Brushes with Death

I’ve had two near-misses in my life.  I suspect that we all have more brushes with death than we know.  What makes these two stand out for me is that it took telling other people what happened and seeing the horror dawning on their faces for me to realize just how near the misses were.

My first brush with death occurred the summer between first and second grades (I think), when I was 6.  Both my parents worked, so they needed to put me in some sort of daycare program, but they didn’t want me sitting around and playing all day.  They found a program that offered some summer fun but also had actual classes to keep my reading and math skills fresh.

On one of our swimming days, my classmates and I were waiting outside the pool to be herded, counted, and then marched back to school.  I was chatting with a girl named Lisa near the curb when a brown sedan with four adults sitting in it pulled up.  An older man, who looked like he was someone’s grandpa, rolled down his window and said, “Hey! Come here!”  Being the obedient, trusting, stupid 6-year-old that I was, I started to walk over until Lisa screamed, “STOP!” Her shout made me jump and hunch my shoulders, and as I turned around to ask her why she was yelling, the brown sedan drove away.

At the time, Lisa, Grady (her cousin), and I joked about how the old people in the car were probably going to snatch me.  We didn’t bother to tell Mr. Wyler because it didn’t occur to us that we needed to or should.  I also didn’t tell my parents.  I’m not sure how it came up in conversation with friends years later, but it did, and as I told the funny story of being yelled at by Lisa at the pool, the shock and concern on my friend’s face and the perspective of adulthood finally combined to scare the bejesus out of me.

The second near-miss happened a few years ago.  I traveled to Chicago for work, and because I had some spare time and felt prepared for the presentations I had to make, I made arrangements to have dinner with my grandfather.  I took a taxi from the InterContinental Hotel on Michigan Avenue to Grandpa’s apartment on Lawrence Avenue to the Korean restaurant in a neighborhood that had seen better days.  The taxi driver seemed concerned about how we were going to get back when he dropped us off, but I told him I’d just call the main taxi number to order one.  He still looked doubtful but accepted my answer and drove away.

After dinner I called dispatch, and the woman who answered the phone claimed that a taxi would pick us up in fifteen minutes.  Thirty minutes later, I called again, and the same woman claimed that our taxi would be there in fifteen minutes.  My grandfather was in his late 80s at the time, and it was November, so it was cold, and there was nowhere indoors to wait.  A suburban Chicago taxi pulled up saying that he recognized my grandpa from his neighborhood, and that it was illegal for him to pick us up, but he’d take us as far as their neighborhood to get Grandpa out of the cold.  It would be easier for me to find a taxi to take me back downtown from there.  I can’t describe the immensity of the relief I felt to get Grandpa out of the cold and back home.

I opened the door on the curb side and helped him into the car.  He had Parkinson’s disease, so I didn’t ask him to slide over to make room.  Instead I shut the door and went around to the door on the traffic side after checking to see if it was clear.  The instant I pulled my left leg into the taxi, a drunk or high driver came out of nowhere and slammed into the open door going about 50 miles an hour, taking the door off the taxi and raining down glass all over us.  The impaired driver then wreaked havoc at the next intersection.

I didn’t think much of it at the time beyond the frustration of having to find another way to get my elderly, tired, cold grandfather home.  A couple of other cars drove around the block and came back to ask us if we were all ok.  I managed to find a cab for my grandfather, and I stayed for another 20 minutes or so with the driver of our mangled cab and left him my information so he could contact me if he needed to for the accident report.  I called a friend and colleague back at the InterConti to get a cab in front of the hotel and come pick me up.  We went to the Walgreen’s across the street for masking tape and a brush to get the worst of the broken glass of my coat and out of my hair.  Shana also bought me a tube of the lipgloss that she’d been wearing and that I admired.  She helped get me cleaned up, and then I went to my room and went to sleep.

We told our colleagues the next morning what happened, and we all joked about the worst case scenario.  We played out how long it would have taken anyone to figure out I wasn’t coming; how much longer it would have taken to decide who would have to take on the responsibility of presenting and facilitating conversation for our clients for the next eight hours; and how long it would have taken for anyone to find out what had happened to me.  And then our clients trickled in, we delivered our meeting, and rushed to O’Hare to head home.

My grandfather told my mom there was a minor accident.  When I called her and my dad two days after it happened, they didn’t seem worried, and they were calm during the call.  It turns out that after I hung up with them, Dad told Mom never to pressure me to see family on a work trip again because she almost killed me.  I didn’t find this out until months later.  Even then, I didn’t think much of it, although I always enter and exit cabs on the curb side now.

I was in Chicago earlier this week with a favorite colleague who saved me on another storied trip to Chicago.  I was explaining to my co-facilitator why I loved Jessica so much; Jess said something about a bad Chicago experience, and it reminded me of the taxi accident.  I relayed the story, pretty much the way you just read it, and the dismay on their faces brought how near to death I had been into stark clarity.  The source of the shock wasn’t solely from the details of the story but also from the glibness with which I told it.  In that moment, all the fear that I didn’t have the intelligence to feel all those years ago paralyzed me into not being able to move a single step.  I don’t think they noticed, but that split second of paralysis shocked me.

I wish I could tell you that the impact of these experiences, especially the one earlier this week, was to reinforce the notion that life is short and I have to live it to the fullest.  It wasn’t.  If anything, I’ve been more fearful, canceling an Italian lesson to avoid driving in the recent ice storms and worrying about slipping on the icy front walk and cracking my head open like an egg as I walk to my taxi.  I think it’s a good thing that I only know about two of the near-misses in my life.  I’d be even less inclined to leave the house if I knew about the other ones.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s