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Saturday, August 13, 2005

Random People

A man walks into a store. His hair is unkempt and oily. He wears a t-shirt and shorts, both hanging off his lanky frame. A backpack is familiarly slung over his shoulder. Wide, bewildered eyes scan the merchandise of the store. He is a contrast in opposites – his disheveled and unwashed appearance cause him to look homeless, but his clothes while rumpled are clean, and the collegiate lugging of the backpack suggests middle-class, upper-educated. It is only then, that one notices his hands. They have no digits whatsoever, not the merest stump. His hands are fingerless palms, with five small black holes at the end of each, and there is an ugly yellow crust around each dried, marrowless bone. These are the hands of someone who has been recently and unspeakably ravaged, and it is then that two things become clear – why he appears misplaced, and that he is incapable of harming anyone, for there is no weapon he could wield even if his intentions were malignant.

I alone am manning the art gallery when this young, haunted man comes in, and I simultaneously curious, compassionate, uneasy, and reassured.

While studying and discussing the gallery’s artwork, I notice he does not check to see if I am studying his hands. In fact he seems courageously unaware of them. I find am not all that interested in his hands, but curious about his emotional reaction to some glass pieces. I am deeply concerned to show this art appreciator kind, unbiased attention, but feel that successfully closing a sale on a $500 piece would somehow compromise him. Though it is not my business as a salesperson to know how a person finances their collection, I cannot help wonder why this man says $500 is in his budget. How is that possible, I wonder? I also wonder how he keeps his backpack on his shoulder – shouldn’t it slip off at some point, for his shoulders are thin and narrow? Velcro, perhaps? Later, I deliberately do not offer a business card. How would he take it from me? I am not brave enough to put it in his pants pocket myself.

It is only in leaving that he graciously volunteers his strange appearance, when I ask where he is from. Though I remember few specifics of his description, from what I understand he is from California, and some time during the last year he was in what he describes as a “climbing accident.” Severe frostbite caused him to lose all the fingers on both his hands and all the toes of one foot. He only got out of the hospital some time in the last month. The yellow crust and exposed bones suggested as much. But here were the words that caused me to ache the most – he said, “It was a stupid mistake, my own fault; I should have known better.” I never learned what that mistake was, for his eyes had filled with tears and he quickly departed. This is a man who I, I hope wrongly, intuit will flog himself the rest of his life over a rash lapse in judgment.

I imagine he will never look at snow or mountains in the same way again.

Can you imagine a life with no hands? To not be able to take a business card, to open a backpack, to drive a car, much less deposit money into the fare receptacle on a bus. How do you go to the bathroom? How do you write? How do you do anything?

What I witnessed was a man deep in the process of grieving over the loss of his life as he knew it. After he left, The Voice suggested I pray for him. I did, and I felt that this moment of begging for someone else’s peace and healing was the sole reason for me to be at work that night.

Today, another brilliantly warm and sunny August afternoon, Bruce and I took the kids on a hike to Thunderbird Falls outside of Eagle River. It was a short hike, less than a mile, but it was through a birch forest, so I made sure Bruce had the bear-spray. For once I encouraged the kids to have temper tantrums and argue loudly. Though we had on our hiking boots and Evan was in his backpack, it was a hike I probably could have done in high-heels pushing a stroller. The trail was well-groomed, well-traveled, and wide, winding behind a small residential development. But for a family with four small children, it was reassuring to feel safe, knowing that even the most populated and densely built areas of Alaska can host roaming moose or bear.

On the return trip to the car, I was much more relaxed, assuming that figures moving in the distance were in fact other hikers and their pets, rather than a belligerent grizzly. We came upon a family group of mahogany-skinned, India-Indian-looking people, making their way up the trail, one at a time, with a good ten paces between each. The last in the group was a beautiful 60ish woman in a sari, with a huge diamond stud in her nose. Since I got my own nasal diamond stud, I find I get along very well with Indian women, whether pierced or not, so when she beamed at our four children, we stopped to chat with her.

During our brief conversation she told us that she was in the southern part of India last December when the terrible earthquake and tsunami hit. She retold how she was in the bath during the earthquake, and how the water had sloshed. Having been in a moderate-size earthquake while bathing myself, I could picture this exactly. Though she commented on the phenomenon to her husband, he noticed nothing. She said it was about 3 to 3 ½ hours later when the wave hit. They were 1 ½ kilometers from the beach when it happened, but the refugees flooded past them, and they told of 12 to 15 children that had been swept away. She shook her head over the loss, and said it was interesting that dogs ran from the beach and were saved. These poor unfortunate children were not.

She said many of the brave residents of that place are doing well rebuilding their lives, but that they would never look at the ocean, a source of livelihood and beauty, the same way again. Nor will I, to be sure. Because she and her husband currently reside in England, we gathered she had been back in India, her homeland, only on vacation. Even England, with its recent terrorist attacks, will never be the same again.

I, who have recently been so consumed with frustration over my stir-crazy, summer-bound children – their mess-making, their fighting – have forgotten that literally within arms reach are people who have been gravely afflicted. Physically, I am strong and healthy – I have all ten finger and all ten toes, as does my husband. I remember when Jack as born, after a very difficult, exhausting and damaging labor, asking if my baby had ten fingers and ten toes, as a way of asking, “Is he okay?” He was and is, as are the other three babes. We are living in a place that seems blessedly removed from the turmoil of the rest of the world, even as our many military folks are deployed to Iraq for dangerous tours, and their precious wives and children are left behind. I remember when the tsunami first happened asking a friend, who knows many well-off, retired folks, who I assume are more likely to travel than the average bloke, if he knew anyone who had been in any of the tsunami-affected areas. He was surprised the by the question, that I would think he might be touched personally by something so far away. I was surprised that he was surprised. The world is shrinking, and, as Thomas Friedman argues in his newest book, it is flattening as well. If I ever doubted that world events touch us in the relative paradise of Alaska, today proved my initial assumption correct. The events of the world, large and small, are but a conversation away if we bother to look and listen. I feel blessed that I am feeling braver about looking and listening. I feel blessed that I live in a place where it is quieter and I can more easily hear both The Big Voice and the smaller voices, and that I am learning –ever so slowly – to be brave enough to listen.

Let’s be honest – welcoming the pain and grieving of the world, when all we wish to be is complacent and safe, is a difficult thing. But what I’m seeing is that it is against the darkness of loss and death that the beauty of life is best illuminated. I cannot fathom the courage of traveling around the world, the way this Indian woman and her husband are – but they do so not even a year after witnessing a tragedy that arrested the self-centeredness of the world for more than a brief moment, and mere weeks after terror found its way to London. I am touched by the bitter melancholy of a man who has lost his digits and is made wistful and teary-eyed at a hand-blown glass bowl – the ability to still be moved by beauty and art when his life is clearly lost in the muddy murk of the unknown.

I am writing this now not because there is any great moral I wish to impose, but as a testimony to what I have seen. To those people who I have passed on the street, with whom I have had the privilege of exchanging a few words – this is my memorial to you – those few words we shared not only matter, but I carry with me and will continue to ruminate on for a long time to come.

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