Today I saw a man die. I turned my cart around at work and there he was on the floor having a seizure. Already there were three people around him, there were more people running, someone was shouting to call 9-1-1. I recall uttering the words ‘Oh, my God’ and got out of the way. I made sure my co-worker with the phone was calling the paramedics, then all I could think about was knowing he was okay. I heard someone else say he’d hit his head hard, but it wasn’t until I saw the huge pool of blood that something inside me rolled over and I was shaken. That is the only word I could feel all day: shaken.
So many of my co-workers were amazing. One had experience with seizures and she was there by his side, helping to guide others to help him. Another screamed for the emergency call and held the crowd back before running outside to flag down the response truck. Another ran to get paper towels to help staunch the bleeding. My boss knelt at the man’s side, holding his hand, holding his shoulder, caring without thought.
But what changed me was that moment. The moment the paramedics arrived and started doing chest compressions. The moment I saw his face was a grayish purple and his eyes were staring lifelessly at the ceiling. I couldn’t see that for long, I had been stabbed in the chest by the vision of it. Wordless, breathless, I turned around and told myself to work and not think about it. But of course I thought about it, how could I think of anything else?
I think they got him breathing again, I saw them pumping air into him. Then the next time I looked they had carried him out. My boss was crying. My co-worker who’d flagged them down was crying, feeling helpless, feeling like she didn’t do enough. I held her tight and I told her more than once: “You did a good job.”
But I was floored by the complete ignorance of other customers. People who continued perusing and shopping not twenty feet away from a dying man. The man reading the backs of packages of cheese nonchalantly. The woman asking another clerk for ‘just one more slice’ of the meat she’d ordered. I felt sick to my stomach over those people. I felt like yelling “Don’t you know something is happening? Don’t you know something important is happening?” The life of a man was slipping away, don’t any of you care?
I didn’t care that he was a perfect stranger, I didn’t care that I was useless to help him, I didn’t care that I was supposed to be working. His life is as precious as any other and it was ending right in front of me. I wondered if he knew what was happening as he fell. I wondered what would happen to the groceries he’d just bought. I wondered if his children, or wife, or whomever, would wonder what he’d last bought if he died. I wondered how no one could stop, just stop, and wait to see.
Almost no one did. It astounded me then and it continued to astound me as the day continued on afterward. I wanted to leave work, but I knew I had no right. I wanted to leave so very badly, I was too shaken. I wanted to go home and hug my mother. I wanted to stand in the sun and drink in the goodness of the world. I wanted time to process what I had seen and felt, but I wasn’t allowed. I couldn’t let everyone else down. I wasn’t the only one affected by it, after all.
I couldn’t get ahead after that. I was constantly playing catch-up, I was numb, I was in a shade of intense thought that couldn’t let the event go. I was bothered by the endless customers walking over the now-clean spot where he’d bled out everywhere. I avoided walking on that spot the rest of the day. I kept needing comfort, I kept needing to process, I kept having to push that all aside and mosh on.
I can’t say I got over seeing that moment of lifelessness, but I got on with my day. I had moments of astounding gratitude, such as the moment another co-worker gave me when she said ‘psst’ and tugged me over to a little spot where she’d put root beer and vanilla ice cream. The relief of such a tiny thing washed over me. I cradled the cup of root beer float to my lips, almost like I was hugging what it offered, and she giggled at me for it. She said: “Sometimes it’s really about the little things.” And with intensity I replied: “I don’t have enough words to properly express how very much I agree with you.” Because right then, it meant the entire world. A few stolen moments to embrace comfort during an endless shift of having to push it away.
What amazes me most was the gratitude I felt for feeling at all. Sometimes I feel like I must be more numb to the tougher emotional challenges life offers, sometimes I feel like many things warrant a much tamer response than others I know give, like they don’t affect me. So when I felt what I did, I felt gratitude that I am, in fact, human when it counts. It’s an unexpected upside to something I am still reeling from. Perhaps, when faced with this new and ghastly experience, I have found a way to connect to the spiritual and see more than horror or sadness. I don’t think that what happened has made me believe I need to experience life more fully, but given me an opportunity to appreciate the good with the bad. I don’t know. I’m not done figuring out everything I feel, but writing this has helped me begin to.