I’m usually calm in crises, but I couldn’t remember how to dial 9-1-1.
I’d seen items in the road and eased the car around them.
Passing the parallel-parked cars — and the things strewn on the road — I realized they weren’t things. I threw the motor into park, blocking the road. My hands shook. I jumped from the car.
On the ground, a backpack hid someone’s back; a baseball cap covered his head. His upper body jutted into the street from between two cars.
“Sir, are you okay?” He was breathing but didn’t respond. I fumbled the numbers to unlock my phone. (I forgot about the red emergency call icon.)
The man lay facedown on the road. His legs and hips hung above the ground, tangled in an upside-down bicycle between the sidewalk and the street.
Another man snaked his motorcycle around my car to see what happened. He quieted his motor and stepped close to the red pavement under the baseball cap.
I entered my unlock code, then tried keying 9-1-1. “Don’t move him!” I yelled as Mr. Motorcycle approached the unconscious man. I knew never to move anyone with possible back injuries — but this passerby didn’t.
An employee from the nearby school hurried over. Calling “9-1-1” felt more complicated than it should have been. Again I hit the wrong combination of digits.
Mr. Motorcycle laughed, pointing at the spilled beer can nearby. “He’s not hurt — he’s just drunk.”
I finally got through to 9-1-1.
“Sir!” I yelled again. “DON’T MOVE HIM!”
Mr. Motorcycle ignored me. He tugged and pulled the bike from between the unconscious man’s legs, lowering half his body with a thud.
The dispatcher barraged me with questions I couldn’t answer. “I don’t know. I found him like this.” How old was the person, how long had he been there, did anyone else see what happened, did the fall make him unconscious, or was it the other way around … ?
She kept asking, as if I hadn’t already answered.
Meanwhile, my car blocked the narrow street; I needed to make room for the ambulance. I told Mr. Motorcycle and the school employee to stay by the injured man (to protect him from approaching vehicles).
The dispatcher reprimanded me, telling me not to leave the scene — which I wasn’t doing! — and interrupted my disclaimers.
My hands shook as I fastened my seat belt. “I’m putting you on speaker,” I told her. She demanded I not relocate my car but rather return to make sure no one moved the man. (She’d already heard me tell Mr. Motorcycle — and that he ignored me.)
With one hand on the gearshift and one on the wheel, I jumped. Mr. Motorcycle pressed both hands against my window, talking at me through the glass.
The dispatcher fussed at me — loudly — as I lowered the window.
Mr. Motorcycle had to leave before the bank closed (it was barely three o’clock) and would be “right back.” (At least, I think that was what he said — it was hard to hear over the dispatcher’s voice.)
That was the last I saw of him.
The school employee (thank heaven for her!) “stood guard” while I drove (seven whole car-lengths away) to an empty space alongside the curb. (If you’ve never parallel parked while a 9-1-1 dispatcher berates you for making room so an emergency vehicle can reach the emergency, you can’t imagine how long that short drive was.) “I’ve parked and I’m walking back to the injured man now,” I told the dispatcher.
“Don’t give him anything to eat or drink,” she warned.
“He’s unconscious!” (I’d already told her.)
“Paramedics are on the way,” the dispatcher said, “but if he wakes before they arrive, don’t let anyone feed him or give him anything to drink.”
Between the dispatcher’s assurance of help on the way and the siren’s affirmation that it was, a gut-punching thought took my breath: These first responders were coming from that station — the station whose paramedics entered our home that night.
Please, oh, please, oh, please, oh, please, let it not be them…
I’d seen them out before — the same team — at the grocery store. I’d fallen apart, emotionally thrown back to the ground of that traumatic night.
Please oh please oh please let it not be them.
But the side of the truck bore that station number.
I turned and faced the prostrate man. I wouldn’t look at the paramedics’ faces.
Too many PTSD triggers of that night…
Behind me a man said, “I remember you…”
Oh, please, no!
My stomach heaved.
“Weren’t you in my radio class?”
I breathed again — How long was I holding my breath? — and turned toward the firefighter who’d taught my CERT group about the science and protocols of amateur radio back when I got my ham operator license. Way back, before the night my husband died.
It’s okay, I told myself. Not them.
But. What if the others were on duty that night?
I blurted a summary of all I’d told the dispatcher, then asked whether I needed to stay.
“No, we’ve got him now. Thanks for helping out. Good seeing you.”
As I turned away, I heard the injured man respond to the rescue crew. I felt tremendous relief; he was conscious, but I didn’t linger. (I scurried to my car to avoid seeing other rescuers’ faces.)
Then I drove away.
Life went on, for me, anyway. I hope and assume it did for that man…
It’s been a couple of weeks since that afternoon. I’ve wondered about the man whose name I don’t know. (Did he have a head injury? Did Mr. Motorcycle harm his back?) And I’ve worried. (Is that his bicycle locked against the fence near where he fell? If so, why hasn’t he come back for it?).
After two weeks in the Florida sun and rain, as of yesterday the pavement still showed stains from that day. I can’t pass the street without remembering.
It’s made me consider other marks on the roadways, discolorations I never thought twice about before. Stained pavement only seems compelling if you understand the story that soiled it.
How many of us see the behavioral or emotional “stains” in those around us and walk by — or turn our backs — without practicing emotional triage? For those who are grieving, it’s not enough (and often not a good idea) to simply ask, “Are you okay?” or “How are you?”*
Make sure your grieving friends breathe deeply. Stand guard against those who would take advantage of their vulnerability. Offer support, even if it comes in a drink of water or a bite to eat. Help them back onto their feet — physically and emotionally. Don’t ride away just because you have other things to do. Listen to their words and their tears and their assertions.
Learning the story of another’s grief will help you understand the marks of mourning on the soul.
*Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 2–What to Ask When Grief Is New