I’m on the downtown 2 train from Penn Station on a Monday morning. It’s summer and the trains have been bunching up, so I get lucky enough to find myself a seat. I settle into a book, half-listening to the announcements as we go from 34th Street to 14th to Chambers. At Chambers Street, the train doors open to a platform that has so strangely silent of all ambient noise that I look up from my book. The doors open on scene of a mother and a stroller and a baby on the ground. There’s a scream, then a chorus of screams as a rush of bodies move and surround the child, who is lying too still.
I have a perfect view of all of this. My seat is in the center of the train, aligned perfectly with this terrible drama. Or, I do for a moment, before half of the people on the train rush to the door to get a better view. The doors stay open too long, as the train operators call for help.
I stay where I am because I know that one more body in that crush will not save the child’s life, if it is still possible to be saved. The last thing that I see before my view was blocked was the back of a woman in a black skirt, who grabbed the child and rolled that tiny body onto its left side. The doors close. The train moves on.
I do not know how the story ends. My mind wants to give it a happy ending, if only to control my shaking limbs. As the train travels through the tunnels to Park Place, I have to move to escape the discussion surrounding me. “What happened?” a man asks. “Probably choking,” someone else says. “Or a seizure?” I walk to the other end of the train, because I feel like I might throw up and I know that I need to calm down before I get to the office. How could I even begin to explain to my young coworkers why I was so upset? It wasn’t my story. It is only the brushing of time and place, the overlapping of the coincidences of so many strangers in such a small place, that made me a participant at all. And yet, it was a public witnessing of the pain of another mother, a mother that is probably not so different from me.
New York is a strange place. The millions of people living and working in such close proximity means that our lives overlap with strangers in a much more intimate way than you ever see in less congested towns. This was actually the third medical emergency that I’ve been touching distance from, though this was by far the most horrifying. In the first, a young girl fainted on a subway car so crowded that we nearly absorbed the weight of her body before dropping her to the ground. When she woke, she cried, embarrassed, and begged to go home as dozens of water bottles were passed her way. A woman she had never met before put her arm around her and said, “Just take deep breaths. It’s going to be okay.” And, although I had held the weight of her body for a moment, I got off at my stop anyway.
The second time, I was buying a box of tissues for the office when a man in the line in front of me fell into a seizure. He was at the counter, his wallet out, when his eyes rolled up in his head and he fell, heavily, to the ground. He writhed, but I froze, not even certain why I was so frightened. And I was frightened, in the most primal and physical way. Just like with the subway today, others rushed to him before I did. When he stilled, breathing peacefully, I asked what I could do. “Go keep people from coming into the store,” someone said, so I went outside, only to discover that the job was more than adequately filled already. I looked around and hugged my shaking arms to myself and went to work, without the tissues.
Dozens of these experiences must happen across the city every day. And perhaps the strangest aspect of my experiences is that I would not recognize any of the other people in any of these scenes if I were to see them again. As a watcher, I don’t even feel the right to my own emotions. Who am I to get so upset, so frightened, so afraid? These are not my stories. These are just things that I saw, in an otherwise ordinary day.
Tonight I will go home to my Baba and hold her as much as she’ll let me. Without a doubt, I’ll be even more cautious of how small I cut her food and of the many dangerous things in the world that find their way into her hands, despite my vigilance. But what made watching that mother’s pain today so terrible was knowing how little control I really have. To love someone is to be vulnerable. To love someone the way that I love my Baba is to be very vulnerable. And the only way that I could handle that knowledge was to pretend that I know the end of the story that I saw today. In my version, that child coughed out a carrot and rose and held her mother until both of their hearts burst with joy. The end.
Amen. Please God, amen.