I’m in a good mood as I make my way up the hill to visit a friend. The weather is transitioning to autumn; cool nights, misty mornings and bright, warm afternoons like this one. Against a brilliant blue sky, the leaves of the ancient maples lining the street rustle cheerfully in a light breeze. Fat squirrels bound across the front lawns of once grand Victorian houses, carrying last minute additions to the stockpiles that will get them through winter. I pass a nodding acquaintance from the library. We nod, giving each other smiles just wide enough to acknowledge familiarity, but not so wide we’d have to stop and chat. Even my knees are in a good mood, protesting the extra effort of the climb with mild twinges instead of the agonized yowling that usually accompanies a steep incline.
I crest the hill and round the corner onto the street where my friend lives. Yellow tape cordons off a stretch of sidewalk. On one end, the tapes are tied to the porch railings of a shabby rooming house. On the other end, they are wrapped around the bumpers of an old bus that has been converted into a police mobile command post. I hear the crackle of two-way radios as I walk around the bus and up the front walk of the restored Victorian house where my friend sits on the miniscule balcony of her second story apartment.
“What happened here?” I call up.
She tosses the answer down to me along with the key to the front door. “Murder.”
In her tiny perfect kitchen, she makes me a spectacular cup of coffee – fresh ground beans, steeped in a French press – then we sit out on the balcony for a smoke while she tells me about the murder.
There have been problems with the next-door neighbors this summer, all-night parties that regularly spilled stoned guests out onto the street where they shouted incoherently at each other. Two days previously, at the height of a particularly boisterous party, my friend heard her neighbor shout out a death threat. Shortly after that, a young man lay bleeding to death in the middle of the road, stabbed, possibly, by the woman who uttered the threat.
My friend wonders what would have happened if she had called the police. She threatened to do so earlier as the noise levels rose, but they turned down the music so she never followed through. If she had, she might have saved that young man’s life. I listen to her guilt and remember how, a long time ago, I felt the same way.
During a brief downturn in my life following the end of my first marriage, I lived in a dilapidated apartment building next door to a motorcycle gang house. It wasn’t unusual to arrive home from work and find myself unable to get to the door of the building because police swat teams were arresting my neighbors for possession of illegal firearms or busting up one of the broken-bottle rumbles that took place in the parking lot outside my living room window.
One morning, in the middle of winter, a friend who’d been visiting me went out to the bus stop and found a young woman wearing motorcycle leathers lying on the ground. Her arms were wrapped around her belly. She retched and vomited continuously. She had a split lip and a swollen bruise covered half her face. Despite the sub-zero temperature and her lack of warm clothing, she was drenched in sweat and reeked of alcohol.
I went inside, called 911 and took a blanket back out to the bus stop. We sat with her until the ambulance came while I kept a fearful eye on the front door of the gang house, worried her biker boyfriend might decide to have another go at her. She ignored us, panting and moaning in the intervals between vomiting up pale yellow bile. As the paramedics were lifting her onto the stretcher, I decided to stay with her.
In the hospital, after telling the admitting nurse everything I could, which wasn’t much, I sat alone in the waiting room listening to the young woman scream. The doctor came out and told me the she was aborting a fetus, probably killed by a blow to her stomach during the beating. She screamed because she was too intoxicated to be given pain medication.
When it was over, I went in to see her. She was still drunk enough to have problems focusing her eyes. I asked her for the name of someone I could contact, hoping to find relatives or friends. She shrieked at me to go away, to leave her alone. I returned to the hospital waiting room for a while, then realized there was nothing more to be done and went home. I felt guilty about abandoning her until I called the hospital to check on her later that day. They told me she had somehow managed to dress herself and walk out without anyone noticing.
When things like this happen now, I no longer feel guilt.
Imagine life as a river and events as stones. Choices we make for ourselves have the most impact, like boulders tossed into the water, creating great splashing waves of consequences and redirecting the flow of life. The casual actions/inactions of others are like pebbles landing in the backwash of the waves, tiny perturbations whose ripples ultimately have little, if any, effect.
And this is how it should be. It’s okay to toss a pebble or two in someone else’s river, when the need arises, when we believe we are doing the right thing. But it’s best to reserve the big stones, the stones of commitment, responsibility and regret, for our own rivers.