On most Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I have a fairly set routine. Drive down to the National Mall and start running around 5:50am. A mile in, I meet two or three other friends and we run four additional miles. We all head our separate ways there, and I usually run another mile and a quarter before heading off to the gym.
For some reason today, I changed the route of my last, solo mile, and ended up passing by the National Museum of the American Indian right as I hit the 6-mile point. In other words, I was almost done. And as I was heading by, I saw an older woman waving a cane at me. It took a couple of seconds for it to fully register, but then I slowed down to see what was going on. (My immediate thought was that she was lost and needed directions.)
“Excuse me,” she said, “but this cane isn’t enough today. Can you help me across the street?”
I blinked for a second or so and then, “Sure, of course.” How often do little old ladies actually ask you to help them across the street, right?
So, she took my arm and we started heading slowly across the slate sidewalk in front of the museum, and then crossing Jefferson Avenue. “My son normally drives me to work,” she said, “but he had to go in early this morning.”
“Oh, ok,” I said. “And this can be a little slick with the cold weather.”
“My legs aren’t very good,” she confided to me. “I have sickle cell and it makes it hard to walk. My doctor told me I should retire because I’m turning 70 this year but if I just sit around the house then my legs will get stiffer and then I won’t be able to walk at all.” (Later, I realized that she might have said something different than “sickle cell” but it’s what I heard then.) A minute later she said, “I’m so sorry if I ruined your run, but I’m glad you stopped. Several people just walked right past me.”
By this point we’d crossed the street and were still going strong. In the back of my head it hit me that she had wanted help for a little further than just across the street. And so we kept going, up 4th Street and all the way to Constitution Ave. She paused and said, “I’m almost there,” as if to let me go, but at that point I was in it for the long haul. I said that Constitution wasn’t an easy street to cross under the best of circumstances, and she agreed and we went a little further until she insisted that she was good and had no more streets to cross and was on her block. By this point we were just around the corner from the DC Courthouse, a third of a mile from where we’d started.
The whole time we walked there, we talked about the weather, she told me about her son’s job, and even pointed out a building he’d helped construct. She mentioned that sometimes she took the bus all the way in from Anacostia but it was too cold to wait for the line that would have taken her all the way and she’d thought she could walk the rest. And all I could think about was if it was my mother or grandmother (she reminded me so much of Grammy that it brought some tears to my eyes) and everyone had walked past either of them, how horrible I would have felt.
It made me think, how often do all of us (myself included) just hurry past someone who needs help, assuming that someone else will step in? And if she’d said, “Could you walk me to the DC Courthouse” would I have done so or would I have been more worried about the last quarter-mile of my run, or the fact that at 7am the parking meters would click on and I’d be skirting the edge of getting a ticket? I can pretend that I would have not worried about all of that. But you never know. There’s a good chance I might have kept going.
(I also like to think that if I’d initially realized how far it was, I would’ve had the good sense to just say, “Let me get my car” and run over to it and picked her up. By the time we were at Constitution I was kicking myself for not driving her over so that she wasn’t on her feet the whole way. Hindsight is 20/20.)
I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. I think there’s something particularly arbitrary about them and they’re just not for me. But I might make an almost-exception here. I am going to try and remember this down the line, and be more observant for those in need that I can assist. A couple minutes out of my morning is ultimately not that big a deal for me, but it can be huge for someone else.
I might not know this woman’s name, but I am going to remember her for a very long time. I’m sharing this story because hopefully, I won’t be the only one to do so.
(Oh, and in case you were wondering: I got back to my car at 7:10am, and there was not a parking ticket on the windshield. Thank you, universe.)