Growing up in a conservative Christian household, I was strictly sheltered from secular ideas. The church we attended condemned Harry Potter and held Pokémon-card burnings. I remember a friend of mine tearfully placing her carefully compiled binder of cards in the flames. My school curriculum included books by conservative pundits like Dinesh D’Souza and Bill O’Reilly, and on multiple occasions kids were expelled for smoking what our teachers called the “devil’s lettuce.”
I moved to San Francisco after college, and my world imploded. I left the church, came out, and formed deep friendships with liberal-minded people.
The following years were rough on my relationship with my family. I would either lash out in my new leftist zeal or stay silent and indignant. I couldn’t understand how they could miss what I could now see so clearly. I saw them as caricatures of conservatism, unyielding and intolerant. We went through periods without talking and eventually decided to avoid discussing politics and religion altogether.
Over the last few years, while the world has grappled with the immense isolation and loss caused by the COVID pandemic, I’ve realized it was unfair to expect my parents to arrive at the same conclusions I had. I was so swept up in being right that I failed to notice when they did change their opinions. I blamed them, even when they were being more open than I was.
My father used to say to me, “Honey, I think we agree more than we disagree. It’s just the how where we tend to get stuck.”
He was right. We’ve resumed having conversations about politics and religion, with the expectation that we may not agree, but we will listen to each other.
Manlius, New York
I had been dating M. for about six months. He was kind, smart, and even-tempered, the type of partner I thought I needed after having been married to someone who was emotionally unpredictable.
But something about the relationship — I couldn’t put my finger on it — wasn’t working for me. After a lot of hand-wringing, I told M. I wanted to break up. He was surprised but took the news calmly.
The next day he phoned. “I’m not telling you this to change your mind,” he said. “But I wrote down all the things we both like.”
He then read a long list that included the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin, sex in the middle of the day, olives on pizza, the Grateful Dead song “Ripple,” flying kites on the beach, and learning Esperanto.
“Succulents,” he went on. “Pet rats.”
I softened. How could I walk away from someone who’d noticed so much about me? I decided I must be blind to the potential of the relationship. I told him I wanted to keep trying.
After another few months, however, I changed my mind again and broke up with him for good.
His list had been accurate and detailed, but the one thing that needed to be on it — the thing I didn’t have a name for — was still missing.
Santa Cruz, California
I became pregnant due to oral-contraceptive failure. When my son was barely two years old, I got pregnant again. I knew it was the result of a brief affair, as my marriage by then was sexless and loveless and becoming violent. My life was complicated by my own instability, unemployment, and drinking. Rather than bring another child into that mess, I had an abortion, left my husband, found a job, and eventually got sober.
When I revealed to a friend years later that I’d had an abortion, I called it the “hardest decision I ever made.” She quickly responded that for her, having one had been the easiest decision ever. Her words stayed with me and eventually allowed me to see my own experience more clearly. The truth was that the decision had been easy. It was the logistics that had been difficult: How would I come up with the money? Who would watch my son while I made the trip? What would I tell my husband about my absence? How would I hide the bleeding? What if something went wrong? Where would I get follow-up care?
I never once regretted my decision, but I did change the story I told myself and other people about it. I went on to help three women get abortions, including providing transportation and paying for the procedure. I’ll try to do even more, now that access is restricted for so many women.
When I discovered that my new job — teaching college English on Coast Guard ships — would take me to Antarctica, I didn’t think I’d enjoy visiting the southernmost part of the earth. For one thing, I’d formed the impression that it was nearly always overcast there. Second, as all my friends kept informing me, it was going to be cold. I’d lived in Australia, Florida, and California for the past three decades and didn’t even own a warm jacket.
One of my first days on the ship, I was summoned to meet the commanding officer. Knowing that it was his fifth trip to “the ice,” I asked what kept drawing him back. The captain told me there was something incredibly compelling about the views, the wildlife, and the light. I must have looked skeptical, because he said that I might be surprised by how much I liked it.
I remained doubtful until one afternoon when, while gazing at the endless ocean, I saw an enormous fin a dozen yards from the ship. It was shiny and plump, and I thought it must belong to the world’s best-fed shark. Later I learned that what I’d seen had almost certainly been a juvenile orca.
A few weeks later we reached a wide belt of loose, floating ice. As our movement tossed the pieces around, their shining blue-green undersides glittered against the black ocean. Waves smashed against our hull, sending liquid crystals flying.
By then the sun had stopped setting. On all sides of us lay mountainous icebergs and ice-covered mountains. The view was black and white and gray until the low, nighttime sun turned the surfaces pink and the water gold. Sometimes albatross soared around the ship, and minke whales played in our wake.
I spent as much time as possible on deck, hypnotized by the views. Though I was too cold to feel my hands, I was dying to get off the ship and walk toward those mountains. Even before I’d set foot on Antarctica, I knew I wanted to come back.
Hidden Valley Lake, California
I never intended to go public with my story of the high-school teacher who’d groomed and molested me starting when I was fifteen. The sex had lasted for several years — weekly at first, then sporadically until my early twenties. The damage, however, lasted for decades. It took me until my late fifties, when I began writing about the experience, to realize that what had happened wasn’t my fault.
I remember telling a business associate over coffee that I was writing a memoir about having been molested by a teacher. He asked me, “Do you name him?”
“Oh, no,” I said. “What would be the point?” I was sixty-three at the time, and my abuser was about to turn seventy-five. We were both old people by anyone’s estimation, and the crimes had happened long ago.
I had just finished the first revisions to my memoir when I read a story in the newspaper about a teacher who had abused several of his students at the school my own children had attended. His methods of seduction were all too familiar. I felt a dizzying wave of nausea.
After more than forty years of protecting my abuser’s identity, I contacted my local paper. The editors conducted interviews and a review of the journals I’d kept as a teenager, then decided to publish my story. The article described how my teacher, who was also my debate coach, began touching me in a hotel room when our team traveled to a tournament, how he helped himself to my virginity when I was sixteen and pursued me into adulthood. It also told of the heavy burden of guilt and shame that I carried.
Within an hour of the article’s online publication I received a text from a high-school classmate that read, “He did the same thing to me.”
That message was the first of many I received from survivors of abuse. So many people have had similar experiences: being groomed by someone they trusted, being touched inappropriately, or being raped, all in the guise of love. Only, at the time we didn’t see it as rape, because in our minds we participated willingly. Many of us who were molested — that word still stops me in my tracks — truly believed we had agency, no matter how young we were. We didn’t, of course. But now we do.
New Orleans, Louisiana
I stood in the theater’s wings, watching the principal dancer in the second act of The Sleeping Beauty. I didn’t have to go back onstage for fifteen minutes, so I had time to relax. I was twenty-six years old and nine years into my professional career as a ballet dancer. Since the age of eight, I’d believed that the only way to be successful was to become a principal ballerina. I had a blind drive to keep working for however long it took to achieve that goal.
But while I stood in the wings, I noticed something strange. The principal dancer, whose role I had been striving to reach for seventeen years — through bloody toes, injuries, back pain, psychological abuse from directors, endless competition, and constant dieting — was miserable. The movements were painful and difficult, and she was grinning through gritted teeth, in an antiquated, irrelevant story of a girl waiting for her prince. Did I really want to continue working myself to the bone so that I could one day do this? Maybe I could be successful doing something completely different. It sounds silly, but the idea had never crossed my mind.
After I ran offstage for the last time that night, I walked straight to the window, threw my pointe shoes away, and took the biggest breath of my life.
Do you have a plan? It’s the second question a therapist is supposed to ask. Mine skipped the first one: Are you thinking about suicide? For kids like me — who’d practically grown up in hospital psych wards; who’d done DBT and CBT and ACT and PCT, all to no avail; whose arms had been sliced open, stitched shut, burned, and bruised — the answer was always yes. So why bother to ask?
I didn’t answer truthfully when asked about a plan. In the past, admitting I had one had only gotten me shackled to bed rails, injected with tranquilizers, and locked in institutions. Instead I’d learned to appear appalled by the question: Me? A plan? Of course not.
But I had any number of them. In the drawer under my bed, tucked behind the checkered sheets and boxer briefs, was a small, locked box filled with plastic bags, glistening blades, and pills of all colors, like the fruit candies vending machines spit out after swallowing a quarter. I was planning to gather a handful of colorful “candies” one night and swallow them all.
But then my English teacher, still out of breath from passionately reciting Macbeth’s famous soliloquy about “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” asked me to stay behind after class. He’d recognized that Macbeth was not the only one for whom life had ceased to have meaning. Staring into my eyes, he asked if I was OK.
I looked away, scared he’d be able to see through my lie, and said I was fine.
It wasn’t the question he asked that mattered. People asked me all the time how I was doing: my parents, still bleary-eyed over coffee in the morning; my sister, hearing muffled cries behind my door; counselors and therapists and psychologists who were all ears until our time was up; the friends who gossiped in the cafeteria while I sat silently. They all asked. But they either didn’t really care about the answer or only cared because they had to.
My English teacher, on the other hand, didn’t have to ask or care. He could just as easily have rushed me out the door at the end of class, but he didn’t.
Any other day his attention might not have been enough. But it was enough for that day. And for tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
When I was twenty, I thought I’d never eat meat again. Inspired by my vegetarian roommates, I read Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, about the wastefulness of meat production, and I committed to eating only grains, legumes, and dairy products for protein. I proudly shopped at co-ops and natural-food stores. To my parents’ dismay I refused to eat turkey on Thanksgiving or ham on Easter.
Later, in medical school, I declined to participate in the program’s infamous “dog lab,” which involved dissecting live, anesthetized dogs. When challenged by professors, I self-righteously proclaimed that I’d been a vegetarian for years and was against killing animals unnecessarily.
During the summer after my third year of medical school, I spent six weeks in Europe. In Calascio, my family’s ancestral village in Italy, my grandmother’s friend Celestina welcomed me with a chicken dinner. I realized that my ideals were no match for this little old Italian lady bustling about in joyful anticipation of sharing a meal with a young American visitor. I had taken Italian for two years in college, but I knew no words that could refuse her hospitality. There were chickens pecking about in her courtyard, and I suspected our dinner was one of their free-range companions and not a plastic-wrapped bird from the store. I made an exception and ate the food she served me. It was delicious.
Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan
At the age of twenty-one I was engaged to an older man and about to enter my senior year of college. A couple of weeks before I returned to school, I found out I was pregnant. Though the decision was agonizing, it was clear to me that I would have an abortion.
I met with my hometown gynecologist and scheduled the procedure with him for the following week. Dr. Anderson was a colleague and friend of my father’s, and I knew I’d feel safe with him performing the surgery. He strongly urged me to tell my parents about the abortion. Though I considered his recommendation, I decided to keep my decision private. I did not have a close relationship with my parents, and I wanted to spare myself the anguish of their judgment.
The day before my appointment, Dr. Anderson called to ask if I’d told my parents yet. I began to have second thoughts about keeping it from them. I might need their support after the abortion, and surely they would come to my aid. I took his advice.
That afternoon my parents and I sat on their white wicker porch furniture, and I told them my plans. A staunch Catholic, my mother wasted no time in responding, “This is a sin you will have to live with for the rest of your life.” Dad followed with “This is the first time I have had to view one of my daughters as a sexual object.” My mother insisted that my abortion would not be done in our town, because if word got out at the hospital, my father’s reputation would be ruined.
Ten days later I had the abortion at a clinic outside Philadelphia. My uterus was perforated during the procedure. I endured agonizing pain and was hospitalized for two weeks with septic shock and acute peritonitis. Due to uterine scarring, I was advised against having children, as there was a high likelihood I’d have an ectopic pregnancy.
Twenty years later, after two decades of miscarriages, I gave birth to a beautiful daughter. She is now in medical school planning to specialize in maternal and child health care.
Susan M. Brooks
While living with my husband and two kids in a small Mexican beach town for the past eighteen months, I’ve changed my mind a lot. I’ve changed my mind about whether I need to wear makeup every day or a bra when it’s excessively hot and humid. I’ve changed my mind about blow-drying my hair, a morning ritual I never skipped when I worked at an office. I’ve changed my mind about whether my kids need to be enrolled in competitive sports or whether it matters if they ever take a standardized test again, let alone how they score. Since they’re now learning two languages, I’ve changed my mind about how much time they should spend reading. I’ve changed my mind about shopping and how much we really need to buy. I’ve changed my mind about sand in the bed, because it seems there’s just no keeping it out. I’ve changed my mind about whether I’m brave enough to swim in the ocean or drive alone on Mexican highways. I’ve changed my mind about eating things like octopus and nopales. And I’ve finally changed my mind about whether I should worry what people think about our “crazy” decision to raise our kids in Mexico.
My friend Lorraine and I had agreed to go on a trail ride on the last day of our California hiking trip, but when I saw the half-dead-looking horses in the dusty stables, I said, “I don’t want to do this.” Lorraine went on the ride without me.
When I ran into Lorraine at lunch, I asked, “Enjoy the trail?” She glared at me and turned away to speak to another guest. I remembered she had a temper and figured I’d fallen into the category of people she felt had wronged her.
Sure enough, she gave me the silent treatment in our hotel room and at the farewell dinner. The next day proved even more uncomfortable as we flew back to the East Coast together. I kept making small talk, hoping to thaw the ice, but she refused to speak to me.
My fifteen-year friendship with Lorraine ended that day. Despite losing her, I’m grateful the incident happened because it forced me to confront something about myself: I come from a long line of women who use the silent treatment to punish anyone who disagrees with or hurts them. My grandmother did it to my mother, my mother did it to me, and I did it to others. If I hadn’t been treated that way by Lorraine, I don’t think I would have recognized this dysfunctional pattern. Now if I have a problem with a friend or colleague, I talk it out.
In high school I was clinically depressed and suicidal. Then my older sister told me Jesus loved me and had a plan for my life. I grabbed on to that faith like a drowning person clutching a life preserver.
In my senior year I began attending a hippie church where congregants wore shorts and went barefoot. Around the same time, I met a man and fell in love. He was five years older than I was and an atheist, but I admired his social activism, and we had long discussions about religion, politics, and the state of the world.
We married after I graduated, and two weeks later he came to church with me — to prove God didn’t exist and that my faith was futile. He ended up having a conversion experience of his own. Soon he was spouting fundamentalist-Christian platitudes, condemning my gay friends, joining protests at abortion clinics, and scolding me for wearing halter tops because only “whores” wore those. He became the pastor of his own church, and I became a pastor’s wife, a role I’d never wanted.
At first I felt compelled to stay with him because I had made a commitment to the marriage, but as the years wore on and I grew into adulthood, I could not in good conscience espouse his beliefs. Eventually, with great relief, I left him.
I guess we both changed each other’s minds.
S. Kay Murphy
After my father died, my stepmother, Rose, asked me to dinner. I was surprised by the invitation and equally amazed to find that I was glad to be there. We sat on her stone terrace overlooking Manhattan and talked about our jobs as teachers. We didn’t discuss the history of tension between us.
I’d been sixteen when Rose and my father had married, and from the start we’d disliked each other. To my friends I made fun of her slight lisp, her mannish haircut, and her terrible flute playing. My mother had taught me to admire glamour and sophistication, and Rose fell short on both counts. Influenced by my father’s opinions, Rose echoed his criticisms of me. My father accused me of being spoiled, selfish, and materialistic, like my mother and her lawyer husband, with whom I lived in Brooklyn.
Then my father developed a rare blood disease and lay bleeding internally in a Boston hospital. The day I came to visit, the room was thick with hostility. I was eighteen. “It’s about time you got here,” my father murmured.
Rose, his staunch protector, wagged a finger at me. “You’re a self-centered, rotten girl,” she said, and she raised a hand to slap my face. I stormed out of the hospital, determined never to see them again.
In time we reconciled. My father and I found common ground, and Rose and I learned to be cordial. Twelve years later, when my father died in his sleep, she called me, and I went to her. We waited together for the ambulance to arrive, sitting shoulder to shoulder on her sofa.
After he died and we had dinner on her terrace, she and I began spending time together. I found Rose to be forthright and intelligent. I liked her white linen dresses and broad smile. I could sense she had come to like me, too.
She talked about growing up in a white house with green shutters and a front lawn where she and her sister had played like tomboys. She told me she’d been the first woman inspector in the glove-making industry in Albany, New York. She spoke of her passion for travel, which had taken her to Asia and Africa, and recalled a time when, flying over India, the pilot had invited her into the cockpit and let her steer the plane. I was in awe of her sense of adventure. I told her about my challenges at work and in love. Her advice was pragmatic: “Be yourself. Some people will like you, and some people won’t.”
Her lung-cancer diagnosis came suddenly. I sat next to her hospital bed, looking into her blue eyes and stroking her thin cheek. One day she introduced me to the nurse as her daughter, and tears came to my eyes. I was there when her breath stopped. Love was in the room, although we never called it that.
New York, New York
I told her I needed some time by myself to think about what I wanted to do with my life. I could see she was hurt, but she let me go. I didn’t tell her, but I was pretty sure I would not be returning.
I drove my boat to Tomales Bay, north of San Francisco, and camped on the beach. I spent a lot of time on the water, digging a few clams at low tide for dinner and reading a book my mother had given me, A Little Book on the Human Shadow, by Robert Bly. It talked about how we tend to project onto others the things we don’t like about ourselves. That made me think. I’d been pretty sure Sherry’s flaws justified my leaving.
After four days, craving warmth, I drove south to Monterey and found a camping spot on a hill above town. The next night I went downtown to an old theater and bought a ticket to a French film called Tous les Matins du Monde.
The movie engulfed me. The main character, an accomplished musician, had lost his wife and was raising his two daughters. After they went to bed every night, he played his viola da gamba for his departed wife. The music was haunting.
At the end of the film I could not arise from my seat. The loss this man had suffered was expressed so powerfully, tears were streaming down my face. The workers cleaned the theater, and still I sat there crying. Finally I got up and walked to the edge of the bay, listening to the waves softly washing against the rocks. After an hour or so I went back to my truck, drove to the campground, and went to sleep.
The next morning I called Sherry and asked if I could come home.
In 1996, at the age of nineteen, I became pregnant. My parents spirited me to a home for unwed mothers so that my “sin” could be kept a secret.
The home’s protocol was for women to give birth and then close that part of their lives forever. You didn’t see your baby after delivery. You didn’t feed or hold it. You didn’t keep the beaded bracelet it wore. The intent was to avoid giving the mothers a chance to love their babies, because if they did, they’d want to keep them.
I was committed to giving my baby up for adoption, but I insisted on being allowed to see it during the three days I spent in the hospital. The people in charge of the home were aghast. They had adoptive parents lined up for the baby and were afraid I’d change my mind.
When she was born, my daughter was perfect. She looked in wonder at the world and locked eyes with me. The nurses “forgot” to remove her from my room, giving me time to tell her how much I loved her but that I couldn’t provide her with the life she deserved. The kindness those women showed me is still deep in my heart.
After I was discharged from the home, my baby was taken to a Catholic Charities orphanage for the thirty-day waiting period before I was legally allowed to sign the adoption papers. On the thirtieth day I decided I needed to see her one last time. I walked into the orphanage and asked for my daughter. The head nun’s panic that I was going to take her with me was palpable. I was informed that no one had ever done this before. I persisted, and they brought her to me.
My daughter looked at me with the same wide-eyed wonder I’d seen at her birth. I spent a half hour with her and got to say goodbye on my own terms.
My parents always say I talked early and often, but I don’t remember it. As a toddler I spoke Tagalog, a language I’ve forgotten. We emigrated from the Philippines when I was three years old. During those first formative years in the United States, I spent a lot of time sitting on the shag carpet, watching Sesame Street and Romper Room. I learned English through songs, phonics, and Big Bird. As I grew older, English was all I wanted to know. Speaking it meant I was American.
In the 1970s I was often the only Asian child in my class, and I was called “chink” and other racial slurs. I desperately wanted to blend in. But my pursuit of complete assimilation meant I lost one of the very first things that defined me: my language.
As an adult I wanted to learn Tagalog, if it wasn’t too late.
I called my parents. “Mom, Dad, will you teach me to speak Tagalog?”
“Of course, anak,” they said. Anak means “my child.” (I will always be their child.)
I thanked them and then uttered a Tagalog phrase I thought I had long forgotten: “Mahal kita” — I love you.
Rowena Pinto Zimmermann
When I was a teen, my mother and her older sister would call each other regularly to discuss their favorite soap opera. I’d roll my eyes every time I saw Mom on her old-fashioned rotary phone, carrying on to Aunt Jessie about Jack, Phyllis, Victor, Nikki, and their ulterior motives and sordid secrets. It sounded like madness.
When Aunt Jessie passed away years later, my mother became depressed and housebound. She still watched the soap but seemed to take little pleasure in the romantic entanglements of her TV family. I worried about her, but I now lived far away and couldn’t think of a way to help.
During one of my visits I decided to watch the show with her and refrain from making fun of the ridiculous story line. The next day we did the same and had a lively conversation about what Victor was really up to. My mother started to perk up and agreed to go out of the house on errands.
After that visit I began to watch the soap at home because I missed my mom. Pretty soon I was hooked, eager to see what nutty plot the writers would come up with next.
My mom and I still discuss the latest secrets and betrayals during our weekend phone calls. And when I miss an episode, she takes delight in filling me in.
When I was sixteen, I attended a local concert and met one of the most beautiful guys I’d ever seen. He was a few years older, with shoulder-length brown hair and luscious lips. “Pillow lips,” my friends and I used to call them. I wanted to kiss those soft, full lips, feel them against my own.
A girlfriend of mine had a friend in common with him, so I urged her to get us all to hang out. When the date was set, I was giddy with excitement.
The four of us went to his father’s apartment in the city. We sat on the living-room floor, talking. My girlfriend and I suggested playing spin the bottle. The guys thought the game was silly, so we proposed “seven minutes in heaven” instead, in which a pair would go off privately to make out. He and I were the first couple. I couldn’t believe he agreed. We were finally going to kiss.
As soon as he shut the bedroom door, he pressed his mouth against mine, hard. Suddenly I was on the bed, and he was pulling off my pants. I lay frozen as he yanked down his jeans and put on a condom. Then he was on top of me, pushing himself inside. It was over in a matter of minutes. He didn’t say anything, just pulled his pants up. I put mine back on, too, and we left the room.
On the car ride home my girlfriend asked what had happened. I told her we’d kissed. I kept the rest to myself.
In the months that followed, I fell into a depression. My two closest friends were worried about me. I finally decided to write them a letter about what had occurred that night. I was too ashamed to tell them in person.
I left the note in one of their lockers and struggled with anxiety while waiting for their reaction. Would they think I was easy? It took them a long time to come speak to me. When we talked, they told me the reason it had taken them so long to respond was because they were discussing whether what had happened constituted rape.
The thought hadn’t even occurred to me. I had gone into that room willingly. In fact, I had suggested it. I hadn’t tried to stop what was happening, even though it was not what I’d wanted. I’d never said no.
Now, in my forties, I am still not comfortable calling what happened rape, even in an age when consent has become a major area of discussion. I am not sure if I will ever be able to label it as an assault. When I look back, however, instead of blaming that girl who innocently thought going into the bedroom would simply involve kissing, I try to hold her in a space of compassion and understanding. It was not her fault.
Nyack, New York
After my high-school graduation I drove across the country with two friends who were also moving to California. My parents followed in a station wagon packed with my belongings. They helped me move in and took me to a Kmart to buy some dishes and towels. We talked a bit about my coming home for Christmas; then they got in the empty car and drove home.
It didn’t take long for me to regret my choice of school. The jazz band wasn’t interested in a freshman bass player, and I discovered you couldn’t even audition for the jazz-studies program until your junior year. My apartment complex was full of guys strumming guitars and pretty girls in halter tops, and I never felt like I fit in. My friends who had driven out with me were hundreds of miles away, and I didn’t have a car. I had never been so lonely.
I lasted a couple of months. Unable to take it any longer, I pawned my bass and amp, which got me a plane ticket to Minneapolis, where my sister was going to school. She gave me money for a bus ride home.
When I arrived in Michigan, I was surprised to find my mother waiting for me at the station. The expression on her face quickly changed from disappointment to compassion when she saw how dejected I was.
A few weeks later my mom and I drove to California again, this time to get my stuff. We took the posters off the walls, packed up my records, books, and stereo, and got my bass out of hock. I said goodbye to Chico and went back home for good.
My parents weren’t rich by any means, but they never mentioned the fact that I had cost them thousands of dollars by dropping out of school, breaking my lease, and asking them to drive across the country four times. Perhaps they felt the education in real life I’d received was worth it.
When I was growing up, my family rejected most mainstream medical care. Doctors were for traumatic injuries only, and medicines were to be avoided. Instead we saw chiropractors and ate produce from our garden. For the first thirty years of my life, no serious illness or disease occurred in my family to challenge these views.
Then, at the age of fifty-two, my mother died from late-diagnosed uterine cancer. My eldest sister died from breast cancer when she was forty-nine. And when I was fifty-two, I discovered my own breast lump.
My medical team wanted to do an immediate biopsy. Although I understood the need for more information, I worried that sticking a needle in the lump could open a channel for metastasis. Unsure what to do, I declined the procedure. The radiologist contacted me, saying a biopsy was necessary for an accurate diagnosis and the risk of metastasis was minimal. She convinced me.
The oncologist diagnosed a highly aggressive cancer and recommended surgery followed by chemotherapy, which would permeate my body with toxins. I said yes to surgery, but I could not agree to the chemo. I began to look for alternative strategies. The oncology nurse reached out to me with success stories and methods of managing risks. Ultimately, and with grave misgivings, I agreed.
Six months later I finished treatment. I was weak and not the same person I’d been before. Chemo had severely compromised my short- and long-term memory. But, unlike my mother and sister, I’d survived.
When a second cancer occurred years later, I was once again faced with a life-threatening diagnosis. I hastened to have aggressive surgery, and nowadays I am healthy, active, and making new memories.
Pleasant Garden, North Carolina
One rainy evening about twenty years ago, I drove from my home in Maine to the Cambridge Zen Center in Massachusetts to take the five Buddhist precepts in a formal ceremony that would publicly confirm my commitment to Zen Buddhism. I was a young parent of two, struggling with bouts of depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse. I thought maybe if I could finally state my intentions aloud in front of other seekers, a sense of calm would permanently settle in my mind and bring me peace.
The event was held in the meditation hall. After brief remarks by the hosts, the other students and I said our vows, promising to abstain from taking life (including eating meat), from stealing, from excessive sensual pleasures, from lying, and from intoxicants. Afterward we gathered in the dining room, drank pomegranate tea, and made small talk. I felt a tremendous sense of bliss and belonging. I hoped, if I adhered to my vows and kept practicing meditation at home, I could finally keep my restlessness at bay.
As I drove home, the night got darker, and the rain fell harder. I didn’t arrive at my house until after one in the morning, so exhausted and frustrated from the long drive and the bad weather that I immediately made myself a pastrami sandwich and drank a tallboy. Two precepts broken already.
In the summer of 1979 my boyfriend and I worked twelve-hour days, seven days a week, building our stone house on family land in the country. We had to think of every hole the house would need for necessities like water, sewer, and a dryer, since it would be extremely difficult to cut through twelve inches of stone and concrete later. At one point we layered building paper between some wall sections so that we could knock them out and build an attached garage. Unfortunately we put it in the wrong place.
The house was small, built for two. Although we’d made a commitment to each other, we had no plans to marry and no intention of having children. We figured the world already had more people than it could comfortably support (over 4 billion at the time). Also, we thought the chaos of living in a house it might take years to finish would not be conducive to raising a child.
One day a year later, we looked at the stone house, a visible symbol of our rock-solid love, and one of us — we don’t remember who — said, “Maybe we should reconsider having a baby.” The other replied, “I’ve been thinking the same thing.” For weeks we discussed the pros and cons and talked to friends about our decision.
Our older son is now forty, our younger son thirty-eight. Somehow we found nooks in our tiny house for them to live and grow. We’ve never regretted having kids, despite the nearly 8 billion people now in the world. But I still wish we had an attached garage.
Alstead, New Hampshire