It was a lovely evening that took a terrible turn. It started with watching some friends sing beautifully to one another – one of those nights where I wonder how I got lucky enough to meet such people and experience such magic. It was on the way home that I saw a man on a bike get hit by a car. The car, the cyclist, and I were stopped at a stoplight. I was headed west, they were headed east. The light turned green, and there was a loud crunch. I looked to my left, and I saw a man flying through the air, several feet above my small car. I didn’t see or hear him land. I pulled over and grabbed my phone. It must’ve been only seconds, but by the time I made it across the street, he was completely motionless, on his side with his arm stuck out in an odd position. Several people stood around him, including the driver who hit him. A pool of blood formed near his head and began trickling down the street.
I stood about 15 feet away on the corner, too afraid to go any closer. I went to dial 911, but I heard someone else on the phone stating the cross streets. So there was nothing to do, and I just stood there, struck and silent, in shock. Nobody knew what to do. We were powerless. One woman seemed to be shouting to herself or maybe to all of us as she filmed everything with her phone. Her emotions came out in the form of distressed questions like, “Did that really happen?” Everyone else just stood around him somberly, barely speaking. Nobody made an effort to revive him, either too afraid to hurt him further or aware of the fact that he was already dead. A bus pulled up, a woman stepped off, and ran over to him. She was the first to touch him, and she said she couldn’t feel his pulse. “She’s brave,” I thought. Her little white dog ran down the street in the opposite direction.
Another woman appeared next to me and asked me if I had seen what happened. That was when I noticed my hand had been on my mouth the whole time. I would learn later that it’s an automatic reaction people do to stifle any noise that could draw attention to themselves and potentially put them in more danger.
I told the woman I had seen it, and I tried to explain it to her. But my voice was small, and my recounting was uncertain and jumbled. How did this happen? Hadn’t the light just turned green? Wasn’t the car behind him also stopped at the red light? Yes, they were both stopped, I saw that part. So then how did it gain the speed necessary to hit him so hard in such a short time frame? Maybe it was another car. Perhaps the first one drove past him and the next car was already going full speed by the time it got to him. He was near the center line, perhaps about to turn left onto the cross street. Because why else would he have been there rather than on the shoulder of the road? Did he die on impact or did the car hit him again after he hit the pavement? Was he wearing a helmet? He was wearing cyclist clothing, so surely he was wearing a helmet. I didn’t dare go close enough to find out, aware that I wouldn’t be able to un-see that image. Would it have mattered if he was wearing a helmet? Is that a messed up question to ask? An attempt to blame the victim? Or simply a way of trying to regain some semblance of control? This wouldn’t have happened if…he was wearing a helmet…it had been 2pm, not 11pm…the driver had been paying more attention…there were proper bike lanes in the city…there had been more flashing lights on the bike…
Time behaves strangely in these moments. It felt like 20 minutes but was probably more like 5 minutes later when a firetruck and an ambulance arrived. They scurried to get to him, but then slowed down after they saw him. Like they knew he was gone. They put up orange cones around the scene and put him on the gurney and in the truck. And that was it.
I came home in a haze. Feeling empty and electrified at the same time. Four images in my head on repeat – the man up in the air, the man on the ground with the blood trickling down, the bent detached bike wheel in the middle of the road, and the driver of the car standing over the man with his head bent down, talking on the phone with the paramedics.
My mind decided that I needed punishing for the incident and shifted into the blame/shame mode. I felt ashamed that I seemed to be making this all about me. Why are you feeling sorry for yourself right now, Sarah, you’re not the one who died. Nothing happened to you. Not everything is about you. Why are you wondering how you’re going to deal with this tomorrow? Worried about who you have to tell about it, and how you’re supposed to deal with that? Sad that you’re going to miss the Pride Parade. How could you even consider it, are you a monster? But you shouldn’t just sit around at home feeling sorry for yourself either. Get over yourself. And why didn’t you react like a human being with emotions? Why didn’t you do something more to help him, even if that just meant sitting next to him?
I slept for an hour or two, woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep with those images and the shame and the guilt sloshing around in my head.
However, interspersed between the neurotic mind games, there was another voice in my head saying: That was rough. Take it easy. Be kind to yourself. There was nothing you could do. Your mind is trying to process an overload of emotions and information. Your nerves are fried. You already know that your default coping strategy is dissociation. Your body and mind are trying to remove you from a horrible reality in order to protect you from harm. You’re only trying to assign blame because your mind feels the need to make a narrative of the situation. The idea that you are powerless sometimes, that bad things just happen, is too much for it to bear. It’s okay to feel sad and shitty and mad and hopeless and numb. You get a free pass to act however you’re gonna act right now. Your reactions are normal. You’re not a narcissistic maniac. No shame necessary.
I was able to apply some of the lessons I’ve learned through my interest in self-help and spirituality for once. Instead of drinking the beer in my fridge, I meditated, did my best to focus on the present moment, talked back to my negative thoughts, and listed some things I’m grateful for. It’s not perfect, but it’s helping. I also asked the internet for help, and it did help, reminding me what I’m going through is normal and giving me tips on how to cope. This piece written by Keith Humphreys was particularly helpful.
I am writing this now because I am the type of person who likes to process my feelings for hours on end. But I’m also polite to the point of madness, so I refused to wake anyone up at 3am to talk about it (which I don’t recommend – just call someone if you need to). So when the meditation did not succeed in putting me back to sleep, I followed some much easier advice: “Healing doesn’t always come from confronting the images and experience head-on. Especially in the first few days, many witnesses find it easier to distract themselves by listening to music and watching television. Try and pick comedies and lighthearted entertainment with minimal violence or relation to the circumstances of the accident.” (Marion Grace Wooley) So I binge-watched episodes of The Office until I passed out around 7am. I know that Michael Scott would feel honored to have helped me get through the night.
One of the first thoughts I had when the shock started fading was that I’m never going to ride a bike on city streets again. I’ve heard stories about friends getting hit or close calls, but now that I’ve witnessed firsthand how suddenly it can turn into irreversible tragedy, I’m done. I know that riding a bicycle can be a fulfilling pursuit, and I have personally felt pure joy riding one around the city. But it’s an easy sacrifice for me to make because I rarely do it. I’ve always been a little bit of a weeny about it, knowing how clumsy I can be and how out of shape I am. I realize it’s not a choice everyone would or should make. Make your own choice, but do try to honestly weigh the risks involve.
I also vowed to never check my phone while driving again. While the message of “don’t text while driving” has been sufficiently drilled into my head, I do rely heavily on map apps to navigate through the city while in motion. From now on, if I can’t memorize the directions, I’ll just have to pull over and figure it out. It’s sad that hearing these stories often isn’t enough to change behavior. That one has to witness or be directly impacted by it to truly get the message. I hope that readers will take the message to heart, but I don’t know if you will. Promise me you’ll at least try, which is all we can ask of ourselves.