“Help me be strong,” a man once said to another man.
“Be strong,” the listener responded.
Don’t ask me how bad her living situation was. You couldn’t imagine it. The level of abuse she had no choice but to tolerate, the job that kept her out until the wee hours, and not in your favorite part of town. Bussing to and from for low wages, and caring for three young daughters all the while.
I paint this portrait not to elicit pity — she certainly had none for herself — but rather to celebrate the character of the person in question. She possessed a quiet, gentle resilience I found staggering. All this would be happening to her, and I’d see her on the bus and ask after her day; she possessed the herculean ability not just to smile, but to mean it. Upon getting to know her better it became only more evident that her energy was genuine. “I’ll work through it,” she’d say, with a wan smile that would often turn bigger.
Her eyes twinkled with some unknown secret — belief in herself, perhaps.
She would course the flow of the world into a positive way, incredibly, with her own hidden potency. This is more impressive than it sounds; it means, in essence, that she was not reactive. Bravado works for some people, but not her. This woman, with her small frame and delicate features, was nobody’s first idea of great strength, and her meek, observing demeanor didn’t strike the mind as that of a go-getter. But never mind that. She is real, and this is her way; her gentle, unwavering spirit overwhelms our silly preconceived notions of what strength looks like. She got more done with a gesture than a lifetime of someone else’s chest-thumping machismo.
In any event, her life had gotten to the point where she needed to escape her living situation. She had tried to do so before and failed, to unspeakable physical abuse and emotional torture. I remain intentionally vague here to protect her privacy. We had become friends, but she’d fallen out of contact of late; here she is today, though, calling to tell me that yes, in fact, she was going to try to leave town again.
She’d almost made it the attempt previous, but this time she’d made it as far as the train station, further than before. Her, her three girls, and a small amount of luggage, thanks to a friend of hers who risked a lot in helping — here she is now, and it could be possible, maybe, that they’ll make it onto this train, just maybe, and the train will begin moving, before her abusers and controllers can find out and stop her… Maybe.
Just a few more hours.
I was just arriving at the base when she called. Could I stop by at the train station to say goodbye? I was almost at work. Time was running thin. Into the phone I told her, “I just can’t make it over there today. I have to go to work. I know it might be your last time here, but…”
We knew each other once, she and I. A pessimist would argue that all of life is an ongoing experience of continuous loss. Many other things happen in life, but pervasive loss is unavoidable. One combats it only by finding closure in as many cases as one can. If you can find a way to say goodbye, do so.
Because then you can sleep at night. I ruminated on this while staring out the window, communing with the skyscrapers and freeway overpasses: this can’t be how it ends. She calls one person, me, to see her off at the train station, as she embarks on a new phase in her life free from the ugly suffering she’s been made to endure- and I’m busy because I’m going to work.
As you may know, Metro’s attendance policy is an unforgiving one: if I am one minute late to sign in for my shift, I’m not allowed to work that day. I don’t get paid. On top of that, you get written up and disciplined for it. Your grace period is the 59 remaining seconds of the minute that comprises your sign-in time. Was there enough time for me to get in my car, race to the train station, and race back in time?
Maybe. And sometimes maybe is worth trying for.
I offer the rest of this post to the person in question, on the hope that you might, by amazing chance, one day stumble across this:
Long hair tied back, with strands blowing in the wind. Blond wisps quivering with life. What do we do when a moment is too large to process? You feel the size of life, pulsing past with immediacy.
Sunlight slanting down on cement and brick facades, coloring it all with light and shadow; you’re much thinner now, more than I’ve ever seen, a casualty of stress and a draining life. You haven’t slept, or eaten; no makeup on today, and I don’t think I’ve seen you more haggard, or more beautiful- I can hardly believe it, but even after all this, your smile is still there. This resilient positivity doesn’t insist on itself; it is simply enmeshed with the core of your being. It’s easy for you to be who you are, and maybe this is why your rich smile burgeons forth now in the afternoon light.
The children play around you, blurs of movement, noise and stillness. You feel it in the air: the quality of a memory, here and now, the sensation of being steeped in the history of passing time, even as it all takes place.
There is something that money, education, culture, and status lead us away from, and makes us forget: it is ineffable, but it is related to the importance of truth and quiet conscience, of being happy. For you this is easy to embody. That is why I am not worried about you; somehow you are able to continue, on a path unaffected by your surroundings.
This is her time, I thought, walking out to my bus, having incredibly made it back to work on time. No one will know of her decency. She’ll never become famous for it, but in my mind I’m thinking, these are the heroes of our age. These are the faces I want to see on billboards. Puffy white clouds drift apart in the vast blue dome, letting the warm rays shine a little warmer. Just an ordinary beautiful Seattle afternoon for so many people, but for our friend on that train- yes, it was moving now- worlds had shifted. For her, looking out at the sliding landscape, factories and warehouses and the glinting sea, today is the beginning of another universe. Freedom.
It was a fleeting five minutes, over almost before it happened, but long enough for a smile and a change of hands; no pictures were taken, no moment lasted long enough; but there was an effervescence to it all, where the rich, full weight of having known each other invested the passing seconds with something real.
In stories the climactic moments are grand; in life they are small, and they pass by before we can grasp them. You marvel at the speed and texture of existence in such moments, where time moves differently. I don’t know if I felt sad, or happy or what else, standing there with her. It was the experience of being at the forefront of life, in that space before emotion and processing- nothing other than the rushing, unadorned present.
When the energy is heavy, and the light is low, I hope you hear it. It’s there, in the quiet hours of the night: a voice, a word, a whisper:
You’ve been a good friend of mine.
This entry has been re-printed, with the author’s permission, from The View from Nathan’s Bus, the author’s blog.