Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Death and life

"This is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge
was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African-American...... President." -- Mark Shields, PBS

I feel unusually connected to this story, not just as a citizen, not just as a former resident of a similar state, but on a strange psychological level.

I was home baking bread and listening to Car Talk several weeks ago when I heard the initial NPR report; Michele Norris I think it was, with her Serious Voice and using the doom-laden phrase, "NPR has just learned."

It was exactly like that moment in Amélie when she hears of Lady Di's death. The importance of the task at hand cuts out and life shifts into slow-motion, as you whirl your head to the radio, turn the volume up with your flour-covered hands, and listen with a sort of dry-mouthed horror.

I don't know why this happened. It's wartime and I hear about people dying all the time, even in more tragic circumstances than this. Every single morning when I wake up someone else has blown themselves up killing civilians in far away lands. Every single morning. Just yesterday a bomb went off in that Russian airport killing many, and there are lots of heartbreaking eye witness accounts about "pieces of flesh" and the like. Things I can't pay attention too closely too.

Perhaps it was because it was in a familiar setting? A setting close to home I mean. I've never been to a Russian airport, and I've never been to a marketplace in Baghdad nor a security checkpoint in the Palestine/Israel conflict area.

David Sedaris sums up this feeling nicely:

...In a case like hers, I needed more than a standard report. There had to be a reason this woman was run down, as, without one, the same thing might happen to me. Three men are shot to death while attending a child's christening, and you tell yourself, Sure. They were hanging out with the wrong crowd. But buying a hamburger? I buy hamburgers. Or I used to, anyway.

Before all the details were ironed out (numbers of casualties, what condition in the congresswoman was in) OPB broadcasted a RadioLab episode featuring musings on Ted Kaczynski. It didn't help. By the end of the day I was in a sad state indeed.

No one else I know reacted this way, and it made the feeling even lonelier.

Not long after, Ralph Painter, a beloved police chief was shot in his tiny riverside town of Rainer. I don't know the circumstances, but I know it was unexpected and tragic. There was a lengthy piece on the radio in honor of him, touching stories and vivid characterizations about his twinkling eyes that had me reaching for my sketchbook. He once stopped a man for speeding and saw in the records that there was an outstanding warrant for this man's arrest. Painter walked back to the car and said, "You know I have to take you in now, right?"

"Yes sir," the man said sadly.

They set off for Salem, which was a half an hour from where the stop had been made. They rode in the car in silence for a long time, and then Officer Painter asked the man in the back seat if he had eaten dinner. He had not.

Ralph Painter

So the two of them went to a restaurant and the officer bought him dinner before they went on their way.

I was driving through Rainer on the way to Astoria this weekend. The historic city hall building adjoins the Police Station right along the main drag. There's little plastic snowflakes in the windows of the city hall building. There's also an entire staircase filled with offerings from the citizens in honor of Officer Painter.

Rainer City Hall

There are roses, lilies, carnations, daffodils, daisies, hyacinths. Flowers from the store, flowers from people's gardens, plastic flowers that usually go on graves or hard-to-reach window boxes. Flowers in nice vases, flowers in peanut butter jars, flowers in tissue paper. There are star shaped foil balloons, circular balloons saying "thinking of you". Big U of O balloons left over from the recent big football game in Arizona. There is a narrow passage on the left-handed side so officials can still get in and out of the building.

I walked across the street to sketch all this, and as I did a middle-aged woman was helping a transient to the police station. She rang the doorbell, didn't get an answer, and saw the man on his way along the highway. She crossed the road to see what I was drawing.

"This town is devastated," she told me, "that kind of stuff just doesn't happen here."

She warned me against the man she'd been helping. "I don't know if he's drunk or if he's got mental trouble or what, but something's not right with him. You watch out for him. He went down that way, towards the hardware store." She didn't seem paranoid, she seemed filled with the protective pride of a small town determined to remain wholesome. We protect each other here. We are decent folk.

Columbia river

Rainer stands up straight and looks after one another to move on. For me, to move on from the Arizona things, I had to listen to the President's Eulogy. I was at a client's house late that evening and was invited to watch with them on the television.

These days It's rare I get pictures with my news-events, and it was my first opportunity to put faces with the non-hero hero intern, the faces of the victims, and indeed the first time I saw the President's new grey hair. I think wherever you are on the political fence you will agree that he is a compelling orator, and because I was particularly moved by this news event for some reason, the speech was equally moving for me in all the right ways.

My visit with these clients was itself bittersweet -- they are having to move from "twice a week" visits to "occasional", and I was careful to clean to the best of my ability for them that day so the clean would last as long as it could. They are generally friendly in an arm's-length kind of way. Housecleaning is strange as it is at once very, very intimate and very estranged from the core of home-life. I know with clarity where every single object in a house is supposed to go, to the point where if someone has moved something on a mantelpiece and it doesn't look "right" (based on the client's sensibilities elsewhere in the house) I will sometimes move it back to where it "goes". I clean bathrooms, I find underwear under beds, I see-yet-don't-see notes from one working spouse to another. I spend a LOT of time getting to know my clients by proxy, yet not much time getting to know my clients face to face. (With a few notable exceptions -- I also have very personable clients who share their lives to a larger degree and see me as a part of their lives. Clients who make me tea or ask me to stay for lunch or, just yesterday, express the grief of the death of a cat. And as I've cleaned her house for almost two years, being inspected by this cat and snubbed and eventually accepted enough to scratch her ears, I was able to share that grief on a very real level.)

(And I hasten to add: either way is fine, both ways are good.)

So it seemed fitting to watch a eulogy during my final chapter with these particular clients. And as a final chapter to that weight I'd been carrying around with me. It let see the beauty of the flowers on the steps of Rainer's city hall with a pure and open mind. And it let me visit Astoria in the same mindset.