By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
Dear Readers: I abandoned my planned column for this week as events in Newtown, Connecticut began to unfold. This piece is my homage to the victims of violence.
“Help me, please,” a voice emerged from the darkness.
The voice startled me, interrupting my deliberate stride.
I’d grown accustomed to walking Pittsburgh’s streets alone at night. As a graduate student, I traversed a well-worn path from the university library to my apartment two miles away in a faded Italian neighborhood. I kept to well-lighted streets, maintaining an acute awareness of my surroundings.
“Help, please,” came another, more desperate plea.
My eyes turned from the sidewalk, drawn to the darkened doorway of a Catholic high school across from the Cathedral of St. Paul in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. I left the sidewalk, guided by a muffled cry for assistance.
Huddled in darkness, shaking with fear, I saw the image of an older women. Her diminutive size spoke of a vulnerability, a fragility amid the harsh realities of a major American city at night. Her tiny frame leaned, left shoulder tilted downward, as if weighted by an invisible boulder.
“Someone was supposed to pick me up,” she said with difficulty. “I think they forgot. I’m afraid to walk home myself. Would you walk me home?”
“Stroke,” I thought to myself. The woman spoke and carried the physical traits of someone who survived a devastating stroke. Impaired speech, challenged mobility and the distinct weakness of one side of her body must have compounded her fear as she waited alone in the darkness.
I couldn’t leave her. I did what I was taught to do: I walked her home. She leaned on my arm as I adjusted my pace to accommodate her labored footsteps.
“My name is Kathy,” I said.
“I’m Betsy,” she answered.
It was during that slow walk and slow talk that Betsy asked me questions about myself. I told her I was a transplant from Massachusetts studying at the University of Pittsburgh. I was careful not to burden her with too many questions as speaking came with considerable difficulty.
Betsy said she lived nearby and her daughter was supposed to pick her up from a meeting. This was before cell phones. The darkened building told me the meeting ended long ago.
I walked Betsy to her home, leaving when she was safely inside.
Talking with my daughter while en route to church this past Sunday, the first Sunday following the tragic school shootings in Newtown, Conn., I mentioned how I pray each morning in the car on my way to work. Prayer for me is, first and foremost, about gratitude. Prayer is also about inviting wisdom or help for myself and others.
I shared with my daughter how—25 years later—I always ask for a blessing for “Betsy” and anyone like her, that they “may find the help they need.”
“I’m sure Betsy is fine,” my daughter said.
“Betsy is probably no longer here,” I said with a smile. “My point is that I hope each of us finds the help we need when we need it, whether from family, friends or a total stranger on a darkened street.”
As Christmas approaches, my heart breaks for the families who lost loved ones in Connnecticut and anywhere else violence has visited. My heart is saddened for the perpetrators, lost souls who themselves needed help.
We must take steps as a nation to curb gun violence. To me, this is simply part of the equation. We must also take steps to reach those isolated, ill and estranged members of society to offer the help needed, to weave them back into the tapestry that makes us a strong and diverse people.
Be a helper.