It was 20 years ago today that I watched a young woman get killed. It was late, and cold. My boyfriend, his sister, and I were driving to a nearby town on the interstate. I saw the lights spin ahead of us, then a blossom of red taillights.
We managed to pull to the side and stop and in the headlights I saw a pickup on its side, clothes and boxes strewn everywhere, and a girl laying across the middle of the interstate. One knee was up and an arm was moving to her head. I tried to open the door, thinking only about going to help her, but my boyfriend pulled me back and a car flew past within a few feet of my door.
I watched, helpless, as it drove over the top of her. I remember thinking how fake it looked. Her body folded in on itself as the tires went over her, like one of those straw-filled dummies, and she was flung to the side of the road.
It was like time stopped. The radio was playing Sweet Child O’ Mine. I could hear my boyfriend and his sister breathing and cursing. There was a shoe on the road. Even today I can still feel the door handle in my fingers.
Before I could try to move a pickup flew past and hit her as well. Neither of them stopped. To this day I wonder if they remember how it felt to hit her. If they were too afraid to even stop.
An eighteen wheeler pulled across the road to keep anyone else from getting past and I got out… finally. Cops were there shockingly fast. I was stopped by an hysterical older woman, and hugged her. I held this stranger as she cried, not really concerned with who she was, but doing what I could, and looking at the woman’s unmoving form.
We went in small groups to talk to the cops as they waited for an ambulance. I remember walking past where the woman lay, covered in the heavy coats of highway patrolmen. All I could see was a comb holding back blonde hair and blood. The ambulance took her soon after.
Once they let us go we continued on, and it was three miles down the road when we saw her ambulance stopped on an exit ramp. I’m guessing that’s where she died. I never did learn her name.
I left part of myself on the road that night. I came away harder, more grim. I was nineteen and felt ninety. Christmas never felt special after that, but shallow, like a layer of glitter over the same old tired world.
I took a few things away from it too… a paranoia of winter driving, and later in life a dreadful fear of losing my own kids on the road. But also a firm conviction that I’d rather run to people and help them, than run away.
I think of her each year, and wonder what I could have done differently. I take time to think of her family, wherever they are, and how much pain they must feel. In the past twenty years of thinking about her, I’ve learned how much a stranger’s pain can touch our lives.
This holiday season I hope only that people will think of the pain of others. Last month we gave thanks for what we have, this month is supposed to be about giving to others. Instead of hating someone, think about their pain. Maybe instead of arguing with them, just let it go. Maybe instead of mocking someone, leave them alone. Maybe comfort a stranger, whether they deserve it or not.
We’ve all lost someone. I hope this holiday season you can all have someone there to comfort you. Even if it’s a stranger on the side of the road.