bystander

The story I’m about to tell is not the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  The story of the hardest thing I’ve ever done is not one I am ready to tell. But I will tell this one, about a beautiful person, a person who was dying, and how I failed to help her.

Confronting my failure has been very, very hard.  She was my aunt Justine (though all names in this story have been changed).  She got colon cancer, and I went with my mother to visit her in the intensive care unit after her cancer surgery. Justine was the last surviving member of my mother’s family.  I traveled to Pennsylvania to see my aunt and to emotionally support my mother.  But most importantly, I went to protect my mother from my uncle, who was an alcoholic and a racist, violent, armed thug.

When I was a child, we visited him and Aunt Justine periodically.  He was usually a good-natured drunk, but he was a brute, and he was so physically powerful and strong that his claps on the back, or his friendly arm squeezes, left lasting bruises.  I always knew he was not terribly smart.  I always knew he was a drunk.  I always knew he was a racist.  And I knew that once, while on duty as a police officer, he accidentally ripped a man’s ear off.  Later, I came to understand that he was a wife-beater as well.  On this trip to Pennsylvania, I learned from my mom that he was a sexual abuser and possibly a murderer too.  No one could ever report him to the police, of course, since he WAS the police.  You may wonder why we ever spent time with this man; well, it was the only way to get to see my aunt.

With his wife now in the hospital, I knew that my uncle would be drunk AND bewildered and angry.  Not a good combination in a person who keeps a sawed-off shotgun on the backseat of his car, with a jacket thrown over it.  I didn’t want to see him at the hospital.  My sister refused to come on the trip.  She said,

“Years ago, I promised myself that I would never see Sam Davis again.  And frankly, neither should you.  You and Mom should get the hell out of there.”

Seeing Uncle Sam was bad. He was extremely agitated.  I kept waiting for him to explode.  As we stood in the ICU waiting room, I mentally rehearsed self-defense techniques in my head, which I had learned in martial arts.  I always had a plan.  For instance:  he’s on my left.  I could back-fist him in the face with my left, turn and do a palm-heel strike with my right, then kick to the groin, head grab, and knee to the face.  I knew I could never take down someone as big and strong as him, but at least I could get him momentarily disoriented so that my mom and I could run for help.

While the whole trip was an utter nightmare, the worst part of all was when I failed to keep my uncle from hurting my aunt in her hospital bed.  He leaned over her bed to give her a pep talk.  He actually leaned on her stomach, right where they had done the surgery.  I don’t know if this was because he was drunk, or thoughtless, or cruel, or some mixture of the three.  Although my aunt was not very responsive in general at this time, she immediately cried out in pain.  My mother and I were in the room, and neither one of us pulled him off of her, or even said anything above a whisper.  We froze.  We were too horrified, and far too afraid of him to correct him.  My complete lack of courage at that moment was a source of ongoing shame for me for a long time.  I could have and should have said something, or done something.  But I was too afraid.  That was an opportunity to put a green dot on my map, but I didn’t.

I think of that moment many times, and have had to come to terms with that part of my self.  I don’t want to be weak or be a coward.  I want to be the person who intervenes when another person – any person – is being wounded.  It bothers me that I failed.

I learned I’m weaker than I thought.  I’ve had to learn to forgive myself.  I remind myself that my mother was there and understood the fear.  She pointed out that if anyone could understand how hard it was stand up to Sam Davis, my aunt certainly did.  And above all, I remind myself that Sam Davis was a mean, violent, terrifying monster who tormented the people he claimed to love.  He was the problem, not me.  I am not responsible for his long track record of awful violence.  I did the best I could at the time, and I wish I had done better on that trip.  But at least my presence during that time meant that my mother didn’t have to face him alone.

Middlebury College, Faculty