Priorities

January 20, 2008
By
I am fearful I might not have always been as sympathetic with others as I should have been. However, it is true that conflict and struggle create depth, and when I was younger, I was shallower than shallow. I was somewhere between flat and convex, and if we are speaking of vessels, I would have been virtually useless.

Picture a tall, slender girl of thirteen years of age, whose demeanor is that of one who desires the attention of everyone around her. Her dark eyes cast a glance over her peers, as a queen would survey her kingdom. Her long, dark hair falls in graceful, deep brown curls over her shoulder. The smile she now bestows on the ones around her is not shown with generosity but, all the same, is not absent for extensive lengths of time. She is an extremely jealous creature, coveting all that is not hers, whether it be appearance or possessions. On the outside she has no weakness, for she is intelligent as well as attractive, but on the inside she felt as if her guard must never be let down, lest she be exposed for what she truly is. You have probably conjectured by now, that it is me I am describing, and I will tell you that at that age there was only one thing that thoroughly vexed me. The one thing, I am ashamed to say, was anything I did not understand.

I definitely did not understand Carolyn Bradshaw. She had taken my place at the head of the class academically; that was the first aspect that was hard for me to get over. My classmates still discussed how smart I was, but they raved over Carrie. This annoyed me into the depths of my being, and pretending she did not exist was my only solution. Then, there was the idea that she rarely hung out with the academically gifted kids. We were our own clique, and it was once in a blue moon that we gave anyone outside of our crowd the privilege of being around us. I am mortified to confess to you that we ignored the fact that, any more, no one asked to be around us. Yes, they even avoided us.

Nevertheless, the other kids included Carrie without fail. What I did not realize then, was that her inclusion was because she genuinely cared about whoever was around her. Another particular about her which puzzled me was she never seemed downcast or sad. She bore any wrong done to her with silence and a smile. Never in the slightest way did she attempt to command someone’s sole attention or try to attract a morsel of attention to herself. She spoke only when spoken to, but she made the few words she did say count for much more than if she had given an hour-long speech. It was early December of my ninth grade year, and it surprised me how much respect she had already earned because she had come to our school at the first of September, on which was also the first day of school.
One particular day stands out in my memory. The sky was replete with deep, gray, downy clouds, not the ominous kind, but the kind that stir the deepest emotion. They seemed to be begging me to feel something, and they each appeared to crowd out the sun only as a result of competing for my view. Out the narrow window in math class, I could see them shading the barren corn fields. In the dead of winter, they were nothing but skeletons of what they had been just a few months ago.
Just a few months ago…my mind wandered to that time and all that had passed. Thinking and absorbing the scenery in front of me awakened an all too familiar feeling. It stirred an intense despondency mixed with a strange yearning. It felt as if I would slowly bleed to death from inner wounds, but fate would not be that kind to me. I was dangling precariously from the threads time had woven for me, and I was losing the battle to hang on. Strangely, I did not care—suddenly, any reality other than this nightmare seemed more agreeable. It was one of those days when I felt I could walk home from school and never stop. I could keep on going forever. I felt a sort of vulnerable invincibility, however much of a paradox that may seem. Off in the distance of my mind the bell rang…
I headed lazily to gym class, my mind full of thoughts and dreams. They formed in my head like clouds of fog and drifted apathetically around inside it until they were met with a cold blast that pushed them undeniably out for the time being. This was a result of going into the bitter cold to run a relay race. It was the kind of cold that bit at my legs and invaded every inch. Until, it was so terribly cold that it seemed to be almost hot, like walking into a furnace filled with ice and feeling the ice on the outside and the immovable heat on the inside.
For me, the relay was a big deal. I was the star of the track team, and my team was expected to win. I believe that I placed more pressure on myself to succeed than I truly should have. I needed to prove myself, and somehow, I thought that if I proved my mettle to others, I would accept it in myself.
Once the teacher had separated the class into teams, she told us that each team had to run a total eight laps, but they could be divided per team so long as each member ran at least one. Each team moved to their separate lanes, and I surveyed my team. Overall, it did not look too bad, and my only regret was that Carrie was on my team, because she was known to occasionally have trouble breathing, especially when it was cold. We split up the laps, two per member, and waited for the race to start. I had chosen to run last, and Carrie was just before me.
When her turn came around, she struggled through her first lap and when she had finished it, she had to pause for a second to catch her breath. I could tell that she was in pain, and that if her break continued much longer we would lose by an unacceptable margin.
“I’ll do the next one for you,” I said, barely faking a smile as I grabbed the baton and dashed off. Stretching my legs, I felt the wind and cold challenge me, but I fought back. I pushed myself to the limit for the three laps and scarcely was able to pull out in front of my only challenger. I felt the clouds once again lift off my brain, and I was flooded with a relief that oozed through every part of my being.
~~~

All was silent, but the halls of my high school were crowded with panicking students. Everyone was running forward, but I was going in the opposite direction…why? I strained my mind, but the silence burst into my ears, deafening me. There is such a thing as too quiet I realized. It was the silence of the first time you are home alone. There is no sound, but the air is full of noise. I was running, but moving at a snail’s pace. Finally, I reached the stairs and headed up. I was gaining speed; now I was almost weightless…it was like flying. It was then I also realized there was such a thing as too fast. The top was coming closer, closer…I sped off into a sea of darkness.

I woke up with a start. I had just had the dream again, and its sharpness brought me plunging back into reality. It was the day of my tenth class reunion, and I had not even an inkling of desire to go, but I knew that I must keep up appearances.

Just that week, I had lost a huge amount of money in the stock market and was struggling to find a way to go on with my life. I was no longer the well-off little girl I had been in high school. I knew that I had to go, so I did because I had not given myself any say in the matter. That evening, I merely got dressed up and went.

It seemed to me like a foreign country that I had seen only in my dreams; the kind that I only vaguely remember and are so realistic that I forget if it was actually a dream or if it was real. I filled out my name and address in the guestbook. Then, I began to wander the room exchanging trifles with old acquaintances. In a small nook in the corner of the room, there was a table with a tiny sign that read, “Those Who Have Left Us.” Curiously, I investigated it and found it to be for those who had died already. There was a scrapbook full of memories and a funeral service pamphlet which I picked up. The name on the front shocked me—it was Carrie. She had died only a month before from a longstanding lung condition. Hurriedly, I picked up the scrapbook and reviewed her life, which I realized I knew scarcely anything about. I read about how, all through high school, she served at a soup kitchen, and that once she had graduated, she became a missionary. She had traveled all over the world helping people in need, which was a stark contrast to me, who had only wanted what was best for myself. I did not enjoy feeling ashamed and selfish, so I hurried away, trying to forget.

Nevertheless, I could not push away the feeling, no matter how hard I tried. I was shocked at myself because I almost felt regret, and I was confused because I did not know whether to cry and mourn, or just move on. That old cloud descended again.

After a week, I had nearly forgotten and had resumed feeling sorry only for myself, as my financial situation had not improved. It was then that I received a letter, from the manager of Carrie’s estate. I was stunned when I read that she had left me nearly 15,000 dollars after taxes. It also informed me that she had left a note for me in particular. It read:

Dear Angie, I wanted to thank you for helping me run when I wasn’t strong enough. Remember that even though I have thanked you this way, it is more important to be rich on the inside.
Of the lessons I have learned in my life, this is one of the most important: there is that maketh himself rich, yet hath nothing: there is that maketh himself poor, yet hath great riches. Sincerely, Carrie Bradshaw
With a letter like that from someone who I done nothing good for, unless it was convenient for me, I could not help but feel absolutely and completely rotten. I later learned that Carrie had been given a large sum of money from a distant relative of hers who reportedly gave it to her because she had believed Carrie would know best what to do with it. Carrie had then dedicated her life to making others’ better, and she had never forgotten a single person who had done something for her, not even me.
Even in death, she did not hesitate to reward me for the one good act I had done for her, and the realization struck me hard because I had done it only to win, when I should have done it for her. I wanted so badly to apologize and tell her I was sorry, but I began to recognize that it was far too late.
Although I saved half of Carrie’s money, I took the rest to a homeless shelter downtown. Seeing the grateful look on the people’s faces, I finally understood what Carrie had long ago: money has nothing to with being rich. As I walked away I felt a cloud lift, not in my mind but in my heart, and I thought that maybe I would never have made it to this realization by myself. I just needed someone to carry me to it.





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