Nothing ruins a good day quite like witnessing someone die.
I woke up this morning thinking I had woken up late. I groaned and rolled around beneath the sheets, cursing myself for not hearing my alarm, and frustrated, headached, I closed my eyes to go back to sleep. And then my alarm went off, and I realized I hadn’t overslept, and I climbed out of bed (still headached) and signed online. I registered for classes, drank a tall glass of water, and got to work on the homework assignment due today.
I had labored on it all weekend and had yet to finish it, or to start the paper I have due tomorrow. So I wrapped up the remaining problems, and even figured out the one I had been stuck on last night for nearly an hour. I even finished in enough time to take care of some important emails that needed tending to (including a grant application for a student organization I belong to), exercise and shower, and make tuna salad for lunch before–get this–actually leaving for class on time for the first time in weeks!
As my door swung shut behind me, I had the sinking feeling something bag just had to happen today. Things were going far too well already. Just look at this beautiful weather! Just look, I even caught the bus on time!
My first class went well–I have to admit, I’m surprised at my budding love for complex analysis. And in algebra my professor scheduled our next test and assigned another set of homework–but I’ve been expecting both of these to happen anyways, and they’re far enough out I can accordingly plan proper studying beforehand.
Yesterday afternoon I wrote a letter to my fiance, and so I decided between classes today I’d walk to the post office and then treat myself to a cup of tea while reading for my literature class. I got to listen to some music on the way there, at the post office there wasn’t anything of a line, and I got to try a few teas at the cafe a street over before finally settling on one. I took a seat outside, basking in the beautiful weather, and started reading.
Some time passed.
There was a sound like–like nothing that words can adequately describe. It was akin to a–how can I describe this? Like metal bending and breaking, like plastic skidding across an asphalt road, like thunder muffled beneath the tumult of an upset ocean. I can’t put it into words. It’s a sound the words themselves are averse to describe.
I looked up and down the line of shops and I saw three or four men looking in the direction of the road out of the shopping center. I heard them as if they were right next to me: “It looks like a motorcycle.” I knew immediately what had happened and instinctively put my book down and stood up. I took a few steps toward them and stopped. You don’t need to see this. You don’t want to see this. I stood still and swallowed. From where I was, I really could see nothing. I hesitated–what if I was that one person who could call 911 and make a difference?–but then my rational mind cut in, directing my line of vision to the handful of men who were walking toward the corner. They have phones. Everyone has phones. You don’t need to get involved with this.
I took another few steps, looking around at the other people standing about. The couple at the restaurant next door got up and stepped into the parking lot. I held my breath and stepped out between two cars. But the parking lot was vast and another line of vehicles still obscured my view. You don’t need to do this. Don’t do this. I turned around and saw a police officer or security guard walking toward me, along the cars, toward the corner. See? It’s being taken care of. See? You don’t need to go any further. Just sit down.
I walked back to the table and resumed my reading. I looked over the pages, saw the lights pull up over the trees and the restaurant at the corner. I turned my eyes back to the page. I reread the same paragraph. I reread the same sentence. I reread it again. I heard sirens. Finally, the ambulance is here. It’s been–what?–three? five minutes, tops? I blinked my eyes, averted my eyes, and tried to focus on the words in front of me.
They wavered, twisting on the page. I reread the same paragraph. I reread the same sentence. I reread it again. And then I started over the page because I hadn’t gotten anything I’d read. I heard sirens again and looked up. Now it’s been–I calculated–seven? ten minutes? It didn’t make sense, though, hadn’t the ambulance arrived already?
I turned back to the book. There was only one page left to the chapter. I read one more page. I set the book down. I finished my tea. I put my book in my bag. I stood up. I looked to my left–I could avoid the whole thing, it would be a longer walk back to campus, but I could avoid the whole thing–and then I started walking to the right.
I knew I didn’t want to do it, but what could I do? I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I went the other way, if I didn’t answer that nagging voice in my head saying, “What happened?” if I didn’t sate that animal desire that turns your eyes to the scene of an accident as you drive down the freeway and see the flashing lights up ahead. I had to look. We all did.
I reached the corner and stood beside a woman. She was dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. I saw the motorcycle and the car in the street. I saw a crowd of men in neon vests gathered around the wreckage. I saw the ambulance on the other side of the street. I saw men and women and men and women more standing all around, watching. I didn’t see the motorcyclist. I didn’t see puddles of blood on the ground.
I asked someone, “Do you know if they made it?” Someone answered, “They were pounding on his chest as they wheeled the stretcher into the ambulance.” I asked the woman, “Are you alright, ma’am?” The woman said, “It just, you know, it makes me emotional.” She gathered up her things and with another man they walked off in the other direction. I realized I’d been clutching my Magen David pendant: the lines of interlocking triangles were impressed upon my finger and thumb so deeply my wrist had gone numb.
I swallowed and turned away, starting up the walkway toward campus. I felt cold. They call this shock. I’ve felt shock before. I called my mom (because mothers) and I talked with her the whole way back. I wandered around outside my classroom building, scribbling words into something like a poem, and then I went to class. I stepped in right after it started, safely averted pre-class conversation, but I have to wonder if anyone realized how pale I was, how lifeless I’d become, how numb, how numb I was beside them.
I tutor after class and during tutoring I had a headache so heavy I couldn’t focus. I excused myself to take some medicine. I felt dizzy checking derivatives and optimization problems. Afterward I walked to the dining hall for dinner. I didn’t feel like eating, but I could feel at a distance that I was actually hungry. I focused on reading my textbook just to give the food any flavor, and then I walked back home.
I sat down to write my paper. Don’t do this. But I was already searching Google to find out anything about the accident. Did I just watch someone die? Did I just witness another person’s life end? I couldn’t find anything on Google. I asked on one of the University’s Facebook pages if anyone knew if the motorcyclist had made it.
He did not.
I couldn’t focus on my paper. I tried to distract myself with some video games–don’t I like video games?–but I couldn’t pay attention and my team died in the first battle. I left for a walk. A walk always helps. I collapsed on a bench on the way, typed out a message to my fiance. I wish you were here. I think I witnessed a man die today. There was a motorcycle accident and I was right there when it happened. I just need you to hug me.
Every time I tried to write “die” my phone tried to correct it to “did”–no, die, I mean, I typed again. But it kept trying to change it. I had to write it three times. As if people just don’t type I saw someone die. As if even my phone knows it’s something no one should have to say.
I found my secret place, my sacred space. I sat down, crossed my legs, closed my eyes. I drew symbols of healing and protection around me. I enveloped myself in a sphere of bright orange, red, and yellow light. I breathed in. I breathed out. I breathed in. I breathed out. I opened my eyes and listened as the river trickled underneath.
As I stood up, the bridge shook and I felt the vibrations beneath my feet. I jumped up and slammed my feet down: The bridge shook so violently it sounded like a drumbeat, a broken heartbeat, and I felt the trembling in my bones, in my soul.
I jumped up again, and again, just to remind myself I was still alive.