“I nearly killed a man tonight.”
And just like that, the slightest of lulls in our dinner table conversation was shattered like a paper-thin sheet of ice flying off the roof of a car and colliding with a cold burst of wind.
I was probably being more dramatic than I needed to be about what had happened, but it was also the truth.
Half an hour earlier, for what felt like the hundredth time, I set out to drive the well-worn route between our home and the restaurant where my sixteen year old son has been working for the past few months. Last week, I reminded him that if he would finish his driver’s training course, he could do this drive and the drive home four hours later all on his own. Imagine the freedom! (And I wasn’t even talking about him!)
We’re heading into the darkest depths of winter in Southwestern Ontario, so even though it was only five o’clock, it might as well have been midnight. The street lights were on, creating a glow on the roads in the half-melted snow, and even though the daytime hours were only just ending, at this time of year, the early-arriving darkness makes it feel much later than it is, like you could almost “call it a night” before the evening even begins.
But the glare on the road wasn’t any more distracting than it usually is, and I wasn’t any more fatigued than I usually was as we drove our repetitive route eastbound along Northfield Drive on the way to the restaurant where my son would welcome people into the warmth with a genuine hospitality that belies his age. We were chatting away in our 2018 Corolla as I passed through one of the busier intersections in the city, where not only two major streets cross one another, but just to keep things interesting, two sets of light-rail transit tracks also wind their way through the intersection like the snaking remnants of Laurel Creek after the reservoir is drained for the winter months to prevent flooding.
Before you make any assumptions, I’ll spell it out nice and clear: the light was full-on green. It wasn’t red or yellow or even green-but-just-about-to-turn-yellow. It was green. As everyone reading this knows, a green light means that vehicles and pedestrians looking to cross the intersection in the other direction would have to wait their sweet turn or risk life and limb in a rash attempt to cast aside both law and logic in hopes of getting to their destination a few moments sooner.
Most days, in most intersections, nobody does this. Everybody follows the rules and nobody gets hurt. Yes, of course, accidents do occur, and for a wide variety of reasons, I’m sure. But the reason I can drive through a busy intersection like the one at King and Northfield at the posted speed limit is that we all understand and agree to abide by a set of rules that are in place to make sure everyone makes it home for dinner, even if it’s a few minutes later than they would have liked.
But what does any of this matter when you’re two-thirds of the way through the intersection with the glare of headlights bouncing off the road in the day’s descending darkness and out of absolutely nowhere, a bearded man clutching a bright green cloth Sobeys bag in each of his death-wish hands lunges like a deer in front of your vehicle?
I slammed my foot on the brakes and jerked the steering wheel to the right, bringing our Corolla to a screeching halt just shy of the crosswalk, which the bearded man must have come to the conclusion was his to use no matter what the bright orange hand in the sky above was telling him. That was it, and he was off like a thief in the night, spared a visit to either the hospital or the pearly gates thanks to the defensive driving skills I picked up when I was a sixteen year old myself sitting through endless hours of a Young Drivers course I took on weekends in the spring of 1993.
We came to a complete stop there on the edge of the crosswalk, and it wasn’t until I told my daughter the story on the drive home from picking her up at work (notice a pattern here?) that she pointed out how lucky I was that there wasn’t a vehicle directly behind me when the deer-shaped man launched his very life in front of our car. The details matter, because during rush hour in such a busy intersection, there absolutely should have been someone riding my tail, but there wasn’t, and of all the things I’m grateful for tonight, the fact that my tail was given the space it deserves for once is one of them.
Even though it was after the fact, I laid on the horn a good while to let our nocturnal jaywalker know that he had come within an inch of his life, and that next time he considered crossing a busy intersection after the sun had gone down with nothing but a couple of lime green grocery bags to catch a driver’s attention, he should give it a second thought and wait out the thirty seconds until the bright white walking man took over for the protective orange hand.
I can’t begin to imagine what was going through his mind in those moments, and while I’m well aware that there are likely factors that I’ll never be able to fully understand that led him to make the decision he did to cross at that precise moment, what I do know is that my body was flooded with a rush of adrenaline which was quickly followed by a similarly intense realization that I had come just the splittest of seconds away from ending a man’s life.
That’s what ultimately made me angry about the incident, and yes, I did notice a tinge of anger in my reaction as I told the story over a plate of the homemade pizza we were enjoying together around the dinner table. This man’s decision to take his life into his hands in that crosswalk ended up putting his life in my hands, which is not something I expected nor invited tonight.
My daughter asked me what would have happened if I had hit him. “He would have died,” I said, matter-of-factly.
But that’s not what she meant. She wanted to know if I would be held responsible, if I would have been charged with murder or something grisly like that. So I elaborated, “No, I wouldn’t be charged or anything.”
“But I guess you’d have to live with the fact that you’d killed someone.”
And that’s not nothing.
I’m reminded of a time when Jesus was teaching his followers about the kinds of trials they should expect in response to their work on his behalf. He told them, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”
This quote came to mind as I was thinking about my own brush with death tonight—not my own death, but that of the man with the grocery bags. But why? What do these words have to do with the slamming of brakes and the rushing of adrenaline?
There’s a lot to be fearful of in this world of ours and, for me, the curious incident of the man in the nighttime is a stark reminder that this life of ours is fragile and fleeting. If we’re not supposed to be afraid of those who kill the body, can we at least develop a healthy respect for the power that each and every one of us has to save life or to destroy it? It’s an awesome power, and the fact that I’ve yet to reach my forty-fifth birthday and I’m only now reflecting on this is a gift wrapped up inside of an even greater gift.
Chances are I’ll never find myself in quite the same situation again, but then I don’t have to wait for someone to launch their body in front of the vehicle I’m driving to save a life. Yes, ours is a world where pedestrians are sometimes struck by motor vehicles, but it’s also a world in which all kinds of people run out into all kinds of traffic, for reasons most of us will never fully understand. What if we could hit the brakes and jerk the steering wheel and sound the horn and, just maybe, save someone from an otherwise disastrous outcome?
What if we used the power we have “to save life or destroy it” to save life?
What if we developed an awareness that would allow us to not only avoid tragedy ourselves but to instinctively spare others from the tragedy that even the worst judgment and poorest of decisions might otherwise bring their way?
And what if someone else would do this for us?
Jesus went on to ask rhetorically, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Then he continued, “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care…So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
The truth is, every one of us is foolish enough in our own way to jaywalk at night in a busy intersection. But even though we may live like two-for-a-penny kind of people, we’re worth more than many sparrows and are therefore worthy of being spared from our most foolish decisions, just as we would hope to be able to spare someone else from theirs.
I won’t pretend to understand why things happen the way they do, and I am fully aware of the fact that I could have just as easily ended the bearded jaywalker's life tonight as saved it. But what I am grateful for in this moment is the unspeakable grace that allowed my story to be a saving one instead of a destroying one.
And that’s not nothing either.