Readers write about Owe

Because We Can

“What did the community ever do for you?” my college best friend asked, reacting to news that I couldn’t hang out until after a Martin Luther King Jr. day of service. I don’t recall my response, but I know I was stunned. I had never considered volunteerism as part of a transaction. I’m not a saint by any stretch, but I was raised to believe people served others when we could. Some cross section of collectivist culture, Catholic liberation theology, and the Golden Rule resonated deeply with me.

While taught to do for others, I was not to receive help. This I can link clearly to my parents’ first-generation immigrant sensibilities. In retrospect, it’s surprising they accepted Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, so my siblings and I could get reduced school lunches. Since my mom served in the US military, perhaps this felt natural—both receiving and providing forms of government assistance. They likely also faced harsh economic realities upon immigrating with three kids in tow, and me in utero. Either way, I grew up knowing self-sufficiency was ideal. 

On Valentine’s Day 2014, my mom was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. She fought for a year before my father was also diagnosed with an advanced, and more aggressive, cancer. Their retirement plans tragically shifted from travel to chemotherapy. My siblings and I shared caregiving duties, but I felt like I never did enough. Like I always needed to be there even though I knew that was unsustainable. In hindsight, we never really knew whether we faced a marathon or a sprint until the end of the race.

Four years have passed. I explore ways to repay their sacrifices as we approach my mom’s first death anniversary and my dad’s third—just weeks apart. Though these years have been colored with pain, grief, and too much left unsaid, I feel compelled to carry forward values they instilled. Service. Community. Love. Music. Sacrifice. I embody them differently but am living them the best way I know how with everything they gave us. Perhaps my siblings and I don’t owe our parents the lives they envisioned for us, but lives they never could have envisioned. In our own ways, we continue to serve others and speak up for those who can’t, simply because we can.



Finding Life in Death

I had never changed a diaper on a grown man before, and I didn’t want to now. But early on in my training at the prison hospital’s hospice program, I made up my mind that no client of mine would sit in his own feces and urine. I learned a lot about how the body prepares to leave this earth from my clients. Death is like a fog that enters the room. The air is heavy and damp, the room unusually cold. 

The smell of dying human flesh would permeate my clothing, my hands would smell of rot and decay. I could taste Death on my lips, and my eyes would burn when I left the room and entered the bright sunlight and filled my lungs with fresh air. Some clients left quietly, almost with a sense of peace. Others left this world violently, full of pain and fear. Was this Death’s final punishment for criminals? Would this be my punishment for my crime? 

I couldn’t have known all those years ago that death would bring my humanity back. Their pain would burrow into my flesh, and at times I was emotionally drained and physically exhausted as I carried their pain. I strove to feel their regrets; I wrapped their sorrows around my shivering body like a worn-out hospital blanket. I couldn’t understand, but somehow just being with them and listening lightened their burden before Death stepped in to take them.

I’ve questioned my motives, my purpose, and my role in prison. Murder brought me to this place, but it was dealing with Death that brought me back to life. I will spend the rest of my life in prison for the crimes I committed. There you will find me sitting, listening, and waiting to meet Death in the cold infirmary of the state penitentiary because this is what I owe my fellow man.



Smaller Acts

“From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

My father, holding court at the family dinner table, often intoned that biblical passage. My parents were devoted peace and social justice activists, and impressed on their six children that as Americans, we were among the planet’s wealthiest, most privileged citizens. The (moral) bottom line? We were obligated to use our good fortune, and our good public educations, to change the world for the better.

Our parents were excellent role models. They stressed the uplifting aspects of working for the causes and principles they held dear, and we saw the respect and affection they earned in our community.

The challenging part, though, was their conviction that the best way to repay our debts was to effect change on a policy-level scale, preferably through legislation. In their opinion, this was a higher use of our smarts than giving our time to charity, which is better at applying Band-Aids than solving social problems. Our parents organized, marched, lobbied, and agitated on behalf of civil rights, nuclear disarmament, low-income housing, and environmental sustainability. They attended and led hundreds of meetings and demonstrations to draw attention to important issues.

I’ve done much of that, too, but my preference is for quieter, smaller acts that, on their own, don’t change the world. In the spirit of “First, do no harm,” my lifestyle is more modest than theirs. I’m consciously childless (thereby sparing the world more Americans, with their huge carbon footprints) and have been a vegetarian for over thirty-five years. I’m a bicyclist and scooter-rider, and have lived mostly communally. Most of my possessions are secondhand. My own quotations-to-live-by are along the lines of the bumper-sticker maxim “Live simply, so that others may simply live.”

Just leaving the world a little better than I found it ought to be enough, I tell myself as I pick up litter off the streets or volunteer at the homeless shelter on cold winter nights.

But it’s a stretch. I know my parents didn’t mean that I could pay for a privileged life by picking up litter. Better that I should work to change the world on a greater scale.

So I struggle along, trying to help in my own ways, but forever worrying that I’m falling short. The questions are always with me: Will I ever repay my debt? How much is enough?



Losing Gorgan

“He’s old.”

David nodded. “Older than ten, like me. Does it hurt?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe he’s not feeling anything.”

“No,” David said. “I mean when we put him to sleep will that hurt?”

Mama had called me at work that morning. Gorgan couldn’t walk, and he was incontinent, his beautiful blond tail covered in it. “I tried to say it was time,” Mama said, “but David says you should come first.”

“Well,” David insisted. “Does it hurt? I don’t want it to hurt.”

I sat on the floor next to the two of them. “Shirley tells me there is pain,” I said, “but it lasts only for a second.” Shirley was the one who was always called to put an animal down. She’d retired, declaring she never wanted to see another animal die. But she always came.

“David,” I said, “I know you’ve loved Gorgan.”

He nodded, cradling the cat’s head in his cupped hands.  

I had to say this just right. “It’s been our responsibility to feed Gorgan and keep him safe.”

“I know,” David said. “He couldn’t feed himself if he didn’t live with us. He doesn’t know how to hunt very well.”

I rushed on. “We provided for Gorgan all his life. We even keep our pets from dying when they would die if they were wild. So, sometimes we have to provide for their deaths, too. We owe Gorgan this.”

“You remember when I fell off the steps and hit my head?” David asked. “That hurt, and after I passed out and woke up again, it still hurt. Gorgan won’t hurt anymore because he won’t wake up. Because he’ll be dead. Right?”

“That’s right,” I whispered.

I’d found Gorgan at the Humane Society. He was my present to myself when I found out I was pregnant.

“We’ll bury him, right?”

“Right.” Gorgan batting walnuts out of the bowl on the coffee table, the baby crawling after them.

“And flowers will grow where he’s buried.”

Gorgan and David falling asleep together on the porch. Gorgan, always the klutz, up a tree, David helping him down. Gorgan later in life on his morning stroll through Mama’s garden.

“He likes yellow flowers best.”

“I’ll get seeds,” I said. “You can plant them.”

Gorgan shut his eyes and sighed. We waited for Shirley.



The Yellow Curtain

I had hung a yellow cotton curtain at the top of the basement stairs. There was no door, and I didn’t like seeing the yawning dark hole, the steep steps, the concrete floor far below. So I covered the space with cheerful flowered calico.

On the day my daughter’s seven-year-old friend leaned back against the flimsy curtain and fell down the long flight, her mother had just come to pick her up after their playdate.

I admired this family. The parents were quiet, thoughtful, loving. As a single mom who often felt left out of the school’s social circles, I wanted their daughter to go home humming and happy.


The sickening sounds of her small, soft body bumping down the stairs sent my heart rocketing and my stomach twisting. We raced down the stairs. Her mom scooped her up and held her close. Called her doctor.

For days, she was watched for signs of concussion—while I replayed the sight of the curtain giving way under her slight weight and the sound of her fall. Finally, it turned out she was OK. But I stayed shook up. I had thought of myself as careful, attentive, a person who met her obligations. How could another child come to harm on my watch? I’d broken that sacred trust. Never mind the creative art projects and special snacks I prepared for the girls. Her parents would always see me as irresponsible. A dark feeling seeped into me.

In the years since, I have sometimes failed to meet other duties. Sometimes I was unaware of it. Sometimes I didn’t intend it.

But often, having myself been harmed, I have railed at the unfairness. Even lashed back, feeling justified in taking action to collect and correct the imbalance. Over time keeping score becomes a belly full of bitter.

Yet I have also experienced moments of grace. There, the little girl who leaned back, felt herself unsupported, and tumbled down my basement stairs, and I, the young woman who hung a deceptive piece of fabric to mask a dangerous hole because she wanted her home to look inviting to the people whose good opinion she craved—we inhabit the same space.

There, we are whole. Her parents forgive me. I forgive myself. I strive to love what’s unfailingly imperfect. Don’t we owe ourselves and each other that?



The Downwinders

The federal government sent my mother a check for $50,000 a few months before she died of bladder cancer caused by exposure to radiation fallout from atom bomb tests. The check was the government’s way to compensate for aboveground nuclear testing in July 1962, when fallout drifted 250 miles downwind to our town—Prescott, Arizona—and other communities, slowly killing thousands of Americans in the following years and decades. My mom died in 2002. She was a Downwinder, as the victims became known.

Several months after those aboveground tests, it snowed in Prescott, which it often did in winter. Mom had taught us kids how to make snow ice cream— snow mixed with sugar and milk—but that year she said we couldn’t make any because something bad from the sky might be in the snow.  While she was careful to protect us, she had no idea she was already contaminated.

Since we breathed the same air and sat on the same grass as our mom did that summer of 1962, my siblings and I, and thousands of others, could still become Downwinders. Recently the government issued a press release saying the Downwinders fund will expire in four years.  So everyone living downwind in 1962—an area covering counties in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona—and destined to get cancer had best develop it by July 9, 2022, when the fund shuts down. As the virulently anti-war Kurt Vonnegut might say, Some goal!

My mother never had time to spend her check. She did spend the last ten years of her life battling cancer, though. The radiation treatments to cure her radiation-caused illness eventually destroyed her. The four of us kids split her $50,000 check after probate. Some compensation! 

My mother’s too-early death helped teach me that life is short so I’d better figure out how to maximize happiness sooner rather than later.  As I write this I’m visiting family in Arizona, in the fallout zone. I just retired earlier than I financially should have, but I finally accepted that I need to maximize what life is left and spend more of it with family.  We owe that much to our mom.

As more of us “earn” that federal Downwinders check, the debt it’s repaying will never compensate for the harm caused by the foolishness, fear, and hubris that led to those Cold War tests and mindset. A mindset that our current national leadership is madly reconstituting.



Civic Life, Community, Death and Dying, Family


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