Friday, February 17, 2012

What does and does not heal (by Suzie)

I still remember the cold tile against my face, as I lay crying on the restroom floor. I had gone there to cry hard, force all the tears out, so that I could return to my desk and write about the killing of Todd Smith.

In November 1989, Todd and I sat next to each other at the Tampa Tribune. I had gone to Europe with my boyfriend, while Todd took a different vacation. Because he wanted to be a foreign correspondent, he went at his own expense to Peru to report on drug trafficking and terrorists.

I returned to work to find Todd missing. We learned that he had been tortured and garroted, his body left in the sun with a sign to warn U.S. agents. He wasn’t one. He just looked the part, and he asked questions. He was a tall, athletic 28-year-old blond, an Aryan poster child, as I used to joke, who must have stood out in Uchiza in the Upper Huallaga Valley.

The new boss didn’t seem to think much of me, and I got a lesser assignment, on the Shining Path, as I recall. I went to cry in the restroom by the back shop, where his story would glide out in long strips of paper to be hot-waxed onto 1A. Few women worked in the back shop, making the nearby women’s restroom a good place for privacy.

I had to cover cops that Thanksgiving week, and I was sent to the public hospital to find a family whose child was injured or dying. They angrily told me to get out of the waiting room. I wanted to fall into their arms, tell them that I was grieving, too.

I’ve come to despise the myth of objectivity in journalism – the idea that reporters and editors can lay aside feelings, beliefs and experiences. We can return to our desks, we can do our job, but we can’t stop being who we are.

This all came back to me
at a concert Tuesday night, when Sam Baker performed “Broken Fingers.” He explained to the man who requested the song that it was his job to play it. His job to perform, perhaps. His job to remember, definitely.

He almost died in 1986, when the Shining Path blew up a tourist train in Cuzco. Among others, the explosion killed the German couple across from him, and their son at his side. Shrapnel severed Baker's left femoral artery. He had cranial bleeding, gangrene and renal failure. He lost his hearing in one ear, and most in the other. His left hand was mangled. He got brain damage and tinnitus, and he's undergone many surgeries.
Forget his eyes, his silhouette?
Of course I don't, of course I don't forget
There are blue eyes, a silhouette
There is a debt, it's a debt I don't forget

These broken fingers, some things don't heal
I can't wake up from a dream, when the dream is real
In the video, watch how he talks while preparing to play in a workmanlike way, as if people were killed every day, as if they were killed every day.

Smart and ambitious, Todd was a Southern gentleman, but not a good ol' boy. He had a dry wit, and his desire to do good had not been dulled by covering county government. He had begun a secret romance with a county commissioner's daughter, and we mused on the nature of love. We had favorite poems by W.H. Auden; mine was “Musee des Beaux Arts.”
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along
That was before my own suffering from sarcoma and my messed-up body.
Baker's experience is worse than mine, so far. Still, I know what it's like to survive while others die.

I went to the concert to hear the wonderful Audrey Auld. I knew nothing about Baker, but I got to the place early, while people were still milling about. He's friendly and cheerful, with intense eyes. When my eyes met his, I couldn't turn away. It was as if we shared some secret, some secret I didn't yet know.

I know what he means when he calls this a pretty world. In exhaustion, I have lain on park benches, on the sidewalk, in the hospital, watching the world. Blue skies and storms have filled me with joy. And I understand the work of it all, how you have to make your way to your only window, dragging a web of IV tubing, to pull up the blinds.