Bringing Dignity
by jane davis

Reprinted by permission of jane davis (c) 1999 from "Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul" by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Tom Lagana. In order to protect the rights of the copyright holder no portion of this publication may be reproduced without, prior written consent. All rights reserved.

"Do not do unto your neighbor what you would not have him do unto you; this is the whole Law [Torah]; the rest is commentary. Go learn it." --Hillel; Elder Jewish Rabbi - 1st Century BCE

One day in 1970 I had my first encounter with violence. An intruder had attacked my grandparents in their high-rise Manhattan apartment. My grandfather was so badly injured that it wasn't certain if he would live. My family drove down from our home in upstate New York. The two-hour trip was agonizing.

When we arrived, the apartment was still a mess: there was blood splattered around the bedroom, on the walls and carpet. What fury, what animal had produced this? It looked like a scene from a nightmare. In the middle of the chaos, my grandfather lay in his bed. I tiptoed into the room and stood there looking at him.

His face was distorted. The attacker had hit him, stabbed him, bit him. His eyes looked like those of a bullfrog, puffy and slitted from where the attacker had tried to gouge them out with his bare hands. The rest of my grandfather's body was covered with sheets and blankets, hiding the other spots where this man-turned-beast had tried to eat my grandpa alive and where he had stabbed him numerous times, venting his unknown rages.

"There are bites taken out of the soles of his feet," I remember hearing my mother say. In twenty-nine years I still have not gotten this picture out of my mind.

The attack, we were told, had happened at 5:30 in the morning. Upon hearing noises in the kitchen, my grandpa had gotten up and seen a man frantically rummaging through the silverware drawers. It never dawned on him that this man was going to harm him or my grandmother, asleep in the bedroom.

"May I help you, sir?" my grandfather asked.

The man turned quickly, wielding a huge butcher knife. He approached my grandfather and said, "Gimme the white stuff." He led my grandfather to the bedroom, flicked on the lights and awakened my grandmother. The young man, who was apparently high on drugs, ordered her to get up and get him a towel. He had cut his hand open when he broke into their apartment. He approached my grandmother and held the knife to her delicate throat, a warning.

My grandfather knew at that moment that he was going to fight. This man was going to kill us, he thought, two helpless old people in the early morning. But not without a battle, my grandfather decided. He was going to fight and save my grandmother, even at the cost of his life. No one was going to harm his dear wife.

My grandmother handed the intruder a towel. As the stranger went into the bathroom to wash his profusely bleeding hand, he placed the knife on the side of the sink and turned his back to the door. My grandfather seized the moment. He lunged for the knife, grabbing it quickly, not realizing that as he did so he had grabbed it blade-end first. The knife sank into his hand, cutting and severing the tendons in his fingers. Still, he held on tight. He was fighting for his life.

The intruder turned and grabbed my grandfather, a big man, throwing him onto the floor, and then picked up a floor lamp and smashed it over his head. My grandmother, a small woman, jumped onto the intruder's back, pulling his hair and kicking him, desperately trying to get him off of my grandfather. She broke her foot in the process.

My grandfather screamed at her to go get help. As she ran out the apartment, the door slammed behind her and locked. She ran, crying and screaming for help, banging on the neighbor's doors in a panic.

Inside, my grandfather and the intruder fought for 20 minutes. As my grandfather felt himself slowly slipping into oblivion, drained, he uttered, "Oh . . . there they are. There are the police now." With that, the intruder fled. My grandfather crawled into the bathroom, painfully reached up to lock the door, and passed out.

The intruder was never caught. I remember going out onto Central Park West to trace the trail of blood left by this enraged, violent man. I followed it into the park as it dribbled away into a field of grass.

My grandfather miraculously survived, but my family was ripped apart. They were understandably full of hatred, full of vicious words and resentment. What happened to them almost scared me more than the senseless attack.

Part of me retreated because I was not feeling the same rage that they were. Oh, I hated what this man had done. I hated seeing my grandfather, almost unrecognizable from the violent distortions evidenced on his face. I hated the rage and bitterness that was permeating my family. I hated all of it.

But I felt something different: I found myself wondering about the intruder. I wondered what had motivated him to do such a terrible thing. I thought, "How could one human being do this to another? What was wrong with him? Was he sick? He must be in a lot of pain and need help."

Those were my thoughts, but I had no one to express them to. So I retreated inside myself, full of shame and guilt. Maybe there was something wrong with me because I didn't hate this man and wish harm on him.

I remember going to a meadow on top of a mountain in Woodstock, New York, where I always went to connect with God. I prayed to God to please fill me with whatever I was missing. I was so ashamed that I had compassion for this man who had harmed my family. But that hatred and revenge never came.

To this day I often wonder whatever happened to that intruder. I really believe that we are all much more than the worst thing we have ever done. I really believe in the goodness of each and every one of us. I really believe in the power we have for change and recovery. Today when I go in the prisons and death rows I look every person in the eyes to connect and bring a moment of dignity to the human being, and I often wonder if I have ever looked in the eyes of the man who wreaked havoc on my family.

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