The Day I Almost Killed A Man

Note:  This was written a year ago.  I delayed posting for legal reasons.
Four and a half decades on this crazy planet, and I can still count my regrets on one hand — I don’t mean “ugh, I shouldn’t have eaten the whole thing” regrets, but deep, psyche-damaging regrets that haunt you forever.  I think this record is pretty impressive.

I added a new one this past Mother’s Day.

Tery and I had spent the day biking the Highline Canal Trail, a lovely paved, heavily trafficked course that stretched from our park all the way to the foothills, if we so desired (we did not, and had turned back at the 15-mile mark).  It was the first summer-like day after a ridiculously protracted winter-spring-winter again couple of months, and many people were taking advantage.

It’s a mostly flat trail, almost no effort at all, and I was thinking of doing another 10 miles when we returned to the park just to get a decent workout (yes, I’m one of those nauseating over-athletic types, but only on the bike).  We were just about to return to the park when the unthinkable happened.

I had glanced behind me for a moment to check on Tery (she rides maddeningly slowly, something that’s caused more than one squabble), and when I turned back around I was heading into oncoming bike traffic. It’s probably the single dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

It happened very quickly so I don’t remember details. I missed the woman in front but not the man behind her. I crashed head-on, literally, our heads slamming together like rams (both wearing helmets, thank god).  Next I knew I was lying on my side, waiting to feel pain.

Tery saw the whole thing from the distance, and reached the scene fully expecting to see limbs bent in the wrong direction.

The pain never came. What I did become aware of was a woman wailing frantically behind me, things like “stay with me, baby, oh god, don’t leave me…” which sounded for all the world like someone was dying. How I wished I could have just stayed on the ground rather than have to face that, but I struggled to my feet (struggled because I was tangled in my bike, which was tangled with his bike).

He was unconscious and breathing with a strange, rattling quality. Bystanders were asking questions, but all she said was “I’m a nurse and this isn’t good!” before returning to the wailing.  (I later wondered, rather uncharitably, if she was a nurse why wasn’t she doing anything more helpful?)  He had blood coming out of his mouth, and I was sure I had just killed a man.

I fumbled with my phone to try to call 9-1-1, but everything was blurry, it sounded like I was at the far end of a very long tunnel, and I felt like I was moving through quicksand.  A bystander beat me to it.  An ambulance was on its way, but there was some confusion as to the best cross street to direct them to for awhile. Then some park maintenance workers came by in a golf cart and offered advice.

After what felt like an hour to me (and I’m sure a lifetime to his wife), but was only ten minutes, he woke up. He didn’t remember the crash, in fact didn’t believe her when she told him, and wanted to stand up immediately.  A passerby who seemed very knowledgeable asked him general orientation questions and tested his grip strength, and all seemed normal but they wouldn’t let him get up.

Finally the ambulance arrived, and the paramedics strolled over to us; I should have found their lack of urgency comforting, but didn’t.  They saw to him, informing him they had to cut his shirt off; “Aww, it’s a nice shirt!” he joked. THAT I found comforting.

One came over and poked at my spine, asking if I wanted to join them in the ambulance. My right shoulder was beginning to feel very sore, but not enough to warrant a $5000 ambulance ride (this wasn’t my first rodeo).

The wife exchanged our info while they strapped him to a backboard, and they were gone. From what we overheard while he was on the ground, the blood was from biting his tongue, and the death rattle was actually snoring — he hit the ground fully unconscious. All I had was the sore shoulder. Thanks, Dairy Council! (I’ve drunk so much milk in my life my bones are adamantium by now.)  “That’s my baby, the brick shithouse!” Tery later remarked. She was thankful I hadn’t hit the wife, who was a little bit of a thing that I would have pulverized.

My bike, sadly, didn’t fare as well. It appeared unscathed, but when I tried to ride it I could immediately tell something was wrong. It turned out both wheels were bent.  My helmet too seemed fine (though I know they’re technically only good for one hit and should be replaced), but I later discovered a huge crack in it.  I love this helmet and fortunately, unlike other things I like which are then promptly no longer sold anywhere, the company still carried this particular model.

So the first stop was the bike shop (once Tery biked home and got the car). From there we were at a bit of an impasse: She wanted to follow the couple to the hospital to check on him and get me an X-ray.  I wanted to go home and bury myself in my bed and forget today had ever happened.

I won because a) not being family, it was unlikely they would tell us anything about his condition, and b) whereas X-rays are covered by my insurance, ER visits are not, and I wasn’t keen to dig my hole of medical debt any deeper. So my bed was the victor.  (We did call the wife, who told us he was stable and undergoing tests, so that was a tiny relief.)

I was desperate to know what happened next, though. On the way home Tery said I should get a lawyer–more frightening words have never been spoken to someone without any money. Because, as mercenary as it sounds, when you don’t have any money, everything unfortunately gets viewed through a financial prism, and what this meant for me financially was my overwhelming concern.

I called my longtime dear friend H, because he seems to know a lot about the world. His advice was threefold and I’m afraid not terribly helpful: 1) If there was no police report, I wasn’t even there (except the wife had everything short of my social security number), 2) maybe I could go to the police station and casually inquire “rhetorically” what happened in these situations (out of the question; I can’t even nod to the grocery store security guard without worrying about looking suspicious), and 3) whatever I did, I shouldn’t call my insurance company, because they’d red flag me and drop me like a cancer potato.  But he did offer me financial assistance, and that comforted me tremendously.

All that night and all day Monday I fretted in an agony of no information. Google was uncustomarily useless — the vast database of knowledge regarding cycling accidents involved automobiles, not bike-on-bike violence. There were sparse references to “assumption of recreational risk,” i.e., if you go skiing, you accept that someone might run into you, and that made me faintly hopeful that I couldn’t get sued at least. But there was still the question of hospital bills, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, they don’t much care that you aren’t Donald Trump when they come due, and I would be on the hook for them.

Google was even less informative about the condition of my vic, although I took the lack of an obituary as a good sign (but honestly, I was grasping at straws).

However, I did learn accidents of this nature ARE covered by homeowners insurance, so Tuesday, with great trepidation, I called my insurance company.

They took my statement and my vic’s name and number. I asked if I should call to check on him (I had planned to later that day and was dreading it more than a root canal) and they said I could, but they cautioned against making any statements of guilt. I couldn’t make that promise as I’m a champion blurter; not to mention the fact I had already told anyone who would listen at the scene it was 100% my fault. But having them make the call instead? I would have paid double my premiums from the last 13 years to not have to speak to the wife again.

I made it through the whole call very calmly, giving my statement with the practiced professionalism of a trial lawyer, until the end, when in response to “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” I burst into tears and begged them not to drop me because I loved them so much.  “Aww, we won’t drop you!” she said.  They might raise my rates, but I could live with that.

It ultimately took a worrisome week to hear anything–fortunately I’m blessed with, not a lack of conscience, but if there’s something I can’t do anything about I don’t see the sense in losing sleep over it.  Finally my agent said he had spoken to him, he was very cordial, had had a “rough week” but was back to work.  All I cared about was “not dead” and “not re-learning to feed himself.”

I’d like to add that in all this time, I resisted the urge to post a cryptic message on Facebook begging for attention, like “I love my insurance company.  I miss my bike.” Because a) I absolutely can’t stand that, and b) I wasn’t sure what online info the wife was digging up on me, and I wanted to avoid posting anything remotely related to the accident until I was sure it was all over.

Biking has taught me many lessons.  The lessons I learned this day are:

  • Above all else, there is NO such thing as a “nice Sunday ride so I don’t need a helmet.”  No, no, no.  In any accident, you are only half of the equation.  The other half is the rest of the world, so weigh those odds.  I’ve always worn a helmet, in fact if I for whatever reason not wear one (usually when dashing to the post office across the street) I literally feel half naked.  And if I had a dollar for every cyclist I see without one, I could buy my next replacement.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.  There’s no such thing as a brain transplant.  Don’t take chances with the one you have.
  • Eyes forward always (unless you’re crossing traffic).  Your slow-ass partner behind you is on their own.  Resist the urge to check on them.
Addendum:  I finally heard from my insurance company yesterday, a brief email stating they had settled the case and it was closed.  Of course I’d love more details, but I suppose that’s all I really need to know.  I’ve had two or three follow-up calls in between asking me what steps I’ve taken to prevent such an event in the future.  What do you say to that?  My best answer is “I no longer ride with my slow-ass partner” (not my exact words)  Trust me, USAA.  I’ve learned my lesson well.
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