Though I’ve never been accused of being an outgoing person on a regular day, I’m a hardcore smiler and waver when out for a run. I say hello to everyone in some way, always thinking of one particular person I didn’t acknowledge years ago.
In college, I went for a run on the paved trail in the background of the picture here. Sitting on the rail, which leads from the pedestrian bath to a busy highway, was a young man. I jogged past him with my head down, and a minute or so stopped and turned around. With my headphones on I couldn’t quite be sure, but I thought I heard something.
There, up on the highway, was a semi truck pulled off to the side and the young man’s body laying in the road.
I ran up the little connecting path as drivers from cars behind the semi popped out and 911 was called. At first the young man didn’t move, but then he started to squirm. Someone held his head to try and keep him still, and I held his feet — but in the minutes that passed as we waited for the ambulance it became clear: he wasn’t injured and confused, he was trying to fight us off so he could lay there and die.
After the responders arrived I stood up and turned, then noticed the semi truck driver behind me as pale as a ghost. I gently put a hand on his shoulder and said, “I’m sure he’s going to be OK,” which was a lie, but I imagine a forgivable one. “There’s nothing you could have done.”
And at that the trucker turned and vomited, his body unable to handle the reality of having just hit a person.
I heard from someone else on the scene that the young man had seen the semi coming, jumped up from the metal guardrail and bolted in front of the truck. He overshot it by a bit, and the driver swerved, so rather than full impact at 50 mph he took just the corner of the rig.
To this day I have no idea whatever happened to the young man or the driver, but I think of them both often. Last month, when we passed by the spot where it all happened on our road trip, I couldn’t help but take a photo of the place I saw someone try to end their life — someone who I’d ignored only moments earlier.
Who knows if it would have made any difference if I’d thrown him one of my little side waves, just a quick twist of the hand that says, “Hello there,” but I wish I had.
I learned that day that it’s simply not OK to pass another human being and pretend they don’t exist. There’s no way of knowing at first glance who’s out just enjoying the scenery and who’s at the end of their rope, and ultimately it shouldn’t matter. Every person deserves to be seen and acknowledged.
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