A bright spring afternoon in downtown Minneapolis, I am unlocking my bicycle outside the Norwest Center. Aesthetics have forbid the clutter of bike racks around the pale building rising 57 stories; I simply lean my bike against the limestone face, and lock the front wheel to the frame. I and the other messengers of the city weigh the odds in our favor: a two-minute delivery vs. the random thief.
The two-way radio strapped to my messenger bag comes to life, the speaker/mouthpiece crackling from its tethered position on the bag’s strap; inches from my ear.
“Seventeen?” The disembodied voice of Jeff, our dispatcher; a nasal monotone that I associate with the outer burbs. I’ve never seen him; he sits in an office twenty minutes outside the city.
I press the button on my speaker. “Seventeen here.”
“Mike, I got a dash for you.”
A dash is our fastest run; a fifteen-minute sprint between spots; several of these in the last hours of sunlight can put you past the $100 a day mark.
“Mike, picking up from Fallon, Fifty South Sixth Street dropping at Pixel Farm on First Avenue.”
“Ten-four, seventeen out.”
I copy the run on my log sheet, fold the metal clipboard closed and slide it into my bag before swinging it around to my back in one fluid movement. My t-shirt is stained with sweat a darker shade under the shoulder strap. I straddle my bike and swing the front wheel around to face south, towards Fallon on Sixth Street.
A movement out of the corner of my eye: a woman approaching on the sidewalk; her gait slower and more awkward than the hurried mass of office workers on their lunch break streaming alongside her. She steps with deliberation and focus; her eyes flashing beneath the round frames of her glasses. Her slack jaw and unsteady gait reveal a physical or neurological difference. Suddenly her foot turns awkwardly and she falls forward; I reach towards her but miss by several inches and she lands face-first on the sidewalk a few inches from my bike. The crowd steps back from where she lays. She struggles to her feet; she has cut her lip against her teeth; the bright panic of blood against her pale chin. She stands and for a moment she is alone among this crowd. There is a terror in her eyes; a confusion of fear and pain, and it pierces me deep.
I set my bike down on the sidewalk and run across the street to Arby’s, where I steal a handful of napkins. I dodge the traffic coming back. She stands silently, but her open, bloody mouth and the shine of panic in her eyes are like a scream in my ears. I hand her the napkins.
“Here…you’ve…you’ve cut your lip.”
She takes the napkin and slowly dabs at her lips. A young couple has stopped and the man leans towards her, his hand stopping an inch from her arm.
“Are you okay?”
But the woman only looks at us with confusion. The blood, her slack jaw.
I do not know what else to do. The minutes of my dash are ticking, the business of two companies demand my attention. The couple stands awkwardly; a look passes between them. What do we do? She seems utterly alone and helpless and I am shaken by something cold and quick that has slid into me, resting alongside my heart. I feel helpless.
The couple lingers, and I let duty prevail. I slowly turn from her and mount my bike. I look back once, then push off towards Fallon.
I am haunted all day by the sight of her falling, always inches from my grasp.
Why does this image still cut? Years pass but the pain bears down hard on my heart, squeezing it between rough fingers no weaker for the passing time. In fact they are stronger; the pain unmerciful because I cannot change the course of the memory: the invulnerable, inflexible past. I could have stayed, tried to talk to her, find her destination. I could have stayed till she stopped bleeding. I could have.
The image of her, standing with her mouth open, crying without sound, her panicking eyes, her utter solitude; in her I see my mother. I see that woman on the sidewalk behind me as I glance back a final time, and then I see my mother the way she was with ALS, sitting beside me in church. Around us the congregation is singing a hymn; the music and their voices triggering her tears. She cries silently beside me, her jaw slack, mouth open, eyes confused and pained. She turns to me and her eyes meet mine and it is all fear and desolation, and I am devastated. I can wrap my arm around her. I can hand her tissue. And that is all.
I no longer see the woman on the sidewalk: I glance behind me one last time and she is my mother, mouth open, blood on her chin. I see the enormity of her fear and the anguish dragging her to a place where no one can keep her company.
Why was I not born a superhero, a Man of Steel? Why this mutant heart, so quick to absorb pain greater than its own weight? Why can’t I protect, only stand and witness?
Sometimes, God, I hate you. I hate the misery and the cruelty and the violence of this shitty world. I hate the arrogance and the bright blood. I hate what we always abandon. I hate that she is gone, and I hate that other people get their mothers.
And it seems that I will always be angry, I will never accept what happened to her, what the disease took and continues to take. My rioting heart, my staccato pulse. Pumped full of useless adrenaline propelling me to fight what I cannot touch: random pain, disease, rejection. My red-shot vision blurs, turning the world on its side. My hands reaching, longing to tear apart some one or some thing but missing; closing only around her absence.