Archive | September, 2013

Necessary cruelty.

8 Sep

She had white hair, dyed platinum in places and a little too long for her weathered wrinkled face. She wore two outfits the two days I spent with her (her and her fifty other townsfolk from Michigan), each a little too tight and a little too young for her frame at seventy-something. She played solitaire on an iPad her husband, seated next to her, had given her, perhaps as an anniversary gift, perhaps as a diversion for the long trip east.

New York City was a puzzle to her, as was her water bottle that spent more of its time rolling around at my feet on the floor of the motor coach than in her lap where she thought it was the entire time, each time it wasn’t, a completely divine infuriating mystery in her mind. 
She was quick to argue with the air, or something she thought I had said but didn’t, whatever it was not registering with her. She was quicker to interject a moment of disdain, the madding crowd maddening her as any number of pedestrians crossed the street in front of our bus as we turned any corner; the right-of-way was all wrong to her. She talked over me for hours on end half-paying attention to the tour she had paid to enjoy but didn’t, the other half paying attention to clubs and diamonds that never added up.
Rounding 49th Street onto 7th Avenue I spoke of all of the wonders of Times Square, the bright bulbs and broken dreams. She screamed over me, to me, “Look at Elmo!” I responded harshly, “Yes, I know! I live down the block. I see that Elmo and the seven other Elmos every day. Why don’t you let me point out some things to you?” She had worn me down and I needed to re-draw a boundary. I talk. You listen. Because a breach in the social contract terrifies me. She terrified me.
At the end of our first day, she grabbed my arm hard with the grip of a mad woman as we walked into the restaurant for dinner. “You need to,” she fairly screamed at me, words that grate, as I feel I’m a pretty good judge about what I need to do myself without the input of an oddball I’d barely met, “tape everything you say because it is a lot of information and we can’t remember it all.” This is not something I haven’t thought about a lot, believe me. It is, in fact, a good idea and one that could possibly double my income, selling myself to a group twice, in person and then digitally afterwards. But I reacted to her intensity instead, and flipped her off with with a zinger, “Usually people just listen during the tour.”
Today she was late quite a bit, taking the time to take pictures of all the wrong things, the penis on the nude Botero statue in the Time Warner Center, the dead woman being pulled from the East River at the South Street Seaport, earning the ire of everyone else as well. Do not make fifty senior citizens wait. They turn into backstabbing kindergartners. We had become a mob with a scapegoat, but an oblivious one, at that, which kind of ruins all the fun.
Towards the end of the day, we passed the throng of humanity lazily wandering up and down the Sixth Avenue Food Festival on a breathtakingly beautiful cloudless cool day. It was a joy to behold. And she spoke up again, to no one in particular but her God perhaps, “Look at all those stupid people! Ridiculous!” 
I spoke for God, “Ridiculous, really? What’s so ridiculous about it?” 
She was startled. I don’t think she realized she had said it out loud, and she fumbled for some kind of excuse, stumbling through what passed  for an apology in her world. But in that moment, her world opened up to me. The stumbling and fumbling, the outbursts unknown to her, the tardiness, the misplaced focus, the misplaced water bottle. She was suffering in her mind it dawned on mine, some loss of function, a confusion of reality, the dreaded word, dementia, perhaps, but yes, quite likely.
Why had I not seen it? What, for heaven’s sake, clouds my own judgement that I would first play with this mouse like a cat, seeing threats that weren’t there and exploiting her weakness for some dumb sense of superiority, to draw a dumb line in the sand rather than dig deeper to look for suffering unchecked? What is in me or not that kept me from reaching out to her?
Perhaps the greatest case for evolution is the lizard part of our brain that kicks in whenever we feel we are losing ground. We either run or strike first and hard, and compassion has a fairly hard time catching up. All those elegant cells on the outer layers of cortex have a wayward route to the wild gutless limbic system at the center of dark heartlessness whose sole function is to keep us alive. 
I have spent a cold season rooted in science and this makes sense to me. 
But if there is a spirit, perhaps it lives somewhere in the tangling of all of those neurons where unprovable or unlikely realms of kindness and grace dwell. Christ died for our sins I was taught in the catechism of my childhood, on the altars of my youth. What in heaven or on earth does this mean, this salvation by proxy? I cannot say tonight. But tonight, I will turn my face into my pillow and weep, for me, for all of us, and for the necessary cruelty of which we are all capable and must call upon more occasionally than not I suppose to endure, suffering, and suffering our better angels that call upon us despite every good reason to transcend our broken brains and bodies.
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