Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Beautiful Panic of Death

"Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Boswell: Life 1777.

One winter night a few years back, my wife and I were driving through Texas, heading home after visiting family in Tennessee. It was getting late and the roads were slick, covered in sporadic patches of “black ice.” I was the only one awake. In the back, I could hear the kids snoring softly in their car seats. My wife had also given up the ghost, her head now resting in her seat belt like a hammock. The roads were dangerous but I was being very careful. I had both hands on the wheel, a straight back, and every nerve in my body poised for the unexpected. Despite all of this, I ran into a patch of ice and immediately lost control of the car. The steering wheel was suddenly a pointless device in my hands. The car had become a wild thing, moving on its own accord. We did a one-eighty on the highway and, much to my horror, ended up facing traffic. But, amazingly, there wasn’t any traffic. Sure, I could see the lights of a semi-truck headed our way but it was still very far off. I had plenty of time to turn the car around and start us back in the right direction. My wife woke up immediately, scared to death. Later she told me that the first thought that ran through her head was, “oh crap, this is really going to hurt!” Gladly nothing and nobody was hurt. The kids never even woke up. As we set out again I could still hear them breathing softly in the back of the car. My wife and I talked for a while, wide-eyed and relieved, but soon she went back to sleep, and I was driving again in the quiet like nothing had ever happened. But something nearly happened. Our lives could have been changed forever but instead I took a small sip of Mountain Dew and turned on the radio.

The next few days back in Texas were odd for me… In the past I had seen people unexpectedly die or heard news about such things and noticed that the days that followed were always a flurry of unexpected busyness. Funeral arrangements would have to be made, relatives would come flying in from all parts of the country, there would be hospital sleepovers and casseroles, flowers and suit jackets. And the funeral would come very quickly too—usually two days after the actual incident. Two days earlier you would have never imagined yourself in this place. You had different plans, a different life. But two days after our “almost” incident, my family and I were all together in our little apartment, eating Taco Bell for supper. I couldn’t help but be haunted by all this. I couldn’t help but think about what this day could have been if that semi-truck had been any further down the interstate. Today would have been funeral day. It would have been a day for me to re-imagine my life under new and horrible circumstances. Whenever you dodge a bullet like this the potentials of everything that could happen cripple you emotionally. Everything suddenly becomes precious-- the kids, my wife. Even the burrito I was eating was precious. It’s good to eat. It’s good just to live and be normal… Anyway, it took several days for me to calm down and settle back into what was customary and quiet about my life—everyone happy and healthy.

I don’t know if it’s normal for a person to mourn over the loss of a feeling, but I’ve sure done it. In the weeks that followed our near mishap on the highway I found myself mourning over the loss of that feeling, that panicked intensity of nearly losing my family and maybe even my own life. There was something beautiful about the “awakeness” of that feeling. Everything was in the sharpest focus. Somehow I knew what was important and my heart was bent towards it like never before. And I knew what was unimportant. I was able to laugh and even sneer at typical everyday bogeys like unemployment, being bored, being sick, or even being aimless in my life or career. Those horrors were emasculated in the clear light of that beautiful panic of death. All I wanted to do was huddle up with my wife and kids. To hell with the world. To hell with my career. To hell with everything that wasn’t ultimately important.

But soon enough I found myself over my head again in the tepid concerns of the immediate. I had a deadline at work. My boss manufactured a scenario that sounded very serious. We have to make the deadline. People are depending on us. By the way, I was an animator on a cartoon show. I had shots that needed to be turned in. It was time to get to work. And little by little, I was dragged back into it—back into the lukewarm pressures of the world and the manufactured panic that postures to be more than what it really is. I got to the office super early the next morning. I suppose I put in a good twelve hour day before finally knocking off and coming home very late that night. The kids had already eaten and were in their pajamas. I was too tired to read to them, so I sat on the couch and watched my wife read. They went to bed. We went to bed. There was a cop show on TV. There was a commercial for high speed internet, the news and then a weary dissolve into sleep...

Welcome back to the world.


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