The world was filled with sadness, Joan knew, sadness and so much despair, so much to despair about. The children alone were enough to break her heart. On television, a little boy who reminded her of a baby bird (wobbly head, big eyes, frail body) was shown with his tiny hands wrapped around a tin cup while a fly crawled on his cheek. Joan donated to the charity that was looking after the boy—his name was Yaro—and she wrote letters to him as well, letters of encouragement. But there were so many other children neglected and suffering, children in sweatshops, children with cleft palates, blind children, children without limbs or with autism, children with cancer, children with rifles in their hands, easy-to-remember children, hard-to-forget children. When her husband woke her with his coughing, it was these children that kept her awake. Them, and all of the other people in terrible situations who needed her.
When her husband’s coughing got worse, and he went to see a doctor, she was volunteering at a thrift shop run by a group helping drug addicts, which was why she did not find out about the lung cancer until she came home that afternoon, smelling of old clothes. To keep herself from losing her mind worrying, Joan cooked at a soup kitchen and tutored immigrants. She was wiped out most days by the time she got home, but, after a while, after she moved down the hall to their daughter’s old room, she was finally able to shut out the constant hiss of the oxygen tank and the coughing jags and sleep through the night.
Of all the many ways in which she showed how much she cared, Joan found teaching to be especially rewarding. She was devoted to her students, and they, in return, worked hard. And so it was with great pride that, in the middle of May, Joan saw her first class of English speakers graduate. When she went to the hospital later that afternoon, still dressed in her good clothes and wearing the corsage her students had given her, a doctor informed her that her husband had died a few hours earlier. The news hit Joan hard, and she was forced to sit down, to catch her breath. The doctor held her hand and kept talking, but she did not hear any of it. She was miles away on an arid, wind-whipped desolate plain, dusty children clutching at her legs, clinging to her.