I’ve carried her in my head all these years. She got in there one day in the fall of 1998 when I was idling at a very long light at a suburban intersection and just happened to glance to my left. She was waiting for a bus at the corner across the street, half-leaning, half-standing with her back to the pole with the long metal T sign that tells you where you will go if you take the Number 12 or the Number 57.
An unremarkable person, she was middle-aged, medium height, brown hair. A large black bag with gold buckles weighed down one shoulder. Her collar was turned up against the unseasonable cold. She was by herself in the corner, no one else around.
I wasn’t really focusing on her, just taking in the pole and the sign and the corner, and registering her standing there too, nothing more. That’s why what happened next was so startling. Her face darkened and fell. I mean it buckled. It had been perfectly placid and then it just buckled, as if it were tin foil, as if someone had reached in and crumpled it up to throw it away. I had never seen something like that before and I was shocked.
Then she whirled around. Really, whirled is the right word, and she began hitting the T sign with her fists. Over and over she whaled at the sign. Her big bag slid off her shoulder and down her arm and bounced around wildly, the straps caught in the crook of her elbow. She was howling as she pounded the sign, or at least I remember it that way, but my windows were rolled up and the heater was on, so I might have imagined the howling.
Before I could react—what did I think I would do?—the light changed. I had to move. There was a long, impatient line of cars behind me. I looked for her in the rear view mirror, but a box truck rounding the corner made it impossible to see. For a second I thought about pulling over, running back, asking if there was anything I could do, but by then I was too far downstream in the current of traffic.
What had happened on that corner? What was it about? Was she angry, or anguished, or mentally ill, or despairing, or just sick of waiting for the bus? What grief or memory or decision or violence or finality or pain impelled that frenzied pirouette and powered her bare fists against that metal sign over and over and over?
Did she stop and compose herself, get on the bus when it came, looking as placid and unremarkable as she had before whatever had been unleashed was unleashed? That night, did she cook supper for the kids, or play cards with friends, or alone in her apartment take a long sudsy bath with a book? The next day and the next, did she recover? Did she settle the question, find a great therapist, talk to her pastor, enter a rehab, work it out with her spouse, or just suck it and keep going, up because grief is a long process and she knows there will be good days and bad?
Or is she in a locked ward somewhere, or alone now because her spouse and kids had been through enough and just couldn’t take the volatility any more, or is she fidgeting anxiously at her desk until quitting time when she can have a drink or get a fix or binge and purge because that eruption at the bus stop, for all its violence, not yet her bottom? Or is she meeting over coffee with someone from her church this morning, telling him about the time when, in a gale of tears and howling and flailing fists, time Jesus came to her in the tombs on the corner near a T stop and exorcised her, finally, returning her to her right mind? Is she praying with him, asking Jesus to save him too?
I told you that she’s been in my head all these years. At first in a disturbing way, then in a familiar way. I’m grateful to her. Not that what happened that day is about me. I know it isn’t, yet I feel blessed and privileged because of it. Not knowing who she is or what her frenzy was about or what happened to her afterwards has been an odd sort of gift. I feel connected to her, and I pray for her, but I also feel I owe something to her, in the way you feel indebted to an anonymous donor who gave you a heart or a stranger who pulled you from a hole in the ice on a late winter lake.
Maybe that comparison isn’t very apt. She didn’t mean to add a drop of grace to my salvation, didn’t even know I was there, probably wouldn’t have cared that I was there if she had noticed me noticing her. She didn’t purposely give me anything like a heart or effect my freezing rescue. Nonetheless, I feel indebted and I feel linked.
I have something of hers, or I got something from her–it’s hard to explain. I got to see a mystery, I got to see her, and now I can never not know that faces may crumple in an instant, that fists may shoot out to pummel route signs, that soundless howls may rise on any corner anywhere, and that when you have seen and heard and cannot explain, what you must do, at least, is not forget.
I was watching a murmuration of starlings once and one bird in particular who just couldn’t or wouldn’t go with the flow. That bird was the one of the thousand who stayed in my head.
Thank You. I always wonder what will become of the patients I see after I leave. All I can do is pray for them.