The other day, I was trying to take a nap, but when I saw a spider crawling on the ceiling directly above me and it got me to thinking. What if the spider lost its grip, tumbled through the air, fell into my gaping mouth, got swallowed, panicked, and injected poison into my esophagus. That would cause my throat to swell shut, cut off my air supply, and finally stop my heart. Then, as my body relaxed, I could see the spider crawl back up my windpipe, out my mouth, and continued on his (or her) way.
Why do I have thoughts like this? I have no idea.
But one thought leads to another and this one got me thinking about death in general. I did an inventory on how many times in my life that if things had gone just a little differently, I would have been gone a long time ago. My tally of near death episodes was:
- four by car crash (passing without enough room, a cow on a dark highway, not yielding for a stop sign, trying to pass in the fog) [we probably have all had some of these],
- two while driving on ice,
- one for driving in a blizzard,
- one for hitting a deer at 60 miles-per-hour,
- one by drowning in a lake,
- two by stomping (by bull/burros),
- one by hypothermia,
- one by mule kick,
- one by mud,
- one by falling (me),
- two by falling (trees),
- one while wading the Yellowstone River,
- one by lightning,
- three by snakebite,
- one by scorpion bite,
- two by slipping on glare ice,
- two involving bike accidents,
- one by gunshot (maybe),
- one by having appendicitis in the back country of Glacier National Park,
- one for being in a truck as it nearly slide off a snow bank and then off a cliff,
- one for nearly sliding my car off a levee into a canal.
- Oh, and one for tripping on baby blanket, launching into the air, and then crashing down on a child’s toy drum.
- That comes to 32 times I could have been just as dead as if the spider fell in my mouth and poisoned me. All of those possibilities and I haven’t even counted the heart attack I had at 33, the quadruple by-pass at 37, the irregular heartbeat at 38, the stint at 40 and the blood clot at 43. That’s 37 times, 38 if you count the near miss with the spider, that I have cheated death so to speak.
Now that I am 67, I know I won’t be cheating death many more times. In fact when I purchased a five-year service warranty on my major appliances, renewed my driver’s license for seven years, and had a new pacemaker (batteries have an eleven-year lifespan) implanted, I wondered if I was going to really need all that time. Maybe I should be getting the cheaper options with shorter warranties or lifespans.
But thoughts about death by spider got me thinking the first time I nearly died at the age of 16. Here’s the story:
In high school, Jason, Joe and I hunted ducks a lot because the hunting season lasted for most of the fall and winter months. Most of the time we only shot ducks as they jumped up off small cattle tanks or streams. But when we spotted some ducks on large lake one November, we decided to give them a try. We knew we were just responding to an irrepressible urge and the probability of actually shooting any ducks on the lake was pretty much a “fat chance. “
So we turned off the road, parked, then walked through some large boulders to the lake’s edge. But the ducks we had seen earlier were already gone. But soon one lone, black and white duck came flying by. The duck seemed to be too high and far out to shoot, but when I saw it was a canvasback (I’d never shot or even seen one this species before) I couldn’t resist pulling down on him and touching off a shot. Miraculously, he was soon tumbling down and splashed a good 75 yards out into the lake. It was an unbelievable shot and even elicited a “wow” from Joe.
Retrieving downed ducks was usually not a problem on the small tanks, ponds, shallow streams, and sloughs we usually hunted, but it was going to take a fairly long swim in really cold water to collect this duck. I debated not trying it, but the hunting code we lived by said you don’t kill something and then just leave it to rot. Anyway, it was my first canvasback and it didn’t count (count for what I’m not sure) if you didn’t retrieve it.
So I started to strip down. Jason said, “ Your not going to swim out to that duck are you? That water is cold as hell.” I responded with, “It’s not that far out. I won’t be in the water for long.”
I put a bare foot in the water and instantly pulled it back. I decided that the only way I was going to get in was to do it in one jump. I leaped in and when I hit the water, it was like getting hit in the chest with a sledgehammer. It literally took my breath away. I thought my heart would stop.
Good sense dictated that no duck was worth the risky, freezing swim. But good sense was never one of my strong points, and besides I had an audience I didn’t want to see me “chicken out.” So I pushed out towards the duck doing the only stoke I knew—a sort of froggy-style, breast-stoke. I only got out a few yards before the initial shock of the cold water gave way to a serious case of shivering. But I kept going and 100 strokes later, reached the duck.
I immediately turned and headed back. The only way I could swim with the duck was to throw it in front of me ten feet or so and then swim up to it and throw it again. I did this until I came to a small island of rock sticking out of the lake. I could barely climb out, but when I did I began uncontrollably shaking and having serious doubts about being able to make it the next 30 yards to shore. I looked up to yell at Jason and Joe that maybe we were going to have to consider Plan B. They were nowhere to be seen. Didn’t they realize I was doing something really stupid, not to mention, dangerous!
As the sun went down below the horizon, the lake became strangely purple and ominously dark. I knew if I was going to give swimming another try, I’d have to get back in quickly. But I paused and then, like many, many times later in my life I contemplated “Do it or don’t.” When I look back at my decision-making during many of these life-or-death moments, I now realize that the choices which put me in these precarious situations weren’t based on an intelligent thought process, but rather the unrealistic premise that “No way my life is going to end like this, not today.”
I got back in the water and struggled towards shore. I thought about leaving the duck behind, but couldn’t bring myself to do that. My breathing became very rapid—but I kept moving closer to shore.Looking back, I truly believe if I had been 10 yards further out from shore, I might not of made it. But I did, and at last, I pulled myself out of the water and looked back over the lake and for just an instant had a flicker of how lucky I had been. Fortunately, it was just a flicker. If I had paid any attention to it, a lot of future adventures would never have happened.
I put on my skivvies and my boots and gathered up the rest of my clothing. I hiked up to the truck to find Jason and Joe sitting in the warm cab.
“Why the hell did you take off”, I asked.
“We got cold when the sun started going down”, Joe answered.
“Didn’t you think I might have needed some help?”
“Why would you need help?”
It was then I realized there was no way they would understand how close I had come to not making it back to shore. Well, what the hell, maybe it wasn’t that big a deal—I lived through it didn’t I. I had learned a valuable lesson about doing stupid things in the water—yea—see “death by mud” and “wading the Yellowstone River” (stories at a later date).
But after, let’s see, 37 (I’m not going to count the spider) brushes with death in my lifetime, I have come to a little different take on the whole life-death thing. Today, it seems to me death will come when it is time, not one moment earlier, not one moment later. But when it happens, I know death will be a surprise (it always is).
I now think it really isn’t when or what finally takes me out that is important, but rather what I am going to do with all the time I have left between now and then. In the end, it’s my choice to believe that death was determined by my genetic makeup, a sudden malfunction of a critical body part, or by a spiritual deity. But until then, the best thing I can do is to just live every new day as well as I can. Besides, “No way my life is going to end because of _________ (fill in the blank), not today.”