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Our feet were bound with splints, but now,
Like convalescents intimate and gauche,
We speak through sickly smiles and warn
With the stubborn saw of common sense,
The grim joke and the banal resolution.
The traffic moves around with care,
But we remain, touching a wound
That opens to our richest horror.
Already old, the question Who shall die?
Becomes unspoken Who is innocent?
–Auto Wreck, Karl Shapiro
The day Mary Anne died was like any other day, except that an inexplicable pre-dawn disturbance roused me from sleep. She passed away on April 17th, 2019, at 2:22 a.m. while lying in a hospital bed about eight miles from my home. Though I was unaware of her passing, I awoke at that exact moment to the sound of restless wind rustling through my bedroom. My heart beat anxiously and my eyes searched through the dark for a sign that our eight-pound rescue pup had leaped from the bed in need of an unexpected trip to the yard.
This was not the case. The dog lay resting in a puddle at my feet, and I lay wide awake for the next hour inexplicably worried about my friend who’d fallen suddenly ill weeks before and had been hospitalised for treatment of acute myocarditis. It isn’t that Mary Anne and I were intimately involved in each other’s lives. She was younger than I am by ten years, and though we’d known each other for our entire teaching careers and had kept in touch after I retired by sharing an occasional dinner out and exchanging birthday cards each year, our lives were in very different places, as she still had daughters at home and mine had long ago left the nest.
Our lives may not have been intimate, but the experience of her dying was. Her family had made the decision to enter daily posts on a medical support site so they’d be able to communicate daily with family and friends and update us on her fragile, tumultuous status. Reading the posts each night was like tuning in to a twenty-four hour “breaking news” cycle: each commentary included her husband’s lengthy, detailed accounts of the day’s medical procedures and their risks, as well as her loved ones’ very personal responses posted as daily encouragement for her continued fight to survive.
I’ve never considered myself a voyeur; I prefer to avoid over-stimulating life events and would rather look away than gaze intently at another’s suffering. Perhaps this is the result of years growing up with a mother who would think nothing of changing our car’s direction at the slightest indication that a fire truck or police siren was nearby because she was curious about whatever tragedy they might be responding to. Unlike her, I would cringe at this sensational diversion and avert my glance when we invariably arrived at the catastrophic event.
My father, too, chose volatility over peace. Why else would he have decided to make a career of military life? Unlike him, I’ve never been to war, though I’ve heard plenty of war stories, thanks to his service in Korea and his subsequent years in the army. Perhaps in response to both parents’ attraction to turmoil, I’m not one who enjoys confrontation, preferring appeasement or compromise whenever possible. I’ve never personally survived a catastrophic illness or a natural disaster, though I grew up in New York City during a very turbulent era and personally witnessed the results of such these volatile times, given the riots and protests that accompanied the civil rights period in our history. I’ve never even been hospitalized for an illness, though I spent a few nights in one while giving birth to my only child. I may not always have been able to steer the vessels that contain me toward calm waters, but I would much rather wade in the tide than watch a ship go down, the victim of a stormy sea.
As I write this, I must confess that personally, I’ve lived a charmed life, despite having survived the violent deaths of some of my closest relatives and the chronic abuse that I witnessed in both my parents’ marriages, first with each other, and later, with second partners. When I was young, these unpredictable, volatile eruptions seemed normal, as they occurred with great regularity. It wasn’t until I completed my education, married and then moved away from my childhood city that I was able to distance myself from trauma, even going so far as to consult with a therapist for a few years to ensure that I would avoid similar patterns. And for the most part, on a personal level, I have. What I’ve never considered until now, though, is how such ingrained vicarious responses to other people’s pain might impact my own well being, even when I’m not intimately observant of, involved with or responsible for their suffering.
Given my deliberate avoidance of such experiences, why, then, my preoccupation with my friend Mary Anne’s daily medical reports, as revealed in her husband’s detailed accounts of her precarious status? Why did my mind turn to the image of her in that hospital bed whenever I allowed it the freedom to do so? And why had she even become part of my nocturnal ponderings? Whether my strange awakening the night Mary Anne died had anything to do with her passing is irrelevant, given that I’ll never know the answer, at the least, not until I’ve experienced my own. What matters, though, are the reasons for its pervasive impact, despite the fact that my daily life goes on, as usual.
Two days before Mary Anne died, a catastrophic fire burned down huge portions of the historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. For several days afterward, the news cycle covered copious details about the fire and its aftermath, including France’s elite citizens’ decision to donate over one billion dollars toward its reconstruction, even while people in their country and around the world live under conditions of chronic deprivation, a reality that some have found unsettling when juxtaposed with the much less threatening devastation wrought upon an inanimate, albeit iconic structure. Still, the dollars flowed, as did the lofty rhetoric, the patriotic promises and the global gestures of comfort and camaraderie.
During the two days while Mary Anne tenuously clung to life in a nearby I.C.U. ward, I couldn’t log into my news accounts without reading about the towering inferno that blasted the Paris sky, the heroic efforts to extinguish its flames or the awestruck faces of those who stood weeping on nearby streets, eyes lifted upward at the smoke billowing above them. Dignitaries and heads of state weighed in on the cathedral’s demise and its potential future. Historians reminded us of its trials and its triumphs. I switched the channel and life went on.
Just one month before Mary Anne died, a New Zealand mosque suffered a terrorist attack and images of its victims saturated our news pages and channels; then, less than a week after her death, on Easter Sunday, several of Sri Lanka’s churches and hotels met with a similar fate, supposedly in retaliation for comparable hate crimes directed at those who worship differently. As was the case with the Notre Dame fire and previous bombings, the news coverage was immediate and relentless.
Meanwhile, after her sudden departure, Mary Anne’s family solemnly planned for her funeral celebration, scheduled for the day after Easter so that families and friends would be able to enjoy their holiday weekend uninterrupted, then travel from various locales to attend. During these final days, the support site provided posts of the family’s afterthoughts, as well as their expressions of gratitude, the funeral details, and the local newspaper’s obituary. And then, like someone had switched the channel, all news of their lives disappeared from view. And for many, life went on. But not for me.
I couldn’t shake the image of my last visit with Mary Anne when she lay feebly in her hospital bed with tubes and monitors tracking her vital signs. Feeling adrift, I futilely returned to the support network site in search of lingering details regarding her family’s wellbeing. What would become of her two young daughters? Of her self-employed widowed husband who relied on her for health insurance, a substantive salary, and most especially, her loving company? Gone were the daily posts, and with them, the intense intimacy among those affected and those who stood by helplessly and vicariously experienced their pain. The smoldering embers of Notre Dame’s façade were also gone from my daily news encounters. No longer could I see the flickering embers or hear the sounds of those mourning voices singing “Ava Maria” by candlelight near her charred remains. No longer could I hear the cries of Sri Lanka’s survivors as they searched for the loved ones’ remains. Gone, too, the strange rustling in my room during the early morning hours. All of them, gone.
Like “breaking news” ribbons that scroll across the bottoms of our news sites or cable screens, these intense, temporary encounters with other people’s lives are but passing glimpses of their pain, yet we gaze upon each as though our lives depend on the knowledge of their outcomes. By now, so used to sleeping with friends and strangers, alike, we welcome each passerby into our beds, making room for their furrowed brows upon our pillows; then cast them aside like the wind that rushes through our private rooms searching for a place to exit, only to evaporate into empty space.
Laura Iodice, a Bronx native, has resided with her husband in Syracuse, N.Y. for the past forty years. She is a veteran educator, has taught classes in literature, composition, rhetoric and cultural constructions of race and has published professionally about these subjects. Her creative non-fiction has appeared in The Furious Gazelle, Conclave Magazine, Litro, Metafore Magazine, Crack the Spine Literary Journal and Vending Machine. Her poems have been featured in The Write Launch and in What Rough Beast. Most recently, she has enjoyed the publication of her first middle school illustrated chapter book, Where the Heart Lives.