WE'RE ALIVE NOW
Almost dying on a Thursday night
Daniel and Caytlin were two of our closest friends. They both went to high school and middle school together in Tulare, an hour north of Bakersfield. Deanna and I met them in college and we lived with them. Now we were all a bit spread out. Caytlin had moved to Sacramento and Daniel remained in Santa Barbara.
The two of them both happened to be visiting their parents in Tulare at the same time. Deanna and I knew we couldn’t miss the opportunity to see them both while they were so close, so we drove up to see them.
We met at a Starbucks and ate dinner at a Chili’s. Tulare is dominated by chain restaurants and retail outlets. In between these two stops, Daniel and Caytlin showed us around their hometown, the areas populated by the large Portuguese community, the city park, a middle school. In many ways, Tulare wasn’t so different from Bakersfield, just on a smaller scale. We spent the night getting caught up on life and everything we’d been up to.
After a night full of appetizers, Deanna and I set out to go home a little bit after nine.
We got on the road and started driving south. The 99 interstate was a thin, two line strip, that went through dusty canyons in the middle of the valley. It offered little in terms of scenery, unless you really like light brown colors. Even that was invisible at night. The freeway connected a series of small, agricultural towns. Most people took this road at 90 miles per hour, zooming through the boredom and monotony of it.
Deanna was driving, and our dinner was putting me into a bit of a food coma. I reclined her passenger’s seat way back. She was just starting to pick up speed when a dense, round object appeared right in front of us on the road. At first, I might’ve thought it was a propane tank, which we definitely didn’t want to collide with. Deanna pulled the car to the left to avoid the object. Once I got a closer look, I found out it was a tumbleweed.
Out of instinct, Deanna pulled the car back into our lane. The car refused to straighten out, though and continued to veer towards the embankment on the right side of the road. She fought it and the car went left once again. She started pumping the brakes, but she started to lose control. The heavy swerving turned into a battle between driver and car.
“Shitshitshitshitshitshitshit…” I let out. I then occurred to me that those just might be my last words, so I chose something else.
Deanna had given the wheel one more yank and the car started spinning, making full rotations as it skidded down the freeway like a hockey puck we couldn’t control. It was like watching a roulette wheel. I wondered which side of the car would make impact with something. I hoped that it would be my side and not Deanna’s. I tensed up my right arm in case it slammed into something on my side.
I noticed everything around me. I hoped deep down that no car would come through behind us at 90 miles an hour.
We felt a large slam and everything stopped. Dust started to rise up from the car. So much so that I thought it might’ve been smoke. I looked at Deanna.
“Are you okay?”
“I can’t find it,” she responded.
“Can you move? I’m worried that might be smoke.”
I helped her to get out and behind a guard rail on the freeway. A good samaritan puled up behind us and called for the police to come help us out.
The guard rail was what brought the car to its full stop. The back of Deanna’s Subaru was smashed in, and it was unclear at that point whether or not it was salvageable or totaled. I also quickly gathered that it was just dust and not smoke coming from the car.
A police officer soon arrived and we filled him in on all the details. To get us out of potential danger, he motioned to us to sit in the back of his police car while he took notes of all the details. He turned on his flashing lights.
I leaned over to Deanna.
“You know we can’t miss this opportunity.”
I leaned in and kissed her.
“We’ve now kissed in the back of a police car.”
As the squad car continued to pour red and blue light into the otherwise pitch black night, I started to think about how close of a call that accident had been for Deanna and me. If one of our sides had collided with the guard rail instead of the back, it likely would’ve resulted in a serious injury– or worse. If we weren’t alone on the road, most other cars usually take the freeway at such a high speed that the impact would have been severe.
That night served as one of my most vivid reminders of how fragile life could be.
What if any one of those factors were slightly different? What if I hadn’t survived the accident?
I was in the middle of an exciting stage in my life. I was experiencing the peak of independence. I had just taken a life-changing trip to South Africa and it had given me a new understanding about what changing the world actually entails. I had hopes of traveling some more and going to graduate school. I was in an evolving relationship with an incredible girl, and by moving to Bakersfield we had taken the next step of growth together.
All of that came very, very close to a sudden end that night.
But another thought occurred to me too. It would have been okay.
Don’t get me wrong- I loved life at that point. A ton. I felt as though I had been given some of the most incredible experiences and relationships I could ever ask for. I would’ve been sad to have seen it end so early, to have missed out on some more of the places I wanted to go, goals I wanted to fulfill. But on the whole, I also felt content with life.
If it were to have ended at that moment, I know that I would have lived without regrets. I would have accomplished the ultimate goal of Loving and being Loved. I had connected with God in powerfully indescribable ways.
I realized that even if life didn’t end at that point for me, that it has to end at some point. And I knew that I had no way of knowing when that point would be. Old age is no guarantee for anybody. I knew that I wanted to live in a way that would leave no room for regrets at the end, whether that’s a long time from now or not. I wanted no outstanding bitterness between me and any other person. The one thing I wanted to certainly feel at the end was simply an overwhelming gratitude.
At the moment of this close call, I was already feeling grateful. Not just because Deanna and I stayed alive, but because of the things we had to live for. Very sensory memories came to mind. The smiles on the faces of the Zulu boys. The cold air from a month earlier when I went with Ben to Sequoia National Forest. The feel of a kiss in the back of a cop car. Life seemed all the more precious.
I realized that sometimes, how much life you live isn’t always connected to how many years you live. In the past three years alone I might’ve done more living than I did in all the years prior to that. I definitely felt more alive during those three years than I did at any other time. Those were the years I explored my faith to the fullest, the ones where I pursued Deanna, invested deeper into relationships. Those years were ones where I took more chances, going to new places on a whim.
I knew that I didn’t want to live life with my head tucked down, spending too much energy on purposeless tasks without taking more moments to experience the things I would wind up most grateful for at the end of life. With how short and fragile life could be sometimes, I was reminded vividly of how important it was to not be so in a hurry to connect the dots of errands and tasks without ever fully appreciating the things I was doing.
As Deanna and the police officer talked, I reached into my phone and gave Daniel a call.
“Hey…” I started off. “So, we’re safe, but Deanna and I were just in a bit of a car accident.”
“What?” he responded in surprise. “Do you need to get picked up?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Alright, where are you guys?”
I messaged Daniel our location on a map and he told us he was on his way.
Even though life can be short, in some ways its brevity is a gift. Things that last only for a limited time must be properly and appropriately treasured, savored, and not squandered. I thought of all the moments throughout the past year when I managed to truly be present, taking everything in deeply. The bridge over Victoria Falls. The center grounds at 5Cees. These were the moments of significance.
A few months after I graduated from college, I found myself at a family member’s funeral. It was the first funeral I had been to in a very long time. I tried recalling how long it had been since the last one I’d been to, and it was maybe seven years, or something like that. What hit me upon viewing the open casket was a pretty stark thought… I might not ever have that luxury again. The luxury of going so many years of my life without a funeral to attend, the luxury of death existing only as a concept, and not something I’d have to wrestle with on a regular basis.
I thought about getting older and how I was now really entering the full swing of adulthood. Not only would the funerals I’d be going to become more frequent, they would also get more and more personal. People I’m closer to.
I lost three of my four grandparents young, before turning five. My one surviving grandma lived on well into her late nineties. Yet, more and more frequently, I see friends my same age write messages in memoriam to their grandparents. As every generation moves up in age, we all move a little bit closer to the end of things.
For obvious reasons, this can be a cold realization, and not at all comforting. On the flipside, it can also be really motivating.
Whenever I’m reminded how short life can be I become hyper-aware of why it’s so important to let go of things not worth holding on to, and why it’s so important to cling to the things of value.
Life’s brevity calls us to be selective about the things we make room for. It’s like taking a vacation somewhere and realizing that you’ll only have so many days to spend at your destination. It makes you think twice about spending a whole day cooped up in the hotel watching T.V.- a day like that can be nice if it happens intentionally, but it can also be a waste.
I thought about my own behavior whenever times start to come to an end. My last days in Johannesburg, for example. Whenever I know I’m going to miss something, when something is nearing its finish, I slow down and turn all of my senses on to the fullest. I take mental photographs of everything, remember smells, stop in the middle of moments to acknowledge how good they are.
There’s really no reason why this approach shouldn’t apply to life as a whole.
My approach in response to the brevity of life has been to double down on it, to leave no stone unturned on the quest to make the most of it. It’s too fragile and too precious of a gift to not make the most of, making it into an incredible story.
Of course that’s led me down the path of doing things a little more unconventionally. Spending extended amounts of time in South Africa, for one. Living with the the heart of an explorer. To me, it’s about more than just seeing places for the sake of having pictures to show off. It’s about rejecting the templates we’re told life is supposed to look like and taking on a quest, finding purpose in the pursuit.
While that route had taken me to places like Johannesburg, living in its most dangerous neighborhood, or teaching in rough-around-the-edges schools in Bakersfield, I did get a lot of questions about safety. I had a lot of concerned relatives who questioned whether or not what I was doing was worth all of the risks. I thought it would also be a big risk to not do anything with life without having experienced any of it fully. This includes moments of uncertainty and doubt, but also the reward of discovering places and people that make you so thankful for everything you’ve taken in.
There are some people who realize life is fragile, and try and change this reality by living a life of safety, guided by fear. These are the types to never go anywhere new. To fear people they don’t know to well. To see things they see on the news as a reason to shut themselves off to the world, building walls and rejecting others. It strikes me as ironic that someone could rob themselves of life in the process of avoiding death.
Ultimately, life offers no guarantees. It only begs the question– what sort of life would you want to have lived? It asks that we be fully present, not missing out on anything. It’s too astounding and delicate to be lived any other way.
The car accident served as a reminder that for the most part, safety is an illusion. There really is no way to insulate yourself from every possible danger. There are a lot of people who respond to all that uncertainty by living extremely cautiously. While a bit of caution is appropriate, given how fragile life is, too much of it ends up suffocating the life out of life.
Deanna and I waited at a gas station eatery, where Daniel met us. He drove us back to his parents’ place, which was less than twenty minutes away from where he met us. Deanna was kept up late, having to sort things out with the insurance company. I laid down next to Daniel and it didn’t take too long to start togged sleepy from that point. All the adrenaline from the car accident was quickly wearing off.