Thirty years ago now, an 18-month old toddler slipped down a well, and the world stopped breathing. The media got wind of the story and suddenly her vanishing became the headline on television news, in newspapers, on radio talk shows, and at the water coolers everywhere.
As John Donne once said, “No man is an island,” and when one of us, in this case, a little girl, becomes isolated as an island, no one remains comfortable.
And no one was. Not, that is, until someone slid a microphone down the well to where she was. She was singing.
And the whole would collectively exhaled.
So long as we can communicate, we can have faith in the future.
Now, here’s a story from closer to home: My father and I were the best of friends, but separated by a single circumstance. Divorced from my mother, he married a thin-skinned woman who detested the members of his prior family, which included my mother, myself, and three grown sisters. He stayed in that second marriage because they had produced a girl child, my fourth sister, on whom he expended all the love and attention he lost the chance to expend on us. (Side note: none of us felt a twitch of jealousy. We loved her too.)
But the Bruja he married threw log after log in the way of me and my sisters spending time with him. He had to fight for it. (Another side note: The Bruja wasn’t that successful. My father had an iron will, so she resorted to more subtle disruptions. We managed, and, like I said, he became my best friend.)
And so it went for two decades.
Then, when I was thirty, the unthinkable happened: always a man with an iron will and an iron constitution, my father fell ill. He never fell ill. But it was cancer, terminal cancer. On the very day America began involvement with the Iraqi-Kuwaiti war, he was taken to the hospital. I had a small publishing business in those days, so my time was my own, and I rushed up to the hospital. The man was conversant, clear-minded, and accepting that he was in his final days. All my sisters and one of his stepsons (the other was away in that war) came to the hospital. More frequently than felt natural, his wife was absent. Fine with us. I for one didn’t miss her company.
Finally, he was allowed to go home, where he lived alone with his wife. The daughter he loved had married, moved out, and had children of her own by then. I was allowed to visit him once, and that visit had major consequences on the next few weeks. My dad and I sat at his kitchen table and talked of his eldest step-son, a Special Forces Army man. Because of his role in the battles, the son was completely incommunicado. We were used to his disappearances. One of the things Dad and I talked about was how, back when the US went after Noriega, my step-brother had been at the dictator’s compound setting up communications a week before the first planes arrived.
Needless to say, my former Master Sergeant in the Army father was fully proud of that step-son. (Another side note: I was Vietnam-era age, and Dad so hated the war he said he would drive me to Canada if I got drafted. He had his principles.)
That night, my father and the Bruja began arguing. I learned from my youngest sister years later that it was over my “frequent” visits and my detestable cowardice. You see, her son signed up for service, and his son had gone to college instead. Told you she was more subtle in her assaults. Anyway, the fight began soon after I left, and continued into the wee hours. According to my sister, my father, having no more strength left, managed to call her on the phone to ask if she’d come over to intervene. She said that he cried on the phone, saying, “She’s killing me.”
When my sister arrived at three a.m., she found my dad collapsed half-way up the stairs to their room, alone, her in bed, and him already debilitated by a paralyzing stroke.
He died from that stroke, but not until after another three week stay in the hospital. I tried to visit, but was told by admittance and then by security that under no circumstance was I to be allowed. Orders of the Bruja. All my sisters were permitted, which was a good thing, because I got news, and because we learned something about my dad. He knew sign-language, and with the use of a manual, my sisters and he could communicate. They, and even myself, got to cling to a shred of hope that a better future was at least possible.
Flashback: When I was seven, my father and I lived in southern California up in the mountains. One day the jeep he used ran out of gas. So we had to walk about a mile into a small town. It was hot, dusty, and dry, and my Dad had the unfortunate task of keeping a seven-year old entertained. I had a million questions, and to limit them them he asked me to spell certain words. Whether I succeeded or not is irrelevant. What is relevant was that I got to ask him to spell a word, and I chose one popular those days: “Dad, how do you spell 'Antidisestablishmentarianism'?” I am sure he dismissed me with a wave of his hand and changed the subject with, “Look, a lizard.”
Back to him in his hotel room. I got a call from my sister. “Get here now. We can sneak you in. We bribed the front desk, and the witch is home showering.”
I rushed to attend what would be my last hours with my father. We had to sit in the dark, because it was way past visiting hours, and we feared someone ratting me out. I held his hand, and I watched him try to communicate via sign language, but I didn’t know it and had no book. So, to a man who could only grunt and heave an exhaled squeal, I leaned over and asked him, “Dad, do you know how to spell Antidisestablishmentarianism yet?”
Whether he had ever managed anything more than a grunt or squeal since the stroke or not, I never learned. But he did something that affirmed communication had been had. He started laughing. Hard. So, then, did I. And we both had tears in our eyes.
Beyond all possibility, we communicated, and it united us. I learned something again that day, that without communicating we are islands, alone, desolate, uninhabitable by anything other than our own weeds. It is what humans do to be human.
I think that, today, it is worth keeping that in mind.