Jul 24, 2010, 9:15 AM
"Please, don't hang up on me" I heard a voice say on the other side of the line. It was a small voice, a quiet one. "You don't know me, and I don't know you. I don't even know your number. I just dialed some digits without looking. I promise you won't hear from me ever again, but please, don't hang up on me. You don't have to listen or say anything, just don't hang up on me."
I frequently work with victims of crime. Also frequently, I'm asked how can I deal with so many horrific stories, and their painful consequences. Every time, my answer is the same - because I know the power of listening.
The woman on the other side of the line did not know that I was 19 and quite naïve. I was still living with my parents in Mexico City, and I was over-protected. Surely, she never imagined the impact that her story would have in my life. The phone's ringing woke me up abruptly, and I answered instinctively. Although at 3:00 a.m. my brain function was not the sharpest, I was able to perceive the despair in her voice.
I responded, "esta bien" (ok) to her plea for not hanging up. After that, I didn't open my mouth or produce a sound again …for almost two hours.
She told me her name. I'll call her Laura. Hers was a story of perennial misfortune, and overwhelming guilt. She was twenty-nine years old. At eight, she was abandoned by her parents, to take care of her four-year-old sister. From what she said, it was as if they mysteriously disappeared one day, never to be seen again. Laura and her sister were almost starving and homeless throughout most of their childhood. Laura never attended school, but made sure her sister did. Laura became a prostitute while raising her sister, and continued to provide for her until, one day, "sis didn't come back from school". She was told that a bus ran her over, and she died on the scene.
Time went by, but not fast enough for Laura. Out of loneliness and desperation, she became prisoner of an addiction to alcohol and other drugs. I remember thinking that she was bright and surprisingly well spoken for someone who didn't have any schooling. I guess her intelligence was one of the very few things that life couldn't take away from her.
"No one ever did a thing to help. No one ever cared." Laura repeated several times during her monologue. Most of the time that she was speaking, she was also crying. No, not crying. She was sobbing. I cried with her. She didn't hear me.
I had so many things to ask, and so many things to say, but everything seemed so irrelevant compared to her need to be listened to. She was pouring her heart out, "for the first time," she said, and I became the still vessel of her emotions. At that age, I never knew that someone could go through so much pain. The contrast between my life and hers was abysmal. I was able to see a different reality, painted by someone that I didn't know, and that I couldn't see. I realized, probably for the first time, how lucky I was.
Her story got to a semi-ending. She became calmer, her breathing was easier, and her speech slower; it was way easier to understand what she was saying. I kept quiet.
"Are you there?" - she asked, taking me by surprise. "Uh huh" "Were you listening all this time?" "I w…" - I had to clear my dry throat "I was"
Laura started sobbing again. I was confused. "Before dialing this number - she explained - I had dialed four other numbers. Each time I asked the same thing - Please, don't hang up - and each time the person hung up. You were my last call. I was ready to commit suicide, but you cared."
I, of course, didn't have an answer to that.
Laura reassured me that I wouldn't hear from her again, and profusely thanked me. She hung up. I didn't…not for a while. I needed to recover from the experience.
Silvia Uribe is a freelance writer with a Latino perspective.
Cross-published at http://www.edhat.com