The Best Life Stories
Listen to the $25,000 winner of the best life story contest read his winning entry. Plus, read our picks for the best runners-up.
from Reader's Digest | March 2012
Photographed by Tamara Reynolds
Grand-Prize Winner: Homeward Bound
By Jim Ruland, San Diego, CA
When I was in the Navy, I drank like a sailor. When I got out of the Navy, I drank like a sailor. You could say I went overboard. Swam with sharks and chased mermaids. Spent all my clams in the octopus's garden. The deeps and the darks suited me fine. Closing time came; I looked around. I was all alone in Davy Jones's lockup. Looked for a way out, but there was no ship in the bottle. Just more bottles, and every one an ocean. Took a long time before I settled on the bottom. But look! A boat on the horizon. A life raft with my wife and daughter in it. "You're here," they cheered. "Take us ashore!" "I'm just a drunken sailor," I said. My wife reeled me in. "No, you're the captain." I looked to the stars and plotted our course for home.
THE JUDGES SAID: Jim Ruland's story sails along on clever metaphors, but on a deeper level, it's a moving look at one man's desolation and the renewal he found in his family's faith and love. It's a tale you'll want to read twice — and share.
Watch video of Jim Ruland reading his story.
Courtesy Audrey Hagar
Chase the Day
By Audrey Hagar, Los Angeles, CA
I was my own worst fortune-teller. The future just meant more disappointment. Childhood trauma was my excuse to stay closed and overly cautious. Why invite more shame and pain? Then I met Chase. The pound called her unadoptable. They said years of physical and mental abuse prevented her from being "normal." She would be better off dead. We took her home. Maybe I saw myself in this dog. At first she snarled and tried to bite us. I understood that need to put up a tough front. But then Chase became open, happy, and fearless. She didn't bear grudges against humans. She explored her new world and wrestled her new dog friends. She didn't dwell on the past as permission to avoid adventure. Chase, as usual, perches on my back as I type this story about a creature who now embraces the future without looking over her shoulder.
THE JUDGES SAID: Sometimes our best teachers come with four paws and a tail. By rescuing Chase, by taking a chance, Audrey Hagar changed her life and left the past behind.
A Meaningless Diagnosis
By Brian Mayer, Antelope, CA
Most would not smile in my position. I sat across from the psychiatrist, holding my wife's hand as our two-year-old son played inattentively in the background. "The severity of your son's autism will likely prevent him from ever being independent. It is very possible that he will never speak or have friends. The comorbidity of mental retardation will compound these challenges." The psychiatrist paused and examined our expressions. My wife clenched my hand a little tighter, but she, too, smiled because we knew firsthand that the diagnosis was meaningless: When I was three, a psychologist told my parents the same thing about me.
THE JUDGES SAID: This story had us on the edge of our seats — until the very last sentence, which blew us all away.
Courtesy Nicole Malato
All These Things Plus One
By Nicole Malato, Toms River, NJ
I am a wife, a mother, a daughter, and a sister. I am an aunt, a niece, a cousin, and a friend. I'm an HR manager and a Mary Kay consultant. I'm an experienced bridesmaid. I was the head of my church youth group. I'm an MBA graduate. I am not a great dancer; I'm a klutz. I'm one who helps others, and I'm a Roman Catholic. I'm a country music fan and a BlackBerry junkie. I am blessed with amazing family and friends. I am strong. I am an allergy sufferer. I am one who loves to laugh. I am afraid of heights. I'm a Jersey girl, with an honorary Pennsylvania girl membership. I'm a fan of the smell of sunblock, cigars, and roses. I am a scatterbrain. And I am one more thing. I am a breast cancer patient. And someday, I will be a breast cancer survivor.
THE JUDGES SAID: Every patient is so much more than her diagnosis, but sometimes we lose sight of that. Go, go, Nicole!
Courtesy JJ Keith
By JJ Keith, Los Angeles, CA
"No. Not ape. That's a monkey." She's two and a half, and the one thing she knows for sure is that the rhesus monkey at the zoo is an ape. Maybe she'd get away misidentifying primates if she had a different mom. I whisper, "I have a degree in physical anthropology, and I'm telling you that's a monkey. He has a tail. Apes don't have tails." I look around, relieved that no one heard me debating with a toddler. She pats me on the shoulder and condescends beyond her years, "No, Mom. That's a monkey." I've met my match, or rather, I made her. I'm on the other side of myself now. I spent the first 30 years of my life correcting people, and now I'll spend the next 30 being corrected. I deserve it, but my poor husband. He didn't ask for two of me.
THE JUDGES SAID: Here's an irresistible case of like mother, like daughter. Or should we say, Monkey see, monkey do? Regardless, we had a ball reading it!
Photographed by Tamara Reynolds
By Julia Boyce, Foster, RI
I didn't decide to become a farmer; it sort of just happened. When my husband brought home Cowie, a young steer, I made it clear that I wasn't sure I could eat an animal we had raised, let alone one with a name. We never did eat Cowie, but he was the start of our transition to farmers. We began raising meats for ourselves. The "local, all-natural" market wasn't big back then, but friends were begging to buy meats from us. We soon built our own butcher shop. We now raise all-natural beef, lamb, and poultry. We also process meats for other local farmers. When people ask me how I can eat something that was once in my backyard, the answer is easy. I want to know what's in my family's food and that the animal had a nice life. We don't name them anymore, though.
THE JUDGES SAID: We don't always pay enough attention to what we're putting on our plates and in our mouths, but Julia Boyce does. Her story makes sustainability something we can easily relate to.
Photographed by Tamara Reynolds
By Karen Dahl, New York, NY
I work so hard to control the imprint on their innocent souls because I know that their bodies may be tiny, but their brains are sucking in every moment, every word, every gesture. I can't depend on anyone else to do this work for me. It's too important. I know (theoretically) I can't do it perfectly, not without help. So I go to therapy to exorcise my demons, my frustrations, my anxiety. Forty-five minutes is not enough. So I take breaks — dinner with a girlfriend, skipping bath time. I work, sometimes, as much for the break as for the need to excel, accomplish, engage. I tell myself that this work, mothering, is more important than all the things a career could provide. At least while they're small. All of this to prevent my own children from becoming what I know I already am: an angry mother.
THE JUDGES SAID: It takes courage to be as honest as Karen Dahl. It takes strength to admit to one's faults. And it takes a hero to be a good mother. We're betting she's a great one.
Courtesy Meghan Thompson
By Meghan Thompson, Ferndale, WA
I should have 2.5 children, a mortgage, and a dog — at least that's what my mother says. Instead, I've chosen a month-to-month lease on a perfectly temporary apartment. My "mortgage payments" go much further than most; instead of a white picket fence, they pay for Dublin, Rome, Istanbul, and any other unfenced yard I may find. I entertain first dates with boys of all shapes and sizes, second dates with the men who survive the first — and third dates, they're few and far between. I've settled into a lifestyle of not settling. Of striving to live each day as though it's my last. To live for a week, a month, a year, a lifetime as a worldwide tourist, a pupil of the human condition, an observer of life, love, and loss. I'm not a complete failure though. I do have a dog.
THE JUDGES SAID: We loved this free-spirited woman who has chosen to live on her own terms. We reveled in her wanderlust, her sense of wonder, and her sense of humor.
Courtesy Katharine Hanschu
By Katharine Hanschu, Harrison, AR
Grandpa was a man of integrity. He was a rancher who loved his family fiercely and passed down simple yet important life lessons. My dad tells a story about helping his dad tediously wash borrowed farm equipment before they returned it to a neighbor. "Why are we cleaning this?" he asked. "It was dirty when we got it. Always return something a little better than you found it," was Grandpa's reply. A week after Grandpa's funeral, I helped my dad vacuum, wash, and refuel a car he had borrowed from a friend. After accepting the vehicle, the friend leaned over to me and remarked, "Whenever I loan something to your dad, I know it will come back in even better shape." And that is my grandpa's legacy. He left the world just a little better than he found it. I hope I can do the same.
THE JUDGES SAID: We wish we could have met Katharine Hanschu's grandpa. But in a way, we have. We're happy to honor this rancher's simple but profound legacy.
Courtesy Chely Roach
I've Got Dirt: Memoirs of Your Housekeeper
By Chely Roach, Overland, MO
As your housekeeper, I know infinitely more about you than you do me. I know what you read, what you eat, what hides under your bed. I know if you're OCD or if you cram your clutter into three poorly hidden clothes baskets the day I come. I know if you attend church or believe you're a pagan goddess. I know your politics, your birth control, and that you take antidepressants. I know if your kids are kindhearted or if they're Eddie Haskell–type jerks by how they speak to me when you're not around. I know I am a safe avenue to vent about your husband's lack of intimacy, the neighbor's affair, your parent's favoritism of your sister. I know to you I am "just a housekeeper," but I don't mind. In you, I have received an honorary degree in sociology. In exchange, you receive my discretion.
THE JUDGES SAID: Uh-oh. We're hiding everything. Seriously, this was a fascinating look at a discreet pro's life.
Courtesy Erik Zeidler
By Erik Zeidler, Bronx, NY
The venom worked fast. I felt my body giving up. Still conscious for the moment, I felt betrayed. Snakebites are supposed to take hours to kill you, but only minutes passed until my heart stopped. The next two days were condensed into a few moments of vague recollection. From a distant chamber of my mind, I heard the echo of my savior's voice calling, "Kids from the Bronx don't die in the woods in Kansas!" I could hear the rhythmic beats of the chopper's blades, beating as faintly as my heart, which had been suddenly shocked back to life. I awoke to the warm touch of my mother's hand, appropriately present on the day of my rebirth. I was blind from hypoxia, but I could see my future clearly. I cannot deny my passion. Though they nearly killed me, I have dedicated my life to the study of snakes.
THE JUDGES SAID: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, or perhaps it gives you a lifelong calling. Here's a great tale of resilience, curiosity, and maybe a bit of kismet.
Photographed by Tamara Reynolds
"EB!"ing a Mommy
By Courtney Roth, Pontchatoula, LA
My name is Courtney Roth. The birth of my son, Tripp, changed my life. He was born with a rare genetic skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa [EB]. His skin is missing the anchors that hold it together, meaning any type of friction causes his skin to blister — inside and out. He was not supposed to live to be a year old and is now two years and counting. He lives in bandages and in pain, has a feeding tube, a breathing tube, and has lost his eyesight. Tripp has never spoken a word, yet he has touched countless lives around the world by his will to fight through this disease. My little boy is my hero and has taught me more in two years than I've learned my entire life. I know God has big things in store for him … whether it's here or in heaven.
THE JUDGES SAID: It's not hard to see why Courtney Roth's story got 46,962 votes online! Hers is a portrait of extraordinary perseverance and grace in the face of challenges most of us never encounter.
Editor's Note: We are very saddened to report that Courtney's son, Tripp, passed away on January 14.
To learn more about Courtney and Tripp, please see her blog: "EB"ing a Mommy. To donate toward a cure for EB, please visit debra.org or childrenscancer.org/puck.
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