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Thursday, February 16, 2017

What Could I Have Done to Help the Man by the Canal?

I love to walk on the local canals here in Mesa.  They zigzag throughout the busy city.  Cars drive by on the busy streets and it gets especially chaotic during rush hour, but out on the canal it’s serene and peaceful.  The water moves at a snails pace and welcomes ducks that swim and search for food.  Occasionally a fish makes itself known and I wonder what else is down in that murky water. 

Last spring, it was one of those days when the sun was shining bright, but the air was blustery and cold.  The baby and Eden where wrapped up in a blanket in the jogging stroller and I pushed them through the neighborhood until we arrived at the canal.

As a woman and a mother, I am always evaluating situations for safety, sometimes subconsciously.  This day was no different.  Sitting near the water, I saw a man about a ¼ mile up the canal.  He was sitting alone.  Was he writing in a journal or working on a piece of art?  I’m not sure if I wanted to respect his privacy or keep my distance, either way I instinctively made the decision to walk on the other side of the canal
The walkway of the canal path sits several feet above the water.  While pushing the stroller, the strong wind gusts seemed to push at the wheels.  The stroller responded and it was like we were in this game of tug of war.  I kept both hands on the handlebar and recognized the potential danger of the stroller getting too close to the water.  It was during this debacle Eden and I both noticed the man, now directly across from us on the other side of the canal. 

His body language seemed full of messages.  He appeared unsettled, thoughtful and unsure.  Was he making a big decision?  Seeking inspiration?  Was he upset?  How many times had I come out to the canal with big ideas, obstacles or insecurities in my mind?  That’s when Eden spoke and with the swirling wind gusts, I could barely hear her:

“Mom, that man looks like he’s going to fall in the water.”

And he did.  He was sitting very close to the water's edge, but he was in fact a man, not a child?  Was it my call to consider he was sitting too close?  Through out the years, I'd seen many people fishing on the canal and they would sit near the water's edge.  Was he fishing?  He must see me, but he wasn’t looking up.  I wanted to respect his privacy, but I also wanted him to know I saw him.  If he was sad, I wanted him to know someone cared.  He had a box next to him, like a tool box or was it a lunch box disguised as a tool box?  Was it full of fishing gear?  Art supplies?  Lunch? 

“Hello,” I said and smiled, but he refused to look at me.  Did he speak English? Perhaps the wind was too loud.  Did he hear me at all?  Again the stroller pulled against the wind and I focused my attention back on the kids.  It was late in the afternoon and I didn’t want to be stuck on the canal in the dark. 

Within 30-45 minutes, I turned back onto our neighborhood street and considered what to make for dinner when my cell phone rang. 

“Honey,” and I heard the desperate voice of my husband on the other end. “Are you alright? Is everything ok?”

“Yes, what’s wrong?” I asked.

Derek explained to me he had just picked up our son at basketball practice and was driving home, right by the canal he knew I was walking on with our children.  There were police cars, fire trucks and an ambulance.  His first thought was something had happened to me or our children, but I immediately knew.  The man – he’d either intentionally or accidentally fallen into the water. 

Why?  Why hadn’t I done anything?  My intuition was something I could always count on, but it had failed me.  I was more than capable of handling an emergency, this emergency.  I could have helped him.  My dad was a psychologist and I’d grown up with a keen awareness for mental health.  I’d been a swimming instructor through the City of Mesa and was trained in CPR.  More then once I’d been the first to witness a car accident or medical emergency and I was at my best under pressure. 

In my mind I could see the man’s face.  Looking back, I could see the signs.  That’s when I realized I could have called someone?  I should have called 911 and said, “There’s a man here and I’m not sure if there’s a problem, but he appears troubled and he’s sitting close to the edge of the canal.”  Why had I cared so much about respecting his privacy? I considered why I didn’t walk near him, but instead walked on the other side of the canal.  Was he really a threat or had I over reacted? And the wind!  It had prevented him from hearing me when I said “Hello,” or had it. His body language had not invited me in. If he had heard me, he didn’t acknowledge it, but that wind pushing the stroller had kept me more focused on my kids then him. 

It was too late. He was gone and I couldn’t believe it. I called the non-emergency police department for information.  I told the dispatcher I’d just seen him and gave her a description.  I told her I should have done something and she said something about hindsight, that I'd done what I thought was best and to not feel guilty about it. Later, I did an internet search and read he had drowned.  The article didn’t say why, just a man had been pulled out of the water and was pronounced dead.

I didn’t go on the canal for a while.  I prayed about the man, about my experience and felt a bit lost.  Wouldn’t God have wanted me to save him?  “Why” was a question I couldn’t answer and it made me mad at myself, very mad.  I knew if I allowed it, this experience could put me in a dark hole.  I tried to keep my distance from the guilt, some days doing better than others.  One evening after work, Derek picked some roses from our backyard and suggested we walk to the canal and spread the pedals where I’d last seen him.  He said I needed closure.  

We left our home and when we turned the corner to the canal, I wondered if I could do it.  I’d failed that young man.  I was the last person to see him.  I could only imagine the heartache and pain his family and loved ones were going through. I held Derek’s hand as we walked back to where I’d last seen him.  On the ground, pebbles had been made into the shape of a heart and white sand had been placed inside.  

A note, maybe from his sweetheart had been pinned down with several large rocks.   

“Are you alright,” Derek asked as he put his arms around me.  I wanted to ask why, but knew the question would remain unanswered.  I pulled the petals off the roses and dropped them in the water, hoping the young man knew I would never forget him.  Most importantly, because of him, I would never miss an opportunity to help someone.

Over the last year, I’ve had two more experiences by Mesa canals.  While driving, I witnessed a man and woman fighting on the canal path.  He appeared to be shoving her.  I called 911 and reported what I thought might be domestic abuse.  I didn’t question if I was wrong, I would let the authorities investigate.  I’d rather be safe than sorry.  And just last week, my daughter Eden and I were driving to an appointment when I saw a woman standing near the water’s edge.  I stopped the car and asked if she was alright.  She wasn’t.  She asked for something to drink and I had a water bottle in the car. I offered her some money so she could go eat.  I told her “God loves you.  He told me to stop and help you.”

I’m glad I’ve been able to help in my own way, but nothing will make me stop asking “What if” or “If only.”  I’ll never know if I could have made a difference to the man sitting too close to the water, but if someone out there is struggling today, please know someone cares and that in honor of this man, I’m not letting another chance go by without helping someone.

I trust God knew what he was doing that day, but I wish I could have been the one to help the man by the canal, to tell him everything would be alright, that I could have offered him a hand and he would have walked away from the water’s edge.

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