Our neighbors across the street are getting a new roof. These past few early summer mornings have been sunny and cool and beautiful, and I’ve been drinking my coffee and catching up on some front porch reading to begin each day. This morning, though, I had to angle my chair away from the neighbors’ house. I couldn’t watch the roofers, even though I could hear their rhythmic hammers and their happy songs.
You see, close to a decade ago, we’d just moved into our new dream home. We had four young kids, a full life ahead of us, and we were painting all our new rooms the colors of life and love and happiness. Pink and purple for our one and only girl, cowboy denim blue for the baby of the family, Eagles green for the oldest, ceiling clouds for our aviation lover, and circus stripes and polka-dots for their shared Jack and Jill bath. It was an unseasonably hot summer morning, and once the coffee had been drained, I needed a McDonald’s Diet Coke. Needed one. It was the height of my Diet Coke addiction. It had to be from a fountain, with extra ice, and from McDonald’s.
“I’ll be right back,” I said to Chris as I set down my pink paintbrush. “Do you want anything?”
He shook his head, continued singing along with The Cranberries.
McDonald’s was a quick 2-mile trip. I pulled up to the drive-through window.
“Good morning, Katrina! Large Diet Coke, extra ice?”
They knew me.
My usual route was to turn left out of the parking lot to head home. For some reason, I turned right instead. The new veterinary hospital was being built on that side road. There was a lone roofer — at least the only one visible to me on that vast expanse of black — hammering and sweating.
And then he stood up.
It seemed surreal, what happened next — like something from a Road Runner cartoon. But it was undeniably, horrifyingly real. His arms began circling wildly in the air, the weight and bulk of them insufficient to create a force that would alter the course of his momentum. In a second, he was gone.
Instinctively, I turned my Suburban into the parking lot. No one else was around. No one else had seen what I’d just witnessed. And then I saw him, crumpled on the pavement.
I threw my SUV into park, lurched to an abrupt halt, and ran to his side. The car was still running, the door open, the radio blaring. Michael Jackson proclaimed his Badness to all within earshot. But there were only two of us there — me and the twisted, dark-skinned man on the ground beside me. A puddle of blood pooled and expanded beneath his black curls.
“Can you hear me?” I asked, kneeling beside him. He groaned in response.
“I’m here. I’m calling 9-1-1. Stay with me, okay?” My fingers shook as I punched those three critical numbers into my phone.
He mumbled something in Spanish.
“Do you speak English?” I asked. Never before in my life had I so vehemently wished I was multi-lingual.
“I won’t leave you,” I promised.
And then I sat beside him and held his hand. I remembered from my long-expired First Aid and CPR certifications not to move him, but I knew he needed to feel a human touch. His hand — dark, dirty from his hard work, thick and strong — rested limply in mine — soft, pale, speckled with cheerful splashes of pink, purple, orange, and yellow.
“I’m here. I’m here,” I continued to assure him softly, not knowing whether he understood… and also understanding that the words themselves didn’t really matter. His hand was rough and calloused, the scent of his sweat, dark and heavy as we existed together on the hot pavement.
He squeezed my hand, just once, weakly. And a thousand unspoken words passed between us.
I memorized his young face, the curve of his chin, the strength of his shoulders. I imagined his young wife, his beautiful brood of children. I envisioned a life that might or might not have been his as we waited for the sound of the sirens. I listened for the sound of his breath… one and then the next.
“Stay strong. Breathe. I’m here.”
When the EMTs arrived, they went about their business with skill and efficiency. I felt myself unconsciously backing away to make room for their expertise. The wailing of the ambulance had summoned the other roofer — the one who had been invisibly working on the far side of the roof — to the scene.
“I’ll call his wife,” the older man said in broken English.
One of the EMTs pulled me aside.
“Thank you for stopping,” he said.
“Of course,” I said, shaking off his thanks. “Anyone would have done the same.”
“No,” he said, the knowledge and experience of his job informing his retort, “they wouldn’t have.”
“Will he live?”
“I think so. Yes,” the EMT decided. “We’ll take good care of him, I promise. You saved his life today.”
And then they drove off, siren blaring. The other roofer jumped into his battered truck to follow closely behind. I stood alone in the parking lot beside a fresh, warm pool of human blood and began sobbing — a deep, choking, body-convulsing sob. I sank to the ground as my shaking legs threatened to give way.
When I was physically able to walk again, I climbed back into my car. My Diet Coke sat there, untouched, sweating and dripping into the cup holder. I dumped it out in the grass and drove home.
I don’t know what happened to that young stranger whose hand I held in my own. I called all the local hospitals, but of course, because of privacy laws, they couldn’t tell me anything. I checked the newspapers, reluctantly scanned the local obituaries. I thought about him so often those first few weeks. Was he home? Was he recovering? Was he undergoing therapy for a traumatic brain injury? Were his wife and children fed?
Did he — as the EMT promised — survive?
There are so many things in this life that we can’t know. It is the famed “butterfly effect” that connects and affects us all. What we choose to do — however insignificant — resonates and resounds throughout the universe. The lesson I’ve learned is that we don’t need to know what our actions cause, we just need to act.
With compassion, with love, with courage, with fortitude.
What results may or may not be ours to know. But what we do know — what we’re left with — is that on some level, we made a difference.
And that is always enough.