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  • Jan Flynn

The Dying Woman We Drove Past

A battle for life in a strip mall parking lot

Image by Gianni Crestani from Pixabay

We were heading home from a graduation party, along a route we’ve driven a thousand times before, past gas stations, car repair shops, a supermarket with its satellite storefronts ranged around a yawning parking lot. 

On the opposite corner is a drugstore, a deli, and a barbershop, their smaller parking lot separated from the street by a low berm planted with sparse grass and a few struggling shrubs.

It’s the kind of scenery you drive past without consciously registering it, a commercial landscape that remains invisible until you need to pop in to pick up a prescription. God willing, we’ll drive past it another thousand times.

But I’ll see it now. With today’s image forever superimposed on it.

Sometimes life reminds you that it’s playing for keeps

“So I could make that pasta with the roasted tomatoes,” I was saying to my husband, as I slowed in response to the brake lights blooming red in front of me. “Or we could do tacos again. Uh-oh.”

There were other red lights coming into view, flashing scarlet and blue from atop a firetruck. My lane was moving again, slowly, and as we drew alongside the drugstore I saw the firetruck, its doors open. A small gathering of grim-faced people, some of them in uniform, stood watching.

Time slows at such moments, allowing me to follow their gaze to the figure stretched out on the berm. Her shirt was drawn up over an enormous belly, its pallid skin exposed and helpless in the afternoon sun.

Kneeling at her side, a paramedic plunged his braced hands into her chest, over and over in a desperate rhythm, his arms straight and straining with the effort. With each thrust, the woman’s belly abruptly inflated — and just as quickly subsided, flesh quivering with the impact.

CPR — cardiopulmonary resuscitation — is not the dramatic, miraculous ritual portrayed in movies and television. It’s an exhausting, brutal fight against time, one in which ribs and sternums are often broken in the struggle, and one that often fails.

The woman had a chance, improved by the fact she was receiving CPR from a trained professional. But, as I knew from harsh experience, it’s a last-ditch effort when there’s no better option. Surely the paramedics had already employed the defibrillation paddles.

“Dear God, she’s pregnant,” murmured my husband as he witnessed her stomach bounce. I could feel the thought reverberate between us: this was a battle for two lives.

There was nothing he or I could do, except avert our eyes. We’d already seen far more of that woman than she would have chosen to reveal to an anonymous public, had already witnessed the intimacy of forced breaths that very well could have been her last.

To that anonymous public’s credit, we collectively resisted the impulse to gawk. The flow of traffic increased its momentum, and we were carried along with it.

And that was all

We drove home, silent. In our tree-lined neighborhood, people waved, out walking their dogs or tending their yards. A cluster of kids, newly at large for the summer, clattered past on their scooters.

We pulled into the garage, got our stuff out of the car, decided on pasta for dinner. Life goes on.

I’ll never know if that woman survived, or, if she didn’t, if they were able to save her baby. There might be a way to find out. Police reports are generally public record in our state. But what would that serve, other than morbid curiosity?

Life goes on, until it doesn’t

And that moment can come suddenly, without warning, oblivious to any sense we have of timing or justice. Why does it come to a young pregnant woman running errands on an otherwise benign afternoon?

What do you do with these unasked-for glimpses of raw mortality? An ambulance races past you, a coroner’s van opens its doors by the side of the freeway, a man is carried out of a house on a gurney while his wife looks on, her hands clasped to her face. Is there a response that’s proportionate, or even one that makes sense?

I said a few prayers for that woman and her baby. And for the paramedic, the man who’d locked himself in a strongarm battle with death itself, fighting with all he had to save the life of a stranger. As inadequate and feeble as the grass on that berm where the woman lay, that was all I could do.

So I got busy and made pasta with roasted tomatoes, and made sure to savor every bite.

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