The Sanctity of Story

Jennifer - Portland, Oregon
Entered on November 18, 2008
Age Group: 18 - 30
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On a darkling April evening, I met a marginalized man in the middle of the road. He was in a wheelchair pushing himself backwards down the yellow lines on a busy and curved city street, all too easy to hit. It was a shocking sight, but more alarming was the fact that cars just kept going around him. No one stopped. I got out of my car and called out to him that I was afraid he was going to get hit, but he only shrugged. “Yeah. It’d be better that way. I’m dying anyway, might as well end it sooner rather than later.”

I was a kindergarten teacher at the time, so the most mediation I did involved marker-stealing disputes. So I said to him what I say to my upset students: “Do you want to talk about it?” He paused and thought. Cars were still whizzing by. “Ok, why not?”

I asked him to tell me about himself. His name was Tony. He was in his fifties with a resplendent gray, mohawked mullet. He was diabetic and dying of liver failure, and with no friends or family nearby, Tony felt alone and discarded. “The worst part is that I always wanted to write a book about my life, and now it’s never going to happen,” he told me, eyes filling with tears. “Tell me about it,” I asked, little realizing how those four words would change both of our lives.

Tony’s life story, replete with kidnapping, romance, exotic locales, piracy, and sabotage, could easily pass as fiction; yet he has the photos to prove it all. The central event of Tony’s life—and the focus of his proposed book—was his stay in the Marshall Islands in the early 1980’s. There he was accepted as an honorary chief by the people; there his heart was broken by the way the United States government used the islands as testing grounds for missile defense weapons. He had sworn to himself to write a book and give voice to their suffering. For about nine months now, we’ve been meeting weekly so that I can help him fulfill his vow. He brings stacks of handwritten papers; I listen, ask questions, and type. Every time we meet, his eyes light up as he recounts one adventure after another, and he often remarks what a success this book will be.

Before I met Tony, I didn’t think much about the narratives of people around me, especially those who have been pushed to the margins of life: “the throw-away people” as Tony says. He champions those whom society has discarded. His example teaches me to believe in the sanctity of story, because stories are lives. We discard them at our peril and great loss. I’m privileged to be part of telling Tony’s tale, and by extension, the tales of his Marshallese friends.

Watch out, New York Times’ Bestseller list: this marginalized man is going to go mainstream and make a difference. This I believe.