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Readers write about Harm

From This Point Forward

The young man who tossed the firework into the brittle trees at Eagle Creek on a hot September Saturday—did he act with intention? Did he mean to cause harm?

I pass my days with friends right now, after fleeing a night of heat and smoke and ash and wind. What is truly important when one runs from home in the dark, wondering if there will be a home to return to? Now, I watch and wait and wonder, as thirty-five thousand acres of land have burned. If I could hold the pain so the forest doesn’t have to, like a friend who is dying, I would. Where are the birds that sang when I hiked those trails last spring? Where are the deer and the swallowtail butterflies? Are they safe? Do they have friends who will take them in late at night on the other side of the river where they can breathe the air?

My community is scattered. Where is our mail? Will someone pick up the trash we put out before we realized the fire would travel thirteen miles in sixteen hours? Have the tomatoes ripened? What are the goldfinches eating with their feeders empty? Is the rose I planted in honor of my mother still blooming?

I said thank you every morning I woke up to the light over the Columbia River. The mountains, the river, the sky, each their own shade of blue, comforted me. Can I return to live in a place that makes me now hurt so deeply? 

I know many who wish the young man who started it all a miserable death. Or at least a miserable life. I wish the young man no harm. I wish for him that every decision he makes from this point on is thoughtful and responsible and kind. When he comes to the end of his days, and the effects of his decision are still upon the landscape, I wish for him to be able to say, “From that point forward, I caused no harm.”

JENNIFER O’DONNELL, Corbett

 

Not the Uncle I Remember

Last week my mother brought me a stack of photographs from my childhood. In one of them, my uncle Don and I are pictured on the beach in Neskowin, Oregon. I am two-and-a-half, dressed in blue jeans, a dark t-shirt, and a windbreaker. My uncle, in his late sixties, wears an almost matching outfit, plus a pair of thin-framed glasses. His straight white hair lifts in the wind. My short, brown curls stick to my head. Grasped in my hands is the reel of a kite. Uncle Don is watching me with a soft and quiet smile. 

I do not know the man in this photograph. He is not the Uncle Don I remember. 

I was eight when my mother took my brother and me to his one-bedroom house in west Eugene for the first time. An unforgettable stench wafted out when we opened the front door. It was the stale smell of alcohol—something I wouldn’t recognize until years later, when I was a teenager. The floor was so littered with empty jugs of Carlos Rossi and malt liquor bottles that we had to tip-toe to his bedroom, where we found him face down on the carpet, his grey sweatpants wet with urine. My brother and I helped my mother drag him outside and put him in her minivan. With our arms wrapped around him, the reek of sweat, piss, and liquor was inescapable. He cursed at us, his slurred words just another thing I wouldn’t recognize until years later. 

My mother drove us to the Buckley Detoxification Center. They have a small tiled room there with a one-way mirror and a drain in the center of the floor. This was the only safe and free place we could take Uncle Don. I can still see him standing on the other side of the glass, his face red with anger, his clenched fists pounding on the mirror as he screamed. 

Let me the fuck out of here. 

At least we know he is safe, my mother said.

We did this many times over the next two years, until my Uncle Don died from alcoholism. 

 Yet, there is still this picture of us on the beach, the sun warm on our smiling faces, the wind consistent and not too strong. A perfect day to learn to fly a kite. 

TYLER MCFARLANE, Ashland

 

A Poem, and Pain

Those in the medical profession take an oath to “first, do no harm.” For forty years I was a teacher, not a doctor, but I firmly believe that harm can be inflicted on students as well as on patients. Often it is inadvertent—few educators set out to purposely hurt the young people in their care—but it happens, and probably more often than we’d like to admit. I know this, because it happened to me.

This was a long time ago, but it’s so vivid I can recall every detail. I was teaching a class of tenth graders the Ben Jonson poem “On My First Son,” about the death of his seven-year-old. Suddenly I saw a girl in the second row fumble for a Kleenex and lower her head almost to her desk. Before I could stop myself I paused and asked, somewhat sharply, “Molly, what’s the matter?” Every pair of eyes in the room immediately turned toward Molly, who slunk even lower in her seat, and then turned a tear-streaked face in my direction. “May I be excused?” she choked, and bolted for the door before I could answer her.

I gave the class some meaningless exercise and went into the corridor. Molly was there, leaning against the wall and trying to pull herself together. She had wadded the Kleenex into a ball, which she was pulling apart into damp, tiny pieces. 

“Tell me,” I said, wanting to smooth her hair back from her face and hold her close. But I didn’t move, and neither did she. 

“My little brother died,” she whispered. “Three weeks ago. The poem—it just got to me. I’m really sorry.”

“I’m the one who’s sorry,” I said, and I was. To add to grief so raw and so young—this was not what I had meant to do. But somehow the fact that my hurt was unintended made it worse. 

The word harm doesn’t sound the way it means. It’s gentle and reassuring to the ear, so much less guttural than most violent words. But it means to damage, and that’s what I had done. The verse I had been teaching was lyrical: Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy; / My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy. It remains one of my favorite poems. But I never taught it again.

GAIL COOMBS, Portland

 

Forgetting Kindness

The people we best know are those we best know how to wound: close friends, relatives, children, and partners. There’s a lot of truth in the saying, “You always hurt the ones you love.” 

When we hurt another, we often rue what we have done. Guilt poisons our thoughts. Bad memories force themselves into consciousness. Shame sometimes overwhelms us.

To illustrate: Helen (dead now five years) and I enjoyed an affectionate and trusting marriage for most of forty-seven years. For most of our marriage she was a bright and spirited woman and a gifted teacher. Our last few years, however, were harrowing because of encroaching dementia. 

Following her retirement, she became fearful. She locked doors compulsively. She hid her purse, wallet, and keys, and forgot where they were. The house became a black hole into which her driver’s license, credit cards, social security card, and Medicare cards vanished. Her short-term memory faded, and time became a blurring fog through which she numbly moved. She forgot our children’s names. Forgot we had a new grandchild.

She had always dressed well, so it was hard to see her unable to choose what to wear. One evening she spent hours trying to decide on a nightgown. I made suggestions and put rejected gowns back in her closet, only to be asked for them again. I became exasperated, raised my voice. I said, “You’re driving me crazy—I don’t know what you want. What is it you want from me?”

She looked at me steadily for a few seconds, then simply said, “I could use a little kindness.”

I was stunned by her unexpected lucidity and knew instantly that I had been grievously unkind. Done her harm. Forgotten my obligation to someone long loved. I asked her forgiveness, then held her for a long time. 

She forgave me, but I have had trouble forgiving myself for not loving enough, for being impatient. 

What happened to me was instructive. I was reminded that the harm we do others often rebounds and harms us. If we are honest, we will admit that being provoked seldom justifies the harm we do. I find myself asking, “Why did I fail in compassion, in duty, in love?” Satisfactory answers are hard to come by.

JIM DEAN, Ashland

 

On Dry Land

Carrie’s been my best friend a whole year, ever since second grade, when she crashed her bike into our yard and mom washed her scraped-up knee with peroxide. 

Carrie’s basement is our favorite place to play. It has a TV, games, and a big comfy couch. There’s no school today, so we get cookies and some Kool-Aid from her kitchen. Carrie cracks open the door and we go down the creaky stairs.

We pull Life from the bookshelf and she puts the board on the coffee table, then flattens it like she’s smoothing wrinkles out of a sheet the way Grandma does. 

Her voice sounds like she’s smiling, but she’s not.

“Do you want to play Boyfriend and Girlfriend instead?” 

“I don’t know.” I think I do, though, and her mom’s upstairs watching soap operas, so, “Yes.” 

She knee-walks over to me and takes my hand. We go behind the wall that separates the rest of the basement from the laundry room. We hide here so if anyone comes downstairs we’ll hear them and say we’re pretending to do laundry. 

She pulls me to our usual spot by the dryer. I lie on my back. We kiss with our mouths and eyes closed, heads moving back and forth, making “mmmmmm” noises like in the movies. 

Our chests press together. It makes my throat fill up with fear. Like I’m going to be in trouble even if we don’t get caught. 

She moves up and down like I showed her. The way Dad does on me. 

My arms start to itch. The rug we’re on has hard little threads poking out of it.

I wiggle beneath and kind of hope her mom comes downstairs. It’s happened before and it’s scary, but not always in a bad way. Sometimes I’m glad we have to stop. 

Carrie lifts off me. I put my hand up the front of her shirt and move it around and pinch her. She giggles at me. 

I think about how she loves Barbie and her fish, Angel. When we’re not down here playing, we play Barbies in her room. Sometimes we stand in the hallway and watch her fish swim in the tank. I always put my finger on the glass and trace the path Angel makes in the water. I pretend I’m swimming in there, too, where no one can touch me.

JESSICA STANDIFIRD, Portland

 

What It Means to Help

I work with kids. 

I work with kids with difficult-to-manage behaviors. 

I work with kids who can’t always control themselves, who might hurt themselves or other people, either accidentally or intentionally. When they’re escalated, when they’re unsafe, doing things like climbing and jumping off of things, trying to run out of the building, engaging in physical aggression, we bring them to this room that has fewer things to throw or jump off of or hide under, a room with only one door so we won’t lose them when they try to bolt.

They usually don’t want to go with us to that room but not going isn’t an option anymore. That room is for when all our other options have been tried and have failed, when our efforts to calm them have been fruitless.

I escort them to the room. We call it Mr. So-and-So’s office. Mr. So-and-So is our behavior tech. He’s a great guy, about the nicest, calmest person I know. I say, “If you can’t walk on your own, I’m going to help you walk.” They’re upset, not listening, and it comes to the point where I put my hands on them to physically move them to this safer location. I’m trained to do it. I’m allowed to do this. I make sure I’m careful. But as we walk it sounds like this: “Get your hands off of me, let go of me, I hate you, you’re hurting me.”

I’ve been trained to do this. In the training, we practice the escorts. We practice being escorted. During this training, I’m an adult, I’m complicit in what’s happening, I’m not struggling. I know what I’m doing will not do physical harm to this child.

Once we get to the room, we work things out. We do what we have to do to calm down, to get back to where we need to be, emotionally and physically. The kids scream and hit and bite and kick for a while. I try to stop them from doing too much damage to anyone, including themselves.

Then things are over and we’re friends again.

I call these kids my angels, my babies, the lights of my life, and I mean it.

When I pray, which isn’t often and isn’t to anyone, I pray that what I do does more good than harm.

DAN ACKERMAN, Wolcott, CT

 

Old Bear

Below me an old grizzly bear, nicknamed Scarface, is moving sluggishly but methodically along the Lamar River corridor in Yellowstone National Park. At twenty-four years of age, he is gaunt and heavily scarred, missing most of his right ear; he is too slow and weak to bring down his own prey, surviving on old carcasses and digging up roots to eat. In a few minutes, I realize, the parking area I’m watching from will become chaotic, overflowing with cars. People slam their brakes and stop in the road; leap out of their rented RVs and abandon their screaming children, strapped into their car seats; spill coffee, drop ice cream cones, buffalo wings, tuna sandwiches; fumble about with their iPhones and cameras, all the while shouting, “Bear! Bear!” I know from experience that Scarface will probably cross the road a mile ahead, moving through the parked cars and people and onto his favorite trail, which skirts the low point of the river and will bring him onto the flats, where he will sniff around for old bones. He is so used to the crowds that he doesn’t pay much attention to us as he passes nonchalantly between our vehicles. Over the years, people have proudly shown me photos of themselves within ten feet of him. I fear that one of these days he will take a swipe at a person who has become so excited, so frenetic, so crazed at the sight of a wild grizzly bear that they step right in front of him. That’ll be the end of him, a bear who “attacked” a tourist and became a “problem bear”.

Old bear, I’ll be blunt. I hope you dig a deep den in the earth this winter, fall asleep, and never wake up. I hope the last thing you hear is the hiss of snow falling out of the sky above you and not the shouting of people so desperate for a touch of wildness that they lose their senses. It is ironic that we create such havoc while making pilgrimages to the wilderness in the hope of forgetting about the chaos in our lives, of briefly washing away the deep estrangement and hollow loneliness of our daily lives. We long to reconnect with the core of quietness in ourselves by seeking out places that flow on without us, places whose destiny we cannot change, cannot control, places whose sounds will sing us to sleep. And even in this crowded mass of people we might sense the presence of an absolute truth and beauty within ourselves and everything around us.
Today the bear manages to put off his execution date, safely lumbering through the frenzied crowds, beyond the noise of the excited chatter; but in October he will cross over Yellowstone’s park boundary and be shot twice in his head, at close range, by a startled elk hunter who stumbles upon him. 

We should have been silent and peaceful in the old bear’s presence, and only whispered our thanks. We should have.

KATE SAUNDERS, Neskowin

 

My Story Was not My Own

The confusion was clear on their faces. They couldn't understand why I, a Black and Samoan child, was standing between two white parents. Standing there I could feel the knot begin to grow in my stomach. I knew the conversation that would follow and it always made me feel sick. It was always some variation of, "Oh, she was my easiest," followed by laughter and the clarification to answer the question that adults were too polite to ask: "We adopted her in Hawaii." A broad proud smile always graced their faces. 

During this conversation, my presence was as little more than a novelty doll. That’s what I felt I was for my parents—a way to prove that they were good white folk helping a poor black child who needed a "good" family. What my parents failed to notice was the subtle change in how others perceived me: that, as an adopted child, there must be something wrong.

While the conversations with adults were awkward and uncomfortable, the ones with other children proved even more trying. Children are both innocent and cruel. Where adults may be too polite to ask, children have no such hesitancy. "Why are your parents white and you aren't?" "How come you don't look like your parents?" Each question felt like an arrow to my heart. My answer was always met with an awkward silence, then either a quick change of subject or invasive questions: "Do you want to find your birth mom?" "Why didn't your mom want you?" "Do you remember your family?" "You are so lucky!"

I became a novelty, something to gawk at. Where my parents saw my adoption as a beautiful story with a happy ending, to me it was a tragedy that I was forced to smile and be happy about. They didn't see the way people looked at me, or how I was never allowed to be mad at them, lest I be deemed ungrateful. After all, shouldn't you be happy? Shouldn't you forever be indebted to the people who adopted you?

Public narratives around adoption focus on the "giving" nature of the adoptive parents or the self-sacrifice of the birth mother or family. It follows that the child ought to be grateful to both sides: the adoptive family for taking them in and loving them and their biological family for letting them go. I thought I was only allowed to feel gratitude. I worked to suppress the feelings of loss, sorrow, loneliness, and frustration, which left me numb.

Anytime I spoke of pain and confusion it was quickly shut down with assurances that “your birthmother did this so you would have a better life” or “you wouldn’t have these opportunities if you hadn’t been adopted.” These phrases and others like them to shut down any real conversations about the complexities of adoption. They left me isolated for most of my formative years, living a life where my story wasn’t my own.

Adoption, no matter how it happens, is based in loss. It is not an end to a journey, but a beginning. If adoptive parents do not understand that the story is not just theirs but also that of the child they adopted, they will only continue to harm their child. If we want to have healthy adoptees, we must accept that we don’t always have to be grateful, that it is okay to be angry and sad. It has taken most of my life to come to a place where I can express the complex feelings that come from being adopted. I can only hope that we can change the narrative around adoption to focus on the adoptee’s experience through the adoption journey.

LAURIE FALE, Portland

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