The woman was buying jewelry. Small items. The sort of jewelry you see on the counter at a gift shop. Perfect for two little girls.
I was waiting in line behind her. This is how I learned that the two girls had just lost their mother in a car accident.
The woman leaned heavily on the counter.
"In an instant," she said, "everything changes."
Several days later, I received a letter from a friend. After remarking on various personal matters, my friend mentioned an earthquake from a few months ago. Though the quake was centered near Brea in Orange County, its tremors were felt as far south as San Diego and clear up here in Ventura County, for the Earth is a very powerful and interconnected place.
My friend wrote, "We pave and build and act like today is forever. Every now and again the earth shakes like a wet dog."
A hillside fell away. Fireplaces dislodged from walls. Inside Walt Disney Concert Hall, musicians in the L.A. Philharmonic played on as the Hall swung and shook. Scientists believe the fault that caused the quake is the same fault that runs directly beneath Los Angeles. Provided the wrong circumstances, a seismologist has said, "this is the fault that could eat L.A."
People ran outside and hugged each other in the streets.
I found my friend's letter bleakly poetic and very, very astute.
Ours is a world of whimsy and I don't mean this in a happy sense. A Saturday earlier this spring here in Ventura County provided dark footnote. In the early afternoon a shooting in Santa Paula, likely gang-related, claimed the life of an innocent bystander. Late in the afternoon a man died in an apartment fire in El Rio. In the evening a traffic accident in downtown Oxnard claimed a third life.
I read this and I put down the paper and I looked out at the hazy morning sunshine.
The shooting victim, a 39-year-old woman, was sitting outside smoking a cigarette when a bullet struck her neck. Who knows what she was thinking as she picked up her cigarettes and lighter and stepped out into the afternoon to enjoy a smoke. Maybe she was thinking about the chores she should be doing. Maybe she was looking forward to an evening out. Maybe she was wondering how she was going to pay the phone bill. Maybe her mind wandered over past loves and on to imagined fantasies. These are the things we think. She did not think the cigarette would be her last.
Our own home is close to the freeway. Occasionally we hear accidents. It is a queer and terrible sound, like tin cans crumpling. I am not much for praying, but when I hear this sound I always say a quiet prayer. As with many prayers, mine don't always work. Once, we knew one of the victims.
Not just one life changes in an instant.
Maybe ignorance is the best way to deal with this. I don't know. I'm not a psychologist, but stewing in dark depression and foreboding seems to me a poor way to live. The psychologists probably don't know either. Doctorate or not, in certain ways we are all blithely naïve. There is always tomorrow.
Sometimes there isn't.
Lightning strikes, and terrible reminders of a beautiful gift.