Weekly Featured Essay
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Is there anyone left to remember the person to whom each face in the photograph attests?
I take down a formal photo of my father, seated together eighty-one years ago with his so-called colored troops, backgrounded by a grim-looking fort in Alabama. For the Yankee company commander of people whom townsfolk—if they wanted to sound broad-minded—referred to as nigras, the place was a threatening one, especially because he now and then had groups of his soldiers in for meals or drinks. That made for local fury and once, for a cross burned outside his bungalow.
Of course, those soldiers of his had faced far greater perils—and they’d face more when they got overseas. But back to the picture: Dad’s there with eighty troops and two other white officers. “We were a busted flush,” he joked.
I don’t need to mention that, however old I may be now, I never knew those men, but these ages later, as I contemplate their expressions, each at least outwardly stoic, I feel some odd combination of flame and lead in my guts. Is there anyone left to remember the person to whom each face in the photograph attests?
by John Thomson
Dad was fifty-four when I was born. As a boy, I was often asked by other boys if he was my grandfather. I’d say, “No, that’s my dad,” and the face of the questioner would twist into mocking disbelief, something as a child I didn’t really understand. Back then my dad seemed like other dads. He played catch with me on the street. He took me camping. He taught me the difference between right and wrong. All with what seemed like youthful energy.
But by the time I started high school, I was forced to confront how much older my father was than the fathers of my peers. I began to see it in the way he’d fall behind me when I’d walk and I’d hear the rasp of his shuffling feet, or when he’d ask me the same question over and over again, or when it became difficult for him to rise out of his chair. And then, a month after I’d turned twenty-one, he died of stomach cancer at the age of seventy-five. Many attended his funeral. All of them, I believe, were from the last life my father had lived. None were from his former lives, which would finally come to me as a kind of ghost story, a bizarre tale I’d share with my wife and children, siblings and friends, and now with people I’ve never met. In doing so I’ve learned something beyond the story’s surreal coincidences, and have come to appreciate the care we must take when judging the people who’ve loved us.
No Geezers Left Behind
by Richard Wainright
Having cheated death and avoiding academic fraud, I graduated from Coastal Carolina University in December 2022. I graduated from high school in the class of 1970. If I’m doing the math right, that’s fifty-two years between graduations. Even the mathematically challenged, like myself, will realize that I was a nontraditional student.
The path to my second graduation started in 2013. I was a sixty-year-old retired man living at Myrtle Beach, and I was bored. I had golf and fishing to fill my time. What I lacked was stimulating conversation. It was winter, or what passes for it on the Carolina coast, and I was spending way too much time alone, inside my way too comfortable condo, on the internet, on my way to becoming a reclining couch potato. There had certainly been no outlet for erudite exchanges on Facebook until I virtually “met” Joyce Barnes.
Among the Blooms
by Brady Rhoades
It begins with my neighbor Bala, an old man with a high, singing style of speaking. He’s from Romania, somewhere around Galati near the Black Sea. His yard is dense with trees—orange, lemon, pomegranate, apple. Dense, come to think of it, is an understatement. It’s a maze of stalk, stem, and bloom, dwarfing his small home. He grows homeland grapes. He’s proud of them, brings me bowls full, too many to eat before they go bad. He also brings store-bought chickens.
I know four things about Romania: Dracula, Nadia Comaneci, Bucharest, and the phrase Nu mai bea mâța oțet. The last I learned from Bala in the early years of our acquaintance.
I greet Bala every morning at the fence separating our properties while he shuffles around in his robe, checking on all the life he parents. Lately, I’ve noticed his eyebrows have designs on his temples and forehead. His eyes peak out like wood mice in a forest. His fingernails are black, and I wonder why his daughters never visit.
Weeding through the Wreckage
by Mary Billiter
I’ve been thinking about weeds a lot lately. Not the weed that’s smoked, though that’s entered my mind a few times. I’m referring to the weeds that have overtaken my back yard.
It was inevitable. Last summer, instead of watering and tending my yard, I was tethered to an IV bag of 5FU. For those unfamiliar with chemo shorthand, 5FU, stands for fluorouracil. An oncology nurse explained that 5FU stood for the five different chemicals that comprised the chemo treatment. All I know is that fluorouracil, or 5FU, is aptly named. Fluorouracil is given intravenously for aggressive cancers—colon, rectum, stomach, and pancreas. I fell into the latter. 5FU has one purpose—to stop the growth of cancer cells. It also stops life as you know it.
I’ve always taken pride in my yard. But when I became a single parent, it became my sole responsibility. Mowing my yard—the front and back—was an outward sign that I was holding it together. Even if life was going sideways, my yard reflected otherwise. Plus, there was the sense of accomplishment. The clean, uniform rows and raked clippings made my lush lawn look like it’d been properly cared for. Whenever I pulled up to my house, my groomed lawn made me smile. It brought great joy. The payoff was worth the sweaty hair and grimy, grass-stained sneakers. When I looked at my lawn, I saw progress. I saw beauty from ashes. I saw what it meant to hope.
by Angela Townsend
You don’t get to feel your life change in real time. Looking back, you see the big moments. They wear brilliant disguises, brown grocery bags labeled “Errand” or “Inconvenience.”
But when you are twenty-six and trudging to your annual physical, you do not glimpse a before-and-after that will change everything.
Living with Type 1 diabetes since age nine, I have seen enough doctors to staff a cruise ship. Grad school gifted me with one of the best, a ball of radiance with a red beehive. Upon my graduation Dr. Zitzman consulted the university to determine if there was any way she could keep me as a patient, but Princeton had no respect for our bond. So it was off to find my first real, adult doctor. If I can prevail upon him, he will also be the last.
You don’t hear a name and know that you’ve just met one of your main characters. I only knew I had an appointment with Dr. David Fableman, founder of a three-location practice in our nook of New Jersey. Shiny-headed and shorter than me, Dr. Fableman was a frisbee of energy. In that first two-hour extravaganza, he glittered with fascination, a student not of diabetes but of my diabetes, empathetic about the co-occurring anorexia and emphatic that I was doing just fine. When I admitted my exasperation with endocrinologists, he corralled a smile. “Egos. Not always helpful. You and I can manage your diabetes together if you’d like.”
Biology: A Memoir
by Gary Fincke
Mr. Freitag, your biology teacher, was fond of seeding his lectures with quotes. “’Some insects are generated spontaneously out of dew falling on leaves,’” he read to your class one February afternoon. “’Others grow in decaying mud or dung, some in the flesh of animals.’” He paused, his gaze moving from desk to desk as if he was trying to make out who wanted to laugh and who wanted to say “Amen.” Finally, with a flourish, he closed the book and said, “That, class, is an observation by the famous Aristotle. He wrote The History of Animals and fancied himself a creation expert. We’re about to make a fool of him.”
Fifteen, you thought you knew all about superstitions, how the plots of ancient myths were full of holes that needed to be covered by faith. You had a grandmother who was fond of telling you about the ways people misused the ones you’d learned from Genesis. “Near Galesville, Illinois,” she said, “some thought it was possible to discover where the Garden of Eden rose and fell. Those people thought you could walk right up to where the borders were and imagine Adam and Eve getting kicked out.” Like she always did, she waved one hand up toward the sky as if what she was saying was being overheard. “That’s because they believed what the Reverend VanSlyke preached,” she said. “Can you imagine? He thought God started right there in Illinois with the Garden. And him still preaching about it when I was born.”
by Mirinda Kossoff
In the short space of a month, my two oldest and dearest friends died: one of cancer three days before Christmas and the other suddenly in the first month of the new year. The first death, even though it was anticipated, sent me into deep grief and the second, so shocking, devastated me.
Tessa never married and had no children but had a successful career in the top echelons of journalism. Alice had two sons and four grandchildren and a change-making career in higher education. Alice and Tessa didn’t know each other. Had they met, they would have liked each other. Both had fierce intellects. Though we didn’t live close geographically, I traveled with each of them, visited back and forth, and phoned regularly. I could go to either of them for support and advice and they could receive the same from me. Each in her own way was the sister I would have chosen had I the choice.
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Encounters features fifteen eclectic essays originally appearing in bioStories magazine, all focused on some of those chance encounters that can transform our lives.