I have been thinking about people I have known the past few days who didn’t back away from the moment like the people in the streets fighting for reforms in name of the dead. Here is a story about two of them I have known.
In the mid 1980’s a van broke down by my house in rural Pennsylvania in the middle of a snow storm on Christmas Eve. It was a middle aged man and his wife and the man walked up the steep hill to the apartment I lived in with my mother, father, and sister. My grandfather was visiting for the holidays also. The man was very apologetic and all he wanted to do was use the phone to call an emergency truck to get the van. We let him use the phone and they told him they would be there as soon as a truck was available and could make it through the snow storm, but they were not sure when that would be. He said thank you and walked to go back to the van. My father stopped him and said that he didn’t like the idea of them waiting in the storm down in the van on Christmas Eve and they should come up and stay with us while they waited. The man said he would ask his wife and left. He came back a little while later and said his wife didn’t want to impose and they would wait in the van. My father quickly put on his coat and went back to the van with the man to change her mind. He returned a little while later with two slightly bewildered people in tow. My father was a bit of an oncoming storm. At first it was awkward, but after a little bit it wasn’t too bad. Later in the evening my neighbors came over and a friendly card game was started that went late into the night. The man and his wife ended up staying for almost two days until a tow truck could get them to a mechanic to get repairs made. Sometimes it was awkward and crowded, but it was always understood you don’t let someone freeze in a cold van on Christmas day. I am not sure it was even my father’s choice to offer; it might have been part of his being. As a child I was annoyed at the lack of space (there was none already), but I understood. You had to be brave and deal with what came your way.
In 1999 my father had lost a long difficult battle with cancer. I didn’t have much money and was working at a job where I didn’t get along with my boss and I was worried things were not going well. I was depressed and unsure what to do with my life or what the future would lead to. One morning on the way to work I ran out gas. I managed to pull over and get out harms ways, but I was stuck far from any gas station. I was going to be late and had no way to contact my job which didn’t seem to bode well for my employment status. I was hungover and thought about sitting there and watching the cars go by, but decided against it. I wasn’t even sure where the closest gas station was so I started walking in a direction I thought there might be one. It was a grey day and there were drops of rain in the air. I walked for about five minutes until I heard a car pull up next to me. It was a Cadillac driven by an elderly black woman. She rolled the window down and asked me where I was walking to. I said that I ran out of gas and was looking for a station. She told me there was none in the direction I was walking toward and it was a bad neighborhood. She asked if I wanted a ride to the nearest station. I accepted and got in the car. I will always remember what she told me next. She said ‘I was real afraid to pick you up. I wasn’t sure if you might be trouble to me, but I decided I should. My husband died recently and I sure miss him. He said his whole life that you have to do right and be brave. He would have picked you up and helped you. I figure he is gone now and I might not have much time left either, but I am going to be brave too. Just like he was.’ I said that I was so thankful and that I was sure her husband was a great man. I wanted to tell her I lost my father recently and he was brave and I missed him too, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to put any burden on her. She gave me a ride and I got a can of gas. She even took me back to my car. I made it to work only slightly late and thought about the elderly woman’s grace and bravery and how proud her husband would have been of her and how my father would have done the same thing as her in the same situation. I also thought about how I probably would not have. In my life I have never been able to be as brave as them, but I hope someday I can be and I am forever grateful that people like them sometimes exist in this world.
– Gene G. McLaughlin 2020