Many of us think that we want to be left alone. Not bothered. We want to mind our own business, and have everyone else mind theirs. But I’m certain that’s not entirely true, and I’ve had a few chances in my life to act on that conviction. We want to be involved. We want to help. We want to step forward into the whirling vortex of action, even if doing so might put us at risk. We want our involvement to be the pivot point on which events might turn in a more favorable direction.
Sometimes the opportunity to step into the vortex presents itself with enough time to make a conscious choice. Like the time years ago when I caught a feral cat while working as a volunteer in a women’s prison. Although the cats slipped in and out of the razor wire fence all the time, this cat, a big gray tabby, had gotten into the auditorium/gym. Definitely off limits, which made the women who loved cats anxious because they didn’t want the trespasser to jeopardize the lenient cat policy which the prison had adopted at the time. This cat was cornered and understandably freaked out. Although several women surrounded him, only two, brave and foolish, closed in on him with the intent of capture. One of them was me.
I may have taken a deep breath, but I know I didn’t take the time to think about claws and fangs. I just reached for fur and muscle. Although my grab was successful, I received for my trouble a couple deep gashes and bites on my forearm before the other woman, an inmate who got slashed as well, wrapped the angry cat with her sweatshirt so together we could release him outside the door. While the cat vanished through the fence, we were both sent to the infirmary to get our wounds cleaned and dressed, our badges of foolish courage.
Sometimes the vortex spins directly towards us, obscuring that moment of choice like a dust devil blurs the boundary between earth and sky. Many years back, I was riding a friend’s mare bareback along the shoulder of a road leading to a small mining town in the mountains of the Mojave Desert. Fresca was happy to be heading home, quick-stepping and tossing her head while my friend’s blue heeler investigated the sage brush and wind-blown trash along the side of the road. Facing us on the shoulder was a parked car with a driver and a passenger. Suddenly I realized the passenger was pointing something in the direction of the wandering dog. I squinted against the lowering sun. Was that a revolver? My jolt of alarm was interrupted when Fresca skittered and danced underneath me as she shied from a cardboard box flapping in the sage. When I got her settled, we were several strides closer to the parked car, and the passenger was pointing the gun at me.
I don’t remember making a conscious decision, but suddenly my heels dug into the mare’s ribs, urging her forward straight towards the driver’s door where I pulled her into an abrupt halt, her hooves skidding on the pavement.
“How dare you point a gun at my horse! And my dog!” I could see my own spittle flying out of my mouth, flecking the driver’s sunglasses below me. I couldn’t have been thinking clearly. What was this instinctual surge propelling me forward? Mother rage? I tried to corral my tirade. “Where are your manners? Didn’t your mother teach you anything? You should be ashamed of yourself.”
The driver looked up at me, flabbergasted. “I, I didn’t…It was him,” he sputtered, gesturing towards his passenger. “He’s the one with the gun.”
But I was already past the car, trotting with purpose now, back straight, sitting Fresca’s bouncy trot as closely as I could, the dog close at my heels. I looked back briefly to memorize the license plate, but not until I’d rounded the corner onto the side street did I let out my breath and suppress a sudden urge to defecate.
Later at home, my husband, Henry, reamed me out. “Someone was pointing a gun at you and you bawled him out? Are you out of your mind?” Later still, when a state trooper came in response to my call, I got reamed out again about proper procedure. But after the cop went to investigate, he told me that he had located the driver and the car. The passenger had made himself scarce, but the driver had told him that some enraged Amazon on horseback had read him the riot act and he hadn’t done anything to deserve it.
This urge to enter into the vortex of a problem even if the problem may put us in harm’s way—why does it happen? Is it beyond conscious thought? Can we pinpoint the moment when a decision is made? Or does it all happen so quickly, as if our leap forward leaves no evidence, no path to backtrack?
Sometimes there’s no need to enter into a problem because the problem comes directly to you. My husband and I once lived in a tiny village in the wilds of the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, right next to the border with New Mexico. One night as we were preparing to go to bed, we heard a car pull into our driveway, followed by an urgent knock on our door. It was Drew, a Vietnam vet who lived in rough conditions in a trailer out on the sage prairie.
“Abe and his daughter are burnt bad,” he said. “They’re out in my car right now. I didn’t know who else to come to.”
Henry and I went into action without even looking at each other. I snipped off a limb from my aloe vera plant and cracked ice into a bowl of water while Henry helped Drew bring Abe and Melody inside the house. Abe’s right hand was red and oozing. Melody was in tears. I put her in the bathroom and asked her where she was burnt. She shyly lifted her tee shirt. The front of her chest was blistered, even her tiny nipples. I sat her down with a washrag and the bowl of ice water and left to consult with her father.
“You should both go to the hospital,” I said. “I don’t know what degree these burns are, but they look pretty bad.”
“No,” Abe said quickly. “No hospitals.”
“No. We’re in trouble with Social Services already. They’ll take her away.”
I exchanged a look with Henry and took a deep breath. “Okay, Abe. It’s your decision. But I’m gonna call my neighbor who’s a nurse.” I didn’t give him a chance to answer. I woke Julie on the fourth ring, and without hesitation she said, “Gimme five minutes.”
As soon as Julie arrived and saw that Henry and Drew were tending to Abe’s hand, she and I took Melody into the bathroom where she bathed Melody’s burns with cold water from the tap, not the ice water I’d prepared. “We were burning out red ants,” Melody said. Out where Abe and Melody lived, the prairie was infested with red ants; their bite produced an instant fiery ache and then a painful knot that lasted for days. Melody had been pouring gasoline from a gas can on the ant hills while Abe lit them behind her. A dribble of gas on her nylon basketball shirt had ignited, and she’d run in panic. “I guess he tackled me,” she said.
It made sense, sort of. The burns were on the front of her chest and his right hand. But something didn’t square.
Julie tried to phrase it as carefully as possible. “Melody, I need to ask you something important. Okay?”
I could see Melody’s thin shoulders tense. “Okay,” she said meekly, looking at her feet.
Julie glanced at me before continuing. “Melody, how old are you?”
“Did your dad touch you in any way that…that doesn’t feel right?
Melody looked up right away. “No,” she said firmly, as if she’d been asked this question before. “No. I loved my dad. My dad loves me.” Then she began to crumble. “Please don’t let them take me away from him. Please.”
Julie softened and hugged her very gently. “Of course not hon,” she said, but over Melody’s uncombed curls, Julie shook her head at me.
Julie took Melody home with her, fed her and tucked her in bed, while we fed Abe before Drew took him home. The next day, Julie brought home burn medication from the clinic where she worked. I’m guessing since Abe and Melody were so adamant about not reporting their accident that Julie simply pocketed the medication, an action that could have put her job on the line. Abe and Melody disappeared from town for a couple months. After that, I lost track of them.
Another time the problem came to us happened when a neighbor phoned us one morning in February. Henry answered, frowning and motioning me to stop what I was doing so he could hear better. “I’ll be right there,” he said as he put down the receiver. “It’s Randy. Something about his throat. He can’t breathe. I’m going up there.”
I nodded. “Call me if you need help,” I said as Henry grabbed the keys to our car and headed out the door.
Five minutes later the phone rang. Since our other car was at the shop, I ran/walked the few hundred yards to Randy’s big straw-bale house and entered without bothering to knock. Randy was sprawled on the cold floor by his bed. His skin color looked like mashed potatoes. Something in me quickened and clarified. Kneeling beside Randy, I began giving orders.
“Hand me the quilt off his bed. And the pillow. Find some socks and put them on his feet. Call 911. Call Jay and Sue. Turn the propane heater up.”
“What’s their number,” Henry asked.
Randy answered in a hoarse voice. “505 – 575-1486.” Then to me, “I can see the lights. They’re all around. Dancing. Sparkling. Beautiful.”
“Whoa big guy. That’s nice, but I need you to tell me what you feel. What happened. Are you in pain?
“My throat,” he set, gesturing weakly to the side of his throat. “All I did was get out of bed and something happened in my throat. Hard to breathe.”
“Okay. Help’s on the way. But Randy, I want you to stay with me, okay? Breathe nice and slow with me, like this, okay?”
His eyes strained to focus on mine and he smiled weakly. “Okay beautiful.”
I settled into a position so I could hold his head in my hands, my face inches away from his. We breathed together, nice long breaths. Every so often, he’d grimace and tighten, and I’d urge him to breathe through it as if it were a contraction, and I were a midwife.
One “contraction” almost got him. “I can see the spirits. Calling. Reaching,” Randy said, his eyes darting to either side of mine.
“I know you can. I don’t doubt it for a second big guy. But listen. You’re not done here yet. Not by a long shot. So listen to me. If in doubt, Randy, I want you to breathe and stay right here. In your body. With me. Okay? Can you do that?”
His eyes found mine again. He nodded ever so slightly. I became aware that Jay had arrived. The phone rang. Henry answered. I could hear him giving someone directions to Randy’s house. Jay intervened. “I’ll meet them at the intersection of Road 9 and Road B,” I heard him say before the door slammed and the gravel crunched under the wheels of his pickup.
Five minutes later, the 911 truck pulled up, and strong hands replaced mine at Randy’s head, and I reluctantly backed away.
“Morfan’s syndrome,” I heard Randy say when they asked him for his medical history. “A broken heart,” he answered when they asked him what he thought was wrong. “My girlfriend left me.” And later, when they asked him who his physician was, he answered, “Witch doctor.”
Henry and I rolled our eyes at each other. How could he be joking at a time like this? But Randy was Randy.
And he lived. Perhaps despite the local hospital, which took eight hours to stumble upon the diagnosis that anyone who googled Morfan’s syndrome could have found out in less than a minute. “Prone to tearing the aorta.” Sure enough, Randy was sent by flight for life to Denver where he underwent emergency surgery to repair a torn aorta.
Randy later credited Henry and me for saving his life, but we only responded to his cry for help. If we had not answered the phone, surely someone else would have. Or would they?