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“So then, my wife left me.”
I was stuck, stranded in the middle of a conversation with a complete stranger. I had only meant to say hello to a fellow book-lover browsing the memoir section, but my salutation had prompted the gentleman to open up about a series of misfortunes he’d experienced in the last few years. I needed to go. I wanted to go. But I didn’t want to be rude.
Surely he was almost finished. I decided to ride it out.
“Oh, that’s terrible,” I said for maybe the fifth time.
He sighed, raising his arms to encompass the whole book store. “Yeah, and that was it. After losing my job and then my wife, I thought to myself, ‘I got nothing.’”
I nodded. Coincidentally, I had just been brainstorming ways to extract myself from this situation and I, too, had landed on ‘I got nothing.’”
“And then, you know what happened?” he asked.
I was going to guess “You died” because it seemed the logical next step, but luckily he didn’t give me time to answer.
“My whole life got better.”
Wow. I did not see that coming.
He noted my surprise and nodded, smiling. “Yep. There I was, living the worst days of my life, when all of a sudden, into my life walks this sweet loving woman. And a job I’m happy to go to every day, where I get to help people. And suddenly I’m realizing this is the happiest I’ve ever been.”
“I’m really happy for you,” I said, meaning every word.
As I left the store, I thought back to the time I went to Washington, D.C. to participate in National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. The Department of Justice established this commemoration of victims and survivors during the 1980s. Since that time, the somber and inspiring events at our nation’s capitol have been mirrored in cities and communities across the country. I attended the national event for research purposes a couple of years back, little realizing how profoundly it would affect me.
During that trip, I met people from across the country who had experienced the worst life could throw at them. They had lost loved ones to unspeakable acts of evil, or had been victimized in ways that my mind couldn’t even grasp. I spent those three days in tears, snuffling through personal testimonies at vigils and rallies. What these people experienced had broken them, had taken their relationships and their very sense of self. Their lives had burned to the ground. They had nothing.
And yet, without exception, from the ashes of their desecrated lives was born a new creature with new strengths and new purpose. Each had become a phoenix, and they knew it. “If I made it through that, I can make it through anything.” That’s the cry of a phoenix.
I don’t mean to gloss over their losses. Over and over again, parents who had lost children vowed they would give anything in their power to have one more day with their kids. I believed them, and I hope the day comes that they will be reunited. But in the meantime, I marvel at their inner strength. When they emerged from the ashes, they came out fighting—for other victims, for better legislation, for a safer world. What they have accomplished helps to protect me and my family. It helps you, too.
So as I attend events this week in honor of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, I once again honor those who have fallen in the darkness only soar into the light. And if you, dear reader, feel the flames encircling you, I encourage you to cling to the tiniest scrap of yourself. Everything else may burn away, but you have phoenix potential.
Don’t believe me? Then there’s a man at the bookstore I’d like you to meet.
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Angela Dove is an award-winning columnist and author of the true crime memoir, No Room for Doubt: A True Story of the Reverberations of Murder (Penguin Group, 2009).