
Later, in the chaotic middle of our lives, we feared he would die at the same age as his father: forty-nine. He was forty-seven when I found a letter he’d written but not sent to one of his closest friends. He wrote: “I think I may live past my father’s age after all. I take good care of myself. I’m perhaps in the best shape of my life.”
A few months later he rose from bed to take his usual Saturday-morning five-mile run and collapsed before he made it out the door, lost in a grand mal seizure.
When he awoke in the emergency room, groggy but wide-eyed, he said to me, “I had a stroke, didn’t I?”
I said nothing. The doctor had already told me he had a brain tumor.
Through the next sixteen months we struggled and sobbed. We hugged our children. They hugged us back. After six weeks of radiation and five brain surgeries, he died, three months shy of his forty-ninth birthday.
I am still here twenty years after his death. Our children are grown. I fell in love again, got married. I live fully and gratefully, as he would have wanted.
I grew up in an Italian American household on Staten Island in the 1950s. My parents sent me to a Catholic elementary school, where I was taught by nuns in woolen black habits that exposed only their hands and faces. Students were required to attend mass every Sunday at a nearby church. If I failed to appear, the priest would visit the school on Monday and demand to know where I’d been. My family watched me just as closely at home. When I played outside, they allowed me to wander no farther than three or four houses away.
I attended public high school, where I didn’t have to wear an ugly plaid skirt and a stiff white blouse. I felt like a bird who had escaped her cage. Still, my parents forbade me from wearing makeup, allowing only light-pink lipstick. Many of my girlfriends would apply lipstick at school, then wipe it off before they went home.
Our high school offered two kinds of diplomas: a commercial one that included stenography and typing, and an academic one for students bound for college. Everyone assumed the girls would pursue the commercial degree, and I did.
When I graduated, though, I mentioned to my father that I wanted to go to college. “Why waste your time?” he said; I would make enough money as a secretary.
I went to work at AT&T, first as a clerk and then in the typing pool. Next to me sat Mae, a middle-aged Polish immigrant with thin eyebrows, peroxide-blond hair, and a mischievous streak. Mae stood for hours at the mimeograph machine, cranking its handle to copy documents and then stacking them in piles. She wore an apron to keep the ink off her dresses but could never quite get it out from under her fingernails. She kept a flask in her desk and nipped from it regularly. This wasn’t how I wanted to end up.
I made an appointment with the dean of students at a college on Staten Island to speak to him about enrolling. My parents accompanied me to the meeting. Since I had obtained a commercial diploma, I lacked two math courses that were required for admission. So, after working at AT&T all day, I took math classes at night. My father never fought me on my decision and even picked me up two nights a week after class.
A year and a half later I returned to tell the dean I had completed the math requirement. Surprised, he enrolled me on the spot.
I was one of only three female students studying for a business degree. Thankfully the men in our classes treated us like sisters. After the other two women and I graduated in 1970, a department store asked us to become buyers or floor managers, and an accounting firm offered us great salaries.
I chose to pursue a career teaching and taught various subjects: merchandising, textiles, English, creative writing, and, unfortunately, typing. Eventually I settled into teaching Italian culture, history, and language full-time. Now, in retirement, I run the Staten Island Italian Cultural and Language Club.
When I was clawing my way out of the steno pool, I didn’t realize how much determination and endurance it would take. But I was inspired by the words of my immigrant grandmother: “If your feet don’t move, you’ll never get there.”
Ann Marie Antenucci
Staten Island, New York