Tony Woodlief | Author

A Glass of Water

Several people asked me yesterday if I had heard the news that Anna Nicole Smith was dead. It was as if the whole world had been there to see her collapse, and had no one left to tell, which is always the secret pleasure of dreadful news, that we get to be the first — we hope — to tell someone else.

I had only my wife to tell, because she is too busy with the permanent things to worry with news. We spent perhaps ten seconds on it, asking the things most people ask: How did it happen? How old was she? Didn’t her son die a while back? Then we were on to other things, as will be the rest of the world, once the last of the corpse is frisked and the spoils divided amongst entertainment channels pretending to deliver news and journalists posing as entertainers.

You wonder how a life can end up like this. What does it take, for a girl born in a little Texas town, whose mother named her Vickie Lynn Hogan (in hope, which is always how we name our children), who had birthday parties and drew pictures for her teachers and whispered little-girl secrets to her friends on the school bus? What causes a girl to become what Vickie Lynn was? Some of the answer is obvious, I suppose — a father who left her, an incapable mother, drugs, alcohol, the usual.

The usual. I have this feeling of complicity that I can’t shake. I wonder if anyone ever offered this girl a glass of water on her long, ugly path from abandoned child to helpless mother, from whore to star, from office joke to a corpse that will be picked over. Did anyone hold out the hand that each of us secretly longs for at some point in his life, often more for the offering than for the help it promises? We long for it because in our hearts we are tired and lonely and wish that someone could just see that this is so, and more, tell us that he sees it. Did anyone ever tell Vickie Lynn?

Maybe there were many people like this on her path. A pastor whose sermons I am fond of always concludes with this admonition: “Remember, you may be the only Christ that someone will meet today.” I like to believe that someone is listening to him. I wonder who was Christ to Vickie Lynn, and how many more were anti-christs, who often look the most like Christ to those who can’t discern the difference — tittering moralists who judge from the safety of less rocky paths. Who was Christ to Vickie Lynn?

This feeling of complicity won’t leave me because I have been one of those tittering moralists, shaking my head when word of her latest abomination spread like dreadfully good news. More than once I lingered in delicious pleasure over the details of her surreal life. From newspapers to the E! channel, the girl who remade herself as Anna Nicole had her descent chronicled for all of us to watch, but always with a light touch, a veneer of comedy, so that we who leered could feel better about ourselves for observing the self-destruction of another human being.

Who was Christ to Vickie Lynn? I know she received bags of mail every day. I wonder if Christ snuck his way into any of those letters. Thousands of people clambered to take her picture and shake her hand. Was Christ in one of those people? Did Vickie Lynn ever see him standing in the crowd of watchers? Did she see him in any of us?

She lost a son. Perhaps the only surprise is that he lasted twenty years. I don’t know what contortions the mind of a child must make when he sees his mother whored out to every man who promises money or affection or simply affirmation. I don’t know what self-loathing and fear this must breed in a boy. I only know that he died with a host of drugs in his blood, a cocktail designed to fix the problems in his mind and heart caused by this world of men. Who was Christ to Vickie Lynn’s boy?

She leaves behind a baby girl. There are hundreds of people, some alive now, some yet to be born, who will meet this child on her own path. Who will be Christ to Vickie Lynn’s girl? And who instead will tear at her young flesh, the way the vultures already tear at the corpse of her mother, from the lawyers to the avaricious men to you and me, the voyeurs?

I don’t believe it’s our responsibility, you reading this now, or me, to save anyone. I don’t believe we have in our possession even the magic to save ourselves. I’m haunted by the notion, however, that we can either offer Vickie Lynn that glass of water when she passes, or we can silently watch, and become little better than the others who consume her.

I’ve come to believe that when Christ said to go into the world with the word of hope, it wasn’t because he needed any of us to do any of the saving of lost lives. It is to save us, I think, that he sends us. It is because there is no neutral ground, only mercy, or consumption; the glass of water, or the picking over of the corpse; being Christ to Vickie Lynn, or enjoying the spectacle of her destruction.

Who was Christ to Vickie Lynn? Who prayed a real prayer for her — not the self-righteous prayer, the little love note to God which is really a love note to ourselves, which reads: thank you God, and aren’t you thankful, that I am not like that one over there? Who prayed for her son, or her daughter? Not me.

Worse, if I made a list of all the Vickie Lynns whose paths I’ve crossed, and whose broken and thirsty looks I pretended not to see, I suspect the shame would be too much to bear. So mostly I think about other things, until this used-up woman goes and dies in a hotel lobby, and for some reason now I can’t shake the question: for whom will you be Christ today?

If only we shared that glass of water as effortlessly as we share the news of death.

On Key

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