Monday, March 3, 2014

Before Helping, Ask What’s Needed

On a recent A.M. drive to work after an overnight winter storm, I came upon a harrowing traffic hazard. It involved a couple trying to negotiating a curve during their own morning commute. The road crews had done their job and streets were passable. Still, what happened that morning is one of the most dangerous dramas I’ve witnessed in recent memory while driving.

              Reflecting on that situation caused me to consider a different ‘near miss’ experience – one that those who have or have had young children in their lives might appreciate. It involved my 22-month daughter. Like many emerging toddlers, Rory likes to climb. And she’s good at it. She’ll climb on anything or anybody; ask around. In this case it was climbing stairs.

              Rory’s too young to descend stairs alone. So it was no surprise at church when one of her play-aunts saw her peril and dashed up steps to render assistance. Initially, the rescuer attempted to lift up my daughter in order to bring her downstairs safely. It was also no surprise that my daughter stubbornly resisted being picked up.

              Instead, as toddlers do, she indicated her desire with a broken phrase or two and nonverbal communication. In this case, the action involved grabbing the staircase rail with one tiny hand and extending the other toward her aunt. After careful consideration and assessment of the situation, the aunt took her hand and the two cautiously descended the stairs together.

              Back to the traffic drama. Turns out the couple in question were traveling on foot. Well, one of them was; the other was in a wheelchair. Many of the sidewalks this winter are impassable, which is why they were on the street. The pair walked close to the curb and faced traffic, like we’re taught.

              Here’s the rub. They were rounding a curve. That made it difficult for oncoming vehicles to see them. What made matters worse was the huge parking lot snow mound that made it impossible for cars rounding the bend to see what lay ahead. The term ‘dead man’s curve’ comes to mind.

              The road was forked at the curve and I continued driving straight but glanced back at the scene in my review mirror. As the person on foot slowly pushed his partner through the wind and slush, he desperately flagged each approaching car to make drivers aware of their presence. Some moved over; others didn’t. Or couldn’t because they didn’t see the pedestrians in time or were unable to change lanes because of traffic.

              The memorable drama playing out that day reinforced my belief in the compassion of people helping people. At the same time, it reinforced the seeming callous we have toward fellow humans. Particularly those who may have special needs but are so in the minority that we rarely think about their challenges – until we run into them.

              What does that day’s recipe for roadside disaster have to do with a toddler descending some stairs? Simple. So many times we parachute into a situation to provide assistance without finding out what is really needed. In the case of my daughter on the staircase, she needed a helping hand rather than a lift.

              In the case of the pair on the street, rather than giving them a lift, perhaps all they want is a helping hand when it comes to enforcing municipal policy to keep public sidewalks clear. Or, if there’s no such mandate on the books, maybe what’s needed is a community of residents that remembers to think about those who don’t want or can’t afford a vehicle and collectively decide to keep all our walkways (and other forms of access) clear.

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