The Calm Person in the Room

Two Sundays ago I was watching football when my wife, who had taken the dogs out for a walk, came rushing in. “There’s an opossum that got hit by a car. It’s just sitting there in the middle of the road. It’s awful.”

Before we could stop her, our nine-year-old daughter dashed outside. Empathetic love of animals is a fundamental aspect of her makeup, and she came tearing back a minute later, frothing over with distress. She was in that self-tormenting mode where a child is horrified but can’t not look. The drama of life and death is too mesmerizing.

I put on my coat and went outside. The opossum sat in the street, upright and still, like a stuffed toy. Some of its guts had spilled out and puddled on the pavement. Blood dribbled from its mouth. But the creature was fully conscious – sitting there looking dumbfounded, as if it couldn’t comprehend what had happened or what to do. If you approached, it opened its mouth, showing its small pointy teeth, and hissed. Every minute or so a car would approach, and inevitably it would stop and the driver would roll down his window and stare.

“Dad,” my daughter sobbed from the porch, “do something!”

I came back in and called the police dispatcher. “There’s an opossum in our street that’s been hit by a car,” I said.

“Is it dead?” the dispatcher said.

“No, it’s alive. But if you get near it, it hisses.” I asked if she could connect me with Animal Control.

This is the kind of situation that distinguishes our cash-strapped and impoverished city, whose public services are dysfunctional and understaffed, from the wealthy suburbs around us. In those places, someone would show up quickly. In our city, it wasn’t gonna happen. It was Sunday, and the dispatcher informed me that Animal Control was closed. Meanwhile our daughter had worked herself into a frenzy. I was already feeling rattled, and her hysterical beseeching wasn’t helping.  I suggested to my wife that she take her somewhere, to the mall, to get ice cream, anywhere. She packed our daughter into the car and left.  

I went back outside, hoping that the animal might have died – that nature, as my surgeon father used to say, had taken its course. No such luck. The opossum glared at me and wanly hissed. Meanwhile a guy in a car had stopped and was taking pictures with his cell phone. Unreasonably I felt like tearing the phone out of his hands and smashing it.

A couple walked up. They were young, late twenties or so. We stood there together at the curb, watching the opossum watch us.

“It should be put out of its misery,” the guy said.

For the first time in my life, I wished I had a gun. How ironic: all the times over the years I’d locked horns online with gun-rights advocates who assailed me with dire scenarios of violent home break-ins, sadistic thugs assaulting my wife and daughter, and sneeringly asked, Wouldn’t you want a gun now? And finally I did want one – not to ward off a murderous intruder, but to deal death to a grievously wounded animal, cleanly, without having to attempt to bash its head in with a rock.

I couldn’t bring myself to do anything like that, I realized. So then what could I do? Call the police again, maybe. Tell them that a wounded and possibly rabid animal was threatening children in the neighborhood. Put it in such an urgent way that even my city, even on a Sunday, would have to do something.

But that might take an hour or more. And meanwhile the still-undead animal was right here in front of us. The situation wasn’t going away. Nothing would happen unless we made it happen.

“I have a shovel,” I said to the guy. “Or a sledgehammer.”

“The shovel,” he said, grimly.

I went to the shed and brought it back. “Are you able to do this?” I asked. He nodded, and I handed it to him.

As it turned out, not only could I not do it, but I couldn’t really watch, either: when he raised the shovel above his head, I turned away. I think it took more work than he had expected, three loud blows. When I looked again, the animal was on its back; the guy had pushed it over to the curb and I could see its arms and claws waving spasmodically.

“It might do that for a while,” the guy said. His girlfriend groaned in dismay to hear that, and so he went to work again with the shovel, not bashing this time but digging down, pushing the blade below the level of the curb, where to my relief I couldn’t see. The death throes ceased.

Taking the now-bloodied shovel back, I thanked him: “You’re a better man than I,” I said. With no further word among any of us, he and his girlfriend walked off.

By the time my wife and daughter came back, a half hour later, my daughter had calmed down. A dead animal at the side of the road was something she could deal with. But I was still unnerved. Faced with an emergency, one requiring a merciful act of violence, I had faltered.

That didn’t sit so well. Just the day before, I had watched The Revenant, Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu’s brutal chronicle of trappers caught in a trial of survival in the winter wilderness of 1823 Montana, replete with bear attacks heroically repulsed, with animals shot and stabbed and flayed and devoured raw, a horse gutted and its hot bloody body cavity used for human shelter on a brutally cold night. It was a two-and-a-half-hour primer in men violently doing what they have to do. A small atavistic ritual of this frontier had touched my world, and I hadn’t exactly risen to the task.

Back in the house, the football game had continued apace, ranks of huge helmeted men sent forth in gladiatorial formations to create highly choreographed mayhem. I settled down on the couch to watch, but it was hard to focus. I found myself thinking about a college classmate who had made a mid-career decision to become a rabbi. At the ceremony marking the end of his studies and his investiture as a rabbi, the officiating rabbi had talked about the importance to a spiritual leader of being “the calm person in the room.”

The calm person in the room: it’s the kind of useful phrase that sticks with you. That calm is a proxy for, and sign of, the grace under pressure that is courage.

Courage is a curious quality -- crucial, yet only intermittently required in our lives. Dealing with the death of a parent or friend; facing the steep challenge of cancer; negotiating turmoil in your marriage with fairness and consideration; having to take your infant in for surgery: the trials of modern life tend to be not three-alarm emergencies where fast heroic action is required, but rather the gradually accumulating kind where dread wells up around you, and grace is a matter of maintaining composure, perspective and faith. Still, even if – in a lucky life – courage isn’t required every day, by the time you get to your 50s, you’ve faced enough such challenges to get a read on yourself. What I know about myself is that I’m an in-between person: not notably cowardly, but not notably courageous either. While pain isn’t a big issue for me personally, when it comes to other beings in pain – whether human or animal – I have a side that freaks out, a ready impulse of panic and flight.

The summer I was 20, I worked as a student teacher at a residential summer school, and one afternoon as I sat in the dorm where I was on duty, a hue and cry arose that a girl had fallen through a first-floor window of an adjacent dorm and cut her leg badly. I raced out and ran across the lawn, seeing a group of kids clustered around the fallen girl and thinking, OK, the grownups will handle this. But there were no grownups; I was the grownup. I felt like throwing up. There was no one else, however, and nowhere to flee, and nothing else to do but tear off a shirt, clamp it to the wound, pick the girl up and carry her to a car to drive to the hospital.

The rude intrusions of responsibility, the dry taste in the mouth, the urge to escape and the simultaneous, sickening recognition that there is no escape: necessity is the mother of courage. Some people are born courageous, perhaps, but most of us have courage thrust upon us, and over time, the ability to be that calm person in the room becomes something hard-won, bit by bit, from experience – and always subject to revocation. We all have our special weak spots, nightmare moments when calm evaporates, and the urge to flee pounds in your chest; most of us in life remain desperately grateful to find someone else to wield the shovel.

What is the kind of situation that makes you want to flee? Mine was brought home in the face of a dying animal, staring at me in placid reproach, as if to say, Do your job -- what are you waiting for?





Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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