Thursday, January 14, 2010

Human Being vs. Being Human

When my son was killed in an accident at age 17, I was in shock for many months. At the time of Sean's death, I had a housemate, and it took five months before I literally stopped "jumping" every time I heard her open the front door, thinking it might be Sean. The intellect might be aware of the awful truth, but it takes a while for the heart to catch up.

After Sean died, for many months, maybe even for a few years, I could not bear to read stories in the newspapers about children who had been hurt, or neglected, or maimed, or kidnapped, or were sick with a terminal disease, or who had died in an accident. It was just too painful. Sean used to say that I was a wuss because I cried at Hallmark commercials, and he was telling the truth. I have always been a sucker for a sad story, but reading about sad stories was much more difficult for me after my own painful loss. Even so, sometimes I my eye caught a story of woe in the newspaper anyway, and I could not turn my eyes away. I especially remember a newspaper story about an eleven year old boy in Oakland who had his face mauled and ears ripped off by a neighborhood pit bull. I tear up thinking about it even to this day; no child should have to go through that. No child should have to suffer through cancer, or have a parent die before the child grows up. Children should not suffer or die, period. However, life is often cruel, and definitely not always fair.

One day, several years after Sean died, I read an article in Parade magazine, that thin throwaway that comes with the Sunday papers. There was an article in that magazine that made me rethink my loss. It was about a couple who had two children, an older girl child and a younger boy child. The girl went away to college, suddenly contracted meningitis, and died before her parents could get to her to say goodbye. Needless to say, the parents were wary about sending the younger son away to college, but they finally let him go. The boy told his parents that he needed to grow up and he would be fine going away to college. Like many college students, he spent his junior year abroad, someplace in the British Isles. He was on his way home for his college break when, boom, the plane he was on exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. Wow.

I lost a son, my only child. This couple lost two children, within a few years time. I asked myself, how is it possible to go through such devestating loss yet a second time? Even though I had lost a child myself, I found it almost impossible to put myself in their shoes. But their story does not end here.

Even though they had raised a family once, and were no longer young, that couple decided to adopt. And as they flipped through adoption photos, the adoption agency brought them a special photo to look at -- a family of four children, from another country, whose parents had died and left them orphans. They took one look at that photo and could not say no to those kids. That couple raised those four children as their own.

In addition to this, when the youngest of the adopted children was in high school, the mother decided to go back to school, for a law degree. She graduated from law school at the same time her youngest son graduated from high school. The four children flourished and grew into fine adults. The mother not only went on to practice law, but eventually became a judge.

I cut out this article from the magazine and kept it for years. I would look at it from time to time and re-read the story that I already knew by heart. I have since misplaced the physical paper story, but whenever I am feeling down, or feeling sorry for myself for some reason, I think of this story. It helps me to know that others have suffered far worse than I have, and have not only survived, but prospered in the things that truly matter in life.

Today, we have horrific images of death in the streets of Haiti and the devastating earthquake destruction of the city of Port-Au-Prince, which are almost immediately available, either on our nightly eleven o'clock television news programs, or instantaneously on our computer monitor screens. I cannot imagine what the people of Haiti are going through, but I can empathize with them. Even though I don't currently have a job, and no longer own my own house, I have the good fortune to have a roof over my head, and a family that cares about me. I can certainly send a few dollars to the desparately poor, injured and displaced citizens of Haiti. My heart goes out to them.

Today, in the after school program for which I currently volunteer four afternoons a week, the middle school students decorated cardboard collection boxes for the people of Haiti, to be put at the students' local churches, libraries, or neighborhood grocery stores. This after-school program is subsidized and many of these students don't have much themselves, but they instantly understood the plight of the people of Haiti, and they wanted to help. As was evidenced by the plaintive words they wrote on their individual collection boxes, it was clear to me that every one of these students wanted to be able help the people who were suffering in Haiti; the students clearly had empathy for the Haitians. Empathy is the one quality that sets in motion our desire to help others; empathy makes us humanoid beings truly "human". And while I wouldn't wish this disaster on my worst enemy, it is reassuring to find out firsthand that our younger generation is concerned about something other than watching movies and playing video games.

1 comment:

  1. beautiful. poignant and profound. your writing always touches me.