Saturday, October 06, 2007

Near Death Experience

I almost died Thursday night.

I pulled out of the narrow street in the hills overlooking Lake Buchanon at about 11:00. The road was under construction, with two lanes torn down to chunky base rock, though you certainly couldn't see it with the almost-new moon throwing more darkness than light.

I was frustrated at having lost at yet another poker session and ready to be home. But there was still a forty minute drive ahead of me and I wanted it over. I spun some gravel as I drove onto the road, punching my little Ranger as fast as it would go. I had it up to sixty within moments, listening to the sound of loose rocks pinging on the undercarriage.

As more seconds went by and my sight started adjusting to the darkness surrounding my headlights, the truck started to shake violently.

And I realized I was on the wrong half of the road, on the two lanes closed down for construction.

The truck skewed violently to the right and I released the gas pedal, trying to pull it back to the left without overcompensating. My mind snapped out of its anger instantly, replacing frustration with one crystal-clear thought:

I could die here.

I remember it so clearly, that thought. The road wound in and out of the Texas hill country limestone, crossing over ravines and surrounded by cedar trees. At that time of night I could have plunged over the side and it would have been hours, at least, before anyone would notice, and that only with a careful search.

The truck skewed back to the left and fishtailed, the rear end going one way and the front end the other. In the headlights I could see the small warning placards in front of one of the bridges, just before a major curve.

I need to stop this before I hit that bridge, or I'm dead.

Again the thought stood there alone in my mind, outlined in silver and almost throbbing in its insistence. Press the brakes, but not too violently, pull the steering wheel back in line with the direction of the rear end, don't panic whatever you do. You could die, you could die you could die ...

An image of Annie crying hysterically flashed through my mind, me dead along the jumbled rocks of the hill, or plunging into the waters of the lake and drowning, bleeding out into the creek.

My entire life did not flash before my eyes. I did not beg for mercy, or in my best Carrie Underwood voice plead for Jesus to take the wheel. I had room for only three things: My death, my wife, and how to stop my truck.

I finally shuddered to a halt short of the bridge, breath pounding in and out of my lungs. "Holy shit." I said it aloud. Again. "Holy shit."

I put the car in park and just sat there for a moment, until I felt composed enough to pull back onto the road. The finished road, this time.

As I drove I thought about what had almost happened to me, how many years I still want to live, how precious existence is, how much I love my wife and my life and how I do not want it to be over.

And yet, I thought, not once did I cry out for a higher power. Not once did it even occur to me that a deity might be watching over me, guiding my path, to whom I should beg for mercy.

Believers will tell me that regardless, God was watching out for me, and that is why I am here, today, right now, typing this and enjoying the feeling of being alive. For all I know, they're right.

What struck me, though, is that I don't even have the instinct for God. I like to think I'm rational and thoughtful and have arrived at my belief system after careful consideration and relentless logic. And I have, in a sense, but I think all of that is a superstructure over what was already there, or already not there, in this case.

Whatever belief is, however it's supposed to exist as a part of one's innermost being, I just don't have it. I never have. Exhortations to "just believe" are as wasted on me as "Just see!" is to the blind. I used to think, "I don't believe in God," but the truth is that this isn't a choice. I didn't just decide one day that I don't believe -- it's just not present in me. At all. I couldn't change it any more than I could make myself hear if I were deaf, no matter how great the effort.

I say this not as any sort of argument either for or against religion, or faith, or God, or much of anything beyond this:

In that moment, when I was sure I could really, truly die, the part of me that exists before rationality reached not for the divine, but for the brake pedal.

That's just the way I am built, and if there truly is a merciful God as so many would have me believe, then He is the one who made me this way.

I'm glad I am alive, glad I am here to write this, glad that I know, finally, that what I believe is not a bit of sophistry or an angry response or willful defiance, but simply the way I'm put together.

I don't have any god-belief present in me, and that's ok. I've got a good life, and more importantly, a good set of brakes. For now, that's enough, and I am content.


sph said...

OK, ok already. You can win at Hold'Em this week - we're playing here btw.

Jeez Jeff, that is scarey. I blame R. Perry because the construction should have been finished LONG ago and if he weren't in office, well, obviously you wouldn't have had this horrific but eye-opening experience.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I hope your stomach has settled down. You're very fortunate you weren't hurt. I think in this situation, I probably would've done the same thing -- panicked at first, then had some clear thinking and then shook like a leaf for a long time. But where we differ is that when something like this has happened to me (which is has since I'm so much older!), I thank God for looking out for me and think I was spared because there's something I'm supposed to be doing. I do believe angels watch out over us, and I'm going to believe that angels were watching out for you that night. What's really incredibly wonderful is that there is room for us to see the same situation totally different yet each one of us respect the others' point of view. The most important thing -- you were unhurt. Your first thoughts were of love and contentment, not "why didn't I do..." Catholicism or Christianity aside, having those feelings of love in your head at such a moment is reaffirmation of your caring heart. Take care. Don't stay out too late playing poker (Mom voice here) and stay off that road!! -- Love, your Big and Older Sister!

Anonymous said...

I for one am glad you didn't have a "Damascus experience", i.e., a conversion encounter, on that road. That was no time for "God you're the co-pilot, so take over! I'm outta here!" There are times for metaphysical musings and times for just getting the job done! Whatever it took to direct that truck works for me- you aren't getting out of hosting me at your house that easily! Heck, I'd have to pay for a hotel for a funeral! No Way!
All kidding aside, and only my opinion, but the God I read about and believe in would read your post and might say, "In that moment, he thought about another person and was sorrowful to cause another soul pain, no matter the reason. I think he's got the message, to love one another. So much of the rest is just window dressing. And, oh, by the way, St. Peter, wasn't he a doofus for going the wrong way. Sheesh. I know we're full of them, but make room for another one!"
Doofus #1. JHH

Allen said...

I'm glad you weren't hurt, Jeff. Remember: poker is a game. Life is not. :-)

steppen wolf said...

best wishes to you, I hope you are feeling better

No More Mr. Nice Guy! said...

Glad you came out of it alive. I've heard several times about atheists reacting to a near-death experience with "Holy Shit!" Maybe we worship Sterculius, the Roman god of feces!