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The Ladder of Death


When Emmylou Harris sang Townes Van Zandt’s “When I Needed You” at the Green River Festival last month, she mentioned that she was often asked to sing it at weddings.

But it played over and over in my mind last Wednesday at the Brattleboro Food Co-op’s candlelight vigil for Michael Martin, who was killed at his desk at the start of the working day on Tuesday, allegedly by a disgruntled employee.

“If I needed you, would you come to me, would you come to me and ease my pain/If you needed me, I would come to you/I would swim the seas for to ease your pain.”

Both the shot and the alleged shooter were 59 years old. This was not a teenager killing his principal or his classmates.

These were mature men working in a place that prides itself on being safe, peaceful, fair, loving, and kind. It may not often achieve those things, but it tries its damnedest, and we must always be grateful for the trying.

At the vigil, the desire to ease the pain of Michael’s family, friends, co-workers, and members of the Co-op community was as strong as it was probably futile.

* * *

There is an African saying that the ladder of death is not climbed by just one person. Death is a community matter, and community is a Brattleboro matter.

I often grumble when someone talks about “the community.” What do they mean? The community of left-wingers? The hunting community? The anti-nuke community? The organic vegetable community? The arts community?

There are hundreds of interconnected circles of community in this town, communities of interest and communities of chance, communities of workplace and communities of neighborhood, communities of young people and communities of the old, communities of hate and communities of love.

For this murder, the various communities joined, and it was a large and true one.

I was surprised at how many of the hundreds of people at the vigil I knew by name or by face. We were all one in sadness, we all needed one another, and we had all come for one another to ease the pain.

The pictures of Michael showed a man who hunted, who skied, who loved his family, who enjoyed good friendships, and who had a big life.

Gov. Peter Shumlin talked about “making sense of the senseless.” But I don’t pretend to understand how this could happen. I know that we are all victims, and that includes — in ways I can’t comprehend yet — the alleged shooter and his family.

What angers me is that the alleged shooter was so angry that, in acting on his anger, he made us all feel the depth of it. And that depth of rage and hatred is incredibly unpleasant to feel.

In “Tower Song,” Van Zandt wrote: “Your fears have built a wall between/our lives and all that loving means/will have to go unfelt it seems/and that leaves only sorrow/You built your tower strong and tall/Can’t you see, it’s got to fall someday.”

* * *

I will never comprehend the taking of a life. But this is not the first time I’ve been through this experience.

I know what it’s like to have a friend murdered in a public space because she decided to love a woman instead of the man who felt that his rage entitled him to murder her.

This doesn’t get any easier, let me tell you.

We all need one another now, and the beautiful part of this terrible experience is that we are all swimming the seas to ease one another’s pain.

We care. We are a community. No one climbs the ladder of death alone.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #114 (Wednesday, August 17, 2011).

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