Life and Death and the Value Between

I looked up at the woman in the picture 6 feet above my head, my jaw hung open. My Dad stood next to me in the hallway, “MM, that’s you!” I think I let the purse on my arm slip to the floor as I leaned against the railing and strained to get a better view, as if those extra 4 inches forward would make the image clearer. I wished the picture would magically float down off the wall and hover in front of me, and talk like a portrait on the walls of Hogwarts. I needed answers.

She was perched upon the wall in the The Tower of Faces, a permanent exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Her face is turned away from the camera slightly. She’s looking off to the side, very peacefully. The image of turn of the century beauty. She looked so serene. So calm and angelic. The Tower of Faces was thousands of eyes staring back at me, teasing with their silence. Whenever I’m in Washington DC I find time to walk through that museum. I like to spend a little time with her, studying her, reminding her in some way that she wasn’t forgotten. I’ve treated her like an old friend over these years. Sadly,one of us will continue to grow old.

These images were from a single Jewish settlement, Eishyshok in a little pocket of countryside between Russia, Poland and Lithuania taken between 1890 and 1941. In 1941 Nazis massacred almost all the Jewish population. On September 21st, 1941 (right around my birthday actually, no not the same year) the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Nazi’s  ordered everyone to report to one of the synagogues. They were locked inside for 3 days. The Nazis then ordered them into the horse market in the middle of the town where they were kept overnight. The next morning the men were rounded up and told they were being taken to build a ghetto for the women and children in the woods. Keeping in Nazi habits they were led in groups to the edge of a trench (used to keep cattle from a Catholic cemetery nearby.) There the Nazis shot each man and let them fall into the mass grave. The next day the women and children were led to a freshly dug ditch near the catholic cemetery and were also shot, one by one.  You can learn more here!

Who was she? What was her name? Where did they get his picture of me 60 years before I was born?? I may never know.

I have a few friends who joke that I’ve got an old soul. I really can’t disagree with them. I read a piece online a few years ago that amused me. The author outlined their theory that each person’s birthmark was the remnants of how the bearer died in a past life. I don’t believe in reincarnation or even spirit recycling. However, my soul is the most convincing map to it. Somewhere deep inside I feel memories I can’t possibly have. Waiting in a ghetto in Nazi Germany, running from the Romans, hiding in a bush waiting for people to stop looking for me, dying of leukemia in a hospital bed, it all feels like a past life.  Search me as to why. Death has always kept me curious. Somehow I’ve always felt connected to suffering and dying. I don’t care about ghost stories or the gore of it. It’s always been a solemn, respected thing. I was in the womb when the Rwandan genocide began. I’m not sure how but when the Humans of New York blog did it’s features on the survivors I felt like I had some kind of connection to them.

I’ve written it off as a good imagination– built to be a writer, right? That’s what I’ve settled on. One day in heaven I’ll ask about it.

God keeps shoving the story of the terrorist attack on the 15:17 train to Paris on me. I’m not sure why. Maybe its so I can write this post. Who knows?

The attack on the 15:17 to Paris splashed across our news outlets like a can of paint was dumped in our laps. I remember hearing about it like it was yesterday. Three life long friends who were on a trip through Europe were in the right place at the right time to stop a terrorist from killing hundreds of people. One of the men, Spencer Stone, took the most injuries. The ISIS terrorist pulled the trigger to shoot at least two separate times and each time the gun didn’t go off. Later they discovered it was a one in a million chance both times. But wait, he still had a blade and he did the damage he could. The miracle here is that no one died. In fact these three friends saved the life of a man who was shot by the terrorist. Its a wild story, you gotta check out the movie.

Or the interview of what happened:

In the movie, Spencer is pushing himself to BE SOMETHING. Each big dream he had was denied or pushed further away from him. He didn’t give up, instead he went after something else and then something else and something else. He was frustrated that it seemed like he was pedaling backwards but it turned out each step was not a step backwards, but a preparation for what he was going to see and eventually do on that train in 2015.

  • He just so happened to be on THAT train (they almost opted to leave a day or two later)
  • He just so happened to be failed out of classes and fell back on becoming a medic in the Air Force (which helped assess the medical needs of those around him while also injured.)
  • He just so happened to have found the WiFi was better in 1st class an hour before. (which put them in the first car the terrorist entered)
  • He just so happened to have been studying Jujitsu the weeks previous while stationed in Portugal.  (he used the appropriate moves to bring the terrorist to the ground unconscious.)

6 weeks after his return to the states and a press tour he was attacked outside a bar in his hometown. He was stabbed several times in the the heart, liver, and back barely missing the nerves in his spine, and again in the chest which resulted in a collapsed lung. He nearly died.

Yet he stepped off that train.

Yet he woke up in the ambulance and recovered in the hospital.

He said later that he had accepted death when he realized he’d been stabbed several times. He laid down and waited for death.

But he woke up in the hospital. While he was laying inside he could hear the traumatic last moments in the next room of a young 18 year old who passed away from pneumonia. He listened to the family suffer those next few moments and wondered how on earth he was supposed to live and that kid wasn’t.

Since then he’s chased life with zero abandon. It’s damn-near admirable.

Being in my 20’s I’m always asking myself, if I died tomorrow, what do I have to show for my life?

I don’t really care if I’m remembered or forgotten. That’s not where my treasure is, I’m dead, I’m gone. I can’t grieve the loss of the memory of me. (However, if I have the option of being a ghost for a time I’ve got a list of people I want to haunt, or just check in on. –appear in the bathroom mirror, flicker the lights, you know-innocent stuff)

God may not have me stopping a terrorist attack – but if he does I pray I’m brave enough to resolve that I won’t die on my knees.

Regardless, everything I’m facing, every setback and triumph is pointing me towards the things God has planned for me. Every memory and feeling I seem to have is going to be used for the right things. These swirling thoughts remind me every day that God created me to be a writer and he’s not going to forget about it. Death comes to us all. It’s how much we value the time we have between now and then.

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