Friday, August 30, 2013

A Story about a Time I was a Horrible Person

First I'm going to tell you the story of WHY I'm telling this story.  (Other than, it's a good story, one that doesn't tell well orally but should go down well on the page.)  A few weeks ago, Pope Francis shocked the world by commenting off-hand that if a homosexual priest was a good person, well, who was he to judge?  The idea of a Pope going along with that cast-the-first-stone message and not necessarily condemning 8% of the world's population was, well, a baby step in the right direction.  At least that's my Catholic opinion. 

I told my daughter about it, and she raised her fist and said, "Hey, gay people, guess what?  The Catholics aren't quite as afraid of you now!"

My daughter has never been afraid of gay people, or actually concerned about them in any way except as individuals.  But I still thought her comment hit the mark.  We condemn what we fear--and we fear what we don't know or don't understand.  It's fear--often wholly irrational--that causes prejudice, hatred, and a host of other sins.  This is a story about how I may have actually saved a man's life, but also about how I almost let him die, because I saw him as something to fear instead of as a human being.

Seven years ago, my family took a summer vacation to the Canadian Rockies.  On a glorious clear sunny afternoon, my young daughter and I took a trail ride up a mountain to a beautiful alpine lake and tea lodge.  It was absolutely perfect, except for one man on the ride who completely, utterly, creeped me out.

He was part of a group: himself, another dark-haired man in his 40s, and two beautiful dark-haired little girls.  I never found out what sort of relationship they all had--whether they were family or extended family or friends.  The girls were about my daughter's age, 8 or 10 years old, and they all played together while the ranch owner and the dark-haired man helped the creepy man onto a horse.

He was bald but probably not over 50, middle-height, average weight.  He walked with a lurch like the zombies in a low-budget horror film.  He spoke in random, staccato utterances--at first I thought he might have had Tourette's, except that the people I've known with Tourette's were capable of normal speech sometimes.  This man sagged and giggled and make noises like a tea kettle.  He clambered awkwardly onto a little draft pony that was as wide as it was tall, and thumped the pony on the neck, which the pony stoically endured.  Whhoooeee! he said, and giggled. 

He didn't leer at my daughter or make sexual gestures toward anyone, but even still the alarm bells in my head went to Defcon6.  Stayawaystayawaystayaway.  Very creepy man.  I know that the way I'm describing him makes him sound at worst a little odd and perhapsalso a terrible horseback rider; I don't actually have an excuse for the depths of my reaction to him except to say, he made my stomach churn.  I wanted to keep my daughter far, far away.  Truly, the man disgusted me.

There were probably ten of us on the ride.  My daughter rode ahead, chattering with the other little girls.  We went up the mountain through pine groves, grinning as we passed gasping sweat-drenched hikers.  Occasionally the trees would clear enough to give us a glimpse of some stunning mountain peak, still covered with snow in July.  We watered the horses at a lower lake and then climbed to the top, where we tethered the horses just below the little tea house.  There, on the shores of the prettiest lake I've ever seen, we ate cookies baked that morning and drank hot tea from heavy ceramic mugs.  And then, not unpredictably, my daughter and I needed a toilet.

The tea house could only be reached by foot, pack horse, or helicopter; of course there was no plumbing.  We were directed around a little stand of pines.  There we found a giant sort of staircase made from boulders that had tumbled down the slope--it was hard to say if they'd been shifted into position or just naturally fell that way.  We scrambled up using our hands as well as our feet.  At the top, well back from the edge, were two large outhouses.  My daughter was a little freaked out by them, so we went into one together.  When we came out, we saw in front of us, at the edge of the stones, the creepy man.

He looked even creepier than before.  He stood hunched with both hands raised to the level of his ears, gently swaying, his fingers waving as he talked to himself.  As I watched he shuffled one foot slightly forward, then back.  Forward, then back.  I grabbed my daughter to me.

And then I saw, with absolute clarity:  he was going to fall down the hill.

He was going to fall headfirst down that staircase of stone.

He was going to die.

"Stop!" I shouted, running forward. 

The man froze, instantly, completely, the way a small child would, and I saw by that that he too knew he was going to fall.

I scrambled down the edge of the rocks until I was beneath him.  I braced my legs and held up my forearm, ready to take his weight if I needed to.  "Grab my arm," I said.  "Both hands."  He did.  "Okay, now move your left foot down, just your left.  Put it right next to my foot.  Good.  Okay, now move your right foot down.  Okay, good.  Now wait--"  Still supporting him--he was leaning on me quite heavily--I repositioned my feet.  "Okay, now, left foot.   Good.  Again."

Bit by bit we carefully made our way down the rocks, my daughter following nimbly.  Midway we stopped for a breather.  We still had not spoken except for my instructions.  It was completely odd.  He was so fumbly and awkward.  He accepted my help without question or comment.  But then, he had to:  I understood that my brief vision had been true.  He would have fallen.  He would have died.

He grinned at me, a lurching, sideways grin.  I grinned back.  His creepiness had vanished--not surprisingly, since it had only existed in my mind.  "You had a head injury," I said.

"Whhhoooooeeeee!" he said.  "Whooee!  Did I ever!  I'm-I'm-I'm.  I'm speechandbalanceimpaired.  That's what.  Speechandbalanceimpaired."

We resumed our descent and had nearly reached the bottom when the not-so-creepy man's companion, the dark-haired guy, came around the stand of trees, no doubt in search of him.  I saw the dark-haired guy take in the tumbled stones, saw the look of horror on his face, saw it replaced by unutterable relief when he caught sight of the two of us at the bottom.  "He was going to fall," I said.

"Yes," the dark-haired man said.  "He was."

The other man, whom I could no longer call creepy, said, "Tell.  T-t-tell her."

So the dark-haired man related the story of how, only a few years previously, the two men had been on vacation bike riding in Scandinavia.  They were stopped at a red light when a truck hit the other man from behind, throwing him 30 feet into the air.  He had been wearing a helmet, but even so he lay in a coma in a foreign hospital for weeks.

The dark-haired man was a professor at Queens University in Ontario. 

They stood looking at me as though I was their new patron saint, which made me feel like the world's worst hypocrite.  "T-t-tell me your name," the brain-injured man said gently.  "I-I won't remember it, but tell me your name."