Scenes from an Accident

Early this morning, I saw a woman in a white car pull out of the parking lot of my apartment complex and head for the turning lane. As she did, she cut off a man on a motorcycle. Though he slowed and swerved, the cyclist hit the car with a crunch, rolled over the hood, and landed on his face in the road. The woman stopped the car and jumped out, screaming.

When I got there, the man was lying on his side. I couldn’t see his face, but the asphalt around it was slick with blood. Leaning over, I told him not to move, that the paramedics would be there shortly, with painkillers. I asked the woman whether she had a cell phone. Sobbing, she said she did, and handed it to me. I had stopped carrying cell phones back when they still flipped open and had keys; this was one of the newfangeld models people dial by touching the screen.

“I don’t know how to use this kind of phone,” I said. “Will you dial 911 for me?” She said she already had, and somehow the phone ended up in the hands of a neighbor of ours, a fat, greasy character on SSI, who provided dispatchers with a very precise and lucid account of the accident, along with our location.

The motorcyclist rolled over to face us. His mouth was a picked scab; his four front teeth were gone. He was gurgling and clutching at his right arm. Two gray-haired men strode into the turning lane. The driver threw herself into the arms of one, the other knelt down by the cyclist and told him not to move.

“Is that a doctor?” I asked the guy hugging the driver. “He’s a cop,” the man answered. “It’s all my fault,” the driver said, and repeated the words, over and over. She was a blonde in her mid-20s, wearing a short, black dress that reminded me, oddly, of Jackie Kennedy’s widow’s weeds. Tears were spilling from under her glasses and onto her baby face.

“It’s okay,” the man said, patting her back. “You didn’t mean it. It was an accident.”

The cop who’d been talking to the driver walked back to his car and returned in a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department windbreaker. A short, wiry Phoenix policeman appeared, and made himself busy examining the point of collision. The man’s bike was a Honda, apparently an older model. It had left a deep dent in the body of the car. The cyclist was still lying on his side, rocking slightly.

With a protracted effort, he sat up. Everyone stopped talking and stared. Squinting at the driver through pale eyes, he looked for a moment very much like Steve McQueen.

“You just had to pull out in front of me, huh?” he said. The cop told him to lie back down.

“You’re pretty tough,” I told him. “I could never have done that.”

“He probably didn’t roll right,” the man hugging the driver said.

The paramedics arrived, strapped the driver to a board, loaded the board onto a stretcher, and packed stretcher, board and driver into an ambulance. The Phoenix policeman listened to my version of events and took down my contact information. I asked if I could go, and he said I could, so I took my Thirstbuster and left.

A Christian imagination can be a great thing to have. Thanks to it, I was treated to a drama of contrition and confession, with a garnish of death and resurrection lite. But it was a real come-down, being forced to remember that my imagination is still where the better part of my Christianity resides. Nobody wants to star in the parable of The Good Samaritan Who Had Nothing to Offer His Neighbor Apart from Some Really Dumbassed Words of Encouragement.

  • Joanne K McPortland

    You offered presence, to the full extent of your abilities. You didn’t walk on by. That’s the better part of Christianity, and you didn’t imagine it.

  • Rosie

    What Joanne said.

  • Bridget N

    Whenever my boys try to jump in to do something “helpful” without checking with me first, I stop them and ask, “What’s the first rule of helping?” And after years of hearing that, they know to answer (mumble), “Ask first.” They are still learning that sometimes the best help you can give a person is asking if they need your help and then just standing by for when/if they do. That sounds like what you did. You offered what you could, stood by and waited, and then took your leave when it was appropriate to do so.

  • Jo Ann

    Joanne said what I immediately thought. You were there and stayed with both of them. Today is our Lenten Friday Stations of the Cross — just think of all the people who simply stayed with Jesus that day even if they couldn’t lift a finger to help him or ease his suffering any other way except by their presence, which told him he wasn’t going through this alone. You were St. John, Max.

  • Cindy

    As someone who has been in a bad accident, I can assure you how valuable the comforting presence of a stranger is. I was in a spot on the freeway that a tractor trailer wanted and took. While waiting for emergency personnel to arrive, a woman came to my side and prayed for me. She didn’t ask if she could pray for me. She didn’t know I was a Christian. She just said a quick prayer and while I wasn’t talking much at the time, I was thinking quite a lot and I prayed along with her and thanked God a thousand times over for her being there. Once the helicopter arrived to take me away I never saw her again. But I assure you her presence meant the world to me even though she couldn’t do a thing for me by way of medical treatment or pain reduction.

    [May I say that I felt scandalized that everyone seemed to be comforting the culprit and nobody the victim? Granted, she hadn't been speeding and hadn't made any improper turns, and she was clearly sober. The accident occurred just before eight in the morning, and the cyclist had been heading west; when the driver looked in his direction, the sun probably blinded her, which could have happened to anyone. I'm not saying she deserved to be shouted at or lectured to. But I do wish her state of mind hadn't been the focus of anyone's attention.]

  • Manny

    Fantastic read, though many many sympathies for the victum. May he heal with God’s mercy. I wouldn’t minimize your role. Sure it was limited, but still needed.

    Slightly off topic, but I don’t think motorcycles are safe. In a car with metal all around us designed with a structured cage for optimum (given cost limitations) protection and air bags to break our impact we are still required to wear safety belts for our own good. I guess that helmet is about the only thing a motorcyclist really has. If that accident had been at highway speeds, that man would likely have been dead.

    Which reminds me of a statistic I saw a few years ago. Motorcycles are twice as likely to get into an accident as a car, and given an accident four times as likely to be fatal.

    [A doctor friend of mine calls them "murdercycles."]

  • Pearty

    I’ve found riding motorbikes somewhat good for the spiritual life. Mortal danger never being too far away, the desire to have one’s soul in a state of grace is paramount.

    Manny, good protective equipment all over helps. Gloves, boots, leathers and back protectors all go towards preventing serious injury. The skill and awareness of the rider are most important though. You’ve got to have your wits about you or you’ll be on your arse very quickly.

  • DWiss

    No piling on motorcycles!

    I ride one, and love it. No accidents yet, after six years of riding, thank God, and with His help I’ll stay accident free. All riders know the risks. No rider I’ve ever met who has had an accident has regretted riding. Most get new bikes and continue on.

    Pearty is absolutely correct: safety gear is essential. And prayer. I say Hail Mary’s all the time while riding in case a blonde in her mid – 20′s wearing a short black dress kills me and I am unable to flirt. Can you go to hell if you die while saying Hail Mary’s? I don’t think so.

    [Thank God, you're here. I was afraid you'd been t-boned.]

  • Arkanabar

    Echo on the safety equipment. I never mounted my 21-speed Nishiki without a helmet approved by ANSI and Snell Labs. I got clobbered good once, by somebody running a red light. I got knocked across three lanes, and retained enough presence of mind to take control of the situation. While I’m not likely to take up motorcycling — I regard the risk of maiming by road rash as too high — I would never deny anyone else the liberty to do so. After all, if they can prohibit motorcycling on safety, they may well prohibit bicycling on the same grounds.