On Making a Difference

Lone Star Stories is always a good place to look for a story. Tonight, I read Vylar Kaftan’sDeath Follows Us to Restaurants,” a story that opens with the main character’s brother dying after donating his kidney to her. Tod (German for death) is the invisible friend that follows her around everywhere:

Tod set down his taco and fixed his eyes on her. “I remember one night when I held you and stroked your hair. You were twenty-five. Your kidneys were failing. You’d been fired from that real estate office for missing too much work and not filing the right papers for medical leave. Your mother had just called and said you were a worthless little shit. Do you remember that night, Maggie? You asked me to comfort you and be a friend. I did that for you, that night. Remember?”

She knew that look he was giving her. She felt the abyss gazing back into every part of her mind. All her feelings burst and flattened, like she was bubble wrap in his hands. “I do,” said Maggie numbly.

Maggie spends the story looking for a way to make a difference, hoping that she can make her brother’s sacrifice worthwhile. It’s a scary thing to confront the question of whether life is worthwhile. Though this story comes out hopeful on that count, I am always wondering. Kaftan’s language points to how ambiguous the idea of “making a difference” is: Maggie wants to “make a difference,” but doesn’t know what she cares about.

I’ve always been afraid that I wouldn’t find a way to make my life really matter. The first time I really confronted it, I was visiting a friend. We were sitting in his dorm room with a couple other people, laughing at a CD of prank calls, and someone knocked on the door. When my friend opened it, the guy next door fell in. He was bleeding — he’d just tried to kill himself. My friends tried to help him. I was too frozen to do anything. He kept asking, “What do you care?” I didn’t have a good answer for him. No one seemed to.

He got up and ran away, and the others followed him. I couldn’t bring myself to step through the puddle of his blood, and so I stood there, still pondering the question, and feeling useless, small, and selfish.

I rode the Greyhound bus for two days to get home after that, and thought about that question the whole way. I, like most people, want to “make a difference” with my life, but I can’t do that unless I know why I want that. Wanting to do it because that’s the only thing that makes my life seem important or worth remembering isn’t enough.

In Kaftan’s story, the narrator finds that she can’t make a difference just to get some self-esteem. It’s not until she’s truly pushed into thinking about others that she’s able to do something that matters. This seems true to me.

The story makes literal a sensation that I very much have. I feel death over my shoulder. I’m still quite young, but I know that time is short. The sense of death’s presence seems like a necessary part of pushing me to do what matters to me. It’s hard to stay up late writing, and wake up early to write. It’s hard to get over being shy long enough to ask someone if they need help. It’s hard to have the energy to help when work and basic survival are so demanding. It’s hard to keep these things in mind when they also bring up the shame of privilege: Why do things feel so hard when they actually seem easy compared to the things many people in the world have to do?

At the same time, too much awareness of the presence of death can ruin me. There’s the famous story from Plutarch’s Lives of Julius Caesar torn up by ambition:

In like manner we are told again that, in Spain, when he was at leisure and was reading from the history of Alexander, he was lost in thought for a long time, and then burst into tears. 6 His friends were astonished, and asked the reason for his tears. “Do you not think,” said he, “it is matter for sorrow that while Alexander, at my age, was already king of so many peoples, I have as yet achieved no brilliant success?”

This sentiment, though I identify deeply with it, is the result of too much awareness of the imminence of death. It seems that to make a difference, it has to be done steadily. I have to know that I have a limited time, but not allow the sound of the ticking clock to paralyze me with fear. And it can’t be done just for ambition and self-esteem. It has to be done because of true feelings.

The things I feel strongly about aren’t necessarily things that I understand. I do my best to pursue them, but never to the point that I shut people out of my life. The guy who tried to kill himself didn’t die, but I still think of his question all the time. I think we care about each other because that’s one of the things that matters to people. It’s one of the things people do that makes us human, and, because of that, it makes a difference to act on the impulse.

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2 responses to “On Making a Difference

  1. Erica, thanks for your thoughtful comments on my story. It means a lot to me that it affected you so deeply.

    May I offer an observation? Ramona tries to tell Maggie that she’s worth it now, and that she’s got to believe it. Maggie can’t hear her because of her own personal demons.

    You are making a difference now — to the people who love you. Just by being yourself.

    –Vy

    P.S. Nice plush Cthulhu. I have one too.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Vy, and for the story and good wishes.

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