She had made the mistake of a lifetime, and Gabrielle knew she would be haunted by it for the rest of her life.
On a dreary, gray October afternoon, a light rain bounced off of her umbrella as she stared at the simple headstone of Ryan King. There was a cross in each corner and centered underneath his name in bold lettering were just three words and two dates.
As she studied it, she thought the simplicity of the inscription was hopelessly inadequate to explain an entire human life – but still, she was glad that she had paid for the stone. At least there was some kind of recognition for a human being who had spent his final days on earth being ignored by everyone, including her.
She was thinking intently about the unusual chain of events that had brought her to this moment when she noticed an older gentleman approaching. He walked behind her waiting taxi, and as he got closer he smiled and took off his cap revealing a shock of silver hair. There was a natural warmth about him coupled with an air of sensitivity. She correctly guessed that this man was not a stranger to the huge cemetery.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude.” There was a kindness in the old man’s voice. “It’s just that I didn’t expect to see anyone out here today with the weather.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I bought the headstone a few weeks ago, but they just put it up yesterday. I wanted to come by this afternoon and see it.”
“Yes, I was here when they did it. I’m one of the cemetery’s caretakers.” The man said. His eyes moved down to read the inscription. “Only thirty-seven years old. So tragic.” He looked back at the nicely dressed woman. He figured she was in her late forties. “Was he a loved one or a friend?”
The question startled Gabrielle. She was surprised by the man’s abruptness, however, he asked in such a gentle way that it didn’t seem offensive. “Neither one actually. The exact nature of our relationship would be difficult to describe.” She paused as she thought about the precise words she needed. “We weren’t even acquaintances, but he ended up being very important to me.”
The puzzled look on the man’s face made it obvious that she had failed in her effort to explain how she happened to know Ryan King. The caretaker studied her for a moment. He had encountered hundreds of people in the cemetery, and he had learned over the years that each person responds differently when they are in the presence of death. The acknowledgment of one’s mortality created a broad spectrum of emotions. Some people grieved openly while others suffered their heartache in stoic silence. But there was something about this woman that was different. He sensed in her a profound sadness that stirred his curiosity and his compassion.
As they stood together over the grave, Gabrielle, for the first time, felt the desire to tell her story to another human being. Perhaps it was because the headstone now provided a measure of respect for a man who deserved far more, or maybe she hoped it would lift the burden of guilt she still struggled with. She turned and looked at the deep creases in the caretaker’s face, no doubt created by a lifetime filled with both joys and sorrows, and she wondered if he would be willing to listen to her. After considering it for a few moments, she timidly asked, “Would you like to hear the story of Mr. King?”
Softly he said, “If you’re sure you feel like sharing your story, then yes, I would like to hear it.”
Gabrielle smiled weakly. She was actually relieved to have found someone who was willing to hear to what she had to say about the man buried at her feet.
The caretaker looked up at the sky, and Gabrielle realized that the rain was letting up. He pulled a large cloth out of his pocket and said, “There’s a covered bench under those trees. It should be dry if you would like to sit.”
“Yes, that would be nice. Thank you.”
“As they reached the bench the caretaker ran his rag over it to make sure it was dry. He turned and looked at the cab when he heard the driver turn off the engine.
As they sat down Gabrielle explained, “I don’t drive.”
The old man looked at her with mild surprise. “That’s unusual in this day and age.”
She nodded and explained, “I can drive, but I don’t.”
The caretaker nodded, “That explains why the cab is waiting but doesn’t that get expensive?”
Gabrielle shrugged. “Fortunately, I have been very successful, so money is not an issue.”
An expression came over the old man’s face that showed he could not make the same claim, but then quickly his warm smile returned. “I’m sorry, I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Harry Carlson.” He extended his right hand.
“Gabrielle Benson.” She shook his hand. “It is nice to meet you – considering the circumstances.”
“I understand. But I really would like to hear about you and the man who obviously made quite an impression on you.”
Gabrielle fidgeted with her purse for a few moments. Then she took a deep breath and said, “I first saw Mr. King about six months ago.” She paused and shook her head, “I wish I could go back in time and relive that day – only with the knowledge of his life that I have now. Maybe things would have turned out differently.”
Harry could see the regret etched in her face, and he could not help but feel sympathy for her.
“The first time I remember seeing him was in April. It was a Monday morning, and I was working in my second-floor office. My desk faces the door, and behind it is a large window looking out on the street. I decided to open the blinds and let in some natural light. As I started to turn back to my desk, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye across the street in the alley. I glanced down there, and I saw a man sitting in the shadows against the wall. It appeared he was talking, but there was nobody else there. Suddenly he began to cough violently, and although it was hard to see clearly, I remember thinking he didn’t seem well.”
Immediately Harry wanted to ask questions, but he knew that it was important for her to tell the story in her own way, so he remained silent.
“I just assumed he was another homeless person. They appear from time to time around our building. There is a good chance that he may have been there before, and I just failed to notice him. I believe that happened to Mr. King all the time.” She shook her head and sighed.
“It was a busy day at work, so I quickly forgot about it. I would say at least a week went by before I caught another glimpse of him. He was sitting in just about the same spot in the alley, but this time the light was a little better. I watched with uneasiness as he had an animated conversation with someone who was not present, but that was soon interrupted by the coughing. I still have the heartbreaking mental image of him sitting there utterly alone coughing and gasping.”
Gabrielle sat quietly for a few moments, listening to the sound of birds chirping in the trees. Harry waited patiently for her to continue.
“I’ve never liked cemeteries.” She stated flatly.
“Most people feel that way.” He acknowledged. “But you know, it’s strange. If you think about it, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more tranquil place than this.”
“I suppose that’s true, but there is so much heartache and loss represented on these grounds.”
“Yes, you’re right about that – but on the other hand, the people buried here, including the person you came to see, are now at peace. Their struggles are over. Whatever pain they were forced to endure can no longer hurt them.” Harry looked across the rows of graves. “Every person that’s been laid to rest has their own story. Everyone mattered to someone.”
With a heavy sadness in her voice, Gabrielle said, “I wish that was true, but I don’t think it is. At the end of his life, no one cared about Mr. King.”
“Not even you?” Harry asked gently.
“No. Not until it was too late.” For the first time, Gabrielle had trouble controlling her emotions. She opened her purse and pulled out some tissues. Blinking back tears, she continued. “Over the next few weeks, I would occasionally see him for a brief instant, maybe for just a second or two. But the light was always bad in the alley, and I was never able to see him clearly. It was as if he was only a shadow himself. Over time I found myself actually looking for him, but there were many days where I saw nothing.”
“Finally one afternoon I got up from my desk, looked out the window into the alley and there he stood. It caught me by surprise. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. He was tall but unbelievably thin and frail-looking. He had a beard and his hair was long and stringy down past his shoulders. I’ll never forget that he was basically dressed in rags. His clothing was torn and filthy – and that cough. Even though I couldn’t hear it, I could see the physical pain it caused him. It seemed like he coughed with every breath.”
She rubbed her hand on her forehead. “He turned and took a few steps. That is when I first saw him limp. It was so severe that he could only take a few steps without stopping. I realized that was why he was always sitting down when I saw him. It was shocking to finally see what he looked like. It made me want to help him.”
Harry looked at her without judgment. “Did you?”
“No.” Gabrielle turned and looked at his grave. “I did not help him that day.” The memory was disturbing, and she felt the now familiar feelings of guilt that she always experienced concerning her treatment of Mr. King. “I don’t know why, but seeing him bothered me to the point that I actually stopped opening my blinds. I just wanted to put him out of my mind and forget that he existed. I didn’t want to know who he was or why he was there. I did not want to get involved with someone like him.” After a pause, she said, “It is ridiculous to try and make something go away by pretending it’s not there.”
Softly, Harry said, “But obviously, you eventually did get involved with him. You found out his story, and it led you to put a headstone on his grave.”
Gabrielle nodded. “After a couple of weeks, I assumed he was gone, or at least I hoped he was gone. I was tired of feeling guilty every time I looked out my window. So one morning I opened the blinds and was shocked to see him lying on the sidewalk in front of the alley. People were walking around him and even stepping over him. Several times I watched him reach his hand out to a person, but they ignored him and kept walking. At that moment something happened to me. I couldn’t stand it anymore.”
She paused and took a moment to collect her thoughts. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I had to get down there. So I called my secretary and told her I was leaving my office for a while. It took a minute or so to get out of the building, and when I stepped out into the bright sunlight I saw that he had crawled over to a wall and somehow managed to struggle to his feet. It appeared he barely had the strength to stand.”
She stopped and wiped her eyes. “That was when I heard the coughing. Even from across the street it sounded horrific.”
Gabrielle’s voice seemed to ache as she pressed on. “I dodged through the traffic and made it across the street to the front of the alley. As I got closer to him, he looked like he was already dead. He was so pale I thought he might pass out at any moment. I took a step closer, and he was consumed again by the racking cough. That was when I saw he had a cloth in his hand that was stained bright red with blood. As the coughing became worse he held it to his mouth. Finally, gasping for breath, he pulled it away – and I could see the fresh blood on his lips and the dried blood in his beard. I had never seen a human being in such an awful condition.”
She sat silently for a few moments. “I didn’t know what to do or say. But as I looked at him, I realized I had made a terrible mistake by not doing something to help him. While I was wasting time not wanting to get involved, Mr. King was slowly dying.”
Harry tried to offer some comfort, “You didn’t know how serious his situation was.”
“But I could have made the effort to find out – and I didn’t.” She closed her eyes as a wave of remorse swept over her.
Harry could see her pain, and he knew from experience that only the passage of time would be able to ease it.
Gabrielle shook her head and continued. “I stepped closer to him and asked, ‘How can I help you? What can I do?’ He looked at me with complete surprise, and I realized that he was not used to having people speak to him or even acknowledge his existence. In a hoarse raspy voice that I could barely hear he said something, but his speech was so slurred that I couldn’t understand him. He turned away as the coughing started up again, and he covered his mouth with the dirty cloth. I remember I reached out and touched his arm, but there was nothing but bone, no muscle at all. I doubt he weighed 130 pounds.
“As the coughing momentarily eased he turned back to me and managed a faint smile. Again he attempted to tell me something, but his speech was incomprehensible. At that point, he realized I could not understand him, and a look of heartbreak that came over his face. With his empty hand, he made a waving gesture for me to go away. Without thinking, I reached out and took hold of that hand. Then I watched as tears filled his eyes. He nodded at me and then pulled his hand away. I didn’t want to let go, but he slowly turned his back to me, and it was over. At that moment I decided I had to find someone, some organization to help him. I was willing to pay for his care if I needed to – however, I was afraid I had waited too long. But then, just as I was about to go back across the street, it began to happen.”
Once again Gabrielle paused to collect herself. As Harry waited, he could see how difficult it was for her to tell her story, and he felt privileged that this woman was opening up to a total stranger.
“I need to show you why I don’t drive.” Gabrielle raised the sleeve of her jacket.
Looking down at her wrist Harry immediately recognized the epilepsy bracelet. “Now I understand. I have a brother with epilepsy.” He shook his head. “I know it can be challenging.” He looked at her with empathy. “People with this diagnosis have to have tremendous courage to live their lives despite their seizures.”
Gabrielle sighed. “Most people have no idea just how challenging it can be. But the worst part is that some people treat you as if you are not normal. They don’t consider you to be a regular person. There is often a stigma that comes with having epilepsy. In my case, my seizures are very erratic. I often go for weeks without having one, but then out of the blue, I will have them for several days in a row. It can be very frustrating, but you deal with it and move on.”
She played with the bracelet on her wrist and thought for a moment about the role her condition had played in her life. It was something that was always in the back of her mind. No matter how good she felt or how relaxed and happy she was, Gabrielle always knew that a seizure could occur at any moment.
“But on that particular morning, epilepsy was the last thing in the world I was thinking about. I turned away from Mr. King and took a few steps into the street, and then I suddenly experienced the familiar aura that I typically get when it is beginning. There was the tingling sensation and my vision changed – and that was the last I really remember. There seemed to be flashes of images that are difficult to recall because I was in and out, but when I became fully aware again I was in an ambulance. The first thing I was conscious of was a tremendous headache, it was like nothing I’d ever had before. The pain was blinding, and I felt nauseous. I tried to move but the EMT’s told me to lay still, that we were almost to the emergency room. I looked down and saw that I had an IV in my arm, and suddenly I felt sticky wetness in my hair. I realized I was wrapped in gauze, and the back of my head was bleeding.”
As Harry watched Gabrielle, he marveled at what had unfolded on this rainy afternoon. A short time ago he had simply stopped to be polite and speak to a woman who was obviously grieving over someone who was important to her – and now her story had completely captured his attention.
“I was in the hospital for days. I needed nineteen stitches in the back of my scalp, but the worst part was the severe concussion I received. It’s been months, and I’m still having periods of dizziness and some vision problems…But it could have been much worse.”
Tears began to streak Gabrielle’s cheeks. “I only know what happened during the seizure because of what I was told. When it started, I staggered a little further into the street, and then I fell backward striking my head on the pavement. There was heavy traffic that morning, and witnesses said they heard the sound of screeching brakes. Suddenly a man, who was limping severely, went into the traffic and lifted me from the pavement as the driver of a large commercial truck frantically swerved, just missing us.
“Once we were clear of the street. He gently laid me down and others immediately came to my side. Bystanders said the homeless man was so weak he could not stand, and he collapsed in the alley. When the police arrived they said that Mr. King was barely breathing.” With anger rising in her voice she said, “He was transported to several hospitals, but in direct violation of federal law, they refused to treat him. While in transit to a third hospital he stopped breathing and could not be revived.” She paused and then whispered, “Less than one hour after saving my life, Mr. King lost his.”
Harry said, “You are lucky to be alive.”
“Yes, I am very fortunate to be alive. But the sad fact remains, Mr. King saved my life – but I refused to save his.”
They sat quietly for a minute as Gabrielle stared at the headstone she had bought. Then slowly she looked around the beautifully landscaped grounds, and without taking her eyes off of the seemingly endless expanse of humanity she asked, “Mr. Carlson, do you feel like you have a sad job?”
He thought for a moment, “Well, I don’t look at it that way. The people in this cemetery deserve to have someone that respects them. No matter who they were, or what they did or did not do, I think they should be cared for now.” He ran his hand along the edge of the bench. “I know that younger people don’t understand that. To them, death seems like it’s a lifetime away, but eventually, it comes for all of us. I may be old fashioned, but I think we need to have respect for those who are no longer with us.”
“That is true, but I should have respected Mr. King as a person when he was alive, not just after he died.”
Harry understood how she felt. “In hindsight, everything becomes clearer. Obviously, it was during your investigation of his life that you came to appreciate him. How difficult was it to collect all the facts?”
A weariness seemed to come over Gabrielle as she continued. “Once I got to feeling better I took a leave of absence from work and spent some time piecing together his story. It was not easy because he had dropped out of society several years before, but eventually, I found out that Mr. King served as a medic in the war in Afghanistan.
“In June of 2008, while under intense enemy fire, he made three separate trips to rescue men who were seriously wounded. As he was carrying the last soldier back to safety, Mr. King was hit in the left leg. Although bleeding profusely he got the man into a vehicle to rush him to a field hospital. But as they were racing down the road, their vehicle hit an IED. The driver was killed immediately, but fortunately, the wounded soldier survived. Mr. King, however, was gravely wounded. Shrapnel from the blast tore through the left side of his skull and through his shoulder. His survival was in doubt, but the army surgeons worked in teams for hours to save his life. What I saw in that alley across from my office was the aftermath of his physical injuries. His shattered leg left him with the severe limp and the inability to stand for even short periods of time. His confusion, hallucinations and his inability to speak were all the result of his catastrophic brain injury. His intellectual functioning was so severely compromised that it led to his eventual decline. The shrapnel that destroyed a portion of his brain eventually destroyed his entire life.”
The caretaker was deeply touched by her story. “So, how did you feel when you discovered that Mr. King was not the man you thought he was?”
“I was shocked. I learned a painful lesson about judging people without any facts. As I gathered the personal information to fill in his story, I began to feel ashamed of myself for looking through my window day after day at a man who was obviously suffering terribly, but who I refused to help. The more I found out about Mr. King, the more I found out about myself. And I didn’t like what I learned.”
“But what you did is understandable. You had no way of knowing if he was a criminal, an addict or if he was dangerous in some other way. I believe most people would have been cautious.”
“Yes, I kept telling myself that I was just like everyone else. But that is the problem. Why are we all so reluctant to help a fellow human being?” Because there was no satisfactory answer, they sat in silence for a few moments.
Gabrielle hesitated and then began to describe the part of his story that bothered her the most. “As it turns outs, Mr. King had an incredibly difficult life. His parents were killed in a car accident when he was a little boy. As an only child, he spent years moving from one foster home to another. Even then, just as in his later years, the system did him no favors. After he got out of school he joined the army, with the intention of making a career out of the military. He was wounded during his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. His wife was pregnant with their first child when he shipped out. Two months later she gave birth to their daughter, who they named Scarlett. She was four months old when the explosion blew their world apart.
“I contacted Mr. King’s ex-wife when I was investigating his life, but she refused to talk to me. Public records showed that they were divorced in 2013. There were indications that she could no longer cope with his physical and intellectual challenges. That was the end of any kind of stability in his life. Once he lost his family, he was a broken man. The VA lost track of him, and he stopped receiving the treatments he needed to function. For his bravery in combat, Mr. King was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart – but eventually, he ended up barely existing day to day in a dirty alley while those of us who could have helped, chose to do nothing.”
Gabrielle looked at Harry and said with great determination, “I just want his daughter to know that the last thing her father did on this earth was to save a person’s life.”
“Maybe someday you will be able to tell her.”
“I hope so. It is terrible for anyone to be homeless, but it is particularly offensive when it happens to veterans. They risk everything for our country, and yet we let them slip away without the help and care they need. They deserve so much better.” She paused and then hesitatingly asked, “Mr. Carlson, are you a veteran?”
Before he could respond, the look that came over his face gave her the answer. Usually, Harry preferred not to talk about his military service, but in this situation, it seemed appropriate. “I was also in the army. I served in Vietnam from ’66 to ’68, and just like Mr. King, it was the defining event in my life. But I think that’s true for anyone who experiences combat. It changes you forever. You are no longer the person you were because you can never fully block out what you’ve seen, heard and felt.”
He looked over at the new headstone. “That is why I enjoy working here. There are many veterans buried in this cemetery, and I feel that tending their graves is a small way I can repay them for what they gave to our nation.”
For Harry, the story Gabrielle had shared with him brought back memories of the time he had spent overseas. He remembered some of the friends he served with, particularly those who didn’t come home. He thought about the nightmares that haunted him for years, and he knew that almost anyone who had experienced war could have ended up in that alley – even him.
They sat together quietly for a while, each reflecting on their own past. They were two very different individuals who had come together on a rainy afternoon to contemplate the meaning of life and death and to appreciate and respect the depth of one man’s sacrifice.
Finally, Gabrielle broke the silence, “Well, I think I’ve taken up enough of your time.” She felt drained from reliving the past few months, but she also felt blessed that she had found someone so kind and understanding to listen to her story.
They got up and slowly walked over to the grave. Gabrielle paused for a few moments and took one last look at the headstone of the man who had entered her life against her will. With tears in her eyes, she read the words: RYAN KING U.S. ARMY AFGHANISTAN, and the dates that marked his brief time in this world, March 23, 1979, and July 19, 2016.
She turned back to Harry and took his hand, “Thank you, Mr. Carlson, for listening to my story. It meant a great deal to me. I appreciate your patience and thoughtfulness. I think we both know how important it is that people like Mr. King are not forgotten.”
In a reassuring voice, Harry said, “As long as I am here, he will be remembered.” Then he gently patted her on the arm and said, “I promise I will always take care of your friend.”
Gabrielle conveyed her thanks with a smile and then slowly walked to the cab that would take her back to a life that she knew would never be quite the same.