80: Spitting in Death’s Eye

80: Spitting in Death’s Eye

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Spitting in Death’s Eye

Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

~Abraham Lincoln

Within a few months, I was reeling from three disasters. At only fifty-six, my father died a painful, prolonged death by cancer. He spent his last six months slumped in depression. One of my closest friends was misdiagnosed, and died after an unnecessary operation due to a slip of the scalpel. Ron was forty, and left behind a young wife and two children. Finally, my divorce had wrecked my emotions and finances, and, worst of all, my ex-wife had taken my two daughters to live 300 miles away. It felt as if the roof of the world had collapsed on my head.

In my career as a professor at a community college, I had met many people who were supposed to lie down while life flattened them, but who refused to cooperate. Poverty, single parenthood, learning handicaps, and abusive parents were common. I relished helping these people find themselves and succeed. But with my own troubles weighing on me, I began withholding the extra attention and care they needed. There was no sympathy left in my tank. I lost patience and dismissed their problems after comparing them with mine.

Then Roxanna showed up in one of my classes. Fifty-five years old, but looking sixty-five, wiry thin with blue veins spider-webbing her skin, she wore canvas sneakers and rock star T-shirts. Once she might have been beautiful, but her hair was dyed too red and her cheap false teeth chattered when she spoke quickly.

During a class discussion of alcoholism, one young man declared he could control his drinking. Roxanna spoke up. “I’m a recovering alcoholic. I know about controlling drinking. When you hit the gutter, I’ll show you around the neighborhood.”

Another time, she announced she was currently on welfare. “You think it won’t happen to you. But I used to have too much money for my own good. Nice house, a Lexus, every hot gadget. All gone, kids!” She clapped her hands as if knocking dust off them. “You know what? Losing made me a better person. You think college will make you rich and then you’ll be happy. But watch out for money. It can make you poor!”

Later that week, during a discussion of marriage, she declared she was a romantic woman—which brought snickers from two young men behind her. “Hey!” She spun to face them. “You have to be romantic to get married four times—especially twice to the same guy. Number one and three. He got me with his eyes.” She sighed. “Number five is going to have a hook nose and knobby knees—maybe a heart condition. And just a little money. He won’t cheat on a woman. You write that down, honey,” she said to a twenty-year-old woman beside her. “Hunks break your heart. They think they deserve a pretty girl. Find a man who will be grateful for you.”

The boys howled with laughter. After class, I told her that the young men loved her.

“Yeah, like a mother—dammit!” Then Roxanna told me that she was six months out of cancer chemotherapy. “I want to counsel the terminally ill—if I’m not one of them. I can take death,” she said. “I’ve spit in his eye more than once.” I believed her. Mr. Death better watch out. This woman was not going gently into the night.

I was amazed one person could sparkle with such limitless enthusiasm after so many disasters. And inspire the rest of us. She electrified the class with energy, drew out the slumped, baseball-capped dudes in the last row, and stirred debates while making us laugh. She pounced on ideas like a fish hawk and made everyone in the room eager to participate. We had a mission in life and a time limit, and hardships were part of the curriculum.

When she was in her alcohol highs, floating on money and attached to handsome men, Roxanna had been unhappy; when she had to fight to live, when she had a chance to shine in usefulness, when she did not know if the next week or month would be her last, Roxanna learned to live with zest and fullness.

I can’t say Roxanna alone turned my thoughts around, but she weeded out my excuses. Losing money, marriages, health, and her youth had not depressed her but had woken her up. Life was about doing something, not complaining or comparing what you’re going through with others. Those who live—really live—fight back with humor, tenacity, and passion. That’s what my student taught me.

~M. Garrett Bauman

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