A few miles into a Memorial Day weekend bike ride on the Capital Crescent Trail, my 9-year-old nephew Andrew and I pulled over for a water break. Below us off the side of the trail was the Potomac River, with kayakers drifting by. In the distant background stood the iconic spire of the Washington Monument. Pretty cool view for a bike ride, I thought to myself as we took out our water bottles.
Then we heard a tumble and a shriek. Just a hundred feet behind us, a runner we'd passed a few minutes earlier was rolling across the pavement, entangled with a bicyclist. Another bicyclist had come to a stop just in front of them.
"You stay with our bikes; I'll go see if I can help," I said to Andrew.
The woman was clearly okay; she was sitting up on the trail by the time I reached her, whimpering just a little bit as she apologized to the bicyclists. "I know I darted into your way," she said. "I saw a snake by the side of the trail and it started me, so I jumped to the left. I knew you were passing me; I don't know why I did that. It was just that I was so startled by the snake."
The bicycling couple were shaken as well. Though no one seemed angry, I did not feel that they were being particularly comforting, perhaps because they too were distressed. I knew exactly how the runner felt. I had taken a bad fall while running last summer, and I still remember how jarring and disorienting it was even though, like her, I was just a little scraped up with no serious damage done.
But when I fell last summer, the one passer-by who stopped to help continued on his way as soon as I said, almost reflexively, that I was all right, and immediately afterwards I regretted my own self-sufficiency. I had been frightened and in pain. I wished I hadn't been so quick to tell him I was okay. I wished he'd stayed a little longer to be sure.
So when I reached the runner, I put my hand on her bare and sweaty arm and tried to offer comforting words. "It's okay," I said. "I know how you feel. Rattled."
As I touched her, I thought briefly about how some people would not want a stranger laying hands on their bare skin, and I felt momentarily presumptuous, but I had to trust myself that what I remembered needing when I had been the fallen runner -- company, comfort, reassurance -- was what she would want also. I asked her if she'd like a drink of water, and she said yes, so I brought her my water bottle.
"I'm okay," she said. "Just a little scraped up."
"I know, but it's scary. Breathe slowly and deeply," I told her.
In just a minute or two, she was ready to resume her run. I felt as if something had come full circle, as if I'd finally had a chance to reclaim the comfort no one had offered me when I fell while running. It was as if the reverse of what really happened had taken place, as if I'd fallen again and this time been offered a helping hand, simply because I was able to offer one myself.
Later in the day, I saw a Facebook post from a friend who was widowed over a year ago describing a weekend party she had just attended at which she met a woman who had recently gone through the same kind of loss. This friend wrote about the satisfaction of being able to reach out with empathy and help, and about the perspective that the encounter gave her on her own long-term grieving process and all the healing that had taken place for her in recent months.
The two events are not comparable, but the sense of healing that an empathetic moment gave both of us seemed to have a tinge of similarity. It made me think about how trauma -- whether minor, like my tumble, or severe, like her loss -- may be the ultimate pass-it-forward model. We heal when we can help someone else through the same thing. And for that reason, I was so glad to have pulled over for a water break just when that runner fell.