We were driving to a gathering of naturalists -- bird-watchers and amateur scientists – who were taking their children to see the fens near the shores of the Irish Sea. The Girl and I talk about the natural world every day, but she longs to talk about these subjects with kids her own age, and here I hoped I found kids who would share our interests.
On the way, though, we came upon a man lying unconscious by the side of the road, with a few people gathered around. I pulled over and let them know that I had Red Cross training, and was relieved to find that one of the people already working on him was a nurse preparing to give him CPR. The bad news was that the victim, a bicyclist apparently hit by a car, had a serious head injury and I didn’t feel a pulse.
I told The Girl to wait in the car about ten metres away, and in-between checking on her we did whatever we could, but when the ambulance finally arrived – it seemed like an hour later, and was probably ten minutes -- he still had no pulse.
I noted, in a moment of small gratitude, that he was an elderly man, at the end of a long life. I noted his church hymnal and apparent name, and pointed it out to the priest who arrived from the village. I saw the driver who accidentally killed him, distraught on the margins. The nurse in her Sunday finery knelt in the grass and attended to her ritual, a number of us struggling to help – and at the epicentre of this attention, a head wound and grey flesh that told us our efforts were pure ceremony.
As there was little we could do with the man we made ourselves useful however we could, directing traffic or holding cardboard to hide the body from motorists. Gardai (police) arrived one by one until the area was a crime scene, and long after there was nothing else for me to do, we still waited at the scene, as our tiny car was boxed in by emergency vehicles.
I returned to The Girl, waiting in the car. Thank you for being so patient, I said.
“Is he dead, Daddy?” she said. I nodded, and held her for a while.
When we finally got on our way, we talked about how it made her feel.
“I didn’t feel scared,” The Girl said. “I feel sorry for the man who died, but I don’t feel that much.”
You don’t ever need to apologise for how you feel, I said, only for what you do. You did the right thing, waiting patiently, and that’s what counts. You feel whatever you feel, and it’s never right or wrong.
“Did you know him?” she asked.
No, I said, but I saw what looked like his name in his hymnal - he seemed to have been riding his bicycle home from church.
Whatever his name, we should pray and remember him. I’ll try to picture him, not as he looked lying there, but as he must have been in life.
That body was a man once, I said – he must have giggled as a baby, and run through fields as a child, and endured adolescence. Maybe he had a first kiss, maybe he got married, maybe he had lots of friends, or still does. So let’s you and I remember his life once in a while, because that’s what we’d want people to do for us.
“God, why did you have to give us such a strange day?” she asked rhetorically.
We’re alive and healthy, and it’s a lovely warm day, and we’re going to the seaside, I said. For us, it’s the best day in a long time, and all the better if we could at least try to help someone, even if we failed. We don’t need to feel sorry for ourselves.
As late as we were, the day turned out amazing; The Girl and I met children with the same passions and knowledge, and they talked eagerly about the prehistoric animals they both love -- the Jefferson sloth and the Opabina, and all the supersized animals of the world gone by. They went to the seaside and fished their nets in the surf, holding intense debates about whatever they found. The parents and I relaxed on the beach and exchanged numbers to get our kids together more often.
We explored the fens and hid inside a bird-watching hide together, looking first at the birds and talking about their feeding habits and mating rituals. Then, cheekily, she saw people walking along the beach through her binoculars, and began describing them in the same way as the birds.
“Daddy, I see a Pink-Suited Lady walking along the beach, and a Bald Glasses Man is giving her directions – I think they’re flirting!”
We drove home giddy and exhausted, listening to Vince Guaraldi and discussing how no one could ever feel too terrible listening to his music. We passed through the Dublin Mountains, their flanks covered in the blinding yellow of gorse and their tops of bald stone. We passed fields of rapeseed just coming into their own golden blooms, and sprays of toadflax erupting from castle walls.
Clouds in the distance looked like they had been touched in watercolour, and then smudged across the sky. Then the sun broke through in several places at once, sending shafts of light down to the green fields below and illuminating sheep in the distance.
The Girl putting her bare and sandy feet up on the seat cushions, saying, “Daddy, I think we are living the Life.”
Yes we are, I said.