Preface: This was a difficult story to write. I suspect it may be a hard one to read, too. Though it is about a specific case I recently experienced, my hope is that it will help us all think about how we can lend a hand to others.
Turning off the highway on the wrong exit, we pass through an unexpected intersection. It shouldn’t make much difference.
Stopping at a gas station to fill up for the long trip home, I go into the station with our girls while my husband takes care of the fuel.
Waiting for my girls, I look out the window to see my husband walking toward the street into the traffic. That’s odd.
I go to the window and see that there is an accident at the intersection. Walking out the door and towards the commotion, I wonder, “How bad is it?”
I see people helping a woman out of the car. I meet her half way to the curb. She carefully sits. Another stranger brings a blanket to put around her. It’s cold. She is bleeding. She is crying. Shaking.
A man works to help a little girl out of the car. He has her in his arms. The man is bleeding from a gash on his forehead. Bright red runs down his face. The little girl is bleeding at the mouth. She whimpers. I reach for the girl. But she wants her mom. The little girl may be three-years-old? We help her go to her mom: the woman sitting on the curb under the blanket.
The man watches the little girl sit with her mom. I see his cut continue to bleed as he puts a small blanket to his head. I ask him, “Do you want to sit down?” He says, “No. It is just a cut.” But it is bigger than a cut. He looks in shock. They all do.
The woman winces as her little girl sits on her leg. Her leg must be hurt, but she worries more about her girl. She holds her. The woman asks me, “Is she okay?” I look at the little girl. I say, “Her lip is bleeding. But she is alert.” The girl has blood by her eye, too. I think she just smeared it there from her lip. I hope that is all it is.
The woman says, “It wasn’t my fault. The light was green. It wasn’t my fault.” I put my hand on her shoulder and pull the blanket around them both.
Then she asks, “My mom. How is my mom?” I turn to the left and look at the car. That must be her mom in the passenger seat. Other strangers are by the car. I turn back to the woman. I say, “I don’t know.”
Another stranger asks the woman if she has someone to call. She says, “My husband. I need my phone. It is in the car.” I say, “I’ll try to find it.” Standing up, I hurry to the car.
I go to the front seat on the driver’s side. Among shattered glass and mangled metal, I try to find her phone. I don’t see the phone. I see the woman’s mother in the passenger seat. Other strangers try to comfort her. She is wedged in too tight. We need help. Where is the ambulance?
I don’t see the phone, but I see a powder blue handbag on the floor. I grab it.
Heading back to the woman and her little girl, I say, “I could not find the phone. Could it be in this bag?” The woman shakes her head. “No. I had it in the front seat with me.” The woman cries, “It wasn’t my fault. The light was green.”
Spotting a bag of stuffed animals and toys someone retrieved from the car, I say to the woman, “I’ll put your purse in here.”
The other stranger asks if she can try calling her husband for her. She tells them where he works. Who to ask for. The stranger calls.
The woman says, “I’m sorry if we’re getting blood on the blanket.” We say, “It’s okay.” Of course. I think blood on the blanket is maybe the only thing that is fine at that moment. The woman cries. She wants her husband.
I say, “I’ll look again for your phone.”
I go back to the driver’s seat. I reach around the man trying to help the woman in the car. I can only feel shattered glass. The woman in the car tries to speak. She says it is hard to breathe.
I cannot find the phone. I go back to the woman and her girl. The stranger has reached someone at the place her husband works. She is asking for the husband. I say, “I couldn’t find your phone.” She asks, “How’s my mom?” I know I cannot promise she will be okay. I say, “I don’t know.” Our eyes lock for a moment.
I notice fragments of glass rest on my palm. I flash back to an accident I had once when I woke up the next morning with glass still in my hair. On my pillow. I’m thankful anew that I had walked away from it.
We hear the sirens. An ambulance. A firetruck. Another ambulance. Police.
The woman looks down at her daughter. “Don’t let her fall asleep!” she says suddenly. I stroke the little girl’s hair. Her eyes are still open. “She is awake,” I say gently. The little girl is scared. I turn and look over my right shoulder towards the gas station. My girls are watching from there.
Many emergency workers come from all angles now. All at once it seems.
An EMT hurries towards us. He crouches by the woman and little girl. “Who do we have here?” he asks. The woman says, “Her name is Carrie. Don’t let her fall asleep!” The EMT says, “It’s okay. As long as we can wake her easily.” Carrie holds on to her mom. The EMT says, “Carrie, I’m going to take you to the ambulance now. Can you come with me?” Carrie does not say anything. The woman says, “Guys! She is not responding!” I brush Carrie’s hair from her face so I can see her eyes. I tell the woman, “She is scared, but she is awake.” The EMT asks me, “Are you family or a bystander.” “A bystander,” I reply. I wish I was more. Maybe that would help.
Another EMT asks the man with the cut forehead if he needs medical attention. He waves it off. “No. Please help my wife.” His wife. The woman in the car. Others are trying to help her.
The stranger with the phone has the husband on the line now. She hands the phone to the woman. “We were in a terrible accident,” she sobs. She talks fast. “It is bad. Mom is still in the car. The light was green. I don’t know what happened. It wasn’t my fault.” She tries to catch her breath. The EMT encourages her to calm down. I understand her fear. She talks more. The stranger gets back on the phone. She tells the husband more details. She encourages the husband to meet his family at the hospital. They’ll be there soon.
The little girl tightens her grip on her mom. We try to get her to let go of her mom. I say, “Carrie? Carrie?” I look in the bag of stuffed animals. There is a black and white dog. Or is it a bear? It doesn’t matter. I wonder if they will care whether it gets blood on it. It doesn’t matter. “Carrie?” I show her the animal. She doesn’t want it anyway. She wants her mom.
The EMT finally gets Carrie to go with him. They go to the ambulance. Strangers help the woman stand. She wants to follow her daughter. I take the woman’s hand as she leans on others.
We pass by the car where they are trying to get her mom out of the car. The woman asks again, “My mom?!” I say, “They are taking care of her.” I glance back as they start to cut the car to get her out.
We reach the ambulance. The woman rests against the closed door. I ask a passing firefighter, “Can you help her find her daughter? I think she is in the ambulance.” He helps her inside.
I see my husband hand the bag of stuffed animals to a firefighter to give to the woman. Inside is the powder blue purse with the black and white dog.
I hand the blanket back to the stranger who owns it. We exchange a look of “wish we could do more.”
I look over the scene. My mind flashes to my father-in-law. It would be nice to call him. He was good to talk with about hard things. It’s already more than a year since he died. Just hours earlier I kneeled at his grave, placing a rose on wet grass soaked from winter rain. A red rose. The color of love. The color of blood. Sometimes you see death coming. Other times it blindsides you. I miss him.
Turning, I look back for my kids. I motion for them to come out of the gas station. I tell them to wait in our van. I turn and look back at the mangled car. The firefighters cut away parts of the car. Still trying to get the woman out. That tool must be the Jaws of Life. I always imagine it bigger somehow. It seems too small for the job.
A man in a uniform carries a part of the car door and sets it on the curb. They bring a stretcher to the car but still cannot get her out. They continue to cut more of the car.
I see the man with the cut head walk up the steps into the other ambulance.
Which one is the driver of the other car? I don’t know. How did I not notice?
I go back to the van and get in with our girls. My husband is walking towards us, too.
They are getting the woman out now. It is time for us to go. Nine hours of driving until we get home. I pray.
As we pull out into the street, I see the accident in my rear-view mirror. I look ahead to drive, and I see their faces.
Many miles later, we need gas again. We decide to have some ice cream for a break. I get my girls some ice cream, and we sit at a table. It has been a few hours. There might be information about the accident by now. I search my phone to find news. Finding an article, I see a picture of the cars at the intersection. Yes, that is the accident. Those are the cars. That is the curb. The headline is the news I do not want to read. The passenger died. The woman’s mother. The wife. Carrie’s grandma.
I look up from the headline. And down again. The headline is the same.
I read further. The other driver ran a red stoplight. The woman’s light was green. It was not her fault. It will be little consolation for her now.
He ran a red stoplight. Red. It should be the color for stop.
I read more. Others in the accident…hospitalized…non-life-threatening. But I know their lives will never be the same. It is not in the report. Broken hearts. Shattered family. Shattered glass. I wish I could have done more.
I look up at my family. I decide not to say anything about the news. Not yet. I watch them talk and eat ice cream.
I think about Carrie’s family. I pray other strangers are helping them now, too.
Author’s note: In difficult times, we often rely on strangers to help us through some of the heartache in life or even protect each other from danger. When your path intersects with others, do what you can to help. Our lives are intertwined, and we need each other. Often we feel like we are helpless and cannot do anything. Even if you think you are not doing much, being present in times of need can be helpful. I know it can be scary. When witnessing a traumatic event, you may also need to talk it through with someone later. Take care of yourself, too.
It can be hard to enter the pain another is experiencing, but we need more people showing love to others. You may be needed whether it is a car accident, seeing someone having a hard day, or witnessing another person being treated poorly. Let compassion be the window from which you see the world. And if you look hard enough, there are hurting people all around. Find strength in reaching out.