The highway was packed. Bumper to bumper, barely snaking forward—glaciers have melted and formed new oceans faster than I was moving. The car radio hummed and my three-hour journey home for Thanksgiving slowly turned into four hours, then five. At one point, I shifted into park and began looking around at the other cars idling in the dark—a frazzled woman white knuckling her steering wheel, a couple resigned to the wait flipping through their phones, a car full of college students heading home for the first nice meal they’ve had in months.
Normally an impatient person, something stopped me from wallowing in frustration. Not a single twinkling headlight could be seen heading the other way; an eerie graveyard silence on the other side of the highway during the busiest travel day of the year. I kept thinking, this has to be bad. This has to be really, really bad.
As I crawled forward into the night, I felt an immense sadness for the inevitable wreckage ahead. I was heading home to see my family, to celebrate and give thanks for all of the gifts in my life, and on the other side of the dark highway a speeding car, a tipped semi, or a distracted driver had possibly ended those same plans for someone else.
Finally, I reached the scene of the accident. Twisted steel and mangled metal littered the side of the road. The cars looked like tin cans someone impatiently tried to open with a pocket knife, and had been inexpertly stabbed at until the contents poured forth. Specks of broken glass scattered across the cement reflected the twirling blue and red lights of the police cars, a shimmering layer of calamity lighting up the concrete.
Suddenly traffic picked up, and just like that, I was free. An extra few hours in the car, a short explanation upon arriving home late, grim nods around the living room that it was “such a shame,” and then back to the merriment. It was all just a brief layover, a minor inconvenience easily forgotten. But I can’t seem to forget.
Life and death are inextricably woven together. Yin and yang, light and dark, two sides of a DNA helix. Sometimes I feel like both are so incredibly arbitrary, and that breaks my heart.
My dad drove into a moving train once. Full on hit a train. It was dark outside, the solitary light that normally illuminates the railroad track was burned out, he was fiddling with his radio and not paying attention to the road (there really is no excuse for hitting a train, but those are the ones he has proffered). He hit the train in just the right spot, sliding under one of the train cars and, lodged there, moved with the train for several yards. He hit a bull’s eye in a game of darts and walked away without a scratch.
When I was in the sixth grade, my classmate’s sister had a friend over for a sleepover and they found a mouse in her house. Wanting to set it free in the cornfield across the street, she started to walk across the road with the mouse cupped in her hands. Maybe if it hadn’t been dark outside, if she had been looking at the road instead of down at the mouse, if the elderly man driving the car had better reflexes … but it was, she wasn’t and he didn’t. She was hit and killed instantly.
The space between life and death is often hazy: a split second decision, a foot on the gas pedal when it should have stayed on the brake, a screech of tires and a plume of smoke curling towards the clouds. Death is usually seen as the evil villain to life’s comic book hero, but it can sometimes become an unlikely gift. It gracefully ends the life fully lived and gently slows the breath of the suffering.
Death is not a gift I am eager to unwrap. But I do hope that the idea of death, the omnipresence of it, and the slow journey towards the inevitable will help me appreciate the other half of the DNA helix just a little bit more. I have been given a great gift—we all have—and I hope that by more fully recognizing the awe-inspiring moments in my day-to-day life I can diminish the arbitrary nature of death. There is meaning in death; I want to believe that. We appreciate things more when we know they are fleeting. Without death to remind us to take advantage of the opportunities life offers, maybe we wouldn’t.
On the night after Thanksgiving I was sitting by a thick, smoky fireplace surrounded by friends. We were just chatting; the kind of lazy conversation that comes naturally after a few beers and a late night. As I sunk into the couch cushions, the taste of hops on my lips, the smell of burning wood heavy around us, laughter ringing in my ears, I closed my eyes and thought, this has to be joy. I look forward to appreciating even more of the joy in my life, and I look forward to never taking this fragile gift for granted.
It can be so easily taken away.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Jelle