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Lessons on the Side of the Road

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Posted 09-22-2010 at 10:37 AM by Jeff Westover

My wife and I were just returning from a wonderful evening together last night when it happened.

We had seen a presentation about relationships and how to communicate effectively. It was a presentation filled with hope, humor and terrific insight. To be honest I wasn’t looking forward to going to the event but unlike others I had been to this one I greatly enjoyed because it made me pensive about the people I love and the relationships we share.

I was shaken out of those thoughts of controlling our critical nature, being positive and communicating effectively as we were driving at about 40 miles per hour down a busy local road. It happened so fast my wife never saw it. I just said “Oh my gosh!” and it happened.

I had hit a dog.

There are few feelings in the world as sickening.

It reminded me a little of a near tragedy I experienced several years ago on a road trip to Idaho. We were on the Interstate, driving at 75 miles per hour and we were being passed on the left by a truck. We came over a rise and there was a dead deer smack in the middle of the road. It was late January and snow was piled high on the shoulder and with the truck next to me I had nowhere to go and no time to stop. I told the kids to hang on and I hit it as square as I could. We were in a minivan and felt it from front to back but because I hit it square it did no damage to the vehicle and the quick nightmare I was anticipating of rolling the van never happened. It was only later, after I had said my prayer of thanks for avoiding disaster, that I saw the deer fur on my back window and the blood on the bumper that I thought for a second about the life that was lost.

But tonight was different. That deer was dead when I hit it. Tonight the dog I saw in just a flash was confused. We locked eyes just long enough for me to see the sheer panic and terror in that dog’s face and there was nothing I could do.

Like with the other situation, I had a car off to the left of me, just in my blind spot. I knew I couldn’t have swerved, even if I had had the time to do so. In fact, I didn’t even hit the brakes until after it was over it happened so fast. We pulled over and asked each other, “What do we do?”

That helpless feeling reminded me keenly of yet another tragic road incident a year or two ago where I knew the outcome before I left the vehicle – and simply froze in the panic of the moment.

I was traveling south on the Interstate when suddenly a couple of hundred yards in front of me I saw a car traveling from the other direction veer into the v-shaped grassy median and take flight. It jumped over the left shoulder and rolled several times right in front of me and I knew instantly it was bad because the vehicle landed on the front corner of the cab of the SUV, where the driver would be seated. There was no doubt in my mind that the driver had to be dead. It happened like slow motion in front of me but it happened quickly at the same time and I was amazed how everyone on my side of the freeway just came to a stop. I was closest to the rolled vehicle and I stopped too.

But I hesitated getting out of the car as I reached for my cell phone. I was terrified by what I might see and I thought of what I might be called upon to do. How would I react to seeing that kind of carnage in a vehicle? It paralyzed me for a second and as I got out of the car and headed to the rolled vehicle I was relieved to see that cars on the other side of the vehicle that I didn’t see had already gotten to the vehicle first. I was the key witness because it happened in front of me and I tried to get to the man in the car but another man – who turned out to be an EMT – gently pushed me away from the vehicle and told me not to look inside.

I beat myself up over my feelings. Had I no compassion? Wouldn’t I give my all for another human being in an emergency? Am I that kind of wimp? Why, oh, why did I freeze?

Those feelings came rushing back to me tonight as I ran back to the body of this medium sized dog, who, in my mind. could not have survived a dead-on collision with a moving Lincoln Navigator.

My deepest fear was not that he was dead. My fear was that he was still alive – and suffering.

What would I do? Could I somehow get him to see I was sorry, didn’t see him and wanted to help him? And could I really help him? What is the number for 911 for dogs? Would he look up at me and ask why? I didn’t think I could deal with any of this.

My nightmares would soon be completely realized. As we approached there was a figure of a lady bent over the dog there on the asphalt as cars continued to whiz by. She was sobbing, her heart utterly broken.

I didn’t even get a chance to say a word to her before other cars started to stop. I saw a man come running up the sidewalk with a handled case – turns out he was an EMT just off duty – but he did little to help the situation when he declared the dog dead. The lady bent over the dog screamed “No! I feel something!” as she ran her hand over the dog’s chest.

In my mind, there was no way that dog was alive. The EMT guy shook his head as he felt for a pulse but he didn’t have to say anything. The evidence there at the scene made it clear and, perhaps thankfully so, that dog had passed instantly.

“I’m terribly sorry,” I said to the lady bent over the dog. “Is that your dog?”

She looked up at me, tears streaming down her face, makeup all over the place, her eyes showing a deep level of grief. For a second, I thought she was going to scream at me. Instead she looked away from me and quietly said “No. I was behind you.”

From across the road I saw another car stop and another lady tentatively get out of her car. “Is it a dog?” she asked. “A Rottweiler?”

Another man who stopped confirmed that it was and the lady came running over, darting out in front of traffic, screaming hysterically.

“A hit and run,” the man said, of no comfort to anyone.

“No, it’s not,” my wife said. “We’re right here. We hit the dog.” I felt eyes on me suddenly, and none of them were sympathetic.

I called the local animal control and got routed instead to 911.

“Hello, 911, how can I help you?”

Just come and arrest me, was my initial thought. I’m a dog murderer.

I don’t think I could have felt worse than I did at this moment as now there were two grown women in the middle of the road grieving with sobs and wails over this poor animal. I told the dispatcher where I was and what had happened and she asked me if the dog was deceased. I softly said yes, feeling my neck and face grow hot as more eyes upon me seemed to drill inside my head. I was very close to tears and about to lose control but knew it would do no good in the situation at all.

Once removed from the phone I didn’t know what else to do. The drama unfolded quickly as human reaction, blame and recrimination took over.

One by-standing lady had the presence of mind to ask the dog’s owner if there was a phone number she could call to her family, to get her some help.

The police arrived and did nothing more than watch the drama unfold.

Again, the opinion was stated that it was a hit and run and I went up to the officer and told him who I was and that I had hit the dog.

He nodded and asked me if there was damage to my vehicle.

The thought hadn’t even occurred to me and I told him so. “Go check it,” he said.

So I walked back to the Lincoln and saw the only evidence of a collision was the bent license plate in the dead center of the car. There was no way that 25 pound dog could do anything to one of the biggest beasts on the road. I didn’t know the officer had followed me and he spied the license plate when I did.

“Do you want to claim damages on this?” he asked me, rather clinically.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked, finally losing my patience.

“I understand,” he calmly said. “But technically that dog is property and it was in the middle of the road. The dog owner is at fault and thus liable for any damage to your vehicle.”

I told him no, the plate was new and sure enough the impact had bent it up a little but other than that I was certain there was no damage to the car.

He took my information and we walked back to the owner of the dog, who was still stroking the head of the dog. She was still crying, still wailing, in fact.

Her mother finally arrived and came and knelt down beside her. “If you hadn’t had let her out this wouldn’t have happened,” the mother said.

“Mother, how could you? How could you say such a thing to me?”

She threw herself on the body of the dead dog, crying “Oh, Gracie, Oh, Gracie! Come back, baby!”

Hearing the dog’s name pierced me. I know how I would feel if we lost our dog in such a dramatic way. He is an integral part of our family and I instantly connected now with this poor grieving woman who didn’t want to hear how it happened.

It turns out the dog’s owner is from out of state, in town to celebrate the mother’s birthday. They brought the dog at the last minute and everything was fine until a visiting 6-year-old niece accidently let the dog out while the owner was at the grocery store. Not seeing the owner’s car there, they surmised, the dog got spooked, went looking for the owner and ended up in the middle of the road. The mother blamed the daughter, the daughter blamed the niece and the whole thing deteriorated from there – a family yelling and blaming each other right there in front of a gathered group of total strangers, over the dead body of a beloved pet.

I felt a tap on the shoulder. I turned around and the police officer motioned for me to come over. “You can go now,” he said. “There’s no use to prolong this and really nothing more you can do. Thank you for stopping, most people wouldn’t have done that.”

I felt terrible. I hadn’t done anything other than to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any kind of delay would have prevented this scene and the heartbreak of the moment. If we had stayed at the meeting just a little longer, perhaps, to chat with neighbors and friends, maybe we would have been one of those cars passing by and rubbernecking to see what had happened to someone else. Or maybe if I had stopped for gas this could have been avoided. But because of that one little hiccup in the cosmos I was there and witness to it all, feeling emptiness and sorrow and grief that could not be relieved.

I am not a person who can leave things unresolved. I was raised in the golden age of television where monumental issues got settled in 30 minutes around commercials. I’m a Libra, lover of balance and all things fair and light. And in this situation there was nothing but darkness, nothing but grief and nothing of hope and redemption and, more importantly, love.

My wife could feel what I was feeling. She is wonderful that way. Throughout all this she stood there rubbing my back, silently taking in all I was taking in and for a woman who is usually very emotional she was unusually stoic. I felt her gently pull at my arm, as if to say, it’s over – let’s go.

Just as I was starting to turn I felt another hand reach out and grab for my shoulders. I was shocked to see the first woman who I saw crying over the dog suddenly hugging me like a lost son. “It’s not your fault.” She said. “Don’t walk away from here blaming yourself or hurt by their grief.”

I asked her who she was and why she was so upset. “I’m nobody” she said. “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, just like you. But God gave me this thing for animals and Gracie needed me in her final moments. But she’s gone now and probably happier, running freely in a place where there are no cars. Now go and forget about this horrible thing. It was an accident. Your heart didn’t do this and if it had the power to change the moment I know it would.”

That was love enough for me in that situation.

If I was pensive before this strange episode it made me pensive still.

Love and grief and heartache are all intertwined emotions, provoked by words of reaction spoken in moments of stress. As I thought about it, I had witnessed nearly every human emotion there on the side of the road. And the lessons were all very sobering.

I live in a place where many people, like me, believe in life after death. My own conviction of this is so strong that I honestly, in my heart, know that I would take a bullet to the head before denying it. It is a part of me, an almost irrational truth to those who shake their fist at the universe and cry there is no God.

There is a God. I know that. And His love and His concern for us – all of us, even Gracie – is all encompassing.

He was what I thought of as I drove home from that awful scene.

The lack of faith I witnessed in that terrible moment of stress – where that emotion called grief revealed itself to me, momentarily, as a selfish tool to blame others for an irreversible fact – likely caused the dog’s owner to wonder where God was in all this.

And why didn’t God, who supposedly knows all and loves all, stop this from happening?

The truth is that God was there. He didn’t stop things because there is a natural order to things that even God does not interfere with. That is why He is God. He understands this. He understands that our growth as individuals could never occur in a protected environment where bad things never happen. He knows that our emotions need to run their course and that we need to shake our fist at the sky and scream “Why?”

He knows that for as much happiness as Gracie clearly brought to this world a full appreciation of her could not happen until she was lost from it.

That’s a cold, loveless thought. And it is a thought completely explaining the nature of God’s love.

He descended below all things. So many make a point of emphasizing the cross and I take nothing from it in my comments here. But the Savior’s real sacrifice came in Gethsemane, where He, like us, asked for the bitter cup to pass.

The Lord doesn’t want any of us to feel the pain and loss but knows that, at times, we must. And He understands. That is part of the reason why Gethsemane even happened.

In the morning, Gracie will still be dead. But I am hoping cooler heads prevail and that the dog’s owner and her mother will put their arms around each other and appreciate each other a little more. When it comes down to it, we are all each other ever has – warts and all.
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  1. Old Comment
    [B]Hi Jeff. You ARE truly a compassionate man. If you were not, you would not have had those feelings after the accidental hitting of the dog. Please try not to blame yourself. Things just happen sometimes. [/B]

    [B]As a great lover of dogs and really all animals, I will say I am sad right along with you but I agree, it was NOT your fault. As you said, we don't know why things happen. They just happen in a natural order. [/B]

    [B]In my belief, Gracie is now on the "other side" and I believe she is with the Father who created us all. I hope you will be at peace again. You have nothing to blame yourself for. [/B]
    Posted 09-22-2010 at 11:15 AM by caninemom3 caninemom3 is offline
  2. Old Comment
    rodmonster's Avatar


    Thanks Jeff... now i cant read MMC at work anymore...cause i am starting to tear up in front of my staff.....

    I have been here as well though. Only once and with a stray dog in the country and he too looked at me right before. I did all i could but in the end at 55 mph he was gone. I called animal control and stayed there. I never called the cops......i had physically moved the poor guy off the road and knew he was a stray that ran with a few others near our neighborhood. It did serious damage to our explorer (tore the bumper off and bent the oil pan - etc)...but i could have cared less... Even though at the time we had no money for repairs (i used tape to hold the bumper on for a year after that) was of little concern compared to the worry of the pup i hit. At the time i had a big guy myself ( i think you remember he passed last year from bone cancer) and it made me realize how easy he could get out and then it could be him lying here. We were extra careful after that and have been with all our family pets since then.
    In the end - God needed the pups for one reason or another and there is a reason for it happening...... could have even been the lady behind you might have hit the pup and she might have seriously lost it and not been able to be as strong as you were in the end...who knows....
    I guess its the circle of life and God has his plan and we just have to do the best we can with what he gives us and trust in in him....
    Posted 09-22-2010 at 11:36 AM by rodmonster rodmonster is offline
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