Last night, Monster and I went to watch The Taking of Pellham 123, a high-speed action movie in which a subway train in Brooklyn is taken hostage. The main terrorist insists on doing negotiations with Garber, who’s just a mere train operator, rather than with an actual hostage negotiator. This is just fine and dandy with Garber – no harm in talking to a man over a telephone, kept safe by distance and anonymity, right?
Just when we’re about to let ourselves breathe a little more easily, when the money that the terrorist demands arrives on time before he shoots another hostage, the terrorist insists that Garber is the one who must deliver the money, or more hostages will be killed. At this point, we know the terrorist isn’t joking around, either. He shot the train conductor in the beginning of the movie when the hostage negotiator refused to put Garber on the phone; he nearly killed a teenage kid because Garber refused to admit that he’d committed crimes before (crimes which Garber eventually admitted to in order to save the kid’s life, crimes which he confessed he committed so as to put his two children through college); he threatened to hunt Garber down in real life and kill him.
I watched Garber call his wife up right before getting on a helicopter to be taken to the terrorists, and tell her what he was about to do. I watched him explain to her, “If I don’t do this, then people are going to die.” I watched her eyes widen with panic and helplessness and terror, I heard her say, “Then let them die. Just as long as it’s not you.”
And I wholeheartedly agreed with her.
I leaned over then and clutched Monster’s neck even more tightly, whispered to him that he could never do that if he were ever in a situation like that – and he whispered back that he couldn’t make that guarantee, that if innocent people’s lives were at stake, he wouldn’t be able to promise me that he wouldn’t do the exact same thing that Garber was doing.
And it broke me. I lost it afterwards, thinking of that poor wife, of what she must be feeling. I cried for her. I cried for her anger, for her helplessness. It reminded me of a short story I read once, at a philosophy camp in high school. In it, a bridge operator brought his five-year-old son to work, his only child, and turned for a second to find the child had vanished downstairs into a room filled with machinery. At that very moment, the three-o-clock train was approaching, a train filled with 300 complete strangers. The operator had to make a choice, then. Go downstairs and save the boy, who would surely not survive amidst that machinery, or hold down the lever that would lower the bridge for the train, and save 300 strangers from falling into a wall of water.
It was never any question in my mind that I would save the child. My child. I was the only one who would save the child, or at least the only one who spoke out about it. I would not bat an eyelash. But how would you live with the guilt? my classmates asked me. How would I live with the pain and hollowness of having lost a child? I asked back. How would your wife forgive you when you came back home after killing 300 innocent people? they asked. How would my wife forgive me for killing our only child? I asked back. How would we sleep at night? How would we move forward? How would we live?
I knew even then, at that young, that I would save the person I love, selfishly, blindly, without any other thought. I reasoned to myself then, as I do now, that any guilt I would experience would be nothing in comparison with the pain I would feel at losing the person I loved most. That any publicity I received, whether good or bad, would be nothing in comparison to what I would have to face when I looked into the mirror and realized that I had to live without the person I love. That surely when I climbed into bed at night, I could breathe easily, completely, knowing that the person I loved was breathing next to me. Because once all the publicity dies down, it’s yourself and your own loneliness you must face.
Perhaps I think this way because of the way I was loved growing up. My father, he loved both me and my brother so wholly and completely, that there was never any doubt in our minds he would give his life for us in a heartbeat. That he would give anybody’s life for us in a heartbeat. I read about him once, in a textbook during my first Psych class at Stanford. There was a picture of a brain, split into four sections. People with particular brain structures are able to cope in different ways with the death of a child. Some people would be able to handle it just fine, some would be devastated but able to go on living, some would be crushed beyond any measure of reconciliation and not be able to go on living as normal. I’d circled the last section and called my father up. “That’s you,” I said, ballpoint pen tapping against the picture of his cross-sectioned brain. I recalled a conversation once in which my friend and I were talking about our parents’ love for us.
“I don’t think my father would be able to go on living if one of us died; definitely not if both of us died,” I’d said. “Of course he would,” my friend replied, “of course he would.” But she didn’t understand. She didn’t understand how wholly and completely he loves us, to the point of no return if anything were ever to happen to either of us. Perhaps that is where I learned to love like this. Letting my whole heart attach to someone else. And if that someone else were to die, well then you can bet my heart would, too.
I needed Monster to understand that. I’ve seen the movies and read the literature where husbands sacrifice their lives for others and worried wives open their front doors to grim policemen who break the news to them. Worried wives who then scream and cry in anguish and pain, who must deal with the anger – oh God, the anger – of their husbands leaving them. Anger towards their husbands for leaving them. It was a choice. It is always a choice, even if it’s not the most utilitarian one. I’m not saying that I don’t value lives, or that my life is more valuable than the lives of others. I am saying that I value my love over the lives of others. I value Monster’s life over the lives of others, and I don’t care who judges me for it. At the end of the day, I want him to consider his life as a package deal – his and mine, hand in hand. If anything were to happen to him, I cannot imagine the pain, the utter despair, of living a life without him. I am not strong enough to consider it. I would not be strong enough to live it.
Even if I didn’t have small children to hold in front of him, to say, “Look at your children. They cannot grow up without a father. They cannot live with a mother who would grieve forever.” Because I would, I really would, grieve forever. Even if I don’t have them to use as leverage for my love, I hope that my love, my stupid, blinding, all-consuming, selfish, selfish love alone, would be enough to make him understand that it doesn’t matter how dangerous he thinks the situation is or how many innocent people might die because of him or how he would be able to live with the guilt. Judge me as you will, call me the most selfish person in the world, but what is the purpose of our lives if we cannot live? And don’t tell me that living without him is living, because it is not. I don’t want to be that worried wife who opens the door to a grim policeman one day, no matter how big a hero my husband makes of himself. The only thing I ever want in this world is to open the door at the end of the day to Monster, my Monster, holding his arms out to tell me he’s home, to fold myself into them and press my ear against his chest to hear his heart, pulsing strong.