I experienced two close calls recently. The first happened driving, when I turned right while pulling out of a parking lot, only to discover a car in my lane heading right at me at 70 mph as he passed another car. I pulled over to the shoulder just in time, stopped my car, and waited a few moments until my breathing slowed and I stopped visualizing my death.
My second close call happened at home. I was carrying groceries to the basement freezer and pantry when I took my eyes off the steps, missed one, and fell hard on the concrete floor. I smashed my knee, but I could tell from where I was lying that my knee still worked. I did a quick inventory of the consequences had I smashed my head that hard, or suffered a crippling knee injury. Kim asked if I were OK, and I said yes. The groceries I was carrying were not damaged.
These two close calls led me to recall a fall I wrote about several years ago:
The Fall: Intimations of Mortality
It was a glimpse of my mortality. I knew about mortality in general, but not my own.
I was helping prepare for my granddaughter Laila’s birthday party. My job: to assist in blowing up the helium balloons. We were working in the little gatehouse at the entrance to the apartment complex – about 30 yards from the clubhouse where the party would take place. Cars were whizzing through the entrance. I was to take about a dozen of the balloons to the clubhouse, and when there was a pause in the traffic, I set out at what I thought was a dignified jog.
I made it about 10 feet when suddenly my shoe caught on a strip of concrete in the asphalt and I found myself lurching forward. For a split second everything was fine, as I have lurched occasionally in the past with no harm done. But then I thought, “Wait a minute here! I’m going down! I’m actually going down! These things don’t happen to me! I’m an athlete (or was one)! I’m healthy! People tell me I look young! People envy my life – as well they should! So, what am I doing falling in the street?”
My thoughts were interrupted by the pavement. It hurt. I was lying on the asphalt, and I had apparently cut the heel of my hand because it was bleeding. And my knee hurt. I was down.
A car stopped at the gate and a very nice gentleman got out of his car, helped me up, and asked if I were OK. I assured him I was and started to explain about my granddaughter’s birthday balloons, still in my grasp, but he did not seem interested in my story. I limped the rest of the way across the entrance, and he proceeded on his way.
As I walked toward the party I was desperate to find someone to blame. Someone else to blame. But there were no speeding cars I was dodging, no poorly designed or constructed pavement. I was wearing the wrong shoes, some weird clogs, but they did not cause me to trip. Could I blame the balloons? No, they probably, in a minute way, eased my fall.
Nope. It was me. Fallible me. I immediately thought of a similar moment 3 years previously, when I capsized a canoe in the Bow River in Alberta. I had the same, “This doesn’t happen to me” feeling as I was going down, but there I had plenty of places (other than me) to lay the blame: the river, the barely submerged concrete in the river, and the guy who never should have taken us out onto such a river. But this time it was all me. I fell. And I am going to die.
But not today. And not from falling with a bouquet of balloons in my hand. But some day . . ..
I thought of the moment in War and Peace when Prince Andrei, mortally wounded in battle, is in disbelief that this could be happening to him, who everybody loves. I was not sure that everybody loves me, but the disbelief was the same.
When I arrived at the clubhouse, nobody seemed aware that I had realized I was going to die. No, instead they were busy with crepe paper, food, and the speakers and electronics that were to be the centerpiece for the karaoke-themed party. I handed off the balloons and, holding up my battered palm, said, simply, “I fell.” Kim expressed sympathy and concern – but only for my injuries, not for my impending death, which she did not know about. I reassured her that I was fine, that nothing was broken – except my dignity and my immortality. I was glad that she did not see me fall, and I was especially glad she did not see me fall while she had a camera in her hands. Scott hustled me off for a bandage.
I returned to my balloon duty, a new man. A new old man.
As Kim shared the story of my fall over the next few days, she somehow turned me into a hero for not releasing the balloons. A comic hero, perhaps, but still. No, not exactly a hero, because she also said that passers-by might have thought I was a clown. Kim has a lot of insight, and I think that once again she got it right.