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Thursday, Aug. 16, 2007 02:45 pm

A matter of timing

Don’t wait till it’s too late to show someone you care

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Aidah Mahmood’s e-mails were easy to ignore. The first one, on May 28, was a single rambling paragraph into which she had condensed an incredible horror story about being set on fire by her relatives. Full of desperate pleas (“Please Help Me”), random details (“thorny sticker bushes”), and quirky spellings (“herendis crime”), it came with a full-color photo of the badly burned face of a beautiful young girl.

I found her grammar charming and the photo sadly interesting. (I’ve developed a fairly strong stomach for gore.) The part that made me click the “close” box was her mention that the Mt. Vernon Register-News had already published a three-part series on this allegedly “herendis crime.” Like most journalists, I don’t enjoy following another reporter’s story.

She persisted. Two days later, she sent another e-mail: “Dear Ms. Rhoads, Im sending a few more pictures so you can see What Was Done To Me By My Father and Uncle and also I send you a picture of myself from less than 2 yrs. earlier. Please help me get Justice to Find Peace for myself.”

This time she had attached pictures of her badly burned left arm and left foot, plus her eighth-grade graduation portrait, showing how gorgeous she had been before the fire.

Later that same day Aidah sent three more e-mails, with information about insults added to her injuries — infections borne by tainted blood transfusions that left her with “Hepatitus, and I took Cheamo theropy witch almost killed me and destroyed my pancreous, witch made me diebetic.”

The charm was wearing thin with the quirky spelling, and her medical maladies sounded too weird to be true. But she added two tidbits that intrigued me: Within the past year her father had been arrested twice, for something (she didn’t say what) involving her sisters and mother, and she named a detective who, she promised, would be willing to talk about her case. Recent news and a cooperative cop would make a better story.

A few days later I wrote Aidah back, giving her a specific date for a phone interview. I asked her to send me an e-mail on that date to indicate what time she would be free to talk. With the ball in her court, I could turn my attention back to whatever it was that I must’ve thought was so important at that time.

If you get a chance to skim today’s cover story, you will understand how embarrassing this confession is for me. With 20/20 hindsight, I now see that her spelling was miraculous for someone whose formal education was forcibly ended at age 15, her typing phenomenal, considering her fingers were stumps. Aidah Mahmood had one of the most heart-wrenching stories I’ve ever heard.

She didn’t contact me on the appointed date. Instead, a few weeks later, I got an e-mail from her brother Nabeel Mahmood, telling me that Aidah had died. He had stumbled across my message on her computer and was writing to encourage me to consider pursuing her story.

When I checked my records, I realized that I had e-mailed Aidah on the very day she died. When I looked at the times, I realized that I sent my message — short, terse, barely civil — a few hours after her death. As far as Aidah ever knew, I was just another one of the countless people who heard her plight and didn’t care.

Over the past week or two, I’ve gotten to know Aidah. I’ve seen the house where she was set afire. My eyes have measured how far she had to jump to escape. I’ve met her grieving brother and the detective who was her good knight. I’ve stood inside her empty apartment. I’ve visited her freshly dug grave.

Moreover, in the course of researching her story, I’ve had conversations with at least a dozen people who knew Aidah, and because her family didn’t publicize her death I inadvertently became the bearer of bad news. With each of these encounters I discovered that Aidah had a way of captivating people, even people whose occupations demand that they guard their hearts against personal involvement.

The woman who answers the phone at the Mount Vernon Police Department sounded harried until I mentioned Aidah. Even then she waved me off, saying that the officer I needed was no longer with the department. But as soon as I told her that Aidah had died, she melted into a genuine human being. I heard from the detective five minutes later.

A woman who met Aidah through her local domestic-violence agency — a victims’ advocate who makes her living juggling tragedies — told me that Aidah was “one of the most special people I’ve ever met.” As proof, this woman — who wouldn’t even give me her last name — said that Aidah was one of only two clients she had given her cell phone number.

Aidah’s primary-care physician, who hadn’t gotten news of her death, answered my e-mail with the startling admission that although he didn’t know her well he considered her one of his favorite patients. Here’s a guy who had every right to ignore my questions; he was writing from Tikrit, Iraq, where he’s currently deployed.

If you have time in your life, read Aidah’s story. But if you have a friend you’ve been meaning to write, or a relative you’ve been meaning to call, please, by all means, do that instead. You never know when the clock will run out on your chance to show someone that you care.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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