Indifference and Beauty

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)

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7 comments… add one
  • Linda Cox Link

    And what a wonderful gift it is. I’m coming up on 20 years. And I sometimes think–it’s just the luck of the draw, that I made it this far and others didn’t. Got to see my daughter grow up into a wonderful young woman. Glad you too are one of the lucky ones!

  • Steve Link

    For my childhood lymphoma, I was treated at UTMB, a hospital of last resort for persons without insurance. After a month in a children’s ward and experimental radiation, I was discharged shortly before Christmas, 1956. Fifty-five years later I stood again on the floor of the auditorium in Old Red where medical students had questioned me and my doctor. I found myself praying, asking God, “Why me? Why did I get all these additional years? Not every child in my ward did.” The answer: “No reason. Just a gift.” Now 14 years after my second cancer, the answer remains. Each day is, indeed, a gift.

  • Yay!!! I’m right with you, Ruth. Lots of gratitude. Lots of wondering why, still. But ultimately, a sense of vulnerability and telling myself that I (and you!) are lucky. Big congrats and hugs to you. xo

  • bonehead Link

    strange comfort, isn’t it.

  • Chris Link

    I like the new look of your site and appreciate the gratitude you share so well.

  • Marsha Canright Link

    Well said, Ruth. I’m glad you’re still here, and I congratulate you on the joyful noise and mischief that you’re still up to.
    Sept. 8 is also the day the gulf swallowed Galveston in 1900.

    It’s all random and mysterious. Beautiful life.

  • What a lovely post and so well said. A beautiful gift, indeed. So happy for you!

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