I didn’t realize I was dying.
No one else realized I was dying, either.
In our defense, people don’t usually die in a vehicle full of search and rescue volunteers. Heck, we were the saviors, motoring up a mountain road to stretcher some poor bastard with a broken leg out of the French Pete Wilderness Area.
I didn’t realize I was dying as I gazed out the rear window of the rig. We were traveling high on a ridge above the South Fork of the McKenzie. I looked downward onto a vast valley of old growth Douglas-fir. Dark green spires reached upward into the August evening, the orange sun slung low over a western ridge. I was dying, and at sixteen years of age this was to be my last living vision, or perhaps my last vision if it turns out the dead have no visions.
As last visions go, it was pretty darn good. Face it–for many it’s an office cubicle just before a fatal Monday morning heart attack, or a circle of frantic faces inside a racing ambulance, or the sterile softness of white curtains in a hospital room. One could do worse than going out after beholding the uninterrupted majesty of a native forest.
Looking out across an old growth valley while being poisoned by carbon monoxide is a peaceful way to die. It’s especially peaceful when no one is noticing. And almost no one noticed. Except Jim. Jim was a large young man with a fuzzy beard and thick glasses who shared the cargo space with me. He was probably half again my size. So when those insidious seeping fumes carried me serenely away, Jim’s size kept him conscious. He was also savvy enough to realize what was going down. In this case it was me.
Jim began pounding frantically on the back of the cab, and got the rig stopped. Because of him, that forest panorama was not my last experience on this earth. Instead, I woke up angry. Utterly angry. Someone was slapping my face hard. I fought them as valiantly as I could, if only in my swimming consciousness. Cold water streamed over my face. A voice yelled “He’s coming around, get him up, get him up!!” Two people hoisted me from the roadside gravel, pulled my limp arms around their necks, and drug me around on boneless legs. Then I began to walk in the dusky evening. Alive.
Maybe that last vision really does matter. This is especially true when we don’t end up dead. I have a soft spot for big old forests. I love to meander through them, put my face against the deeply furrowed bark of Douglas-firs, stare straight upward into their dizzying needled heights, watch shining knives of sunlight pierce through canopy ribs, my nostrils filled with life-giving decay. For me, the forest will never be a commodity. What price could I attach to that old growth valley disappearing behind lids that drooped into untimely oblivion?
I admire people with no misgivings about their lives. But I’m actually grateful for my handful of regrets. How can we know if we are reaching widely and deeply enough unless there are those things that wriggle from our grasp, fall by the wayside, leave us with the astringency of loss, the desire for more? For starters, I wish I hadn’t dropped out of my high school typing class, wish I had become fluent in another language, or at least kept playing jazz trombone. Seriously, though, I wish I had lived with less anger. If you’ve been on the receiving end of my sometimes inappropriate volatility, I apologize. You see, being slapped back to consciousness is a violent way to reenter the living world. But anger saved my life. Were it not for the fight within me, there may not have been a me beyond those first sixteen years. So I ask you to hold me gently in my anger.
I wish that I had lived with more gratitude. Forty-four years have flowed beneath the bridge since my traveling companion got that rig stopped in time. Forty-four years, a gift from an unlikely hero who had the sense to act and save my Mom and Dad from burying me before any of us could sweat through my high school graduation. Forty-four years of all the stuff: triumph and despair, euphoria and depression, poverty and … well okay, more poverty.
I’ve begun to see that gratitude deserves a place next to love and beauty as a fundamental operating principle for a well-lived life. I’m so grateful to all of you for partnering with me over my six decades, especially for these forty-four bonus years I’ve been given on the bright surface of this furiously blue planet.