A million years ago, I was as a newspaper reporter in a small town in western North Carolina, a region of the state known for its lush rolling hills that ripple on for miles if you’re standing in the right spot. I covered cops and courts, which meant I often wrote about the bad things that happened to people.
One day I covered a spectacular house fire in which no one was hurt but the house burned to ashes. A few days later, I went to the sheriff’s office looking for incident reports, trying to scare up another interesting story. I walked in to find the receptionist, a young man who liked to show me pictures of gory things to see if I’d flinch, gone to lunch, gone done the street, gone somewhere. As I waited for him to return I scanned his desk for something interesting. I didn’t find anything worth asking about so I stood around, waiting.
After a few minutes, a couple came in looking for the sheriff. They needed to get married, they said. Dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, the bride wore flip-flops and the groom, dressed the same, wore a ball cap. They were jittery, nervous and giddy. When the sheriff finally extracted himself from his big leather chair and came out to greet them, he said they needed a witness. And there I stood.
The bride looked at me with a question in her eyes and I told her my name was Jennifer. I’d love to witness her wedding, I said.
“Thank you, thank you, honey,” she said. “Our house burned down this week and we just decided life’s too short, it’s time to get married.”
It had been their house I’d written about earlier that week. They were the people who’d escaped without injury, they were the ones who had nothing left, I suppose, but a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and some flip-flops.
I watched as the sheriff performed the wedding ceremony and remember thinking it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. It was real. It was life stripped bare and to the raw bone. I never told them I’d written their story. I just signed the wedding license, wished them well and walked away.
The other night Seth and I took the kids swimming. As Eliza said, we’d been “squished up in the house” together all day and our two little girls needed to swim off some energy. We came home a few hours later with exhausted but happy children.
When we pulled up in front of our house, I saw three police cars at the house next door. There were several other cars I didn’t recognize and a woman and a teenage girl were standing in front of the house, under a street light, as if they were waiting for someone to tell them something. I was helping Lucille out of the car when the woman said something I couldn’t hear to the teenage girl. The girl fell to her knees in the snow screaming, animal-like into the night.
“No, no, no,” she screamed over and over. I was so shocked I just stood there, rudely staring. I couldn’t seem to move. I finally realized I was holding my two-year-old in the icy, cold of a January night in Montana and I quickly went inside. The girl next door lay there, sobbing, on a snow bank. I could hear her crying most of the night.
We did not know our neighbor well. He was always nice but kept to himself. But if I were to lean out of my living room window I could touch his house. We live in an old part of town that used to house mill workers and the houses are just that close.
I didn’t know he was an alcoholic, I didn’t know he’d had a run in with police, I didn’t know he was so close to the edge. I did know he had a daughter, though, and that he’d chaperoned her prom this spring. I knew that he liked to keep his grass short and tidy, that he sometimes played his music loud on the deck on summer nights and I didn’t mind.
Years ago, when I stood up for couple who had nothing left but each other, their wedding was not my celebration. What happened inside my neighbor’s house Saturday night is not my tragedy. But I’ll never forget that bride’s pleading eyes or how she held her hands together as though she was cold even though the temperature had already started to rise on a humid morning in the South. And I will never, as long as I live, forget the screams of that teenage girl next door when the woman in front of her told her told father had died.
I tripped into both of these moments, blindly and unaware. Sometimes we don’t get to choose the things that affect us deeply.
During the past few weeks I bought a new shirt to wear to work, I put away Christmas gifts, I worked Lucille’s “wild sings” puzzle with her and helped Eliza spell “Cooper Fredrick Spataro” so she could practice writing the letters of her friend’s name on red construction paper with fat pencils.
I have no idea what my neighbor did during the same time.
The nervous hand wringing of a bride-to-be, the sickening cries of a teenage girl remind me that this life is layered beautiful and violent, heartbreaking and deeply fulfilling. Sometimes it’s tragic, sometimes lovely but always, we are in this big tangle of humanity together, intertwined, even if we sometimes forget.