June 23, 2014
This month, Chicago has been experiencing a traffic problem.
Let's be honest. Chicago is always experiencing epic traffic problems.
But this one is pretty significant. They're rebuilding a number of the on and off ramps of the freeway that runs straight through downtown.
This isn't the best idea in the world. Honestly, having a giant freeway run through the middle of your downtown isn't the best idea to begin with. (Says the Urban Planner who's never used her degree.) But I was relieved, and secretly hoped the ramp from 55 South to 90/94 West was one of them. Even though it is the ramp I rely on the most to get almost anywhere. I use that ramp to get to Costco, to get to my friends' homes up north. To get to the kids' swim school.
I use it constantly, and to have it under construction would be an enormous pain in my ass.
But I want it changed.
Almost exactly a year ago, I found a woman there. She had appeared, face down and unconscious on the road, and I stayed with her until I could get her into an ambulance. She was old, and she didn't speak English, or Spanish, or any other language me and a young doctor who also stopped knew to ask.
And I think of her every time I pull onto that ramp.
Every time I go to Costco, or swim lessons, or pick somebody up from the train station. Every time I go to the chiropractor. Every time I take the kids to a friend's house. Every time we go to the deli for dinner. Every time I take RH to her neurologist. Every time I go to the movies.
Almost everywhere I go, I have to take that ramp. And every time I do it, I think of that woman.
I cannot think of her without worrying.
What happened to her? What brought her there? Does she have family, who are keeping an eye on her? Has she since wandered off again? Is she still alive?
I just don't know. And I have no way of ever knowing.
That freeway ramp and that woman haunt me.
I picture her teeth- so strong and white- with grit from the road stuck in them. And I picture her eyes, pupils contracted to pinpricks, darting around in the blaring sun. I picture her stiff white hair. The odd texture on the heavy sweater she wore, despite the blazing heat.
She is part of me now, in some ways, I suppose.
I know nothing about her, except that one day in the heat of last summer, she appeared on the freeway and she went to the hospital, giving me a thumbs up. Even though I knew she was frightened and alone.
Did her family find her?
Where did she come from?
I wish I knew who she was. I wish I could bring her a bouquet of flowers and squeeze her hands and give her a thumbs up.
She is a stranger to me. She will always be a stranger to me. But I feel responsible for her. And I feel sorry for her. And I feel protective of her.
I am struck that there are seven billion people on this planet, most of whom I will never meet. Most of the people on this earth don't speak my language, don't share my culture. Most of the people on this planet are as different from me as that woman. What do I have in common with an eighty year old woman, probably from somewhere in the far east of Asia, who doesn't speak English and finds herself, as if by magic, collapsed in a heap on the pavement of the freeway? But I care about her. I care about her so much it hurts me.
For the past year, every time I've seen a strange face on the news, crying over a tragedy in a faraway place, I've pictured her face, pressed into the road, her papery hand gripping mine.
We have more in common than I thought, me and her. We were both there. We were both here, on this earth, together. And if for no other reason than that, I left my car running and the air conditioning blaring while my confused children sat on the side of the road for half an hour and I held her hand.
I care about that frightened old woman. And while she might not have worried about my well being, she held my hand. She didn't want to let go. She wanted me to be with her, near her. She trusted me. Even if I've been long forgotten, for half an hour, that woman cared about me, too.
All it takes to understand another person, to sacrifice for them or empathize with them, to carry them with you in your heart, is a moment. A moment where their humanity is exposed to you, and yours to them. I try to keep mine on my sleeve. To remember always that we are all lost and in need.
To see in everybody the fear and confusion that asks only for a hand to hold. And I try to be there to offer that hand.
I would like to be there with a hand to hold.
And every time I drive up the ramp from 55 to 90/94, I am overwhelmed with the guilt that I just let her go, and I never found out if she was going to be okay.
I hope she is.
And while I hope they do demolish that ramp and build a new one, I also hope they don't. To be reminded so often how frail life is, and how important it is to be there for other human beings... it's humbling. And I'm grateful to be humbled so often.
I just wish I could see her face again.