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“One of my earliest memories is sitting in a sand box and watching the other kids play. I could see their mouths moving but couldn’t hear what they were talking about. They seemed so happy. And I desperately wanted to participate. But my deafness kept me in a glass cage. I was never able to verbally speak. And whenever I tried to reach out—I’d be forgotten quickly. During recess I’d sit alone and read my books, because it hurt too much to look at the other kids. In high school I had an interpreter who predicted I’d never marry. She said that disabled people were too much of a burden for abled people. It was a casual remark for her, but I never forgot it. And the few flings I had as a teenager only reinforced that belief. None of the guys I dated learned sign language. They didn’t even try. I think they viewed dating a deaf girl as more of a novelty than anything. And every time it didn’t work out, I was left feeling lonelier. I went to college two hours away. Which wasn’t far—but it was far for me. And I first met Stuart in my education class. He tried to say ‘hello’ that very first day, but I accidentally ignored him. I think he figured out the reason once my interpreter showed up. But he kept smiling at me, and a few days later he slid me a photo with a note on the back and his email address. I spent a lot of time looking at that photo, waffling back and forth about whether I should contact him. But finally I decided there was nothing to lose. We began spending time together outside of class. We’d communicate by writing back and forth in a notebook. I learned all about his life. And he learned about mine. After a few months of this, I started to have hope—maybe he was actually interested in my thoughts. Maybe he liked me for me. One night we were watching a scary movie in my dorm room. We were writing back and forth, laughing at the cheesy scenes, when suddenly Stuart’s face grew serious. He wrote that he needed to tell me something. My heart sank. I thought: This is where he tells me that I’m a lot of fun, but my deafness is a dealbreaker. But he looked me in the eyes, took a deep breath, and haltingly began to sign: ‘Will. You. Be. My. Girlfriend?’”
“We were the first ones in our friend group to have kids. And it made me feel old—inadequate, maybe. I didn’t feel ready for the responsibility. I began staying out late on the weekends, trying to recapture something I had in my twenties. Before long I was sneaking an odd beer at work. Then another. And another. Until eventually I was hiding empty bottles in the cupboard to avoid getting caught. I was a good dad when I was present. Even though I felt like rubbish-- I’d wake up on the weekends and do things with my daughter. But I’d direct us to things that were easy for me. I’d suggest we watch TV instead of playing games that she wanted to play. Then I’d pass out right alongside her at 8 PM. We’d wake up the next morning, and I’d have this horrible booze breath. But she’d always roll over and say: ‘Hi Dad, I love you.’ I felt like dirt every single time. And I’d think: ‘That’s it. I’m done.’ But soon the hangover would wear off, and I’d find myself grabbing another beer after work. After one particularly bad binge, I stumbled across the story of a news reader who’d gotten sober through a program called Hello Sunday Morning. I signed up to quit for three months, and when it was over I felt so much better. Not since I was a kid had I felt this good. I’d get down on the floor while my daughter played with her dolls. And I’d done that even while I was drinking, but normally I’d be scrolling on my phone, waiting for the game to be over. Now I wanted to play. I was seeing the game from her point of view. Being creative. Spurring her on. I’d read books with her for hours. We read all the Roald Dahl books, and the Hobbit books, and the Harry Potter books. I wasn’t too drunk to drive anymore. So we’d go to the beach. Or on a bush walk. My friends would still go out drinking after work. So it wasn’t easy to stay sober. But I kept a video on my phone of my daughter dancing. And whenever I started to crack, I’d pull it out. It’s been over 2000 days now. I’m fitter and healthier and happier than I’ve ever been in my life. And it’s all because of my daughter. She has a little brother now. He’s never known me drunk—not even in the womb. And I’m determined that he never will.”
“I had very thick hair as a child. But I was also very tender-headed, so I hated getting my hair combed. The first time my mother took me to the salon, I screamed bloody murder. So for the rest of my childhood she did my hair herself. And it always looked good. I grew to believe that my hair was my best quality. I could have on my best make-up, and my best outfit, but if my hair wasn’t done right—the whole thing was off. After college my boyfriend discovered the first bald spot on the back of my head. Soon afterwards I was diagnosed with an auto-immune condition. The doctor told me that I could eventually lose all of my hair. I was devastated. I immediately called my mother—and she told me we were going to fight it. We prayed and prayed. We kept finding new oils and new shampoos. But the bald spot only grew bigger. My mother started doing my hair again-- just like when I was a kid. And whenever a new spot appeared, she’d invent a new style to hide it. For the longest time no one knew. But it was so much stress. I’d panic if someone was behind me in the elevator. Dating was the worst. It was like: ‘Oh my gosh. How am I going to keep this a secret?’ Some mornings I’d call my mom in a moment of desperation. I’d tell her: ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to shave it off.’ But she’d talk me out of it. She’d tell me: ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to figure this out.’ But we never did. It only got worse and worse. By the age of thirty-one I was in a really dark place. And I decided to go on a fast because I needed some clarity from God. And that’s when I made the decision. The first person I told was my mom. She’d been telling me not to do it for so long—because she was scared too. But I needed her to be OK with it. I needed her to finish this journey with me. Everyone in the hair salon was nervous. The person in the next chair was nervous. Even the hairdresser was nervous. She was like: ‘Do you really want to do this?’ But then she took out the clippers, and began to shave it off. My mother was the first one to break the silence. After the first pass of the clippers, she looked closely at my head. And then she announced to the whole salon: ‘It’s going to look good!’”
“He used to tell stories about his ‘odd upbringing.’ His famous line was: ‘If you drove a car through a trailer park with a $20 bill on the bumper-- my whole family would chase after it.’ But it was always a joke. He never spoke of it as something painful. I think he was emotionally stunted like a lot of men of his generation—he never shined a light on the darkness. He buried himself in his work. He’d be at the office every weekend. We should have been spending that time together, but it was always: ‘Once I finish this paper.’ Or ‘Once I grade these tests.’ But when he was on, he was on. When I look at old pictures—we’re always right next to each other. And he always had a hand on me. He wasn’t shy about expressing his emotions. Except for the dark parts of him. One afternoon I found him sobbing on the back porch. He’d just gotten off the phone with his sister, and she told him that she’d been abused by their father. Mark only had one question: ‘Was I home at the time?’ And when she told him ‘yes,’ something broke inside of him. He had only been a child—but still he blamed himself. His drinking became more frequent. He spent a lot of time staring into the distance. But whenever I asked him about it, he’d say: ‘I’m thinking about this paper.’ Or something along those lines. We all have parts of us that we don’t let anyone see. That’s one of the helpful things the police detective told me after they discovered his body. Am I frustrated with him? Of course I am. We were together for forty years. I deserved a conversation—that he was in a bad place. I cared about him more than anyone else in the world. Was I not even worth a good-bye? But I’m not going to turn into a rage-filled shell of who I used to be. Because that would be the second tragedy of this. Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed with anger, I just think of that eleven-year old boy. And I feel so sad for him. He’d been through so much and couldn’t understand his life. One morning Mark came out of the bathroom. It was a few years before his death, and he had tears in his eyes. ‘I’ll never shave my face,’ he told me. When I asked him why, he said: ‘Because then I’ll look just like him.’”
“Both of my parents had this old Puerto Rican mentality that the most important thing is your family. Even though we lived in the housing projects, I never realized that we didn’t have much money. Every birthday and holiday was a huge celebration. I always felt safe and protected. One of my earliest memories is having a fever and being tucked in by my mother. When I woke up in the middle of the night, she was still there—with a cold rag on my head. That’s just who she was. It was always: ‘What else can I do?’ ‘What else can I do to make them happy?’ And that’s the same way I felt when I had my own daughter. As fate would have it, I received full custody at the age of three. I was managing an electronics store at the time, but I knew I couldn’t be the father I wanted to be if I was working 60 hours a week. So I took a job making half as much money. But when my little girl looked at me and said: ‘I love you Dad,’ money didn’t matter. I wouldn’t get that same feeling if I scratched a million-dollar lotto. I’d have loved to have a big family, but it wasn’t in the cards. It’s always just been me and my daughter. She was my goal in life. I wanted everyone who saw her to think: ‘Wow, she is so well taken care of.’ When she went to school, I studied YouTube videos so that I could do her braids. It looked like a mess the first time I tried. It was just a bunch of hair twisted together. But after a few weeks, I could have opened my own salon. I was experimenting with different styles. And other parents were saying: ‘Wow! Her hair looks so great.’ Nobody knew her dad was doing it. My daughter grew into such a wonderful person. It’s been so wonderful for me to see. But I’ll tell you the greatest reward I was ever given. When my daughter was six or seven, we were playing on the ground playing with her dolls. And my mother was watching us. She was sitting on the couch, and suddenly she started crying. ‘You’re such a good father, she told me. ‘You should be so proud.’ And I still get goosebumps thinking about that. Can you imagine? This woman was my idol. She was the greatest mother in the world. And for her to say something like that—it was like getting a compliment from God.
“He had five daughters. And whenever he came home from a work trip, we’d all line up to give him a kiss. But he always kissed my mom first, because she was his ‘first love.’ Then he went on to his ‘second love,’ and his ‘third love.’ On weekends we’d all pile into the car and take these long road trips. We’d drive for hours, and the whole way he’d be singing to my mother. It was a normal thing for us, because we were used to it. But that kind of affection wasn’t normal in our culture. We used to have these karaoke parties with our extended family, and everyone else would sing normal songs. But Papa would choose these old, romantic Bollywood songs. And he’d sing directly to Mama. She loved every second of it. She’d get dressed up for him. She’d put on her brightest red lipstick. And she’d do her hair just as he liked it—even after she got sick. The tumor was deep in her brain. After every surgery, more and more of her would slip away. When she couldn’t walk properly anymore, she grew embarrassed of her limp. So Papa held her hand wherever they went. He’d sit next to her bed, and stroke her cheek, and recite the Quran until his lips went dry. Some nights he’d fall asleep sitting up in his chair, but then he’d wake up, and begin praying again. In her final moments, when she was slipping away, he leaned close to her and whispered: ‘You won’t be alone. I’m coming with you.’ I heard him say it. And I got so angry. It seemed selfish to me—as if the rest of us weren’t worth living for. But all his children were grown. Most of us had our own families. And I guess he felt like there was nothing left for him. Every day he visited Mama’s grave, even though we told him not to. He applied for the plot next to her, and every few hours he’d ask if the cemetery had called. He was obsessed. When the paperwork finally arrived— I rolled my eyes. But he got very quiet. For the next two days he barely said a word. Then on the third morning, he walked in our front door and told me he wasn’t feeling well. I bent down to help him with his shoes, but he collapsed on the floor. There wasn’t time for him to suffer. Because by the time the ambulance arrived, he was already gone.”
“The adoption wouldn’t even have gotten approved today. But Mom wrote a letter to the Chinese government explaining why a quadriplegic man could be a good father, and the application was accepted. I’ve known the story my entire life. Dad got in a bad car accident when he was twenty-four. And Mom met him while working as a nurse in the ICU. She said his calmness was the first thing she noticed. Most people cry when they’re told they’ll never walk again—but Dad was silent. He was like that my entire life. So calm and level-headed. His parenting style was to ‘sit back and watch.’ He had no other choice. He could only guide me with his words. When it was time for me to walk, he just said: ‘Stand up and walk, Princess.’ And I did. He taught me to ride a bike by explaining the physics of it. My problems eventually became more complex, but he was always there in his same way. If I was panicking over a test, he’d bet me a dollar that I could pass it. That became our thing. Whenever I was feeling unsure, he’d bet me a dollar. As my anxiety got worse, he studied psychology. He’d walk me through coping strategies. He’d say things like: ‘Are you catastrophizing this?’, ‘Have you ever failed a class before?’, ‘What evidence do you have that this time will be different?’ I hated being the emotional one. I never wanted him to feel like the reason I was messed up. If he could handle being a quadriplegic, why couldn’t I cope with being the daughter of one? But it was so hard. From a young age, I had to help him with so much. And I was such a shy kid. I looked different than everyone else. It was a lot of stress. But he did everything he could for me. In the only way he knew how— by encouraging me, and believing in me. He started getting really sick in August of 2017. It was some kind of cancer, but we didn’t even get it checked. Because we knew he couldn’t survive the chemo. I sat at the foot of his bed during his final days, filling out my law school applications. Of course I was panicking. I was convinced that I wouldn’t get accepted anywhere. But he kept reassuring me. And he was right. Even if he didn’t live to see the results, he knew. ‘I’ll bet you a dollar,’ he told me.”
“We were eighteen months apart. Jenny sometimes said that it felt like I was the big sister, and she was the little-- instead of the other way around. Maybe it’s because I was the more confident one. I was always pushing her to do things. Especially after she got sick. During the last couple years-- I felt like it was my responsibility to make her happy. I wanted her to live as much as possible. The bucket list was my idea, but she chose the items. She wanted to ride a horse. And get a makeover. And swim in the waterfalls of Hawaii, which we got to do. She also wanted to go to Thailand, but we never made it. Maybe I pushed her too much. Maybe she needed more space. But I just felt so strongly that she needed to experience all these things. One of the items on her list was to get a dog, but she kept finding reasons to delay. It never felt like the right time. But when it became clear that the chemo wasn’t going to work, my mom and I decided it couldn’t wait any longer. Jet came over for two nights on a trial run, and Jenny fell in love. He followed her everywhere. Right away he knew that she was his person. When she became too sick to move, he’d only get out of her bed to pee. Then he’d jump right back in. Looking back-- I should have known we were getting close. But it still took me by surprise. Everything happened so quickly. She couldn’t speak in the final days. But I remember telling her that I loved her, and she said it back: by squeezing my hand three times. I promised her that we’d go to Thailand. And I promised her that we’d take care of Jet. We had to lock him in the backyard when they came to get her body. He barked the entire time. I wanted to bring him home so badly, but I told my mom to keep him. I knew she needed him more than me. But she was thinking the same thing—and insisted that I take him. We’ve been together for over two years now. And I’m probably too obsessed with him. I can’t stay out late because I hate the thought of him being alone. Whenever I’m down, or sad, he’s always there. It feels like we’re connected in a way. Both of us had this unconditional love and loyalty to Jenny. And both of us lost her. Both of us lost our person.”
“He could be loving. At least for a couple weeks a month. But then his pain pill prescription would run out, and things would get very tense. We were constantly walking on eggshells. Occasionally there’d be a flash of violence, but I’d only see some of that. Because my mom would always defuse the situation. She played the role of the nurturing wife—making his dinner, rubbing his feet, doing things around the house. One night when I was fourteen, I was getting ready for bed when I heard a loud thud. It was an intentional overdose. He flatlined on the way to the hospital, and he only survived because of the paramedics. A month later my mother found drugs again, and finally kicked him out of the house. She started working three jobs to support us. She’d get up at 5 in the morning to do janitorial work. Then she’d go to the library. And then the grocery store. But she still found time to encourage me in my schoolwork and support me through university. Recently I finished my first year as a resident physician, and my mom came out for a visit. We rented a cabin in the middle of nowhere. We spent hours in the hot tub every night. And I’m not sure why—maybe it was the wine-- but she chose that moment to tell me about her life. She confessed that she regretted staying with my father for so long. But that she didn’t feel like she had a choice. She’d been raised in a religious environment—where the wife is expected to stay. And my father had been so much more controlling than I’d realized. She told me that he wouldn’t allow her to study. Or get a job. Or buy anything—even for us. He never allowed her to be the ‘fun’ parent or the ‘smart’ parent. And if she ever pushed back—it could get physical. But we never saw it, because she shielded us from everything. For my entire life, I’d seen her defer to my dad on everything. Every bill. Every decision. She wouldn’t even drive on the highway. It was always him. She had never seemed like she was in control. But I was too young to know what was happening. What she was sheltering us from. And what she eventually got us away from. I had never realized that she’d been the strong one the entire time.”
“I’d been living a reckless life. I was stealing a lot. I was dabbling in drugs. I’d gotten to the point where I had no hope and no faith. Eventually I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital because of a suicide attempt. My parents came to visit me. We’d never seen eye-to-eye. But they told me: ‘Come home and we’ll pretend nothing happened.’ It was a toxic thing to say, but I was relieved to have any sort of support. We’d always been a military family. So even though I wanted to go to college, I saw enlisting in the Air Force as the only way to redeem myself. The recruiter told me that I needed to lose 70 lbs in three months. But I was determined. I started working out three times a day. I became addicted to counting calories. And it was during this period that I met Irina. We were working at the same restaurant. One night we were folding napkins together, and I sort of just poured out my whole life story. She didn’t seem to mind. We began to hang out quite a bit. She started taking me to church with her. She’d come to the gym with me every day. And even though she was in much better shape, she’d always run at my pace. She supported me every step of the way. She even came with me when I got a tattoo to cover up the scars from my suicide attempt. Everything seemed to be on track. But on the day of my final weigh-in, I was .2 lbs over. Standing on that scale—I actually felt a sense of peace. My recruiter told me to try again next week, but I turned her down. I knew I didn’t want to be in the Air Force. My parents were so disappointed that they told me not to come home. That night Irina and I sat in a park for two hours. She told me: ‘I’m always here for you. And so is my family.’ If it wasn’t for her and the church, I’d probably be in a hospital bed right now. Either that or I wouldn’t be here at all. But instead I’m about to graduate with a social work degree. Irina and I are living our dreams together. We’re roommates. Both of us are youth group leaders. And both of us are working as addiction counselors. I’m finally living life on my own terms. I want to be the person that I needed when I was a kid-- the person that Irina was for me.”