Three times in my unadventurous life I’ve had brushes with death, real or imagined. I do not willingly participate in activities that I perceive as potentially life-threatening. I don’t ski, ride motorcycles, rock climb, swim in large open bodies of water. Sometimes I think of myself as cowardly, but I don’t seem to need the adrenaline rush that dangerous exploits provide for others. Life itself, I’ve argued, is full of dangers, so it hardly seems necessary to go out of one’s way to seek adventures that needlessly put you in harm’s way.
Indeed, life has delivered to me, unbidden, three moments that could have been story enders. The fact that there are only three in such a long life is testimony to a combination of the caution and good fortune that have marked my life. But I weigh their infrequency against the intensity with which I recall each of them. Each memory triggers flashbacks which carry the actual events through to the terrifying ending that could have been. Unlike the old myth about dreams that if you’re falling, you will wake up before you make impact, these flashbacks go beyond the actual endings to the ultimate outcome, which always includes your death and, sometimes, the death of others. Even as I sit at the keyboard in a room where the silence is broken only by the constant whirr of a fan, these flashbacks wash over me with the full force of terror they’ve always had. Perhaps the one that is now more than 53 years old has been somewhat de-clawed over time, as some therapists would predict, but it can still pack a wallop at my most vulnerable moments. The other two are more recent and writing about them will surely trigger their unwelcome replay.
After what amounted to a six month long honeymoon in San Francisco while I completed my clinical psychology internship, my wife and I packed all our belongings into our Chevy Corvair, the first in a long succession of new car purchases, and headed to Boston where I would complete my doctoral work at Harvard. Instead of pointing east, we had decided to go north through Oregon and Washington and then across Canada in search of exotic settings to relieve the tedium of the long trek I had made in the opposite direction, still a single man then, just a year earlier. The first day we drove through the dramatic terrain of Northern California, which I remember being marked by precipitous rocky ravines and occasional views of the Pacific to the west. At the end of the day we stopped to camp at a state park hugging the Oregon/California border. During our extended honeymoon in San Francisco we had become comfortable campers in the many locations close enough to the city to make for easy weekends away. We often slept tentless, tucked, unprotected from the usually kind elements, in our warm weather sleeping bags, which is what we did that night in Jedidiah Smith State Park.
The next morning, after a breakfast cooked on our camp stove, we headed north toward Washington. The day was clear. The rugged terrain of the first day had given way to gentler, greener rolling fields. I have to admit that I’ve told this story so many times that it’s hard to tell the smooth-edged recounting from the actual events, but here is what I think happened. About an hour or two into what was promising to be an uneventful day, the car suddenly got away from me, as if it was wresting control from my hands. It responded oddly to my efforts to steer it back into its prescribed path. I was zig-zagging into the oncoming lane of this two lane road and back. Twice I barely missed colliding with cars heading toward me before we veered off the road on my side and stopped after uprooting several small trees. I can still see the horrified faces in the front windshield of the oncoming cars as they watched this menace approaching.
The actual physical event was over in a matter of a few seconds, but the ripples it created were just beginning. That night in the motel room where a gracious state trooper had deposited us after our car was towed away, I discovered that I could not close my eyes without the whole horrible scene playing itself out to the catastrophic conclusion that never was. These repeated flashbacks were so intense and so frequent that my wife and I decided that we needed to escape from the tedium of our small town Oregon motel room and the nearby Chinese restaurant that put out rolls and ketchup on each table. We needed the distraction that we hoped Portland might offer during the week the garage predicted it would take to repair our wounded car for the cross country journey that still lay ahead.
That distraction came in the form of The Blue Mouse Movie Theater which offered triple features changing daily. So there we sat through 9 movies over the 3 days, binge watching 50 years ahead of our time. The movies kept the flashbacks at bay for a fair chunk of our waking hours, the most effective and least expensive therapy we could hope for to heal our trauma.
Over the years the flashbacks of that Oregon near-disaster have never disappeared completely. The movie clip of the imagined end of our 24 year old lives loads up on my inner projector and ambushes me every time, erasing all that came after – children, grandchild, work, travels, moves, friends. I am resigned to the fact that this flashback will dog me to the true end.
Fast forward 50 years. Among our many moves, there was an 11 year stay in New Hampshire, important years in our daughters’ childhoods, taking our older daughter from first grade through her freshman year of high school and her sister into middle school. Our attachments to the place run deep. Those years fostered a real fondness for small town life and introduced us to the natural world in ways that are outside the universe of most city folk. Although we left 37 years ago, we have returned every summer for periods ranging from ten days to six weeks.
For the past several years our daughter Elana, husband Ben and our granddaughter Dalia have joined us in this ritual of return. Together we have constructed a check list of places to go and people to see, much of which was for Dalia’s benefit – the town library, the children’s museum in a neighboring town, the friend with chickens, the petting zoo that has been around since our own daughters’ childhoods. The culinary highlight of the annual visits is a trip to the Peterborough Pizza Barn to which we have assigned three stars for producing the best onion pizza on the planet.
So, where is the darkness in this Rockwellian lead-in? What follows is, in fact, so dark that I haven’t shared it with anyone before for reasons that will soon be obvious. Two summers ago we had all made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Pizza Barn and, sated, were ready to head home. We had come in two cars, so we decided on a boy/girl split for the return trip. Son-in-law Ben would join me and the ladies would claim the second car. The restaurant feeds onto a fairly busy road and is just far enough from the center of town so that cars and trucks have not yet been warned to reduce speed. I was looking to my right to determine a safe time to turn left onto the road back to town. There was a truck in the distance, but I felt confident that I could enter safely before it reached us. I was so focused on that distant truck that I completely missed a much closer truck that was bearing down on us at a fairly high speed. Just as I began my turn, Ben shouted in a panic “STOP!!!” I immediately crushed the brakes and stopped just a car length or two short of that truck which sailed by without so much as a honk of its horn. Just that distinctive whoosh of displaced air, followed by silence.
To cover up my horror at the nightmare I had almost created, I quickly resumed the conversation Ben and I had begun moments before, avoiding mention of what had just happened. I wasn’t sure Ben was as frightened as I was, whether he would ever trust me again as a driver or whether he had already put the event behind him and moved on. For me, everything that went unsaid in that moment was poured into the flashback that has plagued me ever since. The squealing brakes, the explosive meeting of metal with metal at high speed, the unbelieving faces of the three generations of women standing in the parking lot, their lives forever derailed by the tragedy I had caused.
This is the flashback that triggers the most visceral terror in me. All that tragic loss on my shoulders is almost too much to bear. It is a reminder that our lives are filled with close calls, each of them threatening to send our lives careening down unimaginably dark pathways.
This is the most recent flashback trigger, albeit several years old by now. It is the one responsible for these traumatic musings. Notice how each of them is surrounded by ordinariness, shielding us from anticipation of anything cosmic about to occur.
Our daughter Elana and her family rented a house in suburban New Jersey for several years. On one of our visits, we were returning from an outing laden with bags and packages. There was a space for parking their cars in front of the garage behind the house, which was then accessible by a set of stone steps up to the back porch entrance to the kitchen. My wife and I were, as usual, trailing the pack, so everyone was already at the door preparing to enter, while she and I were still just two steps from the bottom. She reached in front of me and handed me a bag to carry which surprised me by its weight just enough to throw my balance off. One of the first things to go with aging is balance. I find myself moving with caution in situations which would never have even caught my notice before: shuffling to our center seats in the theater over the tangle of feet of the audience members already in place; navigating between the tightly planted rows of vegetables in our community garden, fearful of tipping over and crushing our entire lettuce crop; navigating a spiral staircase whose steps vary in width from side to side. I suspect that all those broken hips that old people incur are more about balance than soft bones.
In any case, that heavy bag tipped me backward, and I began to fall back on my wife who was one step behind. We both wound up sprawled on our backs at the bottom. She was writhing in pain with what appeared to be a wrenched back caused by the awkwardness of the fall. Cushioned by her body I was unscathed, but without her behind me I would have cracked my head- on the bottom step or on one of the paving stones at the bottom that separates the steps from the grassy lawn.
And therein lies the flashback, completing the scenario in the darkest way. Over and over I see myself falling backward, the fall unbroken by any saving presence behind me, hearing the cracking sound of skull on stone and then lights out.
In each of these flashback moments the divide between endgame and business as usual is very thin indeed. It is one of the many reminders that surround us of the fragility of life, even the lives of relatively protected middle class people. We are faced with many close calls and near misses in our lives – in our cars, on our bikes, in the water, crossing the street. Why only these three incidents triggered flashbacks is a mystery to me. Perhaps they provide the most graphic opportunities to imagine my own death, though it seems as though other near misses held out similar possibilities that never materialized. I have had a gun pointed at my head by a car jacker, but that experience never transformed itself into anything more than an engaging dinner party story. This is a mystery whose solution continues to elude me.
Not everything is a near miss. Sometimes the tape plays out to the bitter end, one from which the victim does not return to tell the tale. When you’ve been walking between the raindrops for 80 years, the chances are good that there’s a final scene out there waiting for you to be cast in it.