To Stop or Not
Barefoot on the Side of the Road
Although I have been reluctant to do so, I am finally writing the story of a happening that changed my life more than almost any other event has. It has always seemed very personal and I've felt almost proprietary about it, not wanting to share it in print. Now I realize it's time to write it. I've told the story a hundred times to a hundred people. It's time to let it have a life of its own.
Sometime in the '80s, I'm not positive when, I was driving to Arkansas to pick up my teen-aged children along with a friend of theirs who had been visiting my father-in-law. Being from New Orleans, they were bored to tears in the small Arkansas town and ready to come home. I had the radio on, and I was driving probably 85, watching for lurking cops along the way. As I flew down into a deep dip in the road, I slowed down to take a curve. Then I thought my eyes were playing tricks. Standing on the side of the road was a young African-American man. He was hopping from one foot to the other and seemed quite agitated. He was also trying to flag me down, waving his arms wildly and gesturing. I continued to accelerate for a short time, then I went through one of those soul-searching moments that I'll never forget. I remember thinking that the right thing was to stop. I also remember one of my friends telling me one of the people I'm always helping is going to kill me someday. I knew my husband would be saying: Get your ass out of there. And then I stopped and started to back up.
After the Leap of Faith is Made
At this point, I had visions of being locked in my trunk and was thinking of kicking out the taillight as I'd seen on some TV show. When I pulled back far enough to reach the young man, I saw that there were tears pouring down his face and he was extremely distraught. I pulled in to the driveway leading to a mobile home, which I assumed was his. He said: Oh, thank you, Jesus. You stopped. Somebody finally stopped. I been out there for 15 minutes and nobody would stop. At this point, he began to cry for real. I asked him what was going on.
Home is Where the Heart is.
He started to walk back toward the mobile home and talk at the same time as I followed. He said his grandmother had come in from cleaning Ms. Smith's house, lay down for a while, got up, went to the bathroom and threw up, then walked back to the couch and hadn't moved since.
"She won't talk to me. She won't say a word. I don't have a phone and I can't call an ambulance."
I'm thinking how sad it is that he had been standing out there all that time, hoping someone would stop and no one did. I walked toward the trailer with him. When we got inside, there on the couch was a tiny African-American woman, lying very still. Her head was wrapped around in a white scarf of some kind and her white apron was starched and immaculate. She was also very dead. I went closer to see for sure, lifted an eyelid, and saw that her eyes were glazed over. I told her grandson that she had been dead for some time and I didn't think he should call an ambulance.
A Hero for a Second in Time
He started to cry again. I sat down in one of the chairs in the pristine little home. There was such a prevailing feeling of peace in that tiny living room, and I realized that it was because of the grandmother, that she had been a good and loving person and I was feeling some of her energy, left behind when she left the planet. We sat there for a while, my new friend bawling and me contemplating how cold-hearted people can be. By now, I had totally forgotten that I almost didn't stop myself. Like Owen Meany, I always wanted to be a hero and I figured this was as close as I would ever get. A bit of hubris was setting in and I was becoming pretty proud of myself. That's one of those human things that has always been so easy for me to do. I had become a hero simply because I stopped to help someone!
I asked him what I could do and he wanted me to drive him to Ms. Smith's house, the lady whose house his grandmother had cleaned, after which she had walked home in the 100-degree heat. I drove him there. Ms. Smith was on the porch and they talked for a while. He walked out to my car and said she was going to help him with the arrangements. He reached out his hand to shake mine and said: Ma'am, I hope God blesses you all your life. I put my arms around him and gave him a big hug, more for me than him because I think it embarrassed him. I didn't care. I turned back once as I walked back to the car and he was still watching me, this 40-year-old woman who had stopped to help, likely wondering what kind of life I led, where I came from, where I was going. I'm sure in his eyes for just that day, I was a hero. And incidentally, the word "heroine" just doesn't work for me. I wanted to be a hero.
I spent one night at my father--in-law's house and listened to the kids complain about how bored they were. We left early the next day as I needed to be home and at work. As we got near to Vicksburg, the car began to spurt and sputter. It finally died. It was hot and the kids were whiny and I didn't know a living soul in Vicksburg, much less how to get the car somewhere to get it fixed. I was very close to crying. It was before cell phones and quite a walk even to find a phone book. I was getting ready to start walking when a rickety old truck pulled up. It was piled high with junk in the back and looked ready to fall apart. The elderly African-American man inside didn't look a day less than 90. He pulled up, looked the situation over and said: Well, what do you think?
I said: I need to get to a place that can fix my car. He grinned a toothless grin and said: I could have figured that one out, ma'am. Within 20 minutes, he had come back with a tow truck from a mechanic shop. As they were working on the car, I was digging in my purse, looking for money to pay him for his help. I turned around and he was gone. I barely caught a glimpse of the rear of his truck bumping up the road. I supposed he didn't want money.
Trust the Heart
It was a strange day, a day of coincidences or a day of karma or just a day of kindness. I'll never know. But it caused a definite shift in my consciousness. More than anything, it taught me that sometimes we have to trust our instincts. When I looked in my rear-view mirror at the young man standing and waving his arms, I felt no fear at all. I think I was led by an intelligence higher than mine or a love greater than mine to stop and help. I learned that there are truly holy and God-like people, like the tiny grandma, in this world who often live in the most unexpected places. I was reminded of Steven King's book, The Stand, and Mother Abigail, who represented everything "good." We have painted our world with stereotypes and before that day, I was buying in to each of them. My eyes have been opened. I am still cautious always. It would be foolish not to be. But I have learned that the sixth sense we all possess is fail-safe, at least for me. I have experienced it two times more since then, once in the opposite way and in a way that I believe likely saved my own life.
Time Goes By
I go to Arkansas several times a year and have often thought of stopping to see the young man I helped that day. However, some inner feeling that I should just let it be has caused me not to. The mobile home is still kept up well, grass moved, flower beds trimmed, when I pass by 20 years later. I believe that for a moment I was an angel, sent to help, just as the little old man in the rickety truck was an angel sent to help me. When I looked in to his eyes, set deep in a face weathered by days in the sun, I saw depth and love and peace and joy. I don't who he might have been. Anything is possible.
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