Sitting on the shuttle bus as it made its way onto the Mukilteo ferry Sunday night, all I could think about was getting home and going to bed, weighed down by cats grateful to see me, and getting a bit of rest in my own home before a busy day on Monday.
It had been a wonderful weekend in Reno, visiting the Favorite Son and Daughter in law and the One and Only Grandson, being present at the memorable ceremony in which the FS would receive his BA degree, meeting some of his friends, celebrating his achievement, and finishing off the weekend with a visit to his church, the UU Fellowship of Northern Nevada. I was tired and ready for my own routine again, grateful for the Whidbey SeaTac shuttle's service to and from the island.
We had been crossing the water for only a few minutes when the alarm sounded: blaaattt, blaaattt, blaaattt. Oh no, I thought, please don't be doing one of your interminable practice rescue routines---I just want to go home. I felt the engines and the boat slow down and I sagged. What were they doing at this time of night? It's ten o'clock, for heaven's sakes.
Then the captain came on the horn: "We have just learned that a person has witnessed someone jumping from the vessel. We are launching a rescue boat immediately, have notified the authorities, and will begin a search. I ask our passengers to go to the rails and assist crew members in watching the waters for the person who may have jumped."
My fellow passengers in the shuttle and I looked at each other in shock. Those who were warmly dressed went out on the deck to see if they could help. Others of us stayed inside the bus. I went out for a brief time but wasn't dressed warmly and my coat was inside my luggage, so I didn't stay long.
The roiling water around the boat seemed too cold and rough for anyone to survive in it long, but I watched the circles from the ferry searchlights, looking for anything that might resemble a human form. Nothing.
Back in the bus, we were all in that state of mind that follows the announcement of a human crisis: how do we react to this? can we help? if we can't help, what do we do? what was this person thinking, feeling, doing? And---how long is this going to take to resolve? what is the human obligation in a crisis like this?
I am not proud to tell you that I just wanted to go home. I wanted to do the right thing, but I just wanted to go home, not prowl the waters for a person who was probably dead by now, who wanted to be dead, who hadn't considered the effect of his act on his fellow passengers or his loved ones or the crew of the Cathlamet ferry who would be asked to rescue him or recover his body.
As time passed and we crisscrossed the waters between Mukilteo and Clinton, the captain would update us on the situation: "We are waiting for the Coast Guard to arrive." "We have word that the State Patrol will be involved." "We are beginning a systematic search of the waters, in a grid pattern, so the vessel will be making many turns and reversals." "Will the person who left a black leather computer case in the passenger compartment please come and pick it up?" (At that one, we passengers exchanged glances----this sounded ominously like the warnings you hear in airport security zones. We realized that it probably was an effort to discover if the case belonged to the missing person.)
And finally, after 90 minutes of circling and recircling the waters between the two ferry docks, as search boats and helicopter began to arrive and take over the search, the captain informed us that the State Patrol and Coast Guard had released us from our part in the search and we headed for the Clinton dock. "Thank you for your patience and your assistance," said the captain, and he signed off.
I phoned the friend who was going to pick me up at the Freeland Shell station, which is the shuttle's drop point, and let her know that we'd be there about 12:15. My gratitude for her willingness to come get me, even though it was way past her bedtime as well, got me thinking.
And I realized that the conveniences of ferry and shuttle and willing friends, the joys of celebratory weekends, all these are secondary to what happened that icy, moonlit night on Saratoga Passage: one human life was worth more than all of the conveniences we'd arranged for ourselves. One human life----an as-yet-unidentified and desperate soul who leapt into the frigid waters of the Sound---was more important than my busy Monday or my warm bed or the schedules of any of us there that night. One human life.
There's a quote from Rabbi Tarfon that speaks to me, as I reflect on this experience:
"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."
We are not free to abandon the work. We are not free to abandon the work. We may not be obligated to complete it, but we are not free to abandon it. Those who put the value of one human life above the convenience of others model behavior that inspires me.