Simply Still: On Witnessing a Homeless Man's Death Before Me

10/28/2015 12:33 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2016
Dying tree silhouette
Dying tree silhouette

I think of him often. I see his pale blue eyes staring straight up into the sky. I remember his waxy, vein-filled hands, with dirt laden under his fingernails. His nondescript clothing in shreds. Ripe with pungent body odor and urine emanating forcibly. His lanky figure topples over in my mind, hitting the pavement like a door slamming, breaths escaping from his mouth in ragged staccatos.

My husband was giving me a ride to work because my car was in the shop. Our young daughter was with us, as he was going to drop her off after me.

Almost to the interstate, we drove down a busy road with cookie-cutter, red brick houses on our right. An expansive park, rich in history and community pride, to our left. As we neared the stop sign, I saw a man collapse to the ground, by one neighbor's flower bed and another's garden hose. Immaculate bungalows, with the length of a kindergartner between them, dotted the sidewalk. Lawns, landscaping, and architecture were pristine; not a blade of grass unkempt. Watching a man fall to the ground amidst the clean lines and garden gnomes would catch anyone's eye.

My husband turned the car around without so much of a why and parked quickly. I jumped out while he grabbed my daughter and joined us.

The man was gasping for air, his eyes beseeching the sky, pupils pulsating. I held his hand and began talking to him. My husband joined me, while we tried to ascertain his condition and the situation. Less than a minute went by as two runners joined us by his side. One called 911 as the other was a nurse and began taking vitals, talking to him like we were. An off-duty police officer appeared and the five of us were trying to help this stranger, whom we just met, take a breath.

My daughter let out a screech, then giggled. Her little feet pumped and kicked with such tenacity, her car seat started rocking back and forth. I checked on her, as she was happily playing with a toy, bright-eyed and content. Sirens wailed in anger. I went back to the gentleman and took his hand in mine. The dichotomy between life and death was thick. Stark. Startling. As one was grasping onto life by threads, the other was grabbing life by the fistfuls. As I held his lifeless hand and glanced at my daughter, I could almost feel the disconnect. The disparity between life and death was viscerally striking. I could feel it. It was raw, emotional, and uncomfortable. But, I also felt pockets of peace, which was equally as unnerving.

Time stopped. It literally stopped. What seemed like close to thirty minutes was in reality only three minutes. The paramedics arrived swiftly and took over immediately.

Our cadre backed up and let them get to work. We answered their questions the best we could, quickly recounting the story. By this time, homeowners and neighbors emerged, curious to the situation.

Not one homeowner knew the man that lay fighting for his life. Not one recognized him. Neither did the runners, or the off-duty police officer or the paramedics. For a close-knit city family, this was surprising. In this particular neighborhood, people notice when your mother-in-law is in town or when one gets a promotion. They would have known this man that seemingly appeared out of nowhere and collapsed inches from their rose garden. But they didn't. He also had no identification; no driver's license, bracelet or card alluding to his person.

He was homeless. Dying. Alone.

Not exactly.

He wasn't alone. He had us. Strangers gathered to be with a man who was in the last breaths of life. Literally. We weren't able to do much, besides be there. Be present. Be with him. Hold his hand. Talk to him. Let him know we cared. Let him die with dignity. Let him know he wasn't alone.

When I finally got to work, albeit late, my coworkers showered me with sympathy. They felt sorry for me. Sorry I had to go through such a crummy experience. Sorry I had to witness such sorrow. Sorry I had my baby with me and had to experience death before 8:00 a.m.

Their sentiments were well-meaning, but very ill-fitting. I wasn't looking or expecting sympathy. I was surprised and bewildered upon hearing them, due to the fact, I was still in shock. I was still processing. In my mind, I was still back on the lawn. Holding his hand. Trying to get him to breathe. Still listening to my baby daughter coo, while another couldn't cough. I was simply still.

Sometimes in life, decisions are made for you. Not by way of others, but the decision is made, without you even realizing it. You intrinsically know or feel something and that's that.

When I saw the man collapse, I knew I had to go to him. I knew I needed to hold his hand. I knew he was dying. I hope he knows people cared. I hope he knows he wasn't alone. I hope he knows I think of him often.

I bore witness to something much more than just a homeless man dying on a city sidewalk. I witnessed God. I got to experience the divine.

Just by holding a man's hand.

Be still and know that I am God.