We Are Our Brothers’ Keepers

When June and I started out on our fairly typical mid-day walk, I was looking forward to a 20-minute sniff fest with June, who has very stumpy but adorable dachshund legs, trying to figure out how to get the business done in snow piles that are running about seven feet hight at the moment. It was noticeably warmer today, a balmy 25 degrees, as opposed to the teens and single-digit temps we’ve been weathering (heh-heh…weathering…temperatures…see it?) for the past two weeks. The air felt good but beneath my feet, I could feel the hard-packed sidewalks were getting mushy; things were going to be hard to navigate.

As we turned the corner, heading to June’s favorite “going” spot, a woman ahead of me was struggling to make her way across the shifting slush piles accumulating in the alleys. And DOWN SHE WENT, two bags of groceries dangling from two wrists now plunged into a show drift. She looked to be laughing but as I got closer realized she was crying, struggling to get back on her feet. It is a particularly humbling human moment, as a grown person, to cry in front of a stranger; it is just as humbling to be a known witness to it. I felt a momentary hesitancy to see this unfolding in front of me before an unfamiliar sense of action took hold.

June and forgot the angst of finding a spot to poop with stubby dachshund legs and called ahead, “Do you need some help?” People are funny about corporal aid sometimes but as I approached it was obvious she wasn’t getting back onto her feet on her own. I had to persuade her seriously to set the bags down but eventually she did, as long as she could keep her eye on them. June, summoning some form of canine maturity I’ve never seen, sat down and patiently waited, tethered to my wrists as I summoned all of my Crossfit acquired knowledge and basically front-squatted this woman back to her feet. Once across the alley Rubicon, the woman, visibly upset and shaken, assured me she would be good to go from here. “Okay, we’ll get out in front of you and give you some room to catch your breath,” I said as June and I walked on. I could hear her behind me taking uneven, shuffle-y little steps. As we partially turned the next corner, I watched as the woman tried crossing at the next intersection only to get tripped up in the enormous piles of churned up sludge where the curb meets the sidewalk. DOWN SHE WENT. This time much more treacherously.

As we re-approached, I could tell she wasn’t just humiliated but also scared. She was on her back, sky blue sweatpants dirty and soaked, two bags of groceries akimbo, having a hard time getting purchase on this surface that was slippery but now also shifting. Thank god she appeared to not be hurt but I think she was scared that she was honestly stuck there like a beetle, on her back for good. I’m sure she was freezing as her boots had a Payless vibe (no shame…I’ve worn and loved many Payless boots) and I guessed her feet were also completely soaked in addition to her lower body.

She had no way to know that I was maybe the best person that could’ve happened upon her except for a hulking strongman. I am curiously strong, especially when picking up stuff off the ground and for the past two years I have cultivated a talent for lifting very heavy shit in the gym. I knew I could get her back up on her feet in no time. This was not a question of “if” but “when.” Given what I had already discerned about her, I don’t think she expected another woman to be able to assist. I could hear her fear. But if Crossfit has taught me anything, it’s how to do this. Keep the feet wide, engage the posterior chain, bend those knees, leverage your body weight, believe that weight is coming off the floor, let’s go.

With a shifting sand of snow, salt, and melting snow under me, June still tethered to my wrist now sitting in the middle of the street, we set the bags down next to us and I grabbed her under her armpits and hoisted up her entire body weight until she could get her feet under her. Deadlifting a human–checked off my bucket list. I could feel her shaking under massive layers of coats, scarves, and gloves. She was exhausted. As I held her up and steadied her, she still needed to take that next step and she did but it took about 5 minutes of me holding her body weight to get her onto pavement. Thank god I entered that confidently because by the time she hit the wet pavement, overcoming her disbelief that she was standing, I was also getting seriously tired and fatigued.

“How far do you have left to go?” I asked as I lifted a grocery back that must’ve been at least 10 pounds of milk and juice and maybe cinder blocks? She told me THREE MORE BLOCKS and as I surveyed the way ahead, this was going to happen at least three more times. June and I had a new purpose: GET THIS LADY HOME. UPRIGHT.

At my insistence, she let me carry the heavy bag and June and I led the way as we got her three blocks without hitting the deck again. I don’t think she could’ve handled it physically or emotionally. As we got to her street, we had one last hurdle. She was breathing raggedly; I was now worried about a heart attack but I think panic was more the issue. With the help of another dude waiting on someone arriving in a cab, we got her through another enormous pile of slush, on her feet, her groceries re-established in her hands. She was thanking God in Spanish or maybe Tagalog the entire time through tears and jagged breaths. “What’s your name,” she asked me as she gathered herself up for those last steps home. “I’m Katie and this is June.” “Well thank God for you. My name is Carmen. Thank God for you,” she said as I watched her take the first of increasingly confident steps toward home. I asked the helper dude to just watch her until her doorstep to make sure she was okay. June and I parted ways there. Glory be, June got “it” done about three steps later. I think the stress moved her, so to speak but I needed to walk a little more. I could feel adrenaline coursing through me; I could have lifted my car out from under the snow. Should’ve taken that opportunity when I had it.

Anyway, there’s a lot to unpack here. I got home feeling very affected by this entire event that gave rise to so many different trains of thought. Shedding my winter layers I realized I was fully sweating. Ironically, I’d put on workout clothes just before we left in anticipation of coming home and working out. Job already done. My hair was wet. The back of my both shirts I had on clung to me. June immediately fell asleep and started barking in her sleep, processing the weirdness of that walk that was unlike any other we’ve ever taken.

I’m going to think about this for awhile. But the main conclusion that seemed so clear is that, especially for us living in cities, we have to believe we are all our brothers’ keepers. 10 out of 10 times, I have the exact response to this circumstance. My only hope can be that others feel the same way. If I’m on my back, groceries akimbo, can I trust others will hoist me up? Will they see me? Will they be compassionate in my vulnerability? And even more important, I began thinking about the need to proactively be more mindful of our neighborhoods. I couldn’t help but curse every single building on each side of the street that let this situation happen; can someone with a shovel pitch in to clear these fuckin’ sidewalks? Even if it’s not your responsibility? Even if the condition of the sidewalks don’t bother you personally? At least 20 cars passed us in this time. How many of them will go home and pick up a shovel and come back out? How many stopped to offer a ride? Where’s the sense of collective?

A pandemic, a heavy, heavy snowfall–any crisis–creates circumstances that highlight the holes and shreds in the fabric of our neighborhoods. People isolated; people disconnected; people trying to go it alone for whatever reason; people needing a hand and feeling ashamed and scared about it, people fearing that what appears to be help might end up hurting them. My guess is that walk was one Carmen had done hundreds of times; she thought she could do it today, and was exhausted by the time she was on her way home. How much is that any of us in our regular routines in this extraordinary time in history? How many of us already are on our backs, groceries akimbo, looking for a human deadlift out of whatever hole we’ve fallen into?

The only thing I know for sure is my resolve to take my shovel and head out to these spots and just clear them. And ask people who see me to also pitch in. I’m now extremely clear on this need. No one should fall three times between the grocery store and home because the sidewalks that hundreds of people walk on and look at all day are in a state of disrepair. And I don’t want Carmen to live with that fear either. No one should have to. But it’s as much my duty as ours collectively to make sure that we create that condition in whatever way we can.

Got a shovel? I’ll see you at 4:30.

ps–the dog in this picture isn’t June but is definitely June-adjacent and equally as cute so consider her a stand-in for the real thing in this story.

3 thoughts on “We Are Our Brothers’ Keepers

  1. Dear Dr. H2O, it is me, Megan! We tennised together at Lakeshore years ago before my health took a weird turn and I headed back to Kansas City. I just finished reading your post about Carmen and June. As I think you know, I love my Catholic faith and we’ve just entered Lent. We’re supposed to sacrifice something for forty days. My Mom, a onetime nun, always encouraged us to do something more to improve ourselves and our relationship with God. Your post was the best homily for this that I’ve heard in my 50 years. Even though you laughed (as did I!!) when the moth attempted to dive bomb into my mouth but merely bruised my lip, I know you’d deadlift me, and I hope you know I would lift you, too. I’m so glad to have gotten to know you!
    Much love, Megan
    PS-Stay warm and stay well 💗

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    1. Hey Megan! I miss you, girl. And I would ABSOLUTELY deadlift you…give me a day and time and I’m there. I’m Catholic too and honestly didn’t even connect that it’s been Lent for like 2 days already. Glad to hear you’ve landed well in KC–hope you’re not snowed in and THANKS for stopping by. What a great surprise to hear from you. Love to you too and all the good things!

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