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07/11/2013 10:12 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2014

The 99 Cent Gift That Saved My Life

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

My father brought home treasures left behind on the Long Island Rail Road: a folded, read New York Post, umbrellas, even a pair of binoculars unclaimed at the lost and found. He brought home the smells of mingled passengers and their commute: cologne, cigarettes, the fug of hot underground tunnel exhaust, hot dogs with mustard and onions, hot coffee trucks.

But what he pulled out of his pocket one night in autumn 1981 was new in its packaging. A two-tone, bee-yellow and candy-pink butterfly-emblazoned yo-yo. Its weight in my palm was surprising, its presence was as well. My father was not one for non-holiday season gifts. His warmth was unpredictable, his disapproval frequent.

"Thanks," I said uncertainly, from deep within my own tunnel of despond. I was 8, recently plunged from a cozy parochial school to a big, public institution with hordes of maliciously curious children who looked, to me (clad in a hand-sewn plaid jumper, my hair in earnest long braids), like mini Charlie's Angels and hair metal band members. Within a few days, I went from being a quaint novelty to a laughingstock who made things worse for herself by bursting randomly into scorn-attracting tears.

My body continued to betray me -- to the stress of my rocky integration into a new society, my nervous system added constant nausea. Eggs lovingly soft-boiled by my mother became retch-inducing overnight. The industrial cafeteria food's billows of steam turned me green. As I write in my food memoir Licking the Spoon, this took away a precious and rare source of pleasure in my world. My mother let me stay home for a few days, but then sent me back resolutely. I was having a mini-breakdown that felt epic, incomprehensible, and limitless to me. If death would keep me from going to school, maybe it wasn't so bad.

I pulled the yo-yo out of the packaging, worked the loop onto my middle finger, and let it go. It whirred hypnotically down and then stayed there, inches above the linoleum kitchen floor. I looked up at my father. This wasn't what yo-yos were supposed to do. I knew that much -- and that the toy hailed from the age of my parents' childhood, along with skates that had keys, egg creams, penny candy, and toy soldiers. I wanted Strawberry Shortcake dolls, a Barbie remote-controlled 'vette, or a new Atari game besides the two that came for free with the console. But this was special, too: a spontaneous gift from my mercurial father.

I knew that the yo-yo called to me. Its string was strong. Its physics were mysterious. Its hard, glossy solidity did not dent or buckle as I winged it clumsily. -- Candace Walsh

"We went back and forth about giving it to you," my mother said later. "We were worried that if you couldn't learn how to work that yo-yo, it might finish you off. You were so fragile. But your father pushed for it. He said you needed something to be successful at right then. And if you were, you could build on that."

I didn't know any of this. I knew that the yo-yo called to me. Its string was strong. Its physics were mysterious. Its hard, glossy solidity did not dent or buckle as I winged it clumsily. My parents both demonstrated that it wasn't faulty, but their body memory was so ingrained that they couldn't explain how they got it to spin back up to tap their fingers before zipping down once more.

Although I felt no satisfaction, I persisted, because its distraction was welcome. At least this problem only had one variable, and it fit in my hand. The first time my yo-yo rolled up a few inches, I leaped with surprise. I rolled up the string and tried it again and again, zeroing in on the movements that led to the yo-yo's return to me. Its thwap against my fingers felt better than any Pac-Man bonus level, better than my friend's Strawberry Shortcake's hair smelled. I felt better than I had in weeks.

This story doesn't have a TV after-school-special ending. I never learned a single trick. I didn't gain friends by teaching others how to yo-yo. Instead, I forged tenuous, make-do friendships with other oddballs who still believed in the Easter Bunny, or punched my shoulder when we didn't agree -- who didn't feed my soul. I read Anne of Green Gables with my mother and dreamed of finding my Diana, my "bosom friend," as Anne dubs it, but didn't until 7th grade.

But. My stomach calmed down. I cried less. The soft jellyfish of my self turned into something more resembling the hard resin yo-yo. I learned to bring myself up from the depths of the bottom of the string, through life's losses both predictable and not -- my parents' divorce when I was 12, getting dumped in Paris on Christmas by my first love when I was 18, getting fired from my dream job when I was 27, getting divorced when I was 35, coming out as gay post-marriage and children, even the heartbreaking though healing step of disowning myself from my father when I was 38, after almost four decades of enduring his kneecapping blasts of rage at who I was and who I wasn't.

Despite all that, I will always love him for giving me the yo-yo, even though -- or especially because -- it helped me survive losing him.

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