On thinking twice

It’s a Saturday afternoon in the last weekend of September, and I’m curled up in a fleece blanket with little Mizzou Tiger emblems all over it.  Rain is beating against my window screen and the warm light of my lamp spreads over my lap and the 110 pages of court records that accompany me. 110 pages of details to a story I’ve never seen until now. 110 pages of people’s lives, and I’ve got them spread over my couch just like I would my favorite Nora Ephron or Joan Didion essays. I’m reading the transcript of a very serious encounter that affected a family’s life forever, and I’m just supposed to weave it into a story because I can.

 I pause at page 44 and rest the pages on the coffee table.

“You were right,” I text to the professor supervising me on the story. “These records are intense. I’ve had to take so many breaks just to get through!”

 “Yes.Tough stuff – and all we have to do is read,” she texts back.

I look at the 66 unread pages on the couch and I know she’s right. All I have to do is read these pages. The people whose names are on the pages had to live through these tragic events. All I have to do is read. As I pick up page 45 and begin to highlight and circle once more, I know that’s not the whole truth, because it’s almost October. And October means dredging out my own 110 pages of tragic details.

***

“When your rooster crows at the break of dawn, look out your window and I’ll be gone. You’re the reason I’m travelin’ on. Don’t think twice, it’s alright.”

25 days from tomorrow, I’ll get up at 6 a.m. and walk to the journalism arch with a red balloon. On it, I’ll write a quote from a famous journalist and I’ll send it into the sky. Then I’ll walk away and move on with my life and won’t think about it much until next year. This year, however, I don’t think that last part of the plan will work. In March, when I first delved into the unhappy details of this story, there hasn’t been anyone whose advice I wanted to seek more than my high school journalism advisor, who committed suicide on October 26, 2009. And every time that I look at those 110 pages, he’s the one I think of. 

I’ve written before about bleed of journalism and personal life, but this story has been one that has taught me more about how triggering my profession can be.

“But I wish there was something you could do or say that would make me change my mind and stay. But we never did much talking anyway. But don’t think twice, it’s alright.”

I think it’s fitting that I will work on this tough story in October. In all honesty, there’s more than one professor supervising me as I write it. Bill Currie is the reason I stayed with journalism and he’s the reason I am choosing to devote my life to it. I used to get mad when my dad would give Mr. Currie the credit every time I made an academic gain or got a compliment from a J-School professor. Now, I welcome that praise. Mostly I welcome it because I know it would drive Mr. Currie crazy.

“I’m dead,” I can hear him say. “Why the hell are you thanking me?”

In the past, I’ve thought of all of the reasons of why I would thank the grizzly hippie. As I enter this fourth year without him and start to explore more serious stories, I’ve got a new reason.

I’ve learned how to empathize with stories of loss and see their contents as more than details. Because of Bill Currie, I have to stop and pause and think about what something means to me as a journalist. For someone who didn’t want me to think twice about his departure, he still gets me thinking twice about a lot. The only thing I don’t have to pause about anymore is the thought I might not be able to do this journalism thing without him here in person. This year, on October 26, I know what I’m writing on that red balloon.

 

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