There’s a scene in Three Days of the Condor that’s always haunted me. The world-weary hired assassin Joubert, who loves classical music and longs for the civilized ways of Europe, tells the hunted American, Joe Turner, that he can’t survive in the world as it’s become for him. As a CIA employee who knows too much, Turner will never be safe.
“Here is how it will happen,” Joubert says (and I’m paraphrasing, because my memory’s not that great). “It will be a beautiful spring day and you will be out walking. A car will pull up. Someone you know and trust will be in it.” Joubert shakes his head sadly, because on that beautiful day, Turner will be betrayed by someone he trusts and murdered because he has become an embarrassment to the agency.
But — a beautiful spring day, the walk, the lightheartedness of it all, the innocence, the betrayal, the ultimate indifference of the universe. That’s how it can happen.
Here is how it happened to me: It was a beautiful autumn afternoon, with a blazing sun and clear blue skies. There was a breeze coming in through my office door. First, I was put on hold at the radiology office. So I sat and stared and drummed my fingers and felt sick to my stomach. I hadn’t been able to work for two weeks, ever since a suspicious mammogram had come back.
“Mrs. Pennebaker, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. The biopsy was positive.”
I can’t really describe what it’s like to hear that, except to say that a bomb goes off inside you and nothing seems real and it’s as if you’re a character in a bad movie who keeps mouthing lines that don’t make sense. Because, of course, this can’t be happening. You — that strong, healthy person — can’t possibly have been betrayed by her body.
But surgeries and chemotherapy and radiation and follow-up exams come and go. The years pass. Planes fly into buildings and the buildings collapse. Children you thought you’d never see live to adulthood graduate from high school and college. Wonderful, brave friends sicken and get worse and die. You get spared in the short run– not because you’re a better, stronger person — but simply because you have been more fortunate than others. It isn’t a matter of logic; remember, the universe is ultimately, heartbreakingly indifferent.
So many years pass — 13 now — that it takes you till mid-morning to realize what day it is. Thirteen years. You’re old enough now to realize a gift when you get it, whether you deserve it or not.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)