For me Death has been reality for a longtime. Long before I read the Bridge to Terebithia or watched Stand by Me. I met death for the first time in the 2nd grade.
My grandfather had passed away the year before. I recall watching my father sitting on the edge of the bed sobbing uncontrollably. This strong behemoth protector of mine was so small, so fragile, and so weak. I felt frightened.
My Dad’s mom had passed, long before I was born. So I guess at this point I only understood death in the abstract. I had no context for it since I never got to meet her. Never touched her face beyond the smoothness of an old photo or the words of the poem my grandfather wrote about her.
As I watched my Dad cry I wanted to hold his hand, to sit in his lap. I was usually much more independent, never wanting to be held. But somehow I knew he needed it. I watched my mother console him. This is my first memory of the impact of death on a loved one.
My parent’s decided my Grandfather’s funeral was too much for one so young. We were kept home. There was no goodbye.
So it was in my second grade school year. My teacher, Mrs. Young died. She’d just begun to teach us cursive. To this day I associate the skill with her. I loved everything about her. Her smile, her perfume, the way she knew what we were doing even with her back turned towards the class. In the middle of the year she was gone. Poof. Just like that. I can’t say of what. All I know was suddenly there was a sub filing in. No one taught us cursive anymore. I missed her terribly.
This time my parents decided to allow me to attend her funeral. Perhaps they hoped to aid my understanding. Maybe it was at my insistence. Whatever the reason, they relented. Everyone seemed to be wearing a big hat that day. I think it’s odd. That’s one of my strongest memories, a sea of big black hats and tears in the giant oaken church. There she lay displayed up front. So still, so silent. Nothing of the woman I loved. I peered upon her face and knew she was not in there. I just knew. This was the first time I saw death.
Over the years there were many more. Because let’s be honest in time we come to know death better. It’s to be expected really as we age. The rest of my grandparents passed away, some classmates and close friends too. My freshman year in college I saw a man get hit and killed by a car. I’ve seen people jump to their death from the bridge by my office. I am oddly familiar with the grim reaper. More so then I’d like to be.
But none more so then the day he sought to introduce himself to me personally. I was taking my dog to the vet, driving the back way into Boulder. The road winds along through the foothills. There is a stretch where it carves into the hillside, a ridge rising up on one side and a cliff falling off the other. Kenai was just a pup. I reached down towards him. To check his running nose I think. I don’t really remember. It was only a split second. But it was just enough time for my right tire to slip off the road into the ditch. I quickly corrected. I over corrected. And my rear wheels spun around. I began careening, sliding on the driver’s side wheels, half on tilt, into oncoming traffic. The cliffs edge lingered just beyond and was coming on fast. Time froze.
I could clearly see the couple in the oncoming vehicle. The looks on their faces said everything. I was going to die. They knew it. I knew it. Oddly I felt peaceful. I heard no noise, nothing. Time was suspended in silence. It was as if I was watching a slow motion movie scene play out before me. I don’t remember my life flashing before my eyes, no past recollections. I simply accepted what was to come, complete calm washed over me. I can’t say I’d any choice really.
Somehow, an only God knows how, I managed to stop the car just as my back wheels hit the cliffs edge. And the headlong car managed to avoid a collision dodging around me. I doubt any of us know how we got so lucky. Thankfully there were no other cars on the road. I got a reprieve that day.
I guided my car back onto the asphalt and made it another 15 yards or so before pulling off to the side. All my calm evaporated and reality setting in, I began to cry. I don’t know how long I stayed there but I knew how close I’d come to death.
I wish I could tell you this made me understand the fragility of life; that I began making smarter choices. But it would be a lie. I was young and though I’d danced with the cloak I still thought I was invincible, the hubris of youth.
It has taken cancer and my time struggling in the hospital to really understand the fragility of things. Only now have I begun to truly understand. And I’ve yet to decide what to do with my newfound wisdom. And even with my cancer diagnosis I still don’t know when I’ll take my last breath. But I can tell you it’s changed how I live.
Just the other day I was at happy hour with friends. I was discussing a book character who with one touch she knows how you’ll die. My friend said she would like to know the moment of her death. “Why?” I asked. “If you knew, what would it change for you?” “What would you do differently?” “What if it was tomorrow, or next week, or a year from now, or 20, what would you alter?
“Because aren’t we all dying every day” I said. That’s’ the truth I forgot before cancer. “So why hold back? Because really let’s be honest. None of us ever knows when it will come. “
So as Tim McGraw so aptly sings, go sky diving, rocky mountain climbing, bull riding. And love deeper, speak sweeter and give forgiveness you’ve been denying. Live like you are dying.