What it is to witness

I pulled into Starbucks as the sun came up yesterday and was hard at work in my particular little corner when a man stopped by the bar to do his cream and sugar. As he was on his way out the door, the dreaded Stranger Eye Contact was made. I smiled and, since it was Sunday, said, “Peace be with you.” And spent the next two hours engrossed in one of the most poignant and honest conversations I’ve ever experienced.

Most folks in the Houston area have heard about the quintessential drivers ed cautionary tale that occurred here last week. Several young teens joyriding. A train. A moment. A tragedy. In less than a second, this man lost his 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old niece. So now it was Father’s Day, and he was at Starbucks getting coffee to shore himself up after a series of sleepless nights and purchasing a little tan teddy bear to take to a private viewing of his daughter's body.

“The call came, and I was on my way down there,” he told me, “and there was this animal howling that came out of me. A sound that wasn’t human.”

We talked about life and death, about numbness and anger and grace, about parenting and MySpace, about girls, about God.

“I don’t think God made it happen or let it happen. He gave them free will and they made a lousy choice,” he said. “I know God is with me now, because I see him everywhere. Not just in nature or what you usually hear, but in plain stuff. Weird stuff. I don’t know. It probably sounds stupid, but—like here.” He traced his finger down the metal divider that bisects the plate glass window. “That straight line—God is in that straight line. My perception of every second and the details I see—it’s weird. Crystal clear. Like everything is ringing.”

I didn't say much. Partly because it’s humbling how little there is to say to someone in such agony. But mostly I wanted to just listen, because this man so deeply needed to be heard. What came out of him now was innately and intimately human: his story.

We the Species share a profound need to be witnessed. A need that becomes all the more excruciating when the pain seems superhuman, when the journey is as dark and impossible as Dante’s worst nightmare.

Listening to people tell their stories is part of what I do for a living and something I find endlessly fascinating, but as I sat there serving as this man’s witness, I felt over-privileged and guilty. Of course, I was overwhelmed with compassion, because how could you not be? But I also felt ghoulish, because my writer mind suckles experiences like this with the self-loathing of a reluctant vampire. I felt small, surrounded by my clutter of petty worries. And indescribably lucky when my daughter walked in the door, beautiful, whole, full of life and free will.


I'm glad you shared this story. A lot of people would have pulled back from his pain, insulating themselves from the stark reminder of life's impermanence. Listening was the human choice.

My prayers are with these families. And peace be with you, too.

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