Two days ago a tragedy took place in my building. I won’t recount the details for two reasons. Firstly, they are too painful and fresh in my mind, so writing specifics will likely make it impossible for me to finish this piece. Secondly, no one else should have to bear the burden of what I saw and heard. Yet there may be something to learn here.
This is a story about our compassion/less community.
MLK Day 2011, I returned to my building after a walk in the park with a friend. As I turned onto my block two neighbors were talking on the sidewalk. One neighbor told the other that she saw smoke coming from her apartment. She’d gone for the super but when the super knocked and no one answered, everyone went about their business. Yes, no one called 9-1-1. But, thankfully this was only moments before we arrived.
We ran up the stairs and Faith* put her key in the lock. As she opened the door the lobby filled with white hot smoke and scolding rain began to fall on our heads. I called 9-1-1, ran up the stairs and got my cats into their carriers. As I exited the building, the fire department was rushing in.
No fire. Worse. A radiator “malfunction”. When I came back into the building Faith sat defeated and broken on the floor of the lobby crying out the names of her beloved pets, while our community stood around looking at her. I rushed up the stairs, released my cats, grabbed water and tissues and returned to Faith. Still, no one sat with her.
But the crowd HAD grown. Now there were toddlers running around and even some neighbors had let their dogs out for a romp.
I didn’t know Faith. Yes, we’ve exchanged pleasantries, held the door for one another and that sort of thing. That is all. We lived 3 floors apart and so we didn’t see each other all that much.
I sat down, put tissues in her hand and wrapped my arms around her. I whispered words of support and occasionally asked questions like “Who should I call?”. I stroked her hair, I held her as tight as I could. I cried with her and for her.
I don’t know how much time had passed before her mother and sister arrived. But, that’s when I learned the name of the woman I was fiercely embracing. I tried to protect her from the wails of anguish that came from the apartment as Mama and *Lenna took in the scene.
By the time Faith’s husband and father arrived, there was a raucous block party happening in the lobby of our building. Poppy had to go outside to call the realty office, Lenna called the police 3 times before they came, but had to place each call from the freezing cold vestibule because of the noise.
The police did eventually arrive. They suggested detailed picture documentation and said that the realty office should be sued. I took the pictures. I didn’t want to. I still wish to God, that there had been someone else that could have. But there was no one.
That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of people. Just precious few that didn’t behave like they were watching a live performance of the most gruesome reality show ever created.
After I took the pictures, clean up began. We prayed together and cried a lot. My husband came home and got our truck from storage so we could take Faith, her husband and the remains of their dogs to a vet that agreed to stay open until we could arrive.
When we got back to the building the “party” had broken up. Faith and I parted ways for the night, having only really met five hours before, but after sharing, what felt like, a lifetime of pain.
When I came down those stairs with tissues and water I did not think I’d be the first AND last responder. I didn’t know this woman’s name, surely her community would be more neighborly. I was scared to sit with her and put my arms around her. Did I know that’s what she would want? Hours later, did I know that I had done the right thing? Not for sure.
It wasn’t until I heard Faith tell Lenna “She’s been great. She hasn’t left my side.” that I felt secure and comfortable with my choices.
Sometimes, it’s a leap of faith to show compassion. This woman could have shrugged off my comforting. When her family arrived they could have dismissed me. The police or firemen could have suggested I mind my own business. Though any of those things might have hurt my feelings it would have been all right. I would have known I did all I could for the people in that situation. That’s all I could do and that was the important thing.
The thing is, if I were broken in pieces somewhere I would welcome the compassion of a good neighbor. So the next time you see someone crying on the train or on the park bench, consider offering a tissue and kind word. The worst that can happen is a rebuff. Is that so big of a risk when the flip side is possibly saving someone’s life?
Good neighbors make compassionate communities. Compassionate communities make up a loving world. What kind of world do you want to live in?
*names changed to protect my neighbor’s privacy.