November 17, 2005
Martha and Samantha, in the same graduation class, were both considered "special," but for vastly different reasons.
Samantha was one of those rare people with a naturally generous and selfless spirit, even in her teenage years. From an early age, Samantha had always participated, with a true devotion and interest, in every charitable organization. She was extremely athletic, tireless, and strong, which gave her the ability to give of her energies openly. After high school, she became the only female firefighter in town.
Martha was physically disabled, making her hard to mistake and unique from head to foot. Martha was not considered a hero of the obvious, uniformed variety. Instead, she was lauded as one of those daily sources of inspiration who display a continual show of bravery by simply persisting in existence.
Martha did not know Samantha as well as others did; they were little more than friendly acquaintances in their school days. Yet, like everyone else, Martha admired Samantha. Years after high school graduation, Martha saw photos of her continual accomplishments and dramatic rescues in the local newspapers.
Then there came sad news. Samantha's face was featured in the obituary section, taking her place beside those who died at an old age. In the brief article with sparse details, Martha read that Samantha had died rescuing a handicapped woman from a burning building.
As a tribute to her classmate, Martha decided to take part in the funeral services.
When Martha entered the funeral home, a stranger immediately approached her.
"How are you feeling?" The question was asked with what seemed to be a specific intent and deep curiosity. The people whispering in clusters in the mortuary salon hushed and looked down at Martha, watching for her response. Everyone acted as if Martha's presence were very meaningful and momentous.
Martha was perplexed; hastily she replied, "fine," and indicated, politely, her objective to speak to the family.
Before she moved too far from the stranger, Martha soon realized what was happening. She knew almost no one there except Samantha's mother and brother. Everyone else thought that she was the disabled person saved in the fire. They did not realize Martha was there as someone who knew Samantha on a personal level.
At this time and place there was no way to make a wide scale correction of this error. The little parlor was not something you could shout across.
Martha felt eyes on her as she approached the coffin, and heard unvoiced questions addressed to her. How do you feel about having been died for? How do you feel about the sacrifice which has been made for you?
The mistaken assumptions were an unexpected and unwelcome distraction from Martha,s personal sense of sadness. With no other indication besides that she was a disabled woman, the instant conclusion was that she must be the twin celebrity in the tragedy, the survivor whose life was exchanged for that of Samantha. What other explanation could there be for her presence?
Samantha's younger brother Jim glimpsed Martha, and a strained smile winced at the corners of his mouth. It was pleasant for Martha to see someone familiar, and be recognized as a distinct individual. In her relief, she asked herself whether her impression could be merely paranoia. "Who do they think that I am?" Martha asked Jim after a moment, unsure if he would understand what she meant.
"They probably think you're the one she saved." Ah, he thought the same thing.
Martha paid her respects to the family who grimly thanked her for coming. She left the room quietly playing the role of the mysterious stranger of questionable importance, saying and doing nothing to counteract the false notion about her.
* * *
At the funeral service the next day, people spoke of how Samantha died doing what she loved, how valuable her life was, and how many more people she could have saved or helped had she lived. Hers seemed an expressly useful life, sustaining other lives perpetually. It seemed so unfair that this had to happen to her. No one tried to justify this heartbreaking misfortune by proclaiming that "everything happens for a reason" or "it is better this way."
In the back of the church, away from the crowd, Martha at last could meditate on the loss of her former classmate without provoking such confusion.
Louise Norlie has written a number of short stories and is working on her first novel. Visit Louise Norlie's blog.
Posted on November 17, 2005