Should I Stop?
Choices We Make
This is the story of two people I had never met before and have never seen since their appearances in my life. They were both in need in different ways. I have tried many times to figure out exactly what my interaction with them meant. After each of the appearances, I found myself changed. But I am merely a storyteller here. I will let you decide what you believe the significance is. Both events are true. One happened close to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and one happened in Arkansas. The names and some identifying information have been changed.
Last summer my husband and I were staying at our camp in Arkansas. We were taking a ride in the wildlife reserve as we do almost every day right at dusk, just to be outdoors for awhile and hopefully see a deer or other wildlife. As we drove into the reserve, we saw a small car stopped in the right-hand lane ahead of us. Joe slowed and passed it. It was not disturbed in any way and we decided someone had simply run out of gas and walked out to get help. We rode down to the lake and started back out of the reserve, passing the stopped car again.
It was very hot that day. It had to be in the 90s. As we drove, we saw something like a mirage standing on the side of the road. It was a woman wearing very short shorts and a tiny halter top. She was covered with tattoos and carrying a purse and a bottle of water. She was waving her arms and crying hysterically.
"We have to stop. We can’t just leave her here." Joe wasn’t too pleased with the situation, but he slammed on the brake, nevertheless.
" Let me turn around," Joe said as he turned the truck around and headed back to where she stood.
She walked over to the truck. "Can you give me a ride home? My car died and I just can’t walk any more. I just don’t have any more strength. I come here and pick up rocks for my son’s grave all the time." Tears were steadily rolling down her face and some fell on her chest, rolling down over her tattoos. At this point, Joe gave me the look that said, What are you getting me into?
"Sure, get in, we’ll drive you home. Where do you live?" Joe said, because he is tough, you see.
"Just about two miles down the road. I’d really appreciate it."
Joe’s old truck was such a mess, with all sorts of tools and such in the floor that she could hardly get into the backseat because there was nowhere for her feet. "I’ll sit in the back end," she said, starting to walk toward the back.
"Oh, no, you’re not going to do that; that’s ridiculous." I got out and pulled my seat up and she was able to find a place for her feet.
"Thank you-all so much for stopping for me. No one ever comes down here much. I could have been stuck for hours. I come down here a lot just to get out and to look for rocks for my son’s grave. He was killed in a fire two months ago. He was a rodeo star." Another look from Joe.
"I’m so sorry. How old was your son?"
"He was only 22."
I was studying her tattoos as we talked and she pointed out one, saying it was her son’s initials. She started to pull some papers from her purse and handed me a laminated article from the newspaper. I read through it quickly, a story about a young man who had died in a fire in a town close to where we were. I memorized the names and knew I would research it when I got back to the camp and my laptop.
"He was famous. He was the best bull rider in this county. I was so proud of him. And then they called to tell me about the fire." Tears still flowed, but she was quieter now and seemed to be settling down.
"How far from here do you live?" This is Joe, starting to wonder just exactly how deep we are into it.
"Just about a half a mile more. I really appreciate you-all taking me home. I don’t know if I’d pick up someone that looked like me." At this, she began to laugh and it turned into something close to hysterics. I had the definite sense that this was not who she had always been, that she had wandered off a more stable path and into something beyond her control. No one spoke for about ten minutes. "Here it is. This is where I live. Don’t go back in there and get all dusty. You can just let me out here.
Hell on Earth?
As we drove into the entrance she pointed out to us, there was a sign, professionally made, that said: "Enter at Your Own Risk. The Owner is Crazy." Well, Okay.
There was not a blade of grass on the property, just fine, white, dusty dirt. Joe took her at her word and didn’t drive all the way to the mobile home at the back of the lot. In front of it was a young man, pacing back and forth. He had no shirt, no shoes, just jeans. He was talking on a cell phone and smoking a cigarette. He never once acknowledged us, never even seemed to know that we were there. He was like a caged lion or tiger, full of pent-up energy and anger, I sensed.
As she got out, I did too. "Are you going to be okay?" I was reluctant to leave her in such a desolate place with such an alarming person.
"Oh, I’m fine. I’m just fine." She walked over and we embraced. She said quietly in my ear, "Nobody else would have stopped for me. May God always bless you."
"And you too. I will think of you and pray for you," I said. I was at a loss as to what I should say and that was what came out. She smiled and slowly walked back to the mobile home and the pacing man. She turned once and waved at us as we passed the sign about the crazy owner. Part of me wanted to jump out of the car, run back and grab her and take her home with us, somewhere safe, somewhere else, anywhere but here. But I didn’t. I left her there with the pacing man and the dust and desolation and hoped she’d do her best to rise above it all.
Just Making Sure
Just because I am cynical to some degree and because, in another way, I wanted to confirm her story, I Googled the names from the newspaper article. And there was her son on the front page of the newspaper in the town she had mentioned: Well-known bull rider killed in a house fire, not able to get the door open because of debris falling against it and unable to break windows that had been nailed shut because of a burglary. At first, I thought, "Aha" when I saw that the name of the mother in the article was different than the one she had given us, then I saw "stepmother" by that name and there was her name as the mother.
I never had an urge to reconnect with her. I knew she didn’t want that any more than I did.
A Lifetime Ago
Approximately 28 years ago on my way from New Orleans, where I have lived for 40 years, to El Dorado, Arkansas, I was speeding along at approximately 15 miles over the speed limit, doing about 85. Don’t judge. I don’t do it anymore. As I rounded a curve, I saw a young African-American man standing on the side of the road. I was in close enough proximity to him to hear him calling "help, help." I also saw that he was barefoot and jumping up and down on the hot pavement. And it was hot that day, close to Vicksburg, Mississippi, very hot. It had to be at least 95 and climbing toward 100 at 11:15 in the morning.
There are moments in our lives when we wrestle with what’s right. During this particular time in my life, I was not especially attuned to "others," more to myself, my own drama, my own wants and needs. All that aside, I had enough awareness to stop and think about the young man crying and jumping about on the side of the highway. I thought about being cut into pieces and thrown in the trunk of a car to rot in the heat of the Mississippi forest. Yet I had enough reasoning power to know that men who do those things don’t generally show themselves to the world on the side of the road.
Once the Decision is Made . . .
I slammed on the brakes. I remember that the tires squealed a bit on the hot pavement as I slowed and turned around on the highway, only having to back up once. I put on a left turn signal and pulled off the highway on the far side of the young man. In that split second before I got out of the car, I thought to myself, "You’re in it now. No turning back." As I got out of the car, he ran to meet me, calling, "It’s my granny. She’s not moving or talking."
"Tell me more. Has she been sick?" I asked him as he switched from one to the other of his bare feet on the hot pavement.
"She went to clean Ms. Jones’ house this morning and she walked home from down there. When she got home, she went in the bathroom and threw up. Then she went to the couch and hasn’t been moving. We don’t have a phone. I just need some help to get an ambulance. I been out here ten minutes and no one will stop for me."
All this came out in a jumble, in a breaking voice, in a frightened voice. I was no longer afraid. When he kept saying no one would stop, I wanted to remind him that this was Mississippi, but I kept quiet. As he spoke, we were both jogging down the highway toward the mobile home where, evidently, he and his granny lived.
"Well, someone stopped and it’s going to be okay. We’ll see how she is and I will drive you somewhere to call an ambulance." Some part of me was watching myself from afar at this point, wondering who the hell this calm, together adult person was. Wasn’t anyone I knew, anyway. I was impressed!
Like the Sanctuary of a Church
When we walked in the door of the mobile home, I was struck by an overwhelming feeling of peace. The light from the one window shone down on the face of a tiny African-American woman. She wore a starched white apron and had a white cloth tied around her head. As I walked to the couch, I knew that she was dead. Her eyes were rolled up and had a glassy appearance. For the young man’s sake, I felt for a pulse in her tiny wrist. There was none. I also "felt" her overwhelming goodness and experienced a strong urge to cry, which I resisted. My young male friend was already crying and wringing his hands. If angels had begun to sing at that moment, I would not have been surprised; the feeling of the divine in that room was palpable. But they didn't, and I was left with telling him that his granny was gone forever.
"She’s gone. I’m so sorry. "
"Oh, Jesus. Oh, no, no. She’s all I've got. I have no one else." He sobbed and sobbed and tears ran steadily down his cheeks.
"It will be okay. It will work out, and you will be okay." And I knew it would. I knew he would be okay, would likely be more than okay because he had been nurtured by this woman who exuded goodness, even in death. "Now we have to call someone to come get her. We can’t leave her here." He looked at me blankly for a moment, not comprehending what I meant, then he understood.
"You mean the death wagon."
"Well, the coroner, I suppose. We’ll go somewhere where there’s a phone and you can call."
As we walked out the door, I looked back at the little old lady. Although I’m sure now it was just the light from the window, it was as though she was surrounded by white light. He locked the door behind us and we went to my car. He directed me to Ms. Jones’ house, the woman who had sent his granny out in 95-degree heat to walk home down the side of a highway. I was thinking of giving Ms. Jones a rather nasty piece of my mind, but realized I would only make it harder for him if I did and swore to myself to keep my mouth shut.
We drove about three-quarters of a mile, first down the highway, then turning down a gravel road and a good little ways down it. On the right was an old two-story white house. On the porch sat an old lady with white hair and round spectacles. I saw no car anywhere.
"Does Ms. Jones drive?"
"Oh, no, she doesn’t even have a car."
My anger at Ms. Jones lessened as I realized she couldn’t have taken Granny home if she had wanted to. My young man sat down on the swing with her. They talked for a few moments, then he walked back to my car where I sat waiting. I got out of the car as he approached and met him.
"She said she’d call for me and help me take care of things. I want to thank you for all you’ve done for me. No one else would stop. Lots of men passed me up and I was surprised when a woman stopped. You took a chance and I appreciate it." At this point, he stuck out his hand for me to shake.
Something compelled me to put my arms around him and pull him into a hug. As I patted his back, he said, "I hope God blesses you all the days of your life."
I got in my car and drove away, leaving him in the care of Ms. Jones. I never learned the young man’s name, never gave him mine. I have passed his mobile home periodically for 28 years, going back and forth to Arkansas, and once a few months after that day, I saw him in the yard. I never had an inclination to stop, ever. I’ve never wanted to reconnect and felt it would be the wrong thing to do. I think he would agree.
Life Went On
I’ve wondered since last summer what these times in my life meant. I told a friend about them and she said that it meant I still don’t have enough sense to stop picking up strangers. She may be right. I don’t know.
I could have called the police in both instances. But would the police have shown human kindness to either of them ? I’m sure some would and some wouldn’t. They are, after all, human. I believe that knowing that another human being cares about our safety, well-being, just cares about "us," is sometimes what we need and all we need. It gives us the strength to face what we have to face, to know we are not in it alone, but are connected to others by an invisible thread that stretches and bends but never breaks, even though it becomes lost at times.
My Time of Need
Once, years ago, I was shopping in Home Depot. I was extremely tired. I had opened a business that was losing money at a frightening rate. I was out of ideas and out of blind faith. I was at the place that’s called rock bottom, although we’ve all learned, if we’ve lived long enough, that rock bottom can always go a little deeper and be a little rockier. I bought a ladder to do some repairs on the building my business was in. As I was walking out of the store, carrying the ladder, a young man approached me. "Need some help with that, ma’am?"
"Yes, that would be wonderful."
He carried the ladder, which was heavy, to my car, got it settled in the back of the station wagon and tied down. I said thank you and he left. My spirit soared. It wasn’t anything flamboyant, just a simple kind gesture.
What I Believe
Sometimes a simple kind gesture is all that is necessary. I think sometimes we forget why we’re here. Do we search for the meaning of life constantly, not realizing it resides all around us and has since the day we were born, just waiting to be acted upon with a simple gesture like carrying a ladder or giving someone a ride?
What force or energy, synergy, put those two people in my path? Why did I stop when others didn’t? Was it because I’m a better person than most? Hell, no.
Here’s what I believe. I believe life conditions us, conditions us to be afraid, to be cautious, to be careful, not to trust our instincts, to go by the facts, to ignore our own inclinations. I think the answer to why I stopped is simply this: When I was 39, I wasn’t conditioned yet. Now that I’m 67, I’m not conditioned yet. A lifelong friend told me once, "One of those people you help are going to kill your ass one of these days." She may be correct, and that will likely mean that I’m still not conditioned.
I Want to be a Hero!
I suppose I’m a bit like my own hero, Owen Meany: I want to be a hero – not a heroine; that word doesn’t suffice -- a hero, facing down fear, revealing the S on my chest; all this on a very small scale, to be sure, but nevertheless . . .and like Owen Meany, I’m willing to die trying.