I am at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York—here for three days of retreat.
I have driven up this morning, but I have checked in early and no lunch is
served, so the friendly woman at the welcome desk directs me to a sandwich
joint down the road.
I drive down the highway until I find the deli in a strip mall. I pull off the
road. Just as I get out of my car, I hear a screeching, squealing. I cringe, wait
for the impact . . . but nothing.
There are other cars, vans parked in the strip mall and I can’t see what’s up ahead,
so I walk out and look down the road. Then I see it. A black mini-van sitting
in the road. Six feet away from its front bumper is a jack-knifed semi. Six
feet more and the mini-van would have been fatally minimized. I go to see that
no one is hurt.
I walk up. A woman is standing outside the mini-van, talking on her cell phone. She
is shaking uncontrollably. She’s dressed up—wearing a skirt and sweater—no coat.
It’s in the forties and a light rain is falling. She’s explaining to someone how she looked up
to see this semi coming, and closed her eyes to die. When she opened them, the
behemoth was resting six feet away. Her breathing is shallow, stertorous.
I walk around her car. I can see the truck now. The trailer bed (luckily empty)
has whipped around and gashed into half the cab. Green fluid is spraying from the radiator and
running down the asphalt.
Then I see him. The driver. He is on his cell phone too, pacing back and forth along
the side of the road. He is crying. A big man, wearing work pants and a short-sleeve
blue shirt with an American flag on his right sleeve. The shirt is untucked and
bulging slightly over his belly. His head is shaved; he wears an earring. “Oh
God,” he is saying, “I f-cked the truck! I’m so sorry, man.” Talking to his
supervisor, no doubt. He is crying, but he is angry, outraged. “The lady just
pulls out—in front of me! Ohhhh, God. Where? Right on 9West! Oh God.” He bends
over and weeps, holding the cell to his ear.
I stand in the road, feeling useless. It is a horrible accident, but the two cars
have not even touched; no one is “injured.” I want to help the woman. I can see
she is in shock, shaking like the Scarecrow in Oz, hypothermic in the cold rain
that has certainly caused the semi to skid and collapse on itself. I want to
say, “Do you have a coat?” (I have none to give.) But I do not want to interrupt
her phone call. It doesn’t seem my business.
I want to help the poor man. In swerving to avoid an accident he has spared the
woman but destroyed his boss’s rig, probably worth six figures. Would he lose his
job? It’s not often I see a truck driver cry like that. I’m a pastor. I want to
put my arm around him, help him find a place to sit down, get a blanket, put it
around his shoulders.
By now locals are directing traffic around the mess. In the distance an
approaching siren. I skip the sandwich, get in my car, thread my way through
the line of stopped cars and head back to the monastery.
I sit in this quiet, preternaturally peaceful place, looking through leaded glass
windows out over the Hudson River. I do not know those people, will never see
them again in my life. In ninety minutes the wreck will be cleared and except
for a faint green stain on the road, there will be no evidence of what had happened—or
what had almost happened but did not. Still, my slightly jumpy heart rate is
telling me that I am implicated in this. What can I do? Nothing. Pause, breathe
deeply, pray for that woman, that man.