It is through simple moments we are refreshed.”
I hadn’t been to this particular city for some time and was a bit apprehensive. I was in New York City to accept the WhyHunger 2012 Harry Chapin Self-Reliance award. As I prepared to disembark from the AirTrain connecting JFK to my link to the subway, I requested my mother, who resides on another plane in our existence. “Mom, you always loved taking the train into Manhattan and catching a play, so help me out here.”
As I came to the subway turnstiles, I saw to my right a bank of automated machines from which I should purchase my subway ticket. I approached one and made my selection. However, the machine refused to cooperate when it came time to pay. It was a touchscreen system and seemingly, very easy to navigate. I touched “go back.” Nothing. I felt “cancel.” but still nothing. I tried several times, and still, the screen remained obstinately frozen.
A young man to my right glanced over and offered to help. First, I explained and demonstrated my situation. Then, he offered to try and select the appropriate option. It instantly went through!
He asked where I was going. I explained, adding I wasn’t sure which stop I needed to reach the appropriate exit at Penn Station. He said he was going that way, and why don’t I follow him.
As we stood on the platform, he told me of his struggle that day to get to the Dominican Republic. I would soon learn his sister had died there a year ago, at the age of 22. His family was having a ceremony to honor her. His day’s story involved a series of odd occurrences that seemed designed to keep him in New York, just as he had been kept from her a year previous.
As we embarked on our journey, he indicated I should sit with him, and he would make sure I got off at the right time. The trip would be about 45 minutes.
Throughout the trip, he proceeded to tell me about his sister. He shared that she was ten years younger, and they were inseparable. She couldn’t eat much at once, so he would feed her a little throughout the day. Food – a great connector. He felt responsible for her. She was attending college in the Dominican and was to have graduated this May. She was a collector of sunglasses, and when he heard her ear severed in the accident, he wondered how she would be able to wear her sunglasses. His sharing of this intimately told me his heart connected with hers.
Pieces of two lives. Intertwined. Separated.
He didn’t tell me her name, and I didn’t think to ask. He showed me pictures of the two of them as young children. Her reputation in the DR was as an activist for water and food rights, and he showed me two photos of her in an issue of National Geographic. She was a beautiful young woman and reminded me of Sharbat Gula.
He said their parents had not allowed her to have a vehicle in the DR. On this occasion, her mother relented and allowed her to borrow their jeep to attend a party. At 10:30, his mother called her and urged her to head home. She had a “feeling,” he said. “You know. You mothers”, he remarked to me, “have these feelings.” (I hadn’t said a word about being a mother, but I am and do.) His sister said she would be leaving soon. At 11:30, his mother called again. The voice on the other end said there had been a bad accident, but they didn’t know who was involved. His mother did.
His sister was in intensive care for eight days. She had numerous surgeries and was in an induced coma. Stuck in Brazil, he could not get a flight to her before she died. “Again today,” he says to me, “it is like a year ago. Why?” he asked.
He told me he is an accountant, but not at the moment, working. He lives on 42nd Street. “It isn’t like it was before,” he tells me. “It is cleaned up.” (I wondered why he would say that to me as if knowing I was acquainted with its history.) He has traveled extensively all over the world.
I felt nothing more than “comfortable.” I had a sense of his being “all people.” No particular nationality or religion. That is the best I can say. When I got home, I looked for the National Geographic article about his sister and couldn’t find it. Neither could I locate news of his sister’s accident.
To answer his question of “why,” I told him sometimes a story is not about us. It is about another person and their journey. Or the story is not for today; it is for the future. We were, perhaps, connecting the past with the present. I related to him that I had asked for my mother’s help and suggested his sister be with him, watching over him and using him for good things. That I believed she no doubt “told him” there was a woman in the subway that needed his help. I related that I believe our stories do not end with our earthly journey but that we continue with new journeys – each comprised of various chapters.
His sister was an artist and writer, along with her talents for fighting for social justice. And he showed me the tattoo of her artwork he wore on his wrist and the words “101 razones para…” It was short for a piece she had written – 101 Reasons to Cry, 101 Reasons to Smile.
At best, I can only describe my encounter with this young man as spiritual. He accepted my explanation without question and with complete understanding. His story finished exactly as his stop arrived. That is to say, he got off one stop before mine, saying he had made a mistake and that I was to get off at the next stop. He disembarked, and I noted I could no longer see him as he did. As if he hadn’t existed.
Interestingly, like his sister, I am a social activist. I love sunglasses and have many pairs. I write.
Is this story about me? Reinforcing my spiritual beliefs? Was our meeting about him fulfilling his need to not be alone at that moment? Was he my guardian angel? Or was I his?
My companion’s name? Ivan. Gift from God.