Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

It's all over the news. You've seen it. "Worst shooting incident in US history." I can't figure out what to make of it, how to react. Can I react at all? If I want to, I can empathize all I want; after all, the victims here are not so much different than I am. But, if I think of it another way, it's all so far away. I have never been to Virginia Tech, and it's thousands of miles from Seattle. Should I care less because of this? Can I afford to care?

Afford. That's a funny way to put it.

But, really. It goes like this: every day, a lot of people die for a lot of stupid reasons. People are fairly fascinated, even if it is a morbid fascination, with the deaths of others, and so this becomes a top news headline. In a nod to ethnocentrism, if the dead are American, our own media provides more coverage than if they are from somewhere else.

If I let myself actually care about every person that died unjustly, I wouldn't even be able to function. How in the world am I supposed to balance emotions and empathy with the scales of my conscious mind? When it comes down to it, I am not that much different than the resisdents of Sudan or Baghdad. Those places are pretty far away, too.

Who do we shed tears for, and who do we allow to slip silently into the black?

I can't fathom it.

I see a lot of sides of humanity, stocking groceries in the middle of the night. A few weeks ago, at about two in the morning, a woman walks into the store, shaking her head and sobbing to herself. I've seen her before, and I'm pretty sure she's an alcholic. If I had to guess her age, I'd say forty-five, but it's really impossible to tell with someone who looks so weathered, so terribly tired. It seems like it's been a long time since she's cared about anything.

Tonight, though, she seems in pretty bad shape. I ask her if she's all right, and she manages to mumble "no," and turns over her wrist, to which she's holding a wad of paper towels. She removes the towels to reveal several long, red cries for help, suicide-threat cuts from someone who has wants help more than death, at least for the moment. She's lost her job, she tells me, her daughter won't take her calls, she's lost everything. What's the point?

I just talk to her for a while as I stock boxes, pretending I didn't see the cuts. I think that's the best way to deal with it. I talk to her about jobs, about life, about walking in the park. As she goes to leave, I let her know I'm not going to be able to let her walk out of there alone, so she'd better sit down. I call nine-one-one on my cell phone, and the sheriff's deputies are there in about ten minutes, the ambulance in another five.

Last week, the store's owner gave me an envelope. "Hey, some lady left this for you," he said, looking puzzled. "She said it was kinda important, but not urgent." I flip it open, and inside is a hand-written note on a torn out sheet of yellow notepad:

"Thank you for being my guardian angel. I've been in the hospital since. Just got out today. Thanks for saving my life."

Is her life truly saved? Yesterday I saw her again. Her back is a little straighter, and it looks like she's had a good nights' sleep for the first time in months. But she still walks across the store, without seeing me, to the same bottles of Old English.

Tonight I'm going to go race my bike. What else can I do? I promise, I'll at least take a moment to appreciate that I CAN do this.

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