256: Living Without (2004)
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Recently, I was talking to this guy who told me how years ago, because of a medical condition, he had to give up beer. He had only been a casual beer drinker before this. He'd never really given beer much thought. But now that he couldn't have a beer, he was thinking of beer all the time. He had a fantasy. It went like this. He goes into a bar, and he orders a beer. That was the whole thing. It's hard giving things up.
Walter was three, and it was time for him to give up the pacifier. The pacifier was impairing his speech, and so it was time to give it up. And his mom and dad weaned him from it slowly. At first, he could only use the pacifier upstairs, then only upstairs in his room, then only upstairs in his room in the bed, though enforcement on the whole bed thing was actually kind of spotty.
Anyway, finally came the big day. Walter announced he was ready to get rid of the pacifier. And he threw it into the trash himself. And everybody clapped, and everybody hugged him. And then the drove to a toy store, and they got him some special presents, a toy treehouse, a teddy bear.
And that first night, when it was time to sleep, Walter was brave. He was stoic. He went right to bed. And maybe, I don't know, five minutes passed before he was out of the bedroom and downstairs crying. "I'm really sad," he said. His mom and dad asked him if he wanted to play with his new toys for a while. And he tried that, and then went back to bed.
More sobbing. An hour passes, two hours. It breaks his parents' hearts. Frankly, if they still had had the pacifier in the house, they would have caved and given it to him, it was so upsetting. But he had thrown into the trash at his grandparents' house. It was gone.
And that night, for the first time in his life, Walter slept in his parents' bed. It was the only way that he could actually get to sleep. The next night was a little easier, next a little easier than that. Anyway, after a couple of days, Walter announced the special request that he had for all the grown-ups in his life, grandmas, grandpas, uncles and aunts, the lady next door. He wanted to hear their stories about when they gave up their pacifiers.
I told this to a friend of mine who gave up drinking a decade ago, how this little boy, Walter, wanted to hear these stories. And she said, man, that's just like AA. Though the problem for Walter, of course, was that no adult really remembers giving up their own pacifier. It's just too long ago, right? So everybody either talked about giving up other stuff that the did remember, like giving up their blankets as little kids. One auntie offered to talk to him about how she quit smoking, but she was warned off that. Or they just made up stories, dramatic stories about giving up their pacifiers to tell Walter.
It's comforting to hear other people's stories of kicking the habit. It's just comforting at any age. It makes it feel like it's possible. And so, this week we bring you four stories of people giving things up, living without, some of them voluntarily, some not.
From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Act One of our program today, Do You Hear What I Hear? In that act, one man, one teenage daughter, and many, many fish. Act Two, The Journalism of Deprivation, Sarah Vowell introduces you to a magazine that, if you're lucky, you have never had to read. Act Three, The Call of the Great Indoors, in which we hear a defense of living inside from somebody who can speak authoritatively about the pros and cons. Act Four, Tin Man. In that act, life without a heart. Stay with us.
Act One: Do You Hear What I Hear?
Act One, Do You Hear What I Hear? This is a story of being forced to give one thing and then giving up another by choice. Nubar Alexanian put it together with his daughter Abby.
You know, I didn't talk about it for a long time, because it's so abstract. It's like people can't imagine it.
But then, I'll be in a restaurant. There's a loud din of people talking, and dishes, and all that stuff going on in a restaurant, and somebody will ask me, well, how loud is it right now? And I'll often say, it's the loudest thing in the room. And people can't-- it's just incomprehensible to people that you could get used to a tone like that in your head all the time. See, as I'm talking about it right now, it's really loud.
The very first doctor I saw was this young ear, nose, and throat guy. And he examined me. But he was examining me as if he were just going through the motions. He already knew what he was going to tell me. so after all the examinations, he said, well, you have tinnitus. And there's no cure for it. You're just going to have to learn to live with it.
And I thought, well, what are you talking about? I can't learn to live with this. And I went through 10 years of-- five other doctors-- going to the high priests at Boston Hospital, to every alternative psychic-- thing you can possibly imagine. There's an-- four or five different acupuncturists. This one dentist said, well, I'm going to make you a mouth guard. He said, well, I'm sure this will work. It's going to cost you $19,000. And I did some muscle body work and some homeopathic remedies. I had my entire jaw realigned by a dentist over a two-year period. And we had things like this guy come in who spread these Petri dishes all over our house. So we had to install all these filtering systems in our house, and fans, and air cleaners and dehumidifiers. So I've spent probably over 10 years, $70,000.
I'm a photographer. And the first tone appeared around the same time that I started working on this book about musicians called Where Music Comes From. And I traveled around the world with 25 different musicians. And all of a sudden, I had to stop.
The first tone appeared at the beginning of the project. And then the second tone came. The whole thing got so bad that my career just came to a stop. I just couldn't travel. I was completely disabled by these tones.
I'm going to try on the piano. I think what I have in my right ear is a D-flat.
And in my left ear, a C one octave lower.
The right ear is a D-flat, and the left ear is a C. The most maddening part of this was when I was with this friend of mine, this jazz musician. And I described it to him. And he threw his head down on his hands on the table. We were having lunch. And I could see in him that he completely understood how maddening it was. Because he understood that the D-flat was always trying to resolve itself into the C.
So can you play both of them at the same time?
I might be able to. Let's see. Let me try this for a second.
Test. OK, what were you saying?
That, well, as we've been doing this piece, I've been thinking, it must-- I can't imagine having a tone in my ear, especially like a pure tone, tones that don't stop like that. So I can not even imagine what it must be like to have it all the time.
So what is it about having the tone?
Like you're trapped inside your own head. You're in a room with no doors and no windows, and just a speaker of that sound driving you literally up the walls. I swear I would cut my head off or something. I'd follow van Gogh's path and cut my ears off.
This is an odd thing to say, I think. I'm somewhat grateful for the tone. Of course, I don't feel grateful on bad days. But before you were born, I used to travel constantly on assignment all over the world. And on good days, when I think about it, I think about the tone being a warning that I needed to slow down. And then you were born, and I thought, not only did I need to slow down, but I wanted to slow down.
And on bad days, I feel like oh, OK, I've learned this lesson. I've slowed down. Now the tone can go away. But it doesn't go away.
I'm reading through this outline of all the tapes that we have, and you say, I could not imagine losing my hearing. And I was like, well, wait a minute, it's not that bad. And then, I realize it's sort of the reverse. I haven't really lived with perfect hearing ever, so I can't compare. But I just thought it was interesting that you couldn't imagine losing your hearing, and I could not imagine having tinnitus.
Do you remember when you got your hearing aid?
Do you want to hear what happened?
Because for Mom and I, it was a huge event. Because you'd gone through all the tests. And we discovered that you indeed had a hearing loss, and that they were going to fit you with a hearing aid. And before that, you kept saying "what" all the time. And there were certain words that you couldn't pronounce, or certain sounds that you obviously were missing. And that's what the audiologist and the doctors described to us.
So we went down to the Beverly Hospital. Your mom and I were sitting in the room. And she put the hearing aid in your ear and turned it on and made all the adjustments. And then you slid off the chair and said, oh my God. I can hear.
Well, sometimes, I wonder what it would be like to hear everything perfectly. You know? To have that entire sound, every aspect of someone's voice, or music, every note, to hear every single one, would be incredible to me. And I don't know what that would be like. I've never known what that would be like.
Let's just talk about, you transcribed my hearing test, where you got to actually hear the sound that's in my ear.
I can't hear one of the tones that you ear.
So you didn't hear the tone in my right ear?
No, I couldn't hear the high one, because I'm missing that. That's part of my hearing loss. I'm missing that particular frequency in both my ears.
So you can't hear the sound--
I can't hear the sound that you hear all the time.
That's incredible, though, don't you think?
I don't know. It's too much of a coincidence.
I can't be in quiet places. It can be really maddening to be in quite places. It's the thing, though, that I think is responsible for me taking up fly-fishing, because it's the closest I can get to quiet.
I'm out there. It's early morning. It's dark. I'm in my boat. I push off into the current, don't start the engine. The river is waking up, and there are little sounds of birds and stuff going on.
And then there's me with my fly line going back and forth and back and forth. And I'm focusing on the fly line, trying to get it out 100 feet. And there's a sound that it makes that I can attach to. And so I'm really focused on that. And it takes me away from the sound in my head. And that's what quiet is to me. That's the most quiet that I can have.
Anything else you want to say about it?
Just that I think, maybe it's taught you patience. Because I didn't know you before you had this, so I wouldn't know. But I would think that it might have taught you something about settling or acceptance.
Because I remember you told us a story about how you went to all these doctors. But the first doctor you went to told you there was no cure. You couldn't do anything. And so you spent tons of money seeing a whole bunch of other doctors who tried a whole bunch of other things. And finally, you just realized that the first doctor was right.
And I guess that was probably your acceptance part of it. And it's also that you were working so frantically before. And then you got tinnitus, and you had to stop. And I got more of you.
Because I do remember you traveling a lot. And I remember how much you were gone. And I remember asking Mom when you'd come home. But then you came home, and you stayed home. And you played with me. You took me to school every day. And I think that was really good for the family.
Nubar and Abby Alexonian. They put together that story with Jay Allison for the website transom.org. If you want to learn how to put together a radio story, they explain how to do it at transom.org. Their story got funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Act Two: The Journalism Of Deprivation
Act Two, The Journalism of Deprivation. Our program today is all about doing without this or that. And our contributing editor, Sarah Vowell, brings us this report on a publication that she's read a bit of lately.
The names of certain magazines are supposed to cheer a person up, Glamour, Lucky, Gourmet, Allure. Life, these titles suggest, is full of possibilities. Then, there's the magazine I read. This magazine has the most downbeat name of any magazine since DownBeat. It is called Living Without. Living Without bills itself as a lifestyle guide for people with allergies and food sensitivities, which sounds straightforward enough. But the name Living Without is so depressing, so forlorn, such a belligerent refusal to accentuate the positive, that I don't know why its publishers don't just come clean and call it Loser.
I read Living Without because I actually do live without. I'm allergic to wheat. On the one hand, this is a fairly serious problem. I'm always one bagel away from this panicky feeling of drowning. My throat closes up, and I'm hit with nausea that seems to affect every part of me, as if my fingers and ears want to throw up. On the other hand, nobody wants to hear about a disease whose treatment consists of scrutinizing food labels and never leaving the house without a fruit snack.
Living Without is a magazine that revels in the mundane details of my condition. My favorite regular feature in Living Without is the column "Perils in the Pantry," which reads like a particularly over-the-top episode of The Munsters. Just as in the Munsters' upside-down world, in which the pretty, blonde cousin is pitied for her ugliness, in "Perils in the Pantry," supposedly cheerful events like parties and picnics are treated like the death traps they are.
Beware of summertime salads, the column warns. Lurking under seemingly innocent lettuce, deadly croutons. "Perils at the Party" tells the horror story of one German-themed dinner party in which the entire meal consisted of wiener schnitzel, caraway noodles, and bread, or, as the wheat-sensitive might look upon the table, meat dusted with wheat, rectangular glops of wheat, and baked wheat. The author's advice? Before going out to a dinner party, eat first.
Living Without featured one article about a family who had switched religions in search of a house of worship that provided a gluten-free communion wafer. And the greatest election story in recent times? Not the Florida recount, in Living Without. In Living Without the juiciest event in recent electoral politics was the 1998 race for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, in which both the Republican and Democratic candidates were allergic to wheat.
Living Without makes me feel less alone, less of an oddball. I don't have any wheat-free friends. And since I hope to hang on to the friends I do have, I try and spare them the nitty-gritty details. Not to mention that most of them have an underwhelming grasp of the pros and cons of various brands of soy flour. My friend, Nick, was perplexed when the last time we had breakfast together, I asked the waitress if I could have a banana instead of toast. When I asked Nick about it later, he said, "A banana instead of toast? Why not ask for anything, then, anything of a similar monetary value to toast, like a cassette tape?"
At least I didn't find out I was sensitive to wheat gluten until I was over 30. The real heartbreakers in Living Without involve allergic kids and the terrified parents who love them. Mostly, it's one sob story after another, the boy who accidentally bit into a peanut butter cookie and died, the family of a first grader who spent part of their summer vacation at diabetes camp, mothers who write sentences such as, "My heart sank," or "I was standing right next to him when he ate that cookie, and I couldn't save him."
Still, one of my favorite things I've read in Living Without was written by the mother of a gluten-allergic son. Once a week, family night in their household was called pizza night. And they would all go out for pizza, until young Alec was diagnosed. They thought pizza night was history, until the mother finally figured out that she could just bring gluten-free dough to the pizzeria. All happy endings in Living Without are like this. Even the triumphs involve minor indignities like schlepping your own crust in tinfoil when going out for dinner.
The earnestness of this story, of everything in Living Without, is the main reason I find it so reassuring. There are headlines that would seem ridiculous in any other magazine, an article on gluten-free weddings called "Have Your Cake," a guide to international cuisine called, "The World is Your Rice Noodle," that concludes with the thought, "Bye-bye, American pie, hello, pad Thai." It's corny, but that's kind of what I like about it.
If the information in Living Without were conveyed more clinically in the dignified style of, say, the New York Times, the information would feel less welcoming. And it would also feel less true. There's nothing dignified about being allergic to wheat. It's the kind of annoying, specific, picky food nuisance you can only really talk about with the one person on earth who truly gives a hoot what kind of cracker you'd prefer, your mom. The corniness of Living Without is so comforting because it feels so maternal, as if it's written by a gaggle of friendly, Midwestern mothers, whose warm, cheerful kitchens smell like fresh-baked bread, fresh-baked bread made out of rice flour and potato starch.
Sarah Vowell is the author of a number of books, most recently Assassination Vacation. Her story is part of a project at hearingvoices.com, which gets funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
[MUSIC - "WITHOUT YOU" BY MARIAH CAREY]
Act Three: The Call Of The Great Indoors
Act Three, The Call of the Great Indoors. There are some kinds of living without that is really hard for most of us to fathom. In Boston, Chelsea Merz has been talking with somebody about one of those.
The first thing I noticed about Matthew were his fingernails. They're so clean, much cleaner than mine. And I am humbled. I have no excuse. Unlike Matthew, I have not been living on the streets for seven years.
Every Saturday, we meet for lunch at Bertucci's, which is this family-style Italian restaurant. Every week, we sit at the same table. And every time, our waitress assures us that we've made it in time for the lunch special. We will get free refills on soft drinks, a complimentary garden salad, and a basket of rolls.
One time, Matthew showed up 20 minutes late, and the manager was giving him a hard time. He was saying, you better make it up to her and buy lunch today. And when we got to our table, Matthew was laughing. And he said, he doesn't know I'm homeless. He has no idea.
And even though Matthew is carrying a large cardboard box, a messenger bag, and two book bags, he looks more like a college professor. He's clean. He's tidy. He's organized. He's incredibly polite. Every week, Matthew tells these stories. So every week, I record him.
There was this time it rained nonstop. When that happens, the shelters just fill up. And there were 10 of us waiting for two hours. Eventually, people start talking.
Oh, where were you yesterday when it started raining? Oh, I was over here. Did you get in somewhere last night? No, I was outside, or I went under a bridge, or I, you know. So everybody's talking about these things. And one guy in the room was very quiet.
Someone started talking. What'd you do? What'd you do yesterday? With this very thick Spanish accent, doesn't speak English very well, he told us he didn't know Boston at all. He had just arrived from New York. Didn't know the streets, didn't know where to go.
And when it came time, what about you, where did you stay? Alley. Alley? Where were you? The alley? Oh, just right, right, the next block. Yeah, one block, one block. You only got as far as one block, and you went into the alley. Si, si.
Oh, wow. So where'd you sleep in the alley? Was there any place you could sleep underneath or something? He said something like box. Box? You slept in a box? Si, si. What, a cardboard box? Wouldn't it be soaking wet? No, not cardboard. Metal, metal. Metal?
You slept in a metal box? What are you-- and someone said, oh, a dumpster. You slept in a dumpster. No, no. Did you get any sleep? No, no, no sleep, because of afraid. Afraid? You were afraid? Si, senor.
What were you afraid of? Somebody might come and beat you up or mug you? No, button. I said, button?
And all the sudden, it occurred to me. Oh, you didn't sleep in a dumpster, you slept in a trash compactor. Si, si. You were afraid somebody was going to come and maybe push a button. Si, si. When I heard that, it was like at a new level in my feelings and understanding of this whole thing. And you're afraid somebody might come to push the button and die a horrible death.
Once or twice a year, he gets to house-sit for an old friend. Around Christmas, he got an offer to house-sit for more than two weeks. I met him for lunch the day that ended, and he was back on the street. I wanted to know what it was for him to have a comfortable place to sleep for a change. Usually, he can't count on any of his regular spots. And sometimes, he has to stay up all night in a Kinko's or Dunkin' Donuts.
Sleep is such a large part of the whole experience of being homeless. I should say sleeplessness. You never get enough sleep. You're so tired so much of the time.
So what was it like your first night indoors? What was it like to sleep?
The first night is the best, because you know you've got 16 consecutive nights of uninterrupted living indoors again, of being able to come over to this apartment, open the door, unlock it with a key, open the door, go over to the sofa, this nice, huge, comfortable, soft sofa with eight large pillows in front of the TV set, with a remote control and everything. It's like what Jean Valjean experienced in the 1935 version of the film Les Miserables with Fredric March as Jean Valjean. After all those years in the prison, or the galley slave prison system, whatever, he's released finally. I think it's 14 years or something in which he was sleeping on hard surfaces. And when he's finally shown the room where he's going to get to stay when it's time for him to go to sleep, he looks at the bed.
And in the years before I was homeless, whenever I'd see this film, I never noticed this. He's looking at the bed. And that bed, it's like it's a soft surface, a soft mattress. It's a bed. He hasn't slept in a bed for like 14 years. And when he plops down in it, he leans back, and he stretches out. If I remember correctly, his eyes close, as he's savoring the comfort.
That's what it's like. That's what it feels like. That's what it felt like the first night I was in there for these 16 nights in a row.
Matthew has been on the streets of Boston for seven years. This was an excerpt from an ongoing radio project Chelsea Merz and Matthew are working on. Coming up, which is more dangerous to your health-- heart disease, or your own family? Answers in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Four: Tin Man
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week in our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, stories of giving things up, living without, voluntarily or not. We've arrived at Act Four of our program. Act Four, Tin Man. Sometimes you give up something, and you're not sure if it's your own idea or not, as in this next story, a short story by Judy Budnitz, read for us by actor Matt Malloy.
"What kind of son are you," asks Aunt Fran. Aunt Nina says, "Your own flesh and blood. What your mother wouldn't do for you." Aunt Fran goes on, "She'd do anything for you, anything in the world. And now you won't give just a little back." "For shame," says Aunt Nina. The heat is stifling, but she pulls her sweater closer.
We're sitting in the hospital waiting room, Aunt Fran and Aunt Nina and I. My mother suffered a heart attack this morning. We're waiting to see her, the aunts and I. The doctor told us her heart won't last much longer.
"We can't fix it," the doctor said. "She needs a new one, a transplant." "Well then, give her one," the aunts cried. "It's not that easy," said the doctors. "We need a doctor." The doctors went away. The aunts looked at me.
"Arnie," Nina said. "What about your heart?" "My heart," I shouted. "Are you crazy?" That started them both off on what a bad son I was. It's impossible to argue with Nina, especially with Fran to back her up.
I sit in the middle. Aunt Fran clutches one arm, Aunt Nina the other. They wept at first, but now they sit grimly. A Styrofoam cup of coffee steams next to my foot, but I can't reach for it. The aunts don't care. They're amazed that I bought it, amazed that I could even think of coffee at a time like this.
Aunt Fran wears a bally sweater and sensible shoes. Her lips are pressed tight. She taps her feet nervously. On my other side, Nina licks her lips, again and again.
"I saw it on 60 Minutes," Aunt Fran announces. "They put the heart in a cooler, a regular Igloo cooler like we have at home. And they rush it in a helicopter to the hospital. And they put it in, connect up the pipes. It's just like plumbing."
"You must be your mother's tissue type, too. I'm sure you are," Aunt Nina puts in. "You're young. You're strong. You have a college education. Your heart is exactly what she needs."
"You shouldn't have started smoking, though," Aunt Fran goes on. "It's so bad for the heart. You should have thought of that when you started."
"But what about me," I blurt out finally. "That's what we're talking about. We're talking about your heart," Nina says. "But what happens to me?" I say again. "I can't believe he's thinking of himself at a time like this," Aunt Fran sniffs.
"I need my heart. You want me to die so my mother can live?" "Of course we don't want that," says Aunt Fran. "Sylvie loves you so much. She'd want to die herself if you died."
"We can't both have my heart," I say. "Of course not," says Nina. "You can get one of those monkey hearts, or that artificial heart they made such a fuss about in the news a while back." "Why can't mother get one of those, or a transplant from someone else?" "Do you want your mother should have a stranger's heart, or a monkey's heart? Your poor mother. Do you remember how she never used to take you to the zoo, because she couldn't stand to see the filthy monkeys? And you want her to have a monkey's heart? It would kill her," Fran cries.
"She's so weak. She needs a heart that will agree with her," Aunt Nina adds. "Any heart but yours wouldn't, just wouldn't do. But you, you can handle anything. You're young. You're strong. You--" "--have a college education," I finish for her. Aunt Nina glares and says, "Your mother worked herself to the bone for you, so you could go to college and make something of yourself. And now what do you do? Out of college four years already, all you do is sit in front of a typewriter all day, call yourself a writer, smoking those cigarettes, never get a haircut."
"And the first time your mother needs you," Aunt Fran finishes, "you turn your back on her." They both tighten their grips on my arm. "I do things for Mother all the time," I begin.
One of the doctors appears at the end of the hall. As he approaches, my aunts rise, pulling me with them. "Is she all right?" Demands Fran when he's still 20 feet away. "We've found a donor," Nina announces. The doctor greets us. He's a small man, completely bald. The eyes behind thick glasses are sad. He strokes his scalp as he talks, savoring the feel of it. "She's all right. She's being monitored," he says. "We will look for a donor, but there's a long waiting list."
"We've got a donor, Sylvie's son. He's in the prime of health," Aunt Nina says. "This is Arnie," Fran explains. The doctor studies me carefully.
"Surely you don't do that sort of thing," I say incredulously. He gazes at me. "It's very rare, very rare indeed that a son will be so good as to donate his heart. In a few cases, it has been done, but it's so rare to find such a son, a rare and beautiful thing."
He takes off his glasses and polishes them on his sleeve. Without them, his eyes are small, piggish. He puts them back on, and his eyes are sad and soulful once more. "You must love your mother very much," he says. "Oh, he does," Fran says. I shift my feet and knock over the cup of coffee, and it spills on the floor, the sudden ugly brownness spreading over the empty white.
A nurse leads us to the intensive care unit where my mother is lying attached to machines and bags of fluid. Aunt Fran rushes to one side of the bed, Aunt Nina the other. I shuffle awkwardly at the foot of the bed. I touch my mother's feet.
"Sylvie, are you all right?" the aunts cry. My mother opens her eyes. There are purple circles around them. She looks pale, but not so different from usual, hardly on the verge of death. She smiles dully at her sisters. "Oh, Sylvie, you look wonderful, just the same," they say.
Then she raises her eyes to me. "Oh, Arnie, you look terrible," she says. "That jacket, I told you to throw it away. I'll find you another. There's no reason to go around looking like a mess." "Arnie has some good news," Nina says. "Then why does he look like a thundercloud?" says my mother. "Arnie, is something bothering you?"
Fran says, "Arnie wants to give you his heart." "I never said that," I cry. There's a pause. "Of course, Arnie, you shouldn't. You don't need to do that for me. Really, you don't," my mother says. She looks terribly sad. The aunts' faces have gone stony. "I never expected anything from you, you know, of course, nothing like this."
I look down at her feet, two motionless humps under the blanket. "I'm considering it, Mother. Really, I am. I want to find out more about it before I decide, that's all. It's not as simple as changing a car battery or something." I force out a laugh. No one else laughs. But the aunts' faces melt a little.
My heart is pounding. My mother closes her eyes. "You're a good boy, Arnie," she says. "Your father would be proud."
A nurse comes in and tells us that we should let my mother rest for a while. Aunt Fran and Aunt Nina head back to the waiting room. I walk up and down the halls of dull white, where patients shuffle in slow motion, wheeling their IVs along beside them. I can feel on the floor the buzzing vibration of motors churning away somewhere in the heart of the building.
I take the elevator and wander until I find a pay phone. I call up Mandy. She picks up on the first ring.
"Hi," she says. "Where have you been?" "My mother had a heart attack this morning," I say. "I'm at the hospital." "Oh, I knew this would happen," Mandy says. "I burned my hand on the radiator this morning, and right away, I thought, uh-oh, an omen. Something bad's going to happen. How old's your mother?" "57," I say. "Oh, that's young for a heart attack. And she wasn't fat or anything. I feel like it's my fault. I should have warned you or something."
Finally, I ask her to come to the hospital, and she says, all right, and hangs up. I don't need to tell her where to go. Mandy never gets lost. She never has to wait in line. Strangers on the street talk to her. Jobs fall in her lap.
She's nice-looking, freckles on her nose, good, straight teeth. She keeps telling me that my signs indicate my life will be on a big upswing soon, and that I'm just in a transition period right now. I hope she's right.
I finally reach the lobby. And just as I do, Mandy comes bursting in the doors, beaming at me. She doesn't smile. She beams. "I knew I'd find you," she says. "How's your mother? Have you seen her?" Her breath in my face is like pine trees and toothpaste.
"Yeah, she's all right for now. Come on. Let's go outside for a minute. I want to ask you something."
Outside, the afternoon is darkening to early evening. We wander in the parking lot among the cars, talking softly, like we're afraid we'll wake them. It's cold. I keep looking back to see if anyone's following us.
"They say my mother's heart is bad, I tell Mandy. She needs a new one. They want me to donate my heart. What do you think of that?"
Mandy stops, her eyes and mouth open. Wind whips her frizzy hair around her face. She looks shocked. I breathe a sigh of relief at last, someone who can see reason. But then she says, "Oh, Arnie, how wonderful. Can they really do that? That's so wonderful, congratulations."
"You mean you think I should do it?" "Isn't technology incredible?" Mandy says. "These days, doctors can do anything. Now you can share yourself, really give yourself to someone in ways you never even thought were possible before. Your mother must be thrilled."
"But it's crazy," I say. She takes my hand in hers and looks up into my eyes. "Frankly, Arnie, I didn't think you had it in you. I'm really impressed, really, I am."
"Mandy, I thought you could be realistic about this. What about me? Do you want me dead? What am I supposed to do without a heart?"
"Oh, I'm sure they could fix you up. The important thing right now is to help your mother." She unzips my jacket and presses her hand against my chest. My heart twitches, flutters like a baby bird in her hands.
"Arnie, you know what the right thing to do is. You should get back to your mother now." I watched her go. brisk, determined steps like a schoolteacher.
I find my way back to the waiting room. Someone's mopped up the coffee. "Feel better?" Nina asks. "Made a decision yet?" Fran says. "Yes. No. I don't know," I say. They are both quiet.
Fran turns to me. "Arnie, think about this. The heart's a little thing, really, less than a pound. It's just a muscle. You've got muscles all over the place. Can't you spare one?" She looks earnestly into my face. "Can't you spare a little bit of flesh?" And then they are crying, both of them, drops sliding down the wrinkles in their faces.
Later, we go visit my mother again. She looks worse, but perhaps it's the fluorescent lights. I stand again at the foot of her bed. I can see the veins and tendons on her neck, so delicate, so close to the surface you could snip them with scissors. "Arnie," she says softly, "you should go home and get some sleep. And shave, you look terrible, so tired. Go. I'll be here tomorrow. I'm not going anywhere."
I drive home in the dark. I go up to my apartment and turn on the lights. I want to call Mandy. Then I realize I don't want to call her at all. Usually, my mother calls in the evening and tells me about TV programs and weather changes.
I turn off the lights and sit in the dark. I look at the ceiling, at the smoke detector. It has a blue light that pulses with a regular beat, like the blip on a cardiograph.
Early the next morning at the hospital, I tell the doctor, "I want to do it. Give her my heart." He gives me a long, steady look, eyes huge behind the glasses. "I think you've made the right decision. I do," he says. His eyes drop to my chest. "We can get started right away."
"But what about the transplant for me?" I say. "Don't you need to arrange that first?" "Oh, we'll take care of that when the time comes. I want to get your heart into your mother right away, before, before--"
"Before I change my mind?" I say. He hardly hears. He's already deep in his plans.
He claps me on the back. "Have you told your mother yet? Well, go tell her. Then we'll get your chest shaved and get started."
This is what I've realized. All along, I thought I'd publish a book, lots of books, get recognition, earn lots of money, support my mother in style in her old age, give her gorgeous grandchildren. I thought that was the way to pay her back for everything I owe her. But now, it looks like I have to pay my debts with my heart instead. Under these circumstances, I don't have a choice.
I'm almost glad. It seems easier this way. I'll just give her a piece of muscle, and then I'll be free of her forever, all my debts paid. One quick operation will be so much easier than struggling for the rest of my life to do back to her all the things she thinks she's done for me. It seems like a good bargain.
When I tell my mother the news, she cries a little and smiles and says, "Oh, I didn't expect it. Oh, not for a minute. I wouldn't expect such a sacrifice from you, Arnie. I wouldn't dare to even mention such a thing. It's more than any mother could expect of her son. I'm so proud of you. I guess I did a good job of raising you after all. You've turned into such a fine, good person. I worried that I may have made mistakes when I was bringing you up, but now I know I didn't."
On and on she goes. And the aunts, they cry and clutch my arms, not so tight as before. And they say they doubted me, but they never will again. What a good son, they keep saying. Looking at them now, they seem smaller than they did before, shriveled.
I call Mandy, and she dashes over to the hospital. She kisses all over my face with her cherry-flavored Chapstick. She hugs me and presses her ear against my chest. She tells me she knew I'd do the right thing.
I'm feeling pretty good now. I light up a cigarette. She takes it away from and mashes it beneath her heel. "That belongs to your mother now," she says.
They all give me flowers. I feel like a hero. I kiss my mother's cheek. I hop on a stretcher. They wheel me out. They sedate me slightly, strip me, shave me. And then they put the mask on and knock me out good.
It's like I'm falling, falling down a deep well. And the circle of daylight above me grows smaller and smaller and smaller, until it is a tiny white bird swooping and fluttering against a vast night sky. How does it feel to have no heart? It feels light, hollow, rattly. Something huge is missing. It leaves an ache, like the ghost of a severed limb. I'm so light inside, but so heavy on the outside, like gravity increased a hundredfold, gravity holding me to the bed like the ropes and pegs of a thousand Lilliputians.
I lie at the bottom of a pool. Up above, I see the light on the surface. It wavers, ripples, breaks, and comes together again.
I can see the people moving about far above in the light. I am down here in the dark, cradled in the algae. Curious fish nibble my eyelashes.
After a while, I see a smooth, pink face above me. The doctor? "Arnie," he says, "the operation went very well. Your mother's doing wonderfully. She loves the new heart." His words begin far away and drift closer, growing louder and louder until they plunk down next to me like pebbles.
"Arnie," he calls. The pool's surface shivers. His face balloons, shrinks to a dot, then unfolds itself. "Arnie, about you. We're having a little trouble. There's a shortage of spare hearts in the country right now. We're looking for some kind of replacement. But don't worry. You'll be fine."
Later, I see Aunt Fran and Aunt Nina. They lean close. They're huge. Their faces bleed and run together like wet watercolors. "Your mother's doing so well," they call. "She loves you. Oh, she's so excited. She'll be in to see you soon."
And later, it's my mother gliding in, her face pink, her hair curled. "Arnie, Arnie, you good boy," she calls. And then they wheel her out.
They leave me alone for a long time. I lie in the deep. It sways me like a hammock. There is a deep, low humming all around, like whales moaning.
My mother does not visit again. Alone in the dark, no footsteps, no click of the light switch. Then a doctor looms above me. "Your mother," he says, "is not doing well. The heart does not fit as well as we thought. It's a bit too small." He turns away and leans over again. "As for you, we're working on it. There's nothing available at the moment. But don't you worry."
And then Fran and Nina are back. "How could you?" they scream, their voices shattering the surface into fragments. "Giving your mother a bad heart. How could you? What kind of son are you? She's dying. Your mother's dying, all because of you." They weep together.
For a long time, no one comes. I know without anyone telling me that my mother is dead. It is my heart. When it ceases to beat, I know.
The doctor comes to tell me how sorry he is. "She was doing so well at first, but then it turned out the heart just wasn't enough. I tell you, though, she was thinking of you when she died. She asked for you."
He sits quietly for a moment. "we haven't managed to find a heart for you. But you'll be fine. We've shot you up full of preservatives. You'll stay fresh for a while yet." He goes away.
Aunt Fran and Aunt Nina no longer visit. Mandy? Gone. I lie listening to the emptiness in my chest like wind wailing through canyons. These days, the doctor comes in often to chat with me.
One day, he tells me a story. "You know, when your mother died, we managed to save your heart. It was still healthy. We thought about giving it back to you, but there was this little girl here, about eight years old. She needed a new heart, too. Cute little blonde girl. One time a basketball star came in here to visit, and there were TV cameras and photographers and everything. She was in the papers a lot. Kids were always sending her cards.
"Anyway, we decided to give her your heart. She's only a kid, after all. She's got her whole life ahead of her. Why should we deny her that? I'm sure your mother would have wanted it that way. She was such a caring, selfless woman. I'm sure, deep down, you want her to have it too, don't you?" "Of course I do."
Judy Budnitz's short story, "Guilt," from her third collection of short stories called Flying Leap. Her third book, Nice Big American Baby, was published last year. Her story was read for us by actor Matt Malloy, who is in too many movies to possibly named here.
Well, our program was produced today by Diane Cook and myself with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Starlee Kline, and Sarah Koenig. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Sam Hallgren, Todd Bachmann, and Thea Chaloner. Chelsea Merz's story with Matthew came to us with help from Jay Allison and the Cape and Islands NPR stations, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Our web site, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our shows for absolutely free or buy CDs of them. Or you can download today's program in our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Tory Malatia. Our message to him?
We've shot you up full of preservatives. You'll stay fresh for a while yet.
I'm I'ra Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI, Public Radio International.