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, advises the hunted American, Joe Turner, that Turner’s time is short. As a CIA employee who knows too much, he 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 and murdered because he has become an embarrassment to the agency.
But — the beautiful spring day, the leisurely 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: September 8, 1995, was a beautiful autumn afternoon, with a blazing sun and clear blue skies. There was a breeze coming in through my office door.
The day had passed without my hearing from the doctor’s office about my recent biopsies. So I called the office myself. I was put on hold. I waited and waited and 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.
The line clicked and I heard someone clear his throat. “Mrs. Pennebaker, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you,” he said. “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.
The months pass quickly, crazily. Surgeries and chemotherapy and radiation and follow-up exams come and go.
Then 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 for no particular reason – not because you’re a better, stronger person — but simply because you have been more fortunate than others.
This isn’t a matter of logic; it just happens. Remember, the universe is ultimately, heartbreakingly indifferent.
So many years pass — 19 now — that it takes you till mid-morning to realize what day it is.
Nineteen years! You’re old enough now to realize a gift when you get it, whether you deserve it or not.
(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)