It all began with a runaway weekend, the kind planned for rest, relaxation, change of weather and scenery. We had no real agenda – only a yearning for quiet, unstructured husband-and-wife time. But at every juncture, something jolting and unexpected occurred. I began writing and recounting the events I knew would be traveling home with us.
As is usually the case when we go out of town, once checked into our hotel, I immediately exhale. Friends and relatives respect our right to escape. We come and go as we please with little orientation to time, place or responsibility. That's where part one of this story begins.
Imagine a cool breeze on a Friday afternoon, the sun shining and two people happily walking down Main Street, USA. We were actually in San Francisco, my Paris of California, a city enticing visitors to stroll its neighborhoods, buy flowers from street vendors and, of course, shop. Dan wanted a new sports coat and I needed graduation gifts, so we meandered our separate ways.
An hour or so into my hunt, my feet ached, so I took an escalator to the ladies lounge. As I entered, I spotted an empty sofa, the others crowded with shoppers doing exactly like me – happily abiding by the "shop till you drop" mantra.
I immediately noticed a young woman reclining across from me. At first glance, she appeared resting, maybe even asleep. Her body was rocking with arms and legs gently folded into a fetal position. Her eyes were closed. No one seemed bothered, but something felt off-kilter. When the rocking became more pronounced, my maternal instincts kicked in.
"Honey, are you OK?" I asked. "May I help you?"
Another woman sitting nearby looked at me as if I was intruding and said, "She's just crying." Well, if she was, I was at least going to try consoling her. She was somebody's daughter, sister or friend.
Placing my hand on her shoulder, I leaned in and whispered, "May I get you some water?"
Oblivious to my words and verbally non-responsive, her body began gyrating. My best guess was she was having a seizure. I ran out and summonsed a sales clerk who called for help. As paramedics arrived and shoppers dispersed, I heard voices sizing up the inconvenience.
"A nut case."
"I thought she was crying."
My urge to shop was gone. I returned to our hotel and called home to check up on my daughter and grandkids.
The next day, we got a fresh start and an early reservation at one of our favorite Italian restaurants, where locals congregate for fresh pasta or the catch of the day. The volume and angry tone in a man's voice caused me to look up from my menu. He was scolding a child and giving looks that could kill to a woman I presume was his wife.
When the waitress came to take my order, I produced a blank stare, not knowing if I should order my usual or ask her to call authorities. As I listened to the child sobbing, my stomach and heart sank to the floor. My appetite was gone. Interfering at these moments is always awkward, but I did what I could – making occasional eye contact with the young boy, hoping to soothe him from afar. He looked to be the same age as my grandson.
My husband and I left the City on a bit of a sour note but with two days of R & R remaining, drove for about an hour, checked into our hotel and decided to visit a winery known for its smooth Pinot Noir.
Glasses were no sooner poured when our cellphones sounded. Dan slipped out of the room and quickly returned; our house alarm was going off and a dispatcher was asking for passwords and quizzing him about whether or not we wanted police called. Karen, my next door neighbor, sent me a steady stream of texts filled with worry and concern. We were four hours away, emotions at loose ends and I was quickly unraveling, imagining the worst. It turned out to be a false alarm, but for me, the trip was over, the damage done. I wanted to go home.
None of these scenarios are vacation getaway exclusives. They can happen anywhere, anytime, and the truth of the matter is — they do.
What do you do in public when you see someone in distress? Haven't we all witnessed parents pouncing on their kids in public? What do you do when an alarm (internal or external) sounds, warning you of possible harm or danger to someone close by, or to your home or property? And how do you react when your own grandiose plans are suddenly derailed?
I found the entire weekend hard to ignore and impossible to forget. What is the lesson, I kept asking myself? On the drive home, I thought about days when we didn't have to lock doors or set alarms. We talked to strangers and even helped them without fearing our actions might trigger a lawsuit or result in a mugging. We simply followed our instincts and hearts.
Today's world has sharper edges. Maybe it's my age and the fact I have more of life behind me than in front of me. Doing nothing or looking away is not an option. We simply mustn't allow ourselves to lose our humanness. Not in Fresno, San Francisco, or anywhere else.
Armen Bacon of Fresno is a writer and co-author of "Griefland an Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship" (Globe Pequot Press, 2012). She is working on a collection of essays, "My name is Armen a Life in Column Inches." Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @ArmenBacon.