She looked at me as I spoke to her, her blue eyes blazing with fear, and she listened intently to what I was saying. “Your Daddy is alive”, I said, “and he looks like a very strong man. He is with people who can take care of him now.” She then looked at her mother, who was shaking and crying, and she achingly shouted these words:
“I hate you, America!”
If I were she – 8 years old, in a foreign land, my mother physically shaking and barely able to speak as my father was being lifted into an ambulance, I may have shouted the same thing. She was a visitor in this country. She landed here with a smile on her face, anticipating a vacation filled with celebration. She arrived protected by the strong, able bodies of two loving parents; yet she would be accompanied home by only one. Her father had saved her life, and with that had made the ultimate sacrifice. He did what a parent instinctively does. He gave his life for his child.
My own family of 6 had just descended the stairs of the parking garage into the darkness of a balmy night, eager to explore the sights and sounds of a bustling shopping plaza brand new to us. My 16-year-old son saw it happen.
“Oh My God.” he said. “He got hit!”
Confused, I looked around, and then I heard them. I have heard screaming people on television and in the movies. I have heard screaming people on roller coasters and in fake haunted houses at Halloween. I have now heard true screams of terror. These screams may sound similar, but they feel very different. I will never forget how they felt. They make your spine tingle. They make your heart ache. They make you afraid.
In the seconds that followed, thoughts rushed through my head at lightening speed:
” Do I run away? I want to run away!”
“Of course not – you can’t run away!”
“You are trained in nursing.”
“You know what to do.”
” Go help these people.”
I walked slowly, gathering courage with each step until I found myself running to the scene.
A man lay motionless on the ground. His shrieking wife knelt beside him. A small car with a windshield shattered and resembling a spiderweb more than a piece of glass stood parked at an angle behind her. The driver of the car that hit him was pacing back and forth, unharmed. The victim was bleeding from the trauma to his head and his skin had a purplish hue. I went through the checklist in my head, and started to treat him as I had been taught. After a few moments someone yelled, “He’s breathing!!” I heard him exhale strongly. So strongly, in fact, that blood from his nose spattered my cheek. It felt cold. “This is insane. It can not be real.” I thought to myself.
This nameless man and I were both guests in this city. Neither one of us was in familiar surroundings, yet we were brought together by a series of events. Why? What if my family had kept our original plan for the evening instead of turning around to avoid freeway traffic? What if I chose a different parking space? I would not have seen this. What if he paused for a moment to check himself in the mirror on his way out the door or give his little girl a piggy back ride? This would not have happened. The “what-ifs” and “whens” and “whys” were piling up in my head, and all I could do was work with strangers to keep this man alive.
We did work together, the makeshift team of people and I. People whose names I will never know. I would not recognize them if I walked by them in the street today. A man kept pressure on the head wound, while another checked for a pulse. A woman stood behind me speaking calmly, creating a pseudo-refuge for us amid pure hysteria. Someone stayed with the couple’s little girl as she watched in horror from the sidewalk. We stayed with this man for what seemed like an eternity, and when the ambulance arrived, we went our separate ways.
I continued to speak to this man’s wife and daughter, distracting them as well as I was able until the police took them away to the hospital. They were a family of 3 on vacation. On vacation. Just like me.
Then they were gone.
I rejoined my family on the side of the road in what looked like a completely different scene than the one I had rushed toward minutes before. Caution tape had been put up. Crowds had gathered. Lights and sirens were now flashing. My son was telling the police what he saw. I worried about my son for a moment, but knew we needed to be in a different place to discuss what had happened there that night.
I was sick inside, and I clung to hope, knowing that this man was alive when he was taken away.
We wandered aimlessly around the shopping plaza, finally realizing that what we had just seen was something that we could not “walk off.” We headed back to our hotel.
They were not from this country, and I will never see them again, the family that changed the course of my vacation. The family that reminded me of life’s fragility and the difference between meaningful and the meaningless. The family that I experienced something with that most people will fortunately never experience. The man to whom I knew I was forever bound as I stood on the cold marble floor in the bathroom of my hotel room and wiped his blood from my cheek.
I had heard it many times before, but that night I felt it and I knew it. Life is fragile. Handle with care.
P.S. Over the past two years, since my father’s passing, I have thought often about which I would find easier- losing someone I love slowly from a long illness, or suddenly, from an accident such as the one I experienced. I have concluded that I was blessed with the ability to say goodbye to my father, to tell him I love him, and to be with him until he fell peacefully to sleep for eternity. Everyone feels and sees things differently. Today, I feel blessed.