I've been meaning to blog this for some time. It's not a pleasant story so it's never really felt like the right time to put it up here. But I spent a lot of time yesterday thinking about how the choices we make in life affect others, sometimes in trivial ways that we never think of again, sometimes in life-changing ways. Sometimes the decisions are completely selfless done to protect another. Other times they are out of complete cowardice to protect ourselves, regardless of the price another pays. A choice made in the face of adversity is very telling of one's character. Fortunately for me, the person making the choice on this day showed a character of selflessness toward me like I've never again seen in my life.
When I was about 6 years old, I was in this laundromat with my mom and sister one summer night. As our mom did laundry, we played with another little girl who was there with her mother. An older gentleman was also there, alone, quietly tending to his laundry seeming to be oblivious to the rest of us there.
I was standing toward the back of the laundromat with my mom when I looked out the front window and saw 3 men running toward the door. I was immediately afraid because I noticed they were wearing ski masks. Ski masks in the middle of summer. For many years after this night, I carried a guilt for being afraid to tell someone that I thought something was wrong when I saw these men, that I could have prevented what happened after they made their way into the laundromat.
I remember the men coming into the laundromat and screaming at us all to get in the back room. And I remember my sister, who was 4, screaming, "It's a monster man, Mommy!" And then I remember my mom leading me through a door in the back of the laundromat into a very small, narrow, white room. The other little girl and her mom were already there as was my sister and everyone was crying. What I don't remember is what happened between the time my sister was screaming about the monster man and walking through that doorway. I've completely blocked it from my memory. My mom has filled in the blanks for me.
As the men had come through the door yelling and my sister started screaming, my mom, out of fear for what they would do to my sister, was trying to calm her. She led my sister to the back room as instructed, trying to get her to stop screaming. The monster man was screaming at my mom to shut her up. What she didn't realize is that I was still standing where we had been when the men came through the doors. When she got to the back room and calmed my sister, she realized I was not there and went running back out front. As she came around the corner, she saw the monster man standing with a gun held point blank at my temple. She calmly said, "She's just a little girl."
The monster man said, "But she didn't do what I told her to do."
My mom slowly walked over to me and said, "She's scared. Just let me take her."
He again said, "She didn't do what I told her to do. She didn't go to the back room."
As he continued to hold the gun to my head, my mom gently pulled me away from him and lead me to the back room.
We all sat on the floor, curled together hugging one another, talking about what the men were going to do to us. I don't know how long we were there but I'll never forget a moment of how terrified I was. And then the door to the back room opened. The older gentleman who had been quietly tending to his laundry as we played said, "You can come out now. They're gone."
The choice this man made had quickly ended what could have turned out to be a tragic situation. Instead of doing what he was told to do, he had looked straight at a man pointing a gun at him and said, "I'm not going to go back there an watch whatever it is you plan to do to those girls. You're just going to have to shoot me right here where someone might see it." And they left.
The older gentleman continued to remain calm after we came out of the room. He didn't want praise. He didn't feel he'd done anything extraordinary because he said they would have shot him for sure if he'd have gone back there and he couldn't have beared watching whatever the men planned to do to us. We thought he did do something extraordinary. Our natural reaction in the face of danger is self-preservation. He was willing to give up the possibility that there was a way out in order to protect us rather than himself.
My mom was able to identify the monster man and he went away to jail. We never saw the older gentleman again. I don't even know his name. But I'll never forget the lesson I learned from him that night. From the guilt I carried over hiding behind my fear when I saw the men approaching the laundromat contrasted against this man's act, I learned the importance of the choices we make in the face of adversity.