When I worked as a daily newspaper reporter, one of my editors maintained a file titled “people who want to kill us.” I remember kind of giggling when I first happened upon it. I assumed it was a joke, but when I asked about it, the editor informed me he was completely serious. The paper was regionally known for its investigative pieces. He maintained the list so if someone made good on one of the threats to toss a grenade into the newsroom door (gulp, I sat by the door) or set fire to the lobby, he’d have a list of suspects to hand to the police. I’m pretty sure multiple members of the police were on the list (so I’m not sure how that part would go over), but nonetheless it was startling for me. When I was hired, the same editor told me he wanted to see the paper publish more positive stories and wanted reporters who would help rebuild the paper’s relationship with the community. While I understand having that goal and the list did not have to be mutually exclusive, it was kind of hard for me as a newcomer to view the community the same way after seeing the list and hearing a few of the stories about the potential suspects on the list.
I mention this story here as it comes up in the food allergy world as well. When you are constantly preparing for the worst, remembering to restock the benadryl and keep up with the epipens, it’s hard to maintain a positive attitude and stay relaxed. Even though Max hasn’t had that many serious reactions, the couple he has had (see Our Journey) have made an impression. The daily preparation for the possibility of them is draining, and, I think, that necessarily affects our attitude. It’s happily not the-people-who-want-to-kill-us but the-food- that-might list. It still creates a struggle that is hard to reconcile between the daily peace for which we all strive and necessary caution. One of my favorite cliches to throw at the children is “don’t borrow trouble. It might just stick around.” To not prepare for it, though, would be irresponsible.
I know it’s not just food allergies or medical conditions either. Since my stories today are already on the abstruse side, I’ll offer one more kind of out-there example to try to illustrate my thinking. When we first moved to Little Rock a few years ago, we lived in a small apartment while we tried to sell our house in Tennessee. The apartment was a mix of those on public housing assistance, young military personnel who got a discount on the rate and families of school-age kids attracted to the proximity of the public elementary school across the street. At this apartment complex lived a variety of characters. I loved the idea that I could walk across the parking lot and be able to greet many of them by name. It was a large place with more than a dozen buildings, but it felt like a fairly close-knit community at times.
One of my neighbors however made me nervous. I know this might come across as hopelessly pollyanna-y, but usually when I encounter cranky or odd folks I really try to remind myself of what I always preach to the children: namely that “God made everyone special” and that when we look into even the face of the most annoying kid in the classroom (even the one who spit in your face in kindergarten) we in some way are looking into the face of God Himself. Still, this guy from our first encounter forward really put my philosophy to the test. He was clearly lonely. He showed up to talk every time the kids and I walked to the apartment playground or went to get the mail. He appeared sober yet was often hard to understand. Although he mentioned he was a disabled veteran, I was never clear on just what his medical conditions were. He had a lot of stories he wanted to tell, although not many of them were easy to follow.
He also seemed overly interested in Claire and in my pretty single neighbor across the hall. He would bring them both little gifts, and he was always asking about them and remembered with uncanny recall their likes and dislikes. Just in general, and I wish in retrospective I had found a kinder way to put this, he gave off a creepy vibe. In my head and sometimes to Jason, I started referring to him as “creepy guy.” It was one of those times where if you found out tomorrow, he’d raped and murdered someone, I imagined the neighbors would not say “oh I would have never thought.” It would have been more “yeah, I always thought there was something not right there.” Even the sweet developmentally delayed neighbor who liked and knew everyone went out of his way to avoid this guy.
So when “creepy guy” started openly hanging around outside our building writing what seemed to be notes about our and our pretty neighbor’s comings and going, I have to say I was a little freaked out, more for Claire and my neighbor than for me personally. I told Jason it was time to really get serious about looking for a new place even though we hadn’t sold our other house. I started thinking about the locks on Claire’s windows and how I would or wouldn’t hear someone sneaking in in the middle of the night. I made my own mental list of his description for the police for when he fled after he attempted to kidnap Claire or attack my neighbor. I have to say during this time I stopped being as indulgent of him and his stories as I had been. I remember the hurt look on his face when I told him we’d rather run for it than have him hold his umbrella over us when we got caught in the rain one afternoon.
Then not long after the umbrella incident, I happened to walk outside at a time when I usually didn’t go out, and I saw “creepy guy.” He was in the dumpster next to our building scavenging the trash for food scraps and gobbling them down on the spot. Then it clicked why he wanted to know when we were coming and going. I was completely ashamed of myself. If I needed a reminder of the cost of assuming the worst, there it was right in front of me. That’s been a few years ago now. I still don’t know the answer or how to achieve that balance though I wish I did. I do know it’s worth struggling against it as much as possible though.