Life stories

The moment that changed my life

From a new Smith Mag collection: Tao Lin, Jennifer Thompson, Dave Eggers and others on the instant it all shifted

  • Lives

    By Tao Lin

    The first day of my dad’s trial the judge fell asleep. One of the jurors also fell asleep. The judge was startled awake when a lawyer shouted “objection!” My mom told me these things. My dad’s lawyer had advised my brother and me not to attend the trial, but to attend the day of sentencing — reasoning, I thought, that it might elicit sympathy from the judge and jury.

    On the sentencing day, I got out early from my Chinese class at New York University and rode the N train to the Brooklyn Courthouse. My mom and brother were already there and I sat with them. My dad was with his lawyer. He waved at us, seeming focused and in control, and I thought that he was probably very nervous. I waved back, trying to appear calm.

    My dad was charged with releasing false and misleading press releases to raise the stock price of his company, Surgilight, which he had founded to sell his laser vision-correction inventions. In my opinion he made — at worst — a few semantic mistakes. I felt strongly that he wasn’t capable of intentionally harming or taking advantage of anyone. He never used the word “love,” never really hugged or kissed my brother or me on his own volition, but he did, for example, keep employees on the payroll even when his company was failing and there was no work to do, and he gave loans to anyone who asked, even when he knew he probably wouldn’t be repaid.

    But the jury had found him guilty and now the judge was going to decide his sentence. I stared at the judge’s face and thought about how he’d fallen asleep. When he said seventy months, I calculated it as five years and stopped thinking. I didn’t feel much emotion until my dad was given a chance to speak for the last time. He read from a letter he had prepared: “In prison I cannot make any further contributions to society. In prison I am useless … I will fight to the end for my reputation, innocence, and name.” While reading he twitched in a way that seemed both intentional and uncontrollable, as if physically struggling against something, though he was standing alone in an open area near the front of the courtroom. The prosecuting lawyer interrupted, and my dad said, “Come on! Will you give me a chance to talk? You’ve been lying this whole time!” His face was red and his body was trembling. Watching this I felt a dizzying confusion, like the moment between falling and recovering, but sustained. I felt like crying.

    After the sentencing I looked at my brother. He seemed catatonic with emotion. My mom’s eyes were wet and red and she was smiling, weakly and awkwardly, like a stroke patient.

    That was in April. In July, my mom drove my dad to a federal correctional complex in Coleman, Florida. Over the next couple of months, my brother and I wrote letters to him from New York City. My mom visited twice a week, driving an hour from her home in Orlando.

    In letters, my dad said he was content, even happy. He liked the food. He was teaching Chinese to a class of inmates. He had submitted two new patents, written half a dozen ophthalmology papers, and used his PhD in physics to help another inmate write a chapter of a novel involving flying saucers.

    Two months after going to prison my dad signed one of his letters to me “love, Dad.” It was the first time he had ever mentioned “love” to me. I examined the handwriting and cried. I had always known my dad as a stoic mad-scientist, someone who found it difficult or impossible to express intimate affection toward other people. When calling home from business trips he always asked how the dogs were — never my brother, mom, or me. A few weeks later my mom e-mailed me saying my dad had written her a letter. “A real letter, the first one in twenty years.” In the letter my dad said he had become too focused on business and had forgotten to care for my mom, for people. “This is the real dad I knew a long time ago and I love the changes in him,” my mom’s e- mail said. “I was so moved that I cried for a long time.” When I read my mom’s e-mail I cried also.

    Tao Lin is the author of six books of fiction and poetry including “Richard Yates” and “Bed.” He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

     Excerpted with permission from “The Moment” edited by Larry Smith. Published by Harper Perennial. 

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    If I Don’t Die Today, I Will Marry Kristin Moore

    By Aaron Huey

    The day we were ambushed by the Taliban, I was wearing a forty-five-pound flak jacket but no helmet. The jacket weighed me down as I ran through empty villages, choking on fear, far from the Dyncorp mercenaries we came with. Major Khalil was screaming into his radio as we raced deeper into the battle, a captured Taliban prisoner in tow. As I ran, the poppies coated my pants with raw opium stains. Later, lying in a ditch with my writer, Jon Lee Anderson, and our translators, I prayed for an air strike. In that moment I stopped caring about collateral damage, I just wanted them to raze that village to the ground. And again, when I was crawling through a muddy field while Afghan Eradication Forces (AEF) and Taliban fighters exchanged gunfire across the tops of the bleeding plants, I remember distinctly not giving a shit about my cameras, The New Yorker, or my career.

    I do remember holding Jon Lee’s hand over the seat of our Ford F250 as bullets rained down in that orchard. I told him I was scared. He said he knew. I’d said it many times that day. I told him this time it was different.

    “I’m really scared,” I said. He reached over the seat and held my hand.

    The shooting had started three hours ago, and we had no clear exit. In the backseat of our unarmored Ford F250 there was a translator and a Dyncorp medic. I pressed down between them as close to the floor as I could so that they would absorb the bullets. At some point a helicopter arrived and raked both sides of the road with thousands of fifty-caliber rounds before being hit and retreating to base. It was a sweet sound at the time, like plastic wrappers crackling in your hand as you wad them into a ball. I have to admit I wanted more. I wanted all of it to be blown to fucking hell. So I could walk away. Jon Lee reminded me to keep shooting pictures. I really didn’t care about the pictures anymore. I wasn’t worried enough about getting blurry shots of trees to offer myself up for target practice. At the river, a truck was stuck and we were trapped on the bank, surrounded on all sides but for one narrow escape route. Five mercenaries stood along the bank and in the water, full-on Rambo. They fought from behind ATVs and our unarmored trucks. They were calm. They were at work.

    I was on a riverbank, huddled up under the wheel well. Jon Lee is a pretty casual guy. He knew we were in deep shit, but he also knew that panicking wouldn’t help us.

    “A husband tells his wife,” Jon Lee started in, “‘I bet you can’t tell me something that makes me happy and sad at the same time.’ ‘Your brother has a small dick,’ she says.” He’d already told me this one, but it was a little funnier in the middle of an ambush. I cracked a weak smile. The Taliban were closing in and starting to surround us. We were four hours into this thing, and every time I thought it was going to end, every time the shooting stopped, it began again, doubled in intensity, and grew exponentially more horrifying and inescapable. I want to tell you what it was really like to think death is imminent, but I can’t. It’s a taste in your mouth. And an emptiness. I imagined myself on YouTube with a knife to my throat. Allah O Akbar.

    I was thinking about not being me anymore. About not having a body. About the things I did wrong. But mostly I was thinking about a girl.

    I’d been stringing her along for five years. What an asshole. Why am I waiting for her to change? Why am I such a fucking coward? Selfish fuck. We almost got married three times. I am going to die here. I didn’t think about my family or my friends. I didn’t think about home or my dog. I thought about Kristin. All she wanted, all that she would ever want, was for me to see her as she is, to love her cleanly and all the way through. I’d been so busy loving myself.

    When it ended two men were dead, and I was not one of them.

    Back in Kabul:

    The Jalalabad road east of the city leads past an Afghan military base. Behind that base there is a field of metal carcasses. It is a grave-yard for tanks, APCs, and jeeps. It is quiet there; few places in Kabul are.

    I told Kristin we were going there to take photos. On the trail that leads across the grassy field through the tanks, she was afraid we would step on a land mine. I chose a tank to sit on and showed her a small red box with two gold rings inside. Kristin shrugged and smiled.

    “Sure,” she said. “Right now?” “Yes.”

    Jon Lee was ordained on the Internet the night before, and read a page of vows I’d written. Our driver and translator had never seen a man and woman kiss before. They blushed and turned away. The rings were cheap, and we sold them back to a jeweler the next day. Kristin Moore is my wife.

    Thank you, Taliban.

    Aaron Huey is a contributing editor (photographer) for Harper’s magazine and a photojournalist who freelances regularly for National Geographic, Harper’s, the New Yorker, Smithsonian magazine and the New York Times.

    Excerpted with permission from “The Moment” edited by Larry Smith. Published by Harper Perennial. 

  • Forgiven

    By Jennifer Thompson

    In January 1985 I sat in the Alamance County Courthouse, in North Carolina, and listened to a jury announce that Ronald Cotton was guilty of first-degree rape, first-degree burglary and first-degree sexual assault. My heart gave a heavy sigh and for the first time in six months I felt a small window of safety. He was a monster that had come into my life uninvited and shattered everything I had worked for, planned on, and hoped for. I wanted him to die, in the most painful and horrible way. I would pray for this but, in the meantime, life in prison would have to be his punishment.

    Over the next few months I somehow put the few pieces of my broken life together, but it was not without large amounts of self-destruction and fear. I would move on, but the horrors of that July night followed me wherever I went. I could not go far enough to escape the hell of what Ronald Cotton had done to me. That girl, Jennifer Thompson, had been left behind and in her place were but hollow fragments that at times were unrecognizable to me. It was only blind hate and rage that allowed me to know I was still alive.

    Years passed. I began to work, fell in love, and, in 1988, got married. By the spring of 1990, my life took a beautiful turn and I gave birth to triplets. Morgan, Blake, and Brittany burst into the world with all the wonder and amazement new life takes on, times three. God loves me, I thought. He blessed me with these babies because he trusted me to take care of them. I was worthy and valuable again. My energies focused on my children yet somewhere deep inside it gave me pleasure to know that Ronald would not have this. He would never hold his baby, love a woman, or see the light of freedom again. As I would pray for the safety of my babies, I would still wish for Ronald to meet a cruel end to his pathetic life. People who did horrible things deserved terrible endings. It was only fair.

    Eleven long years went by since the crime, and my life was busy with three five-year-old preschoolers. Laundry and skinned knees replaced old fear and insecurities. And then the phone rang in the spring of 1995 and I heard the reassuring voice of Mike Gauldin, the detective from my rape case, asking if he could come into town and visit me. His voice had been the one thing that had kept me together during those dark days. I looked forward to seeing him again. But he came with the news that Ronald Cotton and his attorneys were seeking a test, a DNA test, to prove his innocence. The outrage shocked me. He was guilty. Everyone knew it. The judge, jury, community, and DA’s office all knew it. I knew it. I did not want to revisit the pain. “Fine. Run the test, please,” I said. “But I cannot do this again. I have a life now.” I was not concerned about the results because I’d seen his face in my nightmares every night for the last four thousand days. Ronald Cotton was a rapist. That was certain. Less than three months later, Mike and the assistant district attorney of Alamance County stood in my kitchen to deliver the news. The stress on their faces told me something would once again come and shatter my life.

    Ronald Cotton was innocent. His DNA did not match the biological evidence from the rape kits. Instead, the DNA matched a serial rapist, Bobby Poole, who had been in the same prison as Ronald, and Ronald had tried to tell anyone who would listen that we had gotten it all wrong. I was paralyzed with guilt, shame, and abject fear.

    All these years I had been wrong. I had wished for his death. I wanted him to feel pain. What was I to do? How much anger must he feel? When and how will he act out his revenge? Was my family safe? It took me two years before I could ask Ronald for something that he had waited more than a decade to receive. As I sat in a church not far from where I had been raped thirteen years before, Ronald walked into the room. Through tears, I asked if he could ever forgive me. Ron did the one thing I had not expected. “I forgive you,” he said. “ I am not angry at you. You made a mistake because you are human. Do not be afraid of me, I will never hurt you. I want you to be happy, and I want to be happy. Live a good life, Jennifer!” The man I had prayed would die would now teach me how to live. Ronald taught me more that afternoon than I have ever learned in any church. He showed me grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and unlocked my spirit so I could live a life of joy, peace, and love. Ronald and I have become best friends and advocates for judicial reform. He is now one of my richest blessings. I cannot imagine my life without him.

    Jennifer Thompson is the author, with Ronald Cotton, of “Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption.” She speaks frequently about judicial reform. Watch a video of Thompson and Cotton in conversation at pickingcottonbook.com.

    Excerpted with permission from “The Moment” edited by Larry Smith. Published by Harper Perennial. 

  • Motherless

    By Tamara Pokrupa-Nahanni

    My mother died when I was twelve. A couple of days before she passed, I asked her to record a translation of an English passage into Slavey, the language of our people. My sister went to her hospital bed to do the recording while I was at school. A couple of weeks later I sat down to listen to the tape. I recognized my mom’s beautiful script writing on the label and was thankful that I would be able to listen to her voice anytime I missed her. I pressed play, and no sound came out. I tried the whole tape. Nothing had been recorded. In the last few minutes of listening to that silent playback, I realized that I couldn’t live in a fantasy where a voice recording replaced my mother, and the fact that she really was gone — that I was motherless — finally set in.

    Tamara Pokrupa-Nahanni is a student at Ryerson University in Toronto.

    Excerpted with permission from “The Moment” edited by Larry Smith. Published by Harper Perennial. 

  • Mr. Criche

    By Dave Eggers

    When I was a junior in high school, I had an English teacher named Mr. Criche. He was universally regarded as a master teacher; he was the head of the department, and looked like it. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, tweed sport coats, and, if I remember correctly, there were suede patches on the elbows of these sport coats. I remember trying to impress him by bringing “As I Lay Dying” to class, even though it wasn’t assigned reading. (It didn’t make any sense to me at the time . . . but anyway.) We read “Macbeth” that year, and after procrastinating till the night before it was due, I wrote a paper about the play — it was the first paper I typed on a typewriter — and turned it in the next day. I got a good grade on it, and below the grade Mr. Criche wrote, “Sure hope you become a writer.” That was it. Just those six words. It was the first time someone had indicated in any way that writing was a career option for me. We’d never had any writers in our family line, and we didn’t know any writers personally, even distantly, so it didn’t seem something available to me. But over the next ten years, I thought often about those six words Mr. Criche wrote. And even when I was discouraged by some instructors in college, Mr. Criche’s words always came back to me and gave me strength.

    Since then, I’ve realized the power that a teacher can provide. I had attentive parents but they would never have suggested that career path to me. But a teacher can sometimes open doors for you. A teacher can say, “Have you ever thought about being a biochemist?” And given their expertise in that subject matter, they’re in a position to point the way to a certain route — more so than a parent who, say, might not know much about biochemistry. So now, when I teach my own high school classes, I always think of the power of Mr. Criche’s words, and I try to measure and use my own carefully, knowing the impact they might have.

    Dave Eggers is founder of the youth literary nonprofit 826 Valencia and the independent publisher, McSweeney’s; and author of numerous books including “Zeitoun,” “What Is the What” and “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”

    Excerpted with permission from “The Moment” edited by Larry Smith. Published by Harper Perennial. 

  • Daniel

    February 12, 2009, 9:14 a.m.

    By Daniel DiClerico

    In the master bedroom of my parents’ home, gray morning light slants through the picture window looking out over leafless woods. My father felled some forty dead or dying trees in recent years, carving a clear view to the Green Mountain foothills on the far side of Quechee Valley. Right now, though, he’s gone for donuts. It’s his first time out of the house in a week. When I arrived from work the Thursday prior, the three-hundred-mile commute made in record time, he was seated bedside. From the driveway, I watched him lean forward, saw his head dip beneath the windowsill before rising up a few beats later. I knew then that I was too late. Only I wasn’t.

    Through days and nights we waited. More than once I heard my father’s footfalls in the early morning hours. From the top of the stairs, he called to his children. “It’s time.” Only it wasn’t. There were more turnings and washings and dressings, even a flicker of hope after a sudden movement in the shower. My father phoned the doctor. “We’re not getting our hopes up here,” he insisted.

    My father hung up the phone and requested some broth. There were no cans in the cupboard, so we made do with a frozen chicken breast and some limp carrots and celery stalks. A few spoonfuls of the watery liquid went down. The rest went cold on the back burner. My father returned to his chair.

    “Is she waiting for someone?” the hospice nurse asked. She’d taken a special interest in our case since learning that the patient was one of her own, a fellow Charon in paisley-patterned scrubs who for decades ferried her own terminally ill through their final hours. Or days, as the case may be. And was. “No,” we said. “We’re all here.” The vigil went on. Time unraveled, circadian rhythms stopped. Sleep here, sleep there, sweatpants at dinner, whiskey at dawn. Until, finally, this.

    I’m seated at the desk in the bedroom of my parents’ home. To my left, the gray morning light. To my right, my dying mother. But first, back twenty-five years. I’m standing in the front room of my childhood home in suburban New Jersey, hidden behind the half-drawn Venetian blinds. It’s my nightly post, as evidenced by the patch of frayed carpet at my feet. Finally, the headlights of my mother’s maroon Honda Accord turn into the driveway. I make a beeline for the TV room and listen as the car door slams. She climbs the back steps and calls out in a singsong voice, “Helloooo … Anyone home?” I want to run to her, but I’m a pubescent scrum of hormones and discomfort, so I barely grunt hello when she pops her head in. “Danny,” my eldest sister now says. She’s taken my father’s place in the bedside chair. I turn to her, turn to the deathbed, just as my mother’s body jerks my way. Her gaze lands on me. Our eyes lock. There’s one final rattle deep from within. Then silence. That’s when I know that death, even when you most expect it, is a surprise. But also that, unless it’s your own, life goes on.

    “What time is it?” my sister asks. “Nine fourteen,” I say, looking to the alarm clock on the bedside table. “Will you tell Dad?” she asks, holding our mother’s left hand. “Okay,” I say, and get up to hold the other.

    Daniel DiClerico is a magazine editor who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and daughter.

    Excerpted with permission from “The Moment” edited by Larry Smith. Published by Harper Perennial.