You ever think you were dead? Or more clearly put, have you ever thought you were seconds away from dying? I’m not talking about a death that is imminent but still arms length away; everybody has had that “death” experience.
Once I thought I had a brain tumor. My father had died from a brain tumor so it didn’t seem like it was that far-fetched. For weeks I had an odd pressure around the base of my skull, and eventually I decided to go to my doctor. After examining me for a bit he suggested that I have a CAT scan done, and immediately the room went blank.
I remember thinking at that exact moment, as the nurse was rushing to get me a glass of water, that it really did happen the way you saw it in movies. People did hear terrible news and their bodies did in fact collapse and withdraw from the conscious world.
I spent a number of long, sweaty, sleepless nights pondering the possibility of my death between that doctor’s appointment and receiving the results of the test. But even in that context I knew that I would have time before drawing my final breath.
Time to make amends. To right wrongs. To say things that I have been derelict in saying to those that I loved. To knock a few “bucket” items off the list in my waning days. It was a feeling of impending death, but not of acute death.
I can honestly say that I never felt such a joyous relief as I did the day I found out my scan was clear. I pulled over to the side of a busy freeway in Southern California and wept like a child in my car for what seemed like hours. I then proceeded to call everybody I loved and told them I was “okay” and how much they meant to me.
After that I drove first to a liquor store and then to the beach. I walked out onto the sand, feeling the sensation of each grain squeezing between my toes like it was the first time ever. I sat down on a small dune just past the tides reach. I watched a sunset like no sunset I had ever seen before. I drank the best beer I had ever tasted in my life. I pondered what I was doing in my life and how I could be a better person and make a difference in this world.
I made a vow that I would change my life. That I would make good use of my “second chance,” and that I would live every day to its fullest. That lasted roughly until the following Friday night when I went out and got shitty drunk with my friends. That night I came home in a haze, somehow managing to empty my pockets, peel my clothes off, and fall into bed.
The next morning I got up around noon and stumbled into the shower. As the warm spray from the nozzle began soothing my pounding head, I heard “tink, tink….tink.” Perhaps a post binge delusion was taking hold I thought. But there it was again…”tink, tink, tink.” I turned around and saw an assortment of shiny coins on the shower floor. As I looked down the back of my legs I saw the familiar faces of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln imprinted into my skin.
The day I thought I was closest to death was a beautiful green grass, blue sky type of day. Definitely not the type of day on which you expect to die. I was sixteen years old and on the infield of the running track at my high school with some friends. Nobody felt like practicing on such a beautiful day, so like most kids our age we decided just to fool around instead.
This took the form of taking the pole vault mat and flipping it end over end down the length of the field. The mat was a massive foam type structure, easily six feet high and twelve feet long, and as we would topple it, it would curve over from its own weight before completely collapsing flat to the ground, somewhat reminiscent of a breaking wave.
Being that we lived in a surfing town, it didn’t take too long before somebody got the bright idea to “surf” the mat. This involved waiting until the mat, which had been tipped up completely on its end, began to “crest” and then running underneath before it went completely flat. When it was my turn to go, I shot under the beast as it rushed towards the ground, but lost my footing half way through.
And then it was dark. Darker than any night I had ever seen. I don’t think I was trapped exactly in the middle of the mat, but it didn’t really matter as I was covered completely on all sides. I immediately panicked and tried to push myself up off the ground. The mat was both heavy and soft so my efforts yielded little result. On one side I could see a slice of light, and I yelled and tried to move towards it, but I couldn’t and the light went away.
I was genuinely afraid for my life at this point. And then it got worse.
Not knowing the true peril I was in, my friends started to jump on and roll over the top of the mat. I let a blood curdling scream that no one could hear. I was having a hard time breathing as my face was smashed into the soft dirt below the grass. I tried to cup my hand around my mouth to form a small cone, anything to allow a bit of air in my lungs, but it didn’t matter. The weight of my friends on the mat was so great that I couldn’t expand my chest to inhale a breath.
I figured I had less than 60 seconds left on the earth at that point. The thing was, at that moment I truly thought I was going to die, but my life did not flash before me. Maybe I was too young for that to happen. Nor did I think about the things I would be missing out on, or the loved ones I would leave behind. All I could think of was the headline that read “Teenager Dies In Freak Accident.”
I don’t know what happened next, but suddenly the pit was lifted and I was free. Just like that. I think that someone else just wanted a turn to “surf” it. I knew that there was no way I could impart to my friends what I had gone through in those terrifying moments so I didn’t even try. By the same token, I never really mentioned this story to anyone in the years since because I didn’t think I had the ability to truly convey how fearful I was for my life.
Every now and then my mind will wander back to those moments under the mat, but I have to force it to stop. Its like contemplating the universe while looking at the stars on a moonless night; if you let your mind go past a certain tripwire of thought, it will not end up in a good place.
Anyway….I was thinking about death today.
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