A Walk With Death

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By Christine Ruston

I sit typing, tapping, scrolling through hours worth of notes about my local neighborhood commission meeting. Losing focus while sorting the quotes and rulings — not an option. I know that if I were to cease my motor-like actions I would fail to meet my deadline. I think to myself: if this monthly assignment of covering my Washington community’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting is so tedious, why do I continue riding my bicycle here to cover it each month?

Why? Because of her.

Because she once covered the meeting I now am tasked with. Because of the legacy she left with her young life cut too short. Because of 27-year-old Charnice Milton.

I didn’t really know of her life story until a year ago, in June 2015, when I was assigned to write her obituary for TheNewsHouse.com. Charnice, I learned, graduated just a few years before me from the same master’s program at Syracuse University. On paper and through quotes, she seemed nice. Quiet. Timid. But driven and dedicated. She was on her way home from reporting on a local community meeting, switching from one D.C. Metro bus to another in Ward 7. A man on a dirt bike — who police still haven’t found — aimed his gun at someone else, fired and instead hit and killed her. She died because he missed.

A few months later in September, I found myself walking the same streets that she once did in Ward 6 and 7. I saw the people she reported on, the stories she dug into and the relationships she fostered in the years she spent writing for Capital Community News and the Hill Rag newspaper. I already had a job lined up working part time for a national newspaper, but I also wanted to get back on the streets after years spent in school. I wanted to meet the people she met, feel the connection she felt, report what she reported.

***

On my recent trip with FASPE to Berlin, Krakow and Auschwitz, I took a second chance to walk in the shoes of death. As I prepared for the trip, images swirled in my mind: memories of tour after tour of Holocaust memorials, iconic sites of Nazi meetings and concentration camps. I practiced closing my eyes, breathing and picturing myself in the place of each person we met years after their senseless murders. In some ways, it is the same method I use when thinking about Charnice.

People every day have their lives snatched away, many without any warning. For a time, I held onto a constant feeling of anxiety — I could die, today, tomorrow, this very second. But then I realized that a life spent worrying isn’t a life worth living. And the journalism that I aspire to do — working as a foreign correspondent — can’t be done if one is too afraid to leave the safety of one’s desk.

Auschwitz didn’t inspire fear in me, but it did make me look and listen. I took in the green grass, the daisies and the birch trees. A low breeze rustled the sections of un-manicured lawn, birds sang in the birch tops, a tractor mower polished the landscape, and I felt silence. Yes, silence is a descriptor associated with the sense of hearing. But padding through rows once occupied by wooden buildings that housed men and women too weak to care about anything but survival, I learned the silence of the dead — and it chilled my soul to its core.

I experienced that sensation so vividly in part because of my work as a journalist. My decision to spend my career writing about others and giving a voice to those who may not otherwise have a chance to speak out roots in my empathetic nature. Both to my benefit and disadvantage, I write stronger when I try to relate to the people and situations on which I report.

So I walk through their lives — among both the dead and the living.

Tracing the path through the gas chambers, the sanitation stations, the wood-bedded barracks and the crematoria, I close my eyes and picture the Jews, the disabled, the Roma and the prisoners, all labeled as “others.” What was it like to have your body stripped, shaved and cleaned of unique traits? Did all these victims know that the end was near? Could they comprehend what some of us today struggle to understand: how humans could orchestrate the systematic, automated killing of their fellow humans?

Each time I opened my eyes on the trip through Germany and Poland, my senses were bombarded with sinusoidal waves of knowledge; they came one after the other and brought increasing amounts of opportunities to empathize with the Holocaust victims. And I was reminded of the importance of observation and experiential awareness.

I’m a journalist; to write my stories I sometimes need to live them.

***

Back in D.C. and sitting at my laptop, I call my editor at the Hill Rag. He shares with me the news that Charnice didn’t make it into the Newseum’s dedication for the top 20 reporters killed in 2015. He’s outraged. He feels that she deserved more. He thinks that because she covered local news and not national or international crises, she didn’t make their cut. But the response to my inquiry that I receive from the Newseum is simple — too many journalists pay the ultimate price, and while they include names like Charnice’s in an online database, not all can appear on their dedication wall.

And somewhere else, I think. In my writing. In your writing. In the memories we preserve by continuing to cover what others choose to ignore.

Each month I cover the neighborhood commission meeting Charnice once reported on. Each day I walk the streets she did. And when I call my editor, I am blessed with the mentorship he once offered to her.

Whether I and my journalism colleagues journey through the stories of people still living or now passed, we need to remember not to trudge. It’s not a chore. It’s not a burden. It’s a gift to empathize. It’s a blessing to listen. And it’s a chance to be an agent of change, illumination and compassion.

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