Going down from Jerusalem

She is thrown up against the rock wall like a rag doll, crumpled. It has only been minutes since the accident. She is lifeless, eyes wide open, her pale skin and auburn hair crowned by a pool of blood.

A man says: “She’s in another place.”

So we turn to her male companion.

He is lying on his back at the road’s edge, breathing heavily, almost snoring. His Steelers jacket has been twisted around his body so that the lettering lies across his chest instead of his back. His arms lie at odd angles. His belly is exposed. His shoes are flung off. His pants are ripped at the crotch.

His right hand clutches a pair of riding glasses missing their lenses. His full dresser motorcycle is on its side 10 feet away surrounded by a dozen beer cans spewed from a cardboard case.

The men nearby say the bike just hit the rock wall head on, and there was no one else involved.

We were five or six cars back from this scene, maybe more. Somehow I have ended up here at the roadside, with my hand on this man’s chest praying for his survival.

On his fingers are tattooed Gothic letters. In five minutes of studying them I am not sure what they spell, but I hope it is life. For life is what he needs and why I am here on this gorgeous fall afternoon on a rural route in northern Pennsylvania.

The drought that year had spoiled the fall leaves, but everything else was wonderful: crisp air, at last after a hot spell that belonged in August, not October; blue skies and a Rails to Trails bike path that gave us all a good workout. We stopped at a little country store and indulged in ice cream cones. There were tourists all around; kids and dogs and someone’s family parting ways saying: “See you in Lancaster.”

We went back to the cabin, had a nap, and took a walk. Then there were steaks on the grill and two kinds of pie. The table was heaped with food. The niece was newly pregnant and the grandmother to be was talking grandkids. Dogs ran about whimpering for scraps.

Then it was time to pack up and go home. Ten minutes down the road, life took on a strange urgency, as we came upon the crash, but no emergency vehicles. A minivan rolled up asking if we had cell phone service. “Two people are badly hurt.”

But here in mountain country, known for fine trout fishing and rugged beauty, there was no phone service. One man said he would drive back up the road and call. We had just passed the apple butter boil at the fire house.

We live in an immediate world, where we wait less than a minute for a cup of coffee. Here with life expiring before us, we were helpless. No cell phone, no doctor in the crowd. I have no medical training at all, other than an ancient CPR class.

I have no explanation for why I ran right into the scene, other than God compelled me. Nor could I watch from afar while someone else lay helpless. There was one other woman beside me with the fallen man on the ground. She took his hand, and he interlaced his fingers and wouldn’t let go.

As I laid my hand on his chest and prayed, my heart pounded. My spirit uttered urgent words. I whispered: “Live man, live!”

I was struck by how few people came close. Most stood far off, their faces strained with worry and helplessness.

Over us, two men stood discussing his chances: “He’s not going to make it if they don’t get here soon.”

When the local response team finally arrived they asked if any of us was an EMT. One of them asked me if we checked for a pulse on the woman under the blanket, saying: “I hate to let her go if there’s a chance.” I took her wrist, which was cool, and prayed for one faint pulse of hope, but there was none.

As we drove home, I saw the woman’s lifeless face again and again. Finally, I asked the Lord to take away the image and the trauma of seeing death claim a life. It stirred memories from my days as a reporter, when I covered a horrific natural gas explosion that left homes and lives leveled.

That night, I woke up, again restless with what I had witnessed, the rawness of life and death. I searched the papers for details on who she was. I wondered if she went to Heaven, and I wondered if the man survived.

But mostly, I wondered for us as a people, too leery to come close to a stranger in need, too cautious to rush in, our heads packed with notions of getting AIDS or being sued. We stand back reasoning, thinking we have nothing to give, as life seeps out before our eyes.

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