by John Stoll
A few weeks ago, I spent a typical holiday-esque evening in Manhattan. Bars and restaurants were jammed with people celebrating the season, streets teaming with tourists. I had a work shindig at a pub called The Perfect Pint; and left nearly as soon as I got there.
On the way back to my hotel, I ran into a huddle of people circled around an old man. He appeared to have had a heart attack or experienced some other traumatic event. I then realized that he had fallen — just fallen. He had fallen while trying to support himself by reaching for a sign on the side of the road that looked fixed to the ground. The sign, as it turns out, was just a flimsy piece of aluminum. When he leaned on it, this sign collapsed to the ground and he went with it. So now, instead of leaning on a sign waiting for a cab, he was surrounded by people simply trying to help him up. But they were failing, and he was angry.
The real source of his anger was the prospect of going to the hospital. He wasn’t interested. But someone had already called 9-1-1. This old man knew that. So, he was hoping one of his fellow citizens could just get him on his feet, help him summon that cab and get him out of Dodge before the EMTs came.
I empathized with this man. I once found myself in a position where I was unable to stand on my own. Literally. And like him, I had just wanted to bolt from the situation. I didn’t want to admit I needed intervention, I didn’t want to have some person I didn’t know come and cart me off to a foreign place where I essentially would be rendered powerless. I didn’t want the inefficiency of being taken care of.
So I stooped and reached for the man’s hands and, as these hands locked, he drew me close to his face with what little strength he had. I asked him if he was numb anywhere. “No.” Was he feeling any acute pain? “No.” Dizzy, nauseous, short of breath? No, no, no.
“Help me up,” he said. “I just need someone to help me up.” He told me he had a new set of knees and that these knees were making the transition from being flat on his back to returning to his feet especially difficult. He reiterated his fear of being taken away. I didn’t ask him, but maybe he had no health care, or maybe he was running from the law. But really, I think this man simply wanted to do this task on his own. I know he was ashamed, embarrassed, but still defiant under the weight of his weakness.
Here’s how I know.
When I responded to him with reason he essentially told me to go to hell. I told him that none of us on that street corner were able to judge whether he was injured or not. I asked him to understand that we didn’t want to damage him even worse by helping him up. What if we made the situation even more dire? I told him that if it were my dad, I would hope that someone would just be there with him…wait with him for a professional to come check him out and, if needed, take him to the hospital.
This is when things changed a bit. His face got angry — not mad, just a smoldering and frail brand of angry — and he told me to let go of his hand. “I. Need. To. Do. This. A. Lone.”
So I backed away and watched him flop like a fish. He propped up his knees, and then they fell back down. He wiggled his back to put leverage on his shoulders, but his shoulders failed him.
Eventually, professionals arrived and I got out of the way. I watched him fight and plead his case, but eventually he got into the back of the ambulance so they could talk in a more cloistered atmosphere. When I left him, he was pulling out his wallet to show identification. He may be bitter, but he was in better hands.
Why does this story matter to me?
I couldn’t help but walk away from that meeting and think about the divine calling on us to be brothers to the fallen. And not the type of brother who puts out a hand so that one cripple can lean on another cripple, but the kind of brother who summons a more capable party for help. At some point, I had to lead this man to a recovery that I could not provide. His message was “I. Need. To. Do. This. Alone.” My only currency with this man was honesty — appalling, offensive, not welcome.
We grow up in a pretty nasty fish tank full of people trained, conditioned and incentivized to do it alone. My prayer for 2012 is that I get more opportunities to meet the fallen and to be taken by the hand, looked in the eye and pleaded with for help. I can give a drink of water and provide a plate of food, but those are temporary morsels aimed at an eternal hunger. The real work is leading the broken to a repair shop in which I am not qualified to work.
I prayed for that old man the following morning as I walked to work. Prayed not for his knees or back or pride, but for his soul. Truly lost? I don’t know. But hopefully this little episode leads to a realization even in old age that he can’t really find his way on his own. Because it did that for me.
Interesting that, in this first year of discovering the little white building we call Holy Redeemer, I’ve also come to realize the insufficiency of a priest, parish or a prescription to fix me. And this has delivered an unexpected truth that is hard for the organized church to swallow. The best place to usher in Thy Kingdom Come is not in a confessional or a convent. It’s on a sidewalk. In the city. Waiting for an ambulance.
John Stoll lives in Birminghan and is 34 year old writer and editor with Reuters, covering manufacturing and other midwest issues — such as the decline of Detroit and its struggle to rebuild. He also teaches journalism at Oakland University in Rochester.