The Fragility of Life

I saw the life of a young man flash before my eyes yesterday.

I was driving home from running some errands in Naperville, Illinois. Heading north on Route 59 – a road much traveled if there ever was one – when I was stopped by a red light just south of Diehl Road. Approximately seven cars back from the intersection and in the left lane of the 4-lane highway (2 lanes plus right and left-turn lanes), I seized the opportunity to momentarily take my hands off the wheel. I grabbed my hair clip from the console tray and began to formed a pony tail with both hands behind my head.

Suddenly, through my windshield, I noticed a young man emerge from nowhere, jogging in front of my Jeep Cherokee, right to left. In a split second, I cringed when I realized a truck was approaching in the lane on my left, directly into the path of there this pedestrian was headed. The boy, whom I would later learn was named James, had darted in between the cars stopped for the red light, apparently trying to get to the concrete median before our light turned green.

A smiling Trayvon Martin in a Hollister shirt
When I noticed there was a 7-11 on the other side of the street, and James told us his people were staying at the hotel on the other side, I thought of Trayvon Martin, who never did make it home.

He didn’t see the white panel truck coming. It must have been blocked from his view by my SUV as well as the massive red semi-trailer stopped behind me. In an instant, I could see what was going to happen but didn’t have time to do anything to prevent the collision.

Things like that happen so fast. Two fast-moving objects – one human and the other on wheels – such as short distance from each other and on a collision course, I could do nothing but react after the fact.

The boy essentially ran into the truck. Upon impact, he bounced off and landed directly in front of my car, in my lane but at just this side of the painted white lines.

I put my car in park and put on my hazards. I reached into my purse that was on the passenger seat and then opened the back door and grabbed a red blanket. I kept the blanket in the car for the winter because the seat heater on the drivers’ side is broken. Leather can get mighty cold without some protection in between and, in Chicago, winter can last through May.

Kevin Ware being tended to after leg injury
Fortunately, leg injuries are usually not life-threatening

I quickly dialed 9-1-1 as James moaned and groaned in obvious pain. At first, he said he didn’t need help but that his leg hurt bad. I told him help would be on the way soon.

Through the noise of the southbound traffic that was still moving, I informed the dispatcher of what had happened and gave her our specific location. While on the phone with her, two men from the two vehicles stopped directly in front of me were also tending to James. We stood together next to James who was still on the cold, wet pavement, and all three of us looked at the white truck which had proceeded to the intersection but was then stopped by the red arrow.

When the dispatcher asked if the truck had stopped, I told her no. By that time, it had disappeared from the intersection entirely. When she asked if anyone got the license plate number, I repeated the question to the two other witnesses, one of whom said a woman who had been in our lane went and followed to the truck to try to get his plate number.

Traffic was heavy already and now it was at a total standstill, at least in the left and left-turn lanes. James began to shiver and so I returned to my Jeep and retrieved two more blankets that I keep in the trunk area. Still holding on to the phone with the dispatcher on the other end, I asked one of the gentlemen to wrap the heavier blanket around James’ shoulder.

Then, I squatted down next to him, gently rubbed his left shoulder and assured him that they would give him something for his pain and that they would be able to treat his foot injury. I also added that he was lucky if his only injury was to his foot. “Count your blessings,” I told him, understanding that if he had been one or two seconds faster, I probably wouldn’t be having a conversation with him.

Sitting upright and in between moans, he asked the other witness and I, “Can you call my people?” He told us, through his shock and pain, that he was staying at the hotel on the side of the street from where he was traveling. He gave us two hotel numbers but I couldn’t call because I was still on the line with the dispatcher. One of the other men tried calling but I don’t think he was able to get through.

Within four minutes, at least one ambulance and a fire engine were on the scene. Being a mother of two children close in age to this injured boy before me – maybe 17 – I wondered if his mom was in that hotel and if she could hear all of the sirens blaring outside, not knowing they were for her own son.

James was tended to at the scene by paramedics and then transported to a nearby hospital via lights and sirens. As the ambulance pulled away, the other witness and I were guided in our respective vehicles from the fast lane and into the right turn lane so that we could meet the responding officer in the safety of a parking lot. As we were speaking with him, two other squad cars escorted the white panel truck – driver and all – that had been involved in the collision. To be sure, the driver was not to blame for the accident. Whether or not he knew he had hit someone and should have stopped is for the police to determine.

White sheets are draped over a fence in front of a stopped freight train
White sheets drape the grizzly scene. Before the collision, a woman noticed a man lying on the platform and asked the workers inside the station if he was okay. Then, the young man also walked in and asked when the next train headed for Chicago would arrive. Sadly, his ever-so-subtle cries for help went undetected.

Before calling it a night, I checked online to see if I could find anything about the status of James. I could not. Instead, I read on a local news site that approximately one half-hour before the accident that I had witnessed and just a few miles away, a 22 year-old man threw himself in front of an oncoming freight train and was killed.

Then, at 6:14 this morning, my cell phone rang. As soon as I saw the name of my youngest sister on the screen, I knew my dad was dead. He was 89 years-old and lived a long, full, happy life. During my last visit with him, last week, I told him, “You’ve had a wonderful life, Dad”. Hard of hearing, he asked me to repeated what I had just said.

“You’ve had a wonderful life, like George Bailey,” referencing one of the favorite Hollywood characters of both my dad and me.

George Bailed contemplates suicide in "It's a Wonderful Life"
Gratitude can be a perfect antidote for despair

“Uh huh,” he responded weakly, “A lot of laughs.” And then, one of the greatest men I will ever meet put his head back on his pillow and fell back to sleep.

Human life is fragile. It is precious and it is temporary. Like Valerie Harper said a few weeks ago, “Let’s face it, we are all terminal. None of us are getting out of here alive.”

Life is a game of inches. There is no guarantee that it will be long or that it will be wonderful. In a flash, it can be gone, whether it lasted 17, 22, or 89 years – or a mere 9 weeks in vitro. However, how the game ends isn’t nearly as important as how we play when there is still time left on the clock.

Today, I am grateful for having had my dad in my life for 52 years and I am grateful that the accident I happened to witness yesterday did not take the life of such a young person. I am sad, however, that the young man killed by an apparent suicide was in so much pain that he felt he had no choice but to throw in the towel.

There is still much work to do. Thanks to the lives of those who have touched my life in a positive way, whether for a lifetime, or just a few chaotic moments, or only through an online news report, I can – and I will – carry on.

Robert Carter Green, U.S. Army (WWII – Europe), R.I.P. 10/17/1923 – 4/12/2013