Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Here Comes Ol' Death and George Saunders

I have this memory, and it pops up every few days, particularly when I cross Independence at 15th, where it happened. Where a truck ran a red light and we collided. 

When it comes to me, this memory, I still feel his mirror snapping off my helmet; it's incredible, really, how you can snap a fully attached and completely untampered-with mirror off with your head. I don't feel the two vertebra breaking, and I don't feel my elbow being sliced. The main thing is the shock of seeing a vast thing, something I had ruled out, appearing. And then there's the feeling of lying and looking up at the sky, there in the middle of fully stopped midday intersection, having escaped death. 

 I survived because I ran into the side of him, (rather than he running into me), right at the driver's side front wheel. I'm not sure if my front wheel hit, but by the time the side of the truck hit my back, I was already in the air and spinning, and I'd already considered the possibility that I was about to die in a very real and not hypothetical way. 

 Two mental effects followed: euphoria and terror. 

Three years later I consciously bring the memory to mind, to make me ride more safely. Slow down. Don't time traffic lights. Sometimes I bring it to mind to remind myself of the gift of living, of every moment since that nearly last moment. Sometimes the memory comes to mind and lingers in a kind of prolonged terrifying reverie, does not lead to other, more pleasant thoughts.

My own near death--it's what I thought of when I read a conversation with the writer George Saunders:
It would be so interesting if we could stay like that,” Saunders said, meaning: if we could conduct our lives with the kind of openness that sometimes comes with proximity to death. He described a flight from Chicago to Syracuse that he was on a little over 10 years ago. “We were flying along, and I’ve got a guilty pleasure — I’m reading Vanity Fair — and I’m on my way home. And suddenly there’s this crazy sound, like a minivan hit the side of the plane. And I thought, Uh, oh, I’m not even gonna look up. If I don’t look up from the magazine, it’s not happening.
And then it happened again.” Everyone starts screaming, the plane is making terrible metal-in-distress sounds. Black smoke — “black like in a Batman movie” — starts streaming out of the fresh-air nozzles overhead. They turn back toward O’Hare, “and there’s that grid of Chicago, and I’m seeing it coming up really fast.” The lights flicker, and the pilot comes on and tells everyone, with panic in his voice, to stay buckled. “And there’s this little 14-year-old boy next to me. He turns to me and says, ‘Sir, is this supposed to be happening?’
“And I remember thinking, No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Just that one syllable, over and over. And also thinking, You could actually piss yourself. And the strongest thing was the sense of that seat right there.” He pointed toward the imaginary seat back in front of him. “I thought, Oh, yeah, this body. I’ve had it all this time, and that’s what’s going to do it. That right there.” He had assumed that if he was ever faced with death, he would “handle it with aplomb,” he would be present in the moment, he would make peace in the time he had left. “But I couldn’t even remember my own name,” he said. “I was so completely not present. I was just the word no.”
Eventually he managed to turn to the kid next to him and say that it was going to be O.K., “though I didn’t think so. And there was a woman across the aisle. And finally — it was like coming out of a deep freeze — I could just reach over, and I took her hand.” That’s how they remained for the next several minutes, waiting to die.
In the end, they didn’t crash into the Chicago streets or plunge into the freezing lake but made it safely to the runway, where all the emergency-response equipment was in place but not needed. It turned out, in a detail that could have been lifted from a George Saunders story, they all nearly died because the plane had flown into a flock of geese.
“For three or four days after that,” he said, “it was the most beautiful world. To have gotten back in it, you know? And I thought, If you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it’s actually going to end. That’s the trick.
Death, Saunders suggests, is a good thought to keep close because it reminds us we are alive, and that we will one day die.  
George Saunders
It's a different sentiment than the one that says to live each day as if it is your last.  This is wrong.  If we lived each day as if it is our last, we'd be miserable.  We'd eat what we wanted, weep profusely and annoyingly, keep telling people our feelings (that'd get real old), and no one would ever try to build anything, because, hey, last day on earth!  In sum, if all of us lived each day as if it is our last, the world would cease to function.  It'd be populated with Lindsay Lohans.

Before modern medicine and the relative peace of recent years death more fully saturated us.  In the past, and in many parts of the world still, death did not require conjuring or effort.  The moments of near death, for the living, were many, and the mind and body held these fatally charged memories near.  It made people different, for instance, by inclining them toward faith.  

It is one thing we lose in our hermetic, safe lives--an unconcern about metaphysics.  Either no belief, or a shallow, megachurch platitudinalism, faith disconnected from death.  Take a look at the old Medieval, Catholic art--death sits at the high table of that faith.
The Triumph of Death, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder
The memory came to me this morning as I rode in the rain, in the misery of near freezing rain, past forms of blankets wrapped in tarps in front of the Veterans Affairs Building on 15th.  Five men who have been sleeping outside there since November, and, before that, I imagine they were part of Occupy.  Two years of sleeping outside.  I imagine them to be soldiers, now unable to make sense of this place.  The news cameras that once flitted over them, that could not capture the smell of their sweat and their cigarettes and pot and booze--long gone.  Now just five homeless men, wrapped in dog blankets wrapped in tarps in the freezing rain.

Are they sleeping?  Or are they living their own moments of near death?  Maybe they never saw combat.  Maybe their life on the streets has not afforded them the luxury of a quick and personal glimpse, as my own was, of death, a convenient memory to conjure up, an anecdote when feeling a little blue.  But, and this is just what I think as I pass them this morning, maybe at the moment I pass, in their heads the shells of IEDs rip through their flesh, the IVs hang above them as they are rushed to the Green Zone, and their minds conjure, again and again, the proximity and terror of death.

In any case, they certainly suffer.

I wish I could stop, talk to them, thank them, hear their cause.  But they are simply shrouded forms, and possibly stoned, and why would they want anything from a dripping wet bureaucrat?

Do a favor for Ol' Paps, in the name of George Saunders, for your own happiness and safety.  Close your eyes and imagine death in the form of a huge truck, materializing on the road, coming for you.  Death!

Now don't you feel better?


mrsmith said...

I randomly stumbled onto a link to your blog from a November Bicycles newsletter from about 5 months ago as I was cleaning out my email. I'm glad I saw this post - thank you for your words. I haven't had any near death experiences lately, but I do have two small children (2 1/2 years old and 4 months old). Having them also helps me to remember to savor today for the special gift it is, and reading this piece brings that idea home in another way. Thank you.

Kevin Cross said...

Thanks, Mr. Smith. Here's to Spring!