It’s late afternoon and I’m driving down a busy commercial street when an ancient looking station wagon explodes out of the opposite lane and heads straight for me. I slew my car to the right, but the station wagon counters my evasive maneuver and continues barreling towards me. Through the station wagon’s dirty windshield I can see an old woman behind the wheel – face ashen, eyes half open, head lolling loosely on top of her neck. In a flash of adrenaline boosted cognition I connect the dots. The old woman’s having a medical emergency. She’s losing consciousness and is no longer in control of her two thousand-plus-pound vehicle. There’s nothing I can do. I’m going to get hit. As I wait helplessly for the station wagon to smash into my driver’s side door I wonder if my legs will be severed.
There’s a loud bang followed by the sickening shriek of metal against metal. After both cars crunch to a halt I look down at my legs. They’re still there. After a quick self diagnostic I realize I’m uninjured. The old woman in the station wagon, however, isn’t so lucky. I watch as she leans back in her seat, clutching her chest.
The driver’s side door of my car is pinned shut. I climb out the passenger side and run up to the station wagon. The old woman looks like she can’t breathe. I can’t get to her because the driver’s side door is also crumpled shut. Cars are stopping all around me. People pour out of surrounding stores to see what’s going on. I notice an onlooker on the sidewalk talking into his cell phone.
“You!” I shout, pointing straight at the man. “Call 911! This woman’s having a heart attack.”
“You got it,” the man says, “Right away.”
Knowing that someone’s summoning help, I scramble across the station wagon’s hood, yank open the passenger door, and slide across the vinyl upholstered bench to the stricken woman’s side. Empty nitroglycerin packets are all over the floor.
“Ma’am,” I call out. “What’s wrong? Are you having a heart attack?”
The woman looks at right at me. Her right hand’s trembling. Her mouth’s moving but no sound’s coming out.
“Ma’am what’s your name?” I yell.
Behind me I hear a male voice saying an ambulance is on its way. Blood wells up in the old woman’s mouth and starts dribbling down her chin. She makes a horrible gargling sound.
“Ma’am,” I say, putting my fingers on her jugular vein. Her pulse is weak and slowing. “The ambulance is coming. Hang in there.”
The woman looks at me uncomprehendingly. Then her eyes glaze over and she slumps in her seat. The pulse in her neck is gone.
For the second time in a less than a minute I feel a terrible helplessness. I don’t know what to do. I consider dragging the woman out of the car and starting CPR. But the blood coming out of her mouth scares me. Maybe this woman has internal injuries. Maybe I’ll make a bad situation worse. The calm detached part of my brain tells me not to move her and wait for medical professionals to arrive. I know first aid. I’ve helped people in emergencies before, but this situation’s beyond my competency level.
Suddenly I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s a cop.
“What’s going on?” he asks.
“I think lady’s having a heart attack,” I say. “She lost control of her car and smashed into me. I think her heart’s stopped.”
“Okay, sir,” the cop says. “Please step out of the car. We’ll take over from here.”
I exit the car. The cop speaks code words and numbers into the radio microphone clipped to the epaulet of his uniform. Within a minute paramedics arrive on scene. After a evaluating the situation they remove the woman from the car, lay her down on the cold pavement, bag her airway, and begin CPR. The young cop returns his attention to me.
“Sir,” he asks. “Are you alright?”
“I’m okay,” I reply. “I’m shaken up, but I’m fine.”
The cop looks at my car. “You’re lucky,” he says. “A couple of inches to the right and she would have punched through the driver’s side door.”
“I guess I am lucky,” I mumble.
“Wait here,” the cop says. “We’re gonna take all your info in a minute.”
“You sure you’re all right?”
“Yes, officer,” I reply. “I’m fine.”
The paramedics try shocking the old woman’s heart back to life. As the defibrillator delivers it’s current, the woman’s body convulses off the pavement. Her blouse is open and a flaccid nipple slips out from underneath her bra. Her panties are showing and she has no shoes. Her feet and legs are white and waxy looking.
“Oh my God,” I utter, my hand going to my head.
“What?” the cop says. “You gonna pass out?”
“No,” I reply. “I just realized something.”
“I might have been the last face this woman ever saw.”
The cop nods sadly but says nothing. There’s nothing to say.
I walk over to my car and lean against the trunk. My left leg is twitching involuntarily. It always does that after a massive adrenaline dump. I feel myself starting to numb over. Its cold out and I start to shiver. As I watch the medics load the woman into the ambulance a bystander comes up to me.
“She gonna be all right?” he asks.
“I think she’s dead,” I reply.
“Oh,” the man says, surprised. “You never know the time or the hour I guess.”
“I guess not.”
A guy from the pizza shop across the street gives me a bottle of water and a sympathetic pat on the back. I suddenly remember a line from the Gospel of Matthew. “I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Feeling very grateful, and not just for the water, I thank the pizza man. The ambulance pulls away with blasting sirens and flashing lights. The police have cordoned off the area with yellow tape. Because my car was involved in an accident where death or serious injury occurred, the county prosecutor’s vehicle homicide unit is called in. My car is impounded and I and two eyewitness have to go down to the local police station and give videotaped statements. I’m legally in the clear of course, but the State has to dot their i’s and cross their t’s.
My parents just happen to be in the area and they pick me up at the police station. We go to a diner and get a bite to eat. I chew on my cheeseburger in a daze. When I get home I pull a bottle of Johnnie Walker out of the liquor cabinet and drink four scotches within half an hour. I’m drinking to get drunk. I’m afraid of the bad dreams waiting to crawl into my brain. I call a close friend of mine and tell her what happened.
“I might’ve been the last person she ever saw,” I say. “That’s crazy.”
“Maybe you were meant to be there,” my friend says. “You’re a good person. Maybe you were there so the last face she saw was a concerned face, a compassionate face.”
“Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so,” I reply caustically.
My friend’s a good person and means well. Heck, she might even be right. But I also know people die alone every day. Only yesterday a cop friend told me about a bloated corpse he recently found inside a house. The guy had been rotting on his living room floor for so long that his stomach exploded from the decomposition gasses. No one held that guy’s hand and said comforting things to him when he collapsed and died. I wonder what was the last face he ever saw? His paperboy? The postman? A newscaster on television? Who knows? Sometimes we’re alone when we shuffle off our mortal coil. Sometimes we’re not. It’s largely a matter of luck.
The whisky I drank suffocates my nightmares and I sleep like a log. The first thing I do when I get out of bed is call the detective investigating the accident. He confirms the lady died. He tells me her name and that she lived seventy-three years. I thank the detective and hang up. Thick tongued and hungover, I walk into the kitchen and make breakfast. As I sip my coffee a memory from the accident stabs me in the head and I jerk upright. Coffee slops over the edge of my cup and splatters on the floor. As I clean it up with a paper towel I try reassuring myself. “I’m okay,” I say to the empty kitchen. “I’m alive and that lady’s dead. Her number was up. Mine wasn’t. Maybe mine wasn’t the last face she saw. Maybe she was so whacked out with pain and confusion it was all a blur.” I guess I”ll never know. But then again I’ll never forget feeling that woman’s life end beneath my fingertips, the light draining from her eyes.
I finish my breakfast and toss the dishes into the sink. After some back and forth with my insurance company I secure a rental car and drive over to my brother’s house. Uncle Steve has to do some babysitting. Luckily my nephew’s napping when I arrive.
After my sister-in-law leaves to run her errands I stand over the boy’s crib and watch him sleep. I met this child during the first hour of his life. I met that old lady during the last seconds of hers. I can’t help but wonder whose face will be the last I see. Will it be the loving face of a wife or child? Will it be a doctor or a nurse? A cop or EMT? Maybe it’ll be some forty year old guy who’ll leap across the hood of my wrecked car and tell me to hang in there as I slip the surly bonds of earth. Maybe he’ll go home and get drunk too.
I look at the golden haired boy as he sleeps soundly in his crib. His face is unmarked by worry or fear. It will be one day – but not now. I reach down and stroke his cheek. When he’s forty I’ll be eighty. Maybe his will be the last face I see.
That wouldn’t be so bad.