October 17th has become an anniversary that is as important to me as my birthday. Indeed, as the years pass, it has become even more so. October 17, 2000 was the day my life nearly ended and, in many respects, it was the day it began. Seven years ago today, I had no idea that just 24 hours away my purgatory awaited. It turned out to be a place between life and death that I have heard about, but until then, never experienced.
While it is true that I have had many “brushes” with death, they always remained what can only be described as “close calls.” Some years ago, I became aware that I have a deadly allergic reaction to a common over-the-counter medication. The first indication was the rapid onset of anaphylactic shock - if I did not have the wits to seek medical aid in time… well, they said the end would was only about 15 minutes away. Close enough? Not really. It was a fleeting moment and recovery was almost immediate. Many of us have experienced at least one close call at some point in our lives. Perhaps it was on the road, while engaged in some recreational activity or just from the things that come at us - and just miss - through the course of our lives.
October 17, 2000 was not a close call. It was a direct hit. Circumstances in my life had me perpetually off-balance. Exasperated by a lifestyle that can only be described as reactive, I was always “catching up” and as a result often found myself sleep-deprived. The morning of October 17th was not particularly unusual - I was tired and running late. I had to get my younger two boys to school and myself to work. In fact, it was a good day for my sons to be “sick,” a condition I not so subtly suggested to them. At 11 and 13, they were old enough to stay home while I was at work.
My 11 year-old readily took the bait - any day home from school is a good day. My 13 year-old, however, was still smarting from a tongue-lashing I delivered some days before. Although he acknowledged that maybe he was not feeling well, he didn’t want to get even more behind at school. He didn't want to disappoint me. Then he turned the tables on me by saying what I would often say to him when he claimed to be sick, “I’m not too sick to go to school.” Of course, I had no choice but to get him there, better late than not at all.
It wasn’t as though I didn’t think I could make it, I had made the trip from our home in Truckee to Squaw Valley more times than I can remember. I just didn’t want to. Hell, I didn’t even want to go to work, I was tired. But I had to do both and I didn’t give it a second thought. Running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, I finally hit the road. I guess with the stress of finally getting under way relieved, I felt somewhat relaxed. Driving through Truckee and turning onto Highway 89 towards Tahoe City was my last clear memory for about five weeks.
Just about a mile before Squaw Valley, my vehicle crossed over into the opposite lane and directly into the path of a fully loaded logging truck. According to all accounts, I was sound asleep at the wheel. The truck driver said he sounded his horn several times, but my vehicle just kept coming. He moved as far to the right as he could, but it wasn’t enough - the front left corner of my car struck the front left corner of the big-rig at a combined impact speed estimated at more than 100 miles per hour. My Jeep Cherokee (a rental, but that’s another story) was predictably totaled and unrecognizable. The Peterbuilt tractor pulling the logs was also totaled; logs and debris were strewn across both lanes of Highway 89 over several hundred yards.
And I was totaled. My son escaped with minor physical injuries and the logging truck driver did as well. All of us were wearing our seatbelts and the Jeep, at least, was equipped with airbags. My injuries included: A compound left femur fracture; a compound, open pelvis fracture; a lacerated liver; a lacerated kidney; and a lacerated femoral artery. I was taken by ambulance to Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee where they stabilized me for the helicopter flight to Washoe Medical Center in Reno. I remember none of it until I was taken off the helicopter in Reno.
By that time, I had already taken something like 16 units of blood. To put that into perspective, the average body only holds about eight. I was losing it as fast as they could put it in. The first fuzzy memory I have is of the trauma surgeon on duty asking me to wiggle my toes and squeeze his finger. At the time I was oblivious and the lights quickly went out again. I had more foggy memories that I can today link up with the reality that spawned them. It is absolutely amazing what trauma, shock and opiates can do to one’s perception of reality. But there were other recollections as well. As weird as the “reality” based memories were, the “other” ones were out of this world.
And I might mean that quite literally, I really can’t say. I believe this was a near-death experience, as in I experienced what happens at the time of death - but came back. Before we go on, I must make some things absolutely clear. I am not some follower of psychic mumbo-jumbo. I don’t believe in horoscopes, tarot cards, palm readers or any of that other stuff. It is still true today. Although I can’t say with certainty, I do believe there is more to existence than just the physical world we are in. It cannot, however, be proven to my satisfaction by myself or anyone else. It is only a belief, and I am ok with it. I think there is more to this whole life thing than meets the eye.
I used to proclaim myself to be an atheist. Indeed, I was an evangelical atheist - it wasn’t enough that I didn’t believe, I had to convince you that you did not either. I wasn’t exactly on a mission, but I never passed up the opportunity to engage anyone regarding his or her beliefs. Today, I am not so sure what I believe and I certainly don’t have room to tell you. That makes me agnostic, if a label is even necessary. The experiences I had that cannot be linked to reality in anyway were the catalyst.
There was no bright white light, no angels playing harps and no pearly gates. There was neither an ethereal being drawing me near nor leading me away, but I was never alone. Time had no context; there was no day or night; no years; no nothing. Although there was the presence of others, there were no voices, no faces and no names. It was more like an energy that permeated everything - an energy that I was part of. I was wandering aimlessly but never lost, confused but not scared, always comfortable despite being thrust into the unfamiliar.
I don’t know if this journey lasted a second, hours or days. I do know that when I was weaned off the medication that kept me semi-conscious and immobile, five weeks had passed and hell for me was about to begin. My family was living with the gravity of the situation the entire time, and at the beginning, they did not know whether I would even live through it. Indeed, even if I did, there was no telling how much of my former self would remain. What would I remember? Would I ever walk again? How long will the rehabilitation take? I was blissfully unaware. My memory gradually got clearer until just before Thanksgiving when I re-entered the real world. They untied my restraints and removed the tracheotomy. I could move (a little) and talk.
But I had a long way to go. In time and with a lot of help, I have been able to make an almost complete recovery. I still have a steel rod and some screws in my left leg and a host of very large scars, but all things considered I was extremely lucky. Or was I? Perhaps luck had little to do with it. Again, I really don’t know, but I do have a different perspective that at the very least has made me far less arrogant, not nearly so combative and much less condescending. Furthermore, I am far more appreciative of the little things in life. It did not all happen at once, it took a lot more than a three-month hospitalization to get here.
And here is a very good place. Although the pain was monumental and the struggle to get back was the hardest thing I ever had to do, it was all worth it. I have today things I never knew I wanted and didn’t even believe really existed. No longer stumbling around in the dark, I now have a direction; a purpose in life and it isn’t necessary that I know what it is. It is an intangible but oh-so necessary part of life that I could never quite grasp before it was nearly all taken away. It isn’t about stuff or status or prestige or recognition - it’s about what’s on the inside and when the inside is at peace, the rest follows.
Life is good.
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