I’ve always heard that when you are about to die, time freezes and your life flashes before your eyes. I don’t know if that is true, but I can you that, if you are bystander, time does slow down, prolonging the seconds before the fatal event.
I was in my car, waiting to pull out onto Michigan Avenue, but the old lady in front of me kept hesitating due to the cross traffic. She kept inching forward, and there were a few times I thought she was going to finally make the turn and stop holding me up.
A car whizzed past us, and she really did start to make her turn.
Here’s the thing—she could have made it if only she had been a little faster. But instead she crawled out into the intersection at a snail’s pace. So there she was, crawling across both lanes in what can only be described as the world’s slowest left hand turn.
Here’s the thing—he could have avoided her if only he had been a little more attentive. He was going fast, probably fifty in a thirty-five zone. But if he had just been a bit quicker to realize she was in the road, he could have swerved and missed her.
As it was, neither of them did anything except stay the course. Her, a tragically slow turn. Him, a speed too high for the area.
And all I could do was watch. I think I was the only one who realized what was about to happen. The moment his car came into my view, traveling east-to-west, I knew I was about to witness a terrible car crash. And it seemed like I had all the time in the world to watch the tragedy unfold, powerless to do anything.
Then came the impact.
The crunch of metal on metal, glass shattering, tires squealing.
It was almost comical how far her car was sent flying. His came to a dead stop at the impact site, but hers was knocked across another lane of traffic and into a wet field where it just kept sliding.
Then came the silence.
In the movies, there is usually a lone car horn blaring, the hiss of steam from a broken radiator, dramatic music swelling.
None of that today. Just NPR on my car radio, and when I got out, an almost reverential silence.
By the time I made it across the street, the young man (he was just a college-aged kid) had already run to her car to check on her. I made my way up. “Is everyone okay?”
“I am! I don’t know about her! [string of swear words and general panic]”
He was coursing with adrenaline, panicked, freaking out.
I moved like I was in a dream sequence. Slow, deliberate. I don’t even remember my heart rate going up.
“Call 911, I will check on her,” I said to him as forcefully as I could. My wife is a nurse, and she taught me to always say “9-1-1” not “an ambulance or the police.” His phone was already in his hand as I walked over to the shattered and twisted remains of her car.
I remember being mildly surprised at the lack of blood. The impact happened essentially right on the driver’s side door, and the glass must have shattered inwards all over her…but not one drop of blood.
I’m not a medical expert (hell, I’m not a medical novice), but I realized that she was not in a good way. Over seventy, head slumped awkwardly, she looked like she was sleeping.
I checked for a pulse and shouted, “Ma’am, are you okay?” No pulse, but she did gasp for breath.
Other bystanders were approaching. I called my nurse wife who was just a block away. One of the bystanders was also a nurse. Together, she and my wife tried to do what they could until EMS arrived.
“Paul, you gotta go. You can’t help here, and you have your job interview.” My wife, able to think so clearly.
So I got in my car and left for a job interview. I don’t know when time resumed its normal rate. I think it was somewhere in the middle of the interview. Time finally realized that life has to go on.
I found out later that the old woman was revived briefly but passed away on the ride to the hospital.
I talked with the police and gave my account of what happened. I tried to be as objective as possible. The kid was going too fast, maybe inattentive, but he wasn’t the only one at fault. The old lady drove so slowly into the road and was blocking both lanes. If things had been slightly different, this tragedy could have been avoided.
But things weren’t slightly different.