Understanding ( 08.14.2017)

4 min readAug 13, 2023

Hey! Hey, come here!” Martin’s head popped above my desktop as I was working, and at the same time Karen’s hand reached out to shake my shoulder. I was slumped in the chair, working away at something in a post mid-day snack stupor. I had gotten up at four in the morning, commuted two and half hours that day, through two states, to wherever I was now, and I just wanted to go back home, crawl into bed for the night, and be done.

My manager who sat next to me was missing. There were people pooled around in a small meeting room across the hall. The CEO was still standing outside his office wondering what was happening or what he needed to do.

“Z! Come here! We need you!” I pushed the chair behind me and jumped. Now I could see the rotund frame of a middle-aged man sprawled across the carpet. His skin was already the color of death.

The portfolio manager knelt alongside. I parted the crowd and fell to the ground next to him, my hands already reflexively folded, one over the other, my elbows extended, locked, and poised. “Sir? Sir!!” I shouted and heard only the murmuring of bystanders in response. He wasn’t breathing; he had no pulse. Leaning deep into his chest I began doing compressions.

10 compressions. 2 breaths. Again. Again. Automatically, I hummed the tune to “Staying Alive” to keep pace and rhythm. “Has anyone called 911? Do you have a defibrillator?” They had, and they didn’t. My heart was pounding and my back ached. Sweat pooled at the nape of my neck. Nodding to the portfolio manager at my left, I gave cursory instructions on how to assume compressions and let him take over while I took a breather to regather my strength.

I had recently joined this job and moved to Boston. I had worked to keep a low profile. Now, somewhere in the humid depths of that small meeting room, this happened. My nerves snapped, and I grew light-headed. Was this a sign? A test? A challenge? Against a setting sun brewed ominous, tea-colored rain clouds. I was supposed to save a life, I thought. That was what I had been designated to do today. I was here in this place at this moment. Surely, I was meant to save his.

But I didn’t. The ambulance arrived and declared him dead at the scene. The body, beneath a drape of gray wool, was loaded aboard, and the doors clicked shut, one after another. Someone had called his wife, I don’t know who. The HR manager offered to let me go home or meet a grief counselor tomorrow — all we could do at the time. The CEO took me aside and said some emotional words that he probably would regret in the sanity of next morning.

I stared out the bus window on my way home, long into the hours of early evening, willing sleep to come but finding none. I had another interminable stretch of road ahead of me for the next couple of hours, then go home to help with the kid’s homework, and I had to get some rest. Still, the memory — of his pale cool skin, the dank taste of his breath as it mixed with my own, and the grinding snap of his ribs breaking with every pump — trickled in icy rivulets around my heart. I couldn’t rest. I could barely breathe. I opened my laptop to type.

It is what I do when I am upset, overwhelmed, or confused. It is how I cope, a form of processing. By the time the essay is put to paper and revised, my words almost always make sense. I can isolate a theme. A moral. A reason. A resolution.

Sometimes my story tumbles and squirts out of me, like children on a waterside. Sometimes it beams, like a ray of light. Other times I am sure it tears free of me on its own power, like an alien lifeform, feeding, swelling, and rupturing in my gut. And then there are the days it must be pried loose, dissected off the surrounding organs like a tumor threatening my life. This was one of those.

I didn’t know what to say in conclusion. Why he had died or what I had learned. So, the essay lay unfinished for many years. I took it up again tonight years later, on a slow ride back home in the same bus, hoping to find new or hidden inspiration. I didn’t. The frailty of my own unanswered pleas bleeds across the screen, taunting me to my core.

Why? WHY?

Perhaps the question was itself an answer. Or there was no answer. Perhaps it was dawning on me now that some things in life — and probably death too — were never meant to be understood.




Life is represented by two distinct sets of people: The people who live it and the people who observe them. These are their stories.