Better Safe Than Sorry

It wasn’t often that Grandpa took Mom into downtown L.A.   Reaching down from his big, brown leather chair with the gold rivets along the arms, he ignored the ache in his fingers which warned of arthritis.

“Come here, Pet,” he stretched further to reach Mom’s small Mary Janes.  “Let’s get these on you.”

Mom was excited.  She loved going places with her Dad, especially somewhere beyond the corner market.  Going into downtown seemed like a big trip.  Grandpa didn’t enjoy the prospect as much.  He didn’t care for shopping, and the crowds seemed suffocating.  But some errands were necessary.

The duo boarded the streetcar and headed North on Vermont.  Grandpa didn’t drive.  He’d been a good bit drunk when he plowed into that hearse in the middle of the black Baptist funeral procession. The memory of the hearse back door flying open, cars skidding to a unified halt, the loud wailing and the cries for mercy were enough to turn a man against the freedom of the open road.  It was apparent drinking and driving didn’t go well together, so Grandpa never drove again.

The hazy sunshine filtered in long streams as the streetcar wound its way from the familiar roads into the less familiar, budding metropolis.  As their stop was announced, Mom straightened her dress and hopped up out of the seat, smiling up at her Dad.  His eyes crinkled a smile as he reached to hold Mom’s little hand.

Sometimes, into our days, an image flashes like an isolated cell from a moving picture.  Or maybe a few cells.  Things demand attention which we’d rather block out, but once we see them, it becomes too late.  On this day, such a thing happened to Mom.  This otherwise very normal day had an extraordinary impact on her.

Grandpa Charlie and Mom rounded the street corner, still holding hands.  Skidding tires, a scream, and a cacophony of alarmed voices cut through the already scattered and disconcerting traffic noises.  People began running.  A voice called out for an ambulance.  Another, deeper voice reported, “There’s no need.  He’s dead.”  Mom squinted into the slanted afternoon sun, raising a hand to shade her small forehead.   In the middle of the street was a perfect pair of men’s shoes.  Several yards away, the man lay motionless on the sidewalk.  The bus that had hit the man was parked haphazardly beyond the scene.  The bus driver couldn’t decide whether to sit down or to stand and pace.  He alternated nervously between all three.  People gathered around the perimeter, allowing the dead man space.  It was as if they were watching, waiting for him to rise up, brush himself off, and declare the day a doozy.  That didn’t happen.

“It was the first time I saw a person who had died,” Mom recalled, thoughtfully.  “There he was.  When the bus hit him, he was thrown from his shoes.  One moment he was there crossing the street, and the next minute he was dead on the sidewalk.  He didn’t have time to know what hit him.”

When Mom told the story, I wondered why people get thrown from their shoes.  There are theories about G-force and how only 50 pounds of pressure is needed to remove even a tightly laced boot.  Newton’s Laws of Motion can be applied, which explains the occurence via inertia (the bus) vs objects at rest staying at rest (the shoes).  My best guess though is that it happens because our feet are not as solid as we wish. Feet are mostly lean muscle and tendons, and are about 75 percent water.  Even the bones of the feet contain 22 percent water.  In effect, our feet are a lot like water balloons shoved in a pliable encasement.  Upon impact we stretch like gelatinous goo.

Seeing the lifeless man and his empty shoes effected a trauma.  The brevity of life and the seemingly cruel randomness of fate weighed upon Mom’s childlike reasonings.  Night after night, the man’s lifeless form, his empty shoes, took appearance as she closed her eyes to sleep.  No words could comfort her.  Sleep remained elusive.

Around this time, Mom began to sleepwalk.  She would have no recollection of sleepwalking in the morning.  Worried that Mom might leave the house, Grandma and Grandpa installed a high latch on the bedroom door.  Grandma shared the bedroom.

Now, in the sophisticated 21st century, a sensitive child, troubled as Mom was, would be said to have PTSD- post traumatic stress disorder.  In the 1940’s it was called having a life.  Being alive meant seeing and experiencing fortune and misfortune.  It was God’s grace that kept the rest of us from the front of the bus, and God’s time that saw that poor man home to heaven.  If one person was labeled disordered, all were equally disordered.  Life was to be lived, not dissected.

“Honey, you live as long as you can and you die when you can’t help it,” Mom often said.

Mom eventually outgrew her sleepwalking.  Still, that day, those empty shoes, heralded Mom’s days of caution.  That day became page one in Mom’s Inner Book of Catastrophes.  From that point onward, Mom committed to memory a catalogue of misfortunes, which she gleaned from newspapers, newscasts, and some from hearsay.  If anyone was a savant in this capacity, it was Mom.

“I think I’ll go roller skating,” I might chirp.

“Oh, honey, be careful.  Once in 1967 a little girl went roller skating in Denver.  It was four pm, and the way the sunlight hit this one drivers window caused….”

It was amazing.  And it was a talent.  Mom trusted God, but believed in partnering Him with as much Common Sense as possible.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

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