In the Middle of the Street

Posted: January 8, 2019 in Uncategorized

Guest Blog by Colleen Colaner

colleen colanerWe had just finished a dance party. A really big one with songs that kept coming and two little girls with their most impressive and joyful moves. Sweaty and tired, and with their dad out of town for the week, I needed to figure out how to fill the next 2 hours of the night before bedtime. “How about ice cream?” It was a bribe really, a way to get the girls out of the house and to run some errands and fill the time. Two minutes later, we are rolling. First to drop off a book at a friend’s house, next to drop off those overdue DVDs at the library. They were watching Peter Pan on the minivan DVD player. I told them we had to return it and they begged me – “NNOOOOO, MOMMY! Please don’t! We love it!” Fine… let them have it tonight. What’s another day? I’ll return it tomorrow. Okay, on to ice cream from the grocery store (and to grab those other few things I needed. Classic sneaky mom trick.) Wait, why did I go down Stewart instead of the straight shot down Broadway? Oh well, more time with Peter Pan, guess.

I find myself on our old street, the road I lived on for 5 years, the road I had traveled a million times. Even in the pitch black, I knew this road like the back of my hand. But this is new – a black silhouette in the middle of my lane. Is there a work crew? Not in the middle of the night… It’s a woman, just standing there. The image is creepy, haunting. I slow the car and she wanders to the middle of the street. She’s barefoot, wearing pajama shorts and a T-shirt. I roll down my window and ask if she’s ok. She’s crying. She doesn’t answer me. My daughters – 5 and 9 years old – know something is off and start asking me questions as I ask her questions. Camille rolls her window down too. A million thoughts emerge all at once: Is she dangerous? Is someone trying to hurt her? Are my kids in danger? How do I protect my children and help her at the same time?

She just keeps walking slowly, almost in a trance, crying. I ask her rapid-fire questions: What is wrong? Are you ok? Are you hurt? What do you need? Can we help you? I receive in turn only a blank, tearful expression. Her face – I’ve never seen such anguish, despair. She looks at me, through me really. I need to get her attention and get her off the road. Four or five cars are lined up behind me and I can tell they are getting impatient. “Honey, you are in the middle of the road,” I say. She has just a moment of clarity. She looks right at me and says, “I know. I want to die.”

Oh shit. This is really serious. What do I do? I’m scared, but I don’t want my kids to see me scared. What am I supposed to do in this moment? My mind racing, I look at the car across the street who has also stopped, the southbound mirror to my northbound. “Zoe?” I call out. She looks up. “Colleen!” We wordlessly make a plan. She crosses the street and gets into my minivan. The girls see her, “ZOE!” they shout for joy upon seeing their beloved babysitter. She distracts them and calms them while I call 911.

After giving them the directions I say, “There is a woman in the middle of the street who says she wants to die.”

“WHAT?!” Essie shouts. She didn’t hear the woman when she said it, but she heard it now. Her first exposure to the idea of suicide. Her innocence protects her still though, as Zoe tells her that the women is sick and getting some help. Essie thinks she can relate – sometimes her stomach hurts really bad, and she feels like she might die too. Her little bubble, still intact. I can’t let that bubble burst open tonight. Not yet.

The 911 dispatcher is perfect, by the book, confirming my location, asking me all the questions. Goddamn it, why can’t I get this iPhone to unsynch with the minivan audio system? The 911 dispatcher is being piped through sound system, cancelling out the Peter Pan audio. I’m fumbling with the phone and answering life-and-death questions. Fuck it, the girls will have to hear this. Hopefully, Zoe is more interesting to them than the phone call.

I try to give the clearest, most succinct answer to her questions:

“What is she wearing?” “PJ bottoms and t shirt.”
“How old is she?” “I think she’s in her 50s.” Essie: “No mommy, she was in her 70s.”
“What is her hair color?” “She’s blond.” Essie: “No mommy, she has grey hair.”

Essie is listening to every word. We see different women, though: I see a blond woman in her mid-50s, suicidal. Essie sees an older, grey-haired lady who is sick with something like a stomach ache. Please let her keep her bubble through this night, I think to myself.

I stay on the phone with 911, but the woman is still in the street. Cars are beginning to swerve past us, erratic traffic patterns to get through the stopped street. I have my flashers on, hoping to slow them down enough. It’s so dark though. She slowly, desperately moves through the street, so many near misses to cars. “Mommy, why do you keep saying ‘Oh my gosh’?” I guess I’m reacting more to the situation than I realize, and Essie doesn’t miss a single thing. Please don’t let my children watch this woman get hit by a car tonight.

911 asks more questions: “Does she have any weapons?” “Is she trying to hurt anyone else?” Shit, I didn’t even think of that. SHIT, Camille’s window is still down! The dispatcher tells me to approach her slowly if I want to approach her but that I don’t have to approach her. I think about getting out of the car, but I have my girls with me. If I get out, they may follow me, running into the street themselves. Or they will be scared seeing me in the street, or maybe I could get hit myself. Shit – how do I help her and protect them?

A Subaru parks in front of me, down just a couple driveways. A kind, gentle soul walks towards me. I tell him I’m on the phone with 911. He overhears a bit more of conversation and sees the woman and I see him connect the dots. He stands with her in the street, waving cars around her. He finally gets her to the side of the street. She walks down a few driveways, standing there, cold and alone. He checks in with us and tells us we can go if we want, that he’ll wait with her for the cops. I’m shaking at this point. I don’t think I can drive. He gets it.

I see the police sirens in the rear-view mirror. They are almost here. I don’t hear them though. Right, they don’t want to scare her. I look up and see a friend coming out of his house with his wife and dog. Oh yeah, he lives right here. It naturally takes him a minute to figure out who I am as I walk towards him, but he gives a gentle side hug when he sees that I’m crying a little. I fill him in and tell him how happy I am to see a friendly face. We stand together and watch the cops slowly approach her, create a little circle around her but not too close. Subaru guy is standing next to her, and the cops are asking her questions. She becomes hysterical, the crying escalating, a desperate scream leaves her frail body.

This is a woman at the edge of her humanity. She is surrounded by a community of strangers, all of us hoping, trying to help her remember what’s here on the other side of this desperation.

I realize it’s time for me to go. She doesn’t need an audience to this torment. The police are better able to help her – they have training in this, right? And my shaking has stopped, so I give my friend one more hug and get back in the van. The girls are having a great time with Zoe, “COME WITH US TO GET ICE CREAM!” they shriek in unison. We make a plan to meet at the grocery store. I drive away, police lights and desperation in my rear-view mirror, thrust just like that back into my beautifully mundane life. The girls argue over which ice cream to get. Camille wants ice cream sandwiches, Essie wants sherbet. “Whatever, let’s get them both. Life is too short,” I say. Zoe follows us back home, there’s another dance party, we eat ice cream, I put the girls to bed with kisses and I love yous. I hear Camille crawl into Essie’s bed even though she isn’t supposed to, and they fall asleep together, both bubbles still intact. Thank you, God.

I lay in bed well into the wee hours. I see her face in my mind again and again, remember the outline of her body standing in my lane, the desperate scream she cried out as the police engaged her. Did I do the right thing? Did I protect my girls enough? What happened to her to make her so devastated? Will she be ok? Did she get help? I check the local news stations on Twitter – no reports of a death. That’s good, right?
The thoughts keep racing: Why did I drive that way – the wrong way – to the grocery store? What if I wouldn’t have seen her? What if I would have hit her in the black of night in the middle of the road? Why was it that Zoe, my friend, and Subaru guy converged in that moment around her?

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. I’m left with the aftermath of this cosmic, divine interaction, and with the realization of the fragility of the human mind/body/soul. Of the importance of helping one another and protecting our children. Of the great care that we must take of ourselves and others. And of the supreme connection we all have to each other, even and maybe especially in the most desperate of moments.

  1. janice henson says:

    I remember when we lived on West Parkway hearing on the news that a woman had committed suicide on the little bridge in Stewart Park. It was right across the street from where we lived. My children walked across the park to get to school. My first thought was that my kids could have found her there. How could she do that! That thought was followed with shame. She was right outside my house and so much in despair that she was ready to end her life, and we were just going on with our mundane lives, without a clue. I’m sure that woman will appreciate that you were there.

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