Witness: Seen and Unseen

I haven’t told you this: I almost certainly saw the arsonist that morning.

I qualify that because of my own sense of fair play. Our fire was not officially linked to the series of fires set in the summer and fall of 2010. Ours was the first and on a different side of town from the rest, but fit the m.o., exactly. I don’t know why ours was not tied to the others and haven’t had the energy to find out. I didn’t think it mattered as long as he was caught and convicted, but I found it did matter to me when he did not confess to ours.

I’m writing about it privately for now, but I’ll tell you this, he had already set our house on fire when he looked me right in the eye and asked a question. I was busy getting my children to safety and thought he was just a knucklehead, a random gawker. I was running from my burning house but couldn’t really believe it was on fire. I had no idea someone set it; I still can’t believe that.

After the bombings in Boston I read about Jeff Bauman, the young man who lost both his legs and is in the wheelchair in that infamous picture. When he woke up at the hospital he asked for a pen and paper and wrote, “Bag, saw the guy, looked right at me.” One of the backpacks had been dropped at his feet.

While still in the ICU, Bauman helped the FBI identify the suspects.

This week I have found myself thinking about him and wondering what must run through his mind, the image he remembers and how he must feel knowing this man looked right at him and still dropped the bag. It makes it so cold-blooded and strangely personal. I have been thinking about what we look at and do not realize we’re seeing.

I’ve also been thinking about Carlos Arrendondo, the man who helped save Jeff’s life. He’s the man in the cowboy hat in the the picture helping push the wheelchair and pinching shut the artery in Jeff’s right leg. He was in the bleachers near the finish line handing out flags and cheering on members of the National Guard and a suicide prevention group who were running in honor of his two deceased sons, one of whom died in Iraq in 2004. When the bomb went off he ran right towards it to help people and realized right away that Jeff needed him most.

This picture holds so much: violence, loss, terror, compassion, heroism, fearlessness and horror, and that’s only what’s visible.

Arrendondo visited Bauman in the hospital the other day and this is what he said, “The picture that you see, that’s what it is and that’s how it happened, you know, I was just trying to help him in every way I could, and thank God he gave me the opportunity to help this beautiful young man.”

For his part, Bauman has a great attitude and has told his family he’s going to walk again. I pray he will and that he never knows despair. This journey has just begun.

When something terrible happens there is that continuing sense of surreality, even if you have accepted what is and have mourned and healed. Time passes and this deep disbelief mingles with years of hard reality: the endless both and.

Each of us has our sorrows and losses, many of us carry memories of unutterable heartache. Jeff Bauman isn’t ready to walk just yet, his wounds need to heal. Too often we rush this and trauma, physical or mental, slows you down. When you are learning how to walk without legs, a good attitude isn’t everything, but it is so much.

I’ve been so ashamed by how long it has taken me to heal since the fire after starting so strong. It is what it is, though and today I can’t tell you what I should have/could have done differently. I’ll tell you though, Carlos Arrendondo’s behavior before and after the bombing pretty much personifies what I want to do going forward: while everything was peaceful he was handing out flags and cheering for others, but as soon as the bomb went off, he ran right for the wounded, found the person whose need was greatest, did what he could, and afterwards thanked God he had been able to help him.


  1. Lisa A. says

    Alison, this is a lovely and very true post. For me, it has been losing my mother that has been my trauma. I was just sharing with my husband today many of the things you have written here. It’s funny how we feel embarrassed about the truth behind our healing and the depth of our hurt. It seems though that we each have our own traumas and the experience is much the same, whether we are brave enough to share it, or not. Thank you for inspiring me.

  2. Lisa A. says

    I forgot to share that I am so sorry you have to live with the memory of that man. What a horrible thing to do. May God give you the peace that you need to put it behind you when you are able.

  3. says

    My mother lost her house (it was the house I grew up in from an infant) in 2003. I hadn’t lived there in years and only had a few random things there (middle school yearbooks etc.) but I became personally involved and helped her with every single step of recovery, including helping run insurance classes for a year in the community where 500+ houses were lost, designing the house, getting the permit pulled, picking the contractor and being the construction manager every day of the 1 1/2 year rebuild. It was all very personal for me.

    I now am on the board of a very small non-profit that helps people with their insurance claim after a disaster. This past summer/fall we went to Colorado Springs to give classes to survivors. I introduced the speaker on the first night who was the same guy who came to OUR community after our fire. Even though it had been 9 years I still got choked up speaking about it.

    I’m not sure the emotion will ever go away, but it’s the passion behind the emotion that drives me to help every person that contacts us on our obscure little website carehelp.org. I’m sure it’s the same power that drives so many privately run programs… in fact I’m sure this same drive that started the Komen Breast Cancer non-profit. Embrace it and let it empower you to do good.

  4. says

    Lisa A., Thank you. . Some stories take a long time. In the case of death, I don’t know if that story ever ends here on earth. My dad died not quite ten years ago and this is the season of his death. I have found myself thinking about and missing him the last couple weeks. I’m sorry for the loss of your mother.

  5. says

    Lila, you really get it. I like what you said about the passion behind the emotion. Now that the major stress has passed, I’m learning to embrace it and I hope it empowers me to do good. Thank you.

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