I have never been more dazzled by my father than one day a few years ago, while we stood together in the lobby of a public building. As we chatted, I half-noticed a diminutive, elderly man progressing slowly toward a drinking fountain some yards away. His progress, I should say, was not simply leisurely, but notably, almost comically slow - his gait was like nothing so much as the tottering shuffle of Tim Conway's 'Old Man' character, from the old Carol Burnett Show.
Still chatting with my father - in hot, single-minded pursuit, no doubt, of some point I was trying to make - I barely registered this man's bending to drink, and the unusually long time that elapsed before he straightened.
In fact, he did not straighten. In the attempt to do so he sent himself backward, losing his balance and his footing. The next part of the memory plays out thus: my father, so recently standing by my side, materialized beside the elderly man, catching him as he fell, and supporting him until he'd regained steadiness.
What struck me was not my father's willingness to help, but his able-ness and his alacrity in doing so. After all, I, too, had been aware, however dimly, of this man. Anyway, it couldn't have been all that dimly, because here I am years later, still able to recall particulars of the scene. Yet I had felt not even the remotest stirring to intervene. This, it seems to me, constitutes a grievous fault.
As a writer, I regard. I can hardly help myself. To regard deeply, constantly, even reverently: all well and good. Bearing witness is an honorable act; it has served, historically, as a handmaiden of justice. Yet witnessing, in its purest form, can also put one at odds with being in the scene, and of the scene, that one is taking in. All artists - all recorders -- surely face this bind. It's the classic dilemma of photojournalists: when they find themselves in a situation in which people are getting hurt, do they set down their cameras and try to help, or continue documenting it in images? Which might ultimately bring more aid to those in need? Which is more humane?
Last week, I called my mother. One of my children was sick; he'd already missed several days of school and would have to stay home at least a few more. (It was pneumonia.) We'd rearranged our work schedules, cutting and pasting as best we could, but as the sick-days mounted we were beginning to scramble for other options.
Can I call you back? my mother said.
Within the hour the phone rang. She'd rescheduled no fewer than three of her own medical appointments so that she could drive to Massachusetts in the morning. She spent the next several days not only nursing the sick child, but also organizing art projects, shopping for groceries, and baking a ridiculously wonderful chocolate cake. All of which, in its way, was not unlike like my father catching the elderly man. It is also, I realize, not much more than many grandmothers might do, just as my father's performance at the water fountain would not register on any grand heroic scale. These are no more than ordinary rescues, quiet generosities, and yet performing them requires an engagement that goes beyond witnessing.
I am humbled, at times, by such ordinary acts. I do not go around peering at the world through opera glasses, exactly; I am not the lady in the image above, gazing altogether too blandly through a pair of tiny lenses perched on a stick. Yet as one committed to regarding, I wonder, with no small discomfort, whether I manage to strike a good balance between witnessing and acting, between distance and involvement. As for those who tip the balance toward the side of doing, I hold them in highest regard.