The Destination

“Hold on.” My hands had been resting in my lap, and there they stayed. There was nothing that could be done. We had taken the ramp too quickly—on ice, at nearly 60 mph—and when El’s foot pivoted from the gas to the brake, we had already lost control and were headed straight for the tow truck. Time stretched itself over the patch of road before us, and everything moved slowly until everything stopped suddenly. My hands waking from their repose to shield my face, I screamed just before impact, hoping with fear-impaired logic that any sound of protest would be enough to halt the Ranger, but my cry was soon muffled by the raucous thunder of crumpling metal as the bed of the tow truck sliced through El’s door and a flurry of glass sprayed over us. Thankfully my eyes were closed, already trying to block out what was happening. When they opened, my vision was just as clear as it had been before, and when I turned to face El, his right arm was bathed in red. “There’s so much blood,” I said. “Well, don’t say that.” His voice was laced with worry, even as we laughed in shared gratitude that we were still alive. “My leg is pinned…. I can’t move. Are you okay?” When I confirmed for him that I was, his shift in tone and volume was abrupt, reminding me that we weren’t yet out of the woods. “Get out,” he yelled. “Get safe.” I would later learn that he’d had the presence of mind to recognize the possibility of another collision from behind. Not to mention that the only way he could get out of the truck was if I got out first. I pushed open the door and slid across the road and into the snow. It was only when I made it to the other side of another wrecked car that I felt the trembling in my legs. The owner of the car asked if I was the driver. “No.” I pointed. “He’s in there.” Shock gave way to panic, and my eyes began welling up and my chest heaving with great gasps of air as I stared back at El’s truck, waiting for an officer to help him free his leg and climb out, not knowing the extent or source of his blood loss. The other driver told me to please calm down before shouting at the police gathered there. “You guys, this is the fifth accident! You have to block the exit.” Stabilizing my breath, I regained my composure and steeled myself, knowing that I would need all my faculties at the ready in case El needed me. I risked approaching the road again to check the officer’s progress, the slush seeping into my shoes as I slogged over. He was pulling El out, and together we helped El limp through the snow to rest on the hood of the police cruiser. His previously pinned leg was badly abraded and appeared broken, and the blood covering him, his clothes, and the snow had come from superficial cuts on his arm and shoulder. Were it not for the airbags, the windshield would likely have cut his throat. When the exit was blocked, I ventured back to the truck to retrieve my bag, gather El’s registration documents, and take a few photos of the damage. The contrast was stark between El’s half of the vehicle and my own—his being far more compressed with a fully caved-in windshield, mine still with a working headlight and an intact sideview mirror. When the fire marshal and paramedics arrived, they each took turns telling El how lucky he was to be alive. “You’re in the 10% that would’ve survived that accident,” the fire marshal said. “You should buy a lotto ticket later.” Had we been traveling any faster, we would both probably be dead. We finished the day tired, mildly injured, and in good spirits. We laughed more about our survival and marveled at its unlikelihood. We slept well. — Just one day prior—being the glutton for punishment that I am—I had been weeping for the umpteenth time over a particular episode of Duncan Trussell Family Hour, a zany podcast wherein the titular comedian invites guests to explore a variety of topics related to religion and spirituality. Despite their heavy nature, these topics are approached as frequently with irreverence as with reverence. Cursing and crude humor are as much a feature as prayer and meditation, and this curious blending of the sacred and profane makes the show more accessible. Being human, after all, each of us contains both. Duncan Trussell’s guest, in the episode in question, was his mother Deneen Fendig, who was dying from metastatic breast cancer. The topic, in a nutshell, was death and dying.

“We’re all gonna die,” she observed. “Our egos personalize it, and we consider ourselves special cases. But we’re really not.” Duncan responded, “The universe—it seems so stable if you are in this automatic state.” Living with advance warning of one’s death is quite a bit different from being rushed toward death’s door and turned away, as El and I were. Moving consciously toward death often bestows clarity of mind and purpose. Can the same be said of moving consciously toward life? After being asked by Duncan what advice she would give to the dying and their loved ones, Deneen answered, “Turn toward this thing called death…. Even if you’re afraid to turn toward it, turn toward it. It won’t hurt you. And see what it has to teach you.” The day of the accident, after El and I returned home, I received my third rejection from graduate school—this one from my dream program. It was the sort of occurrence that would usually sour my mood and dampen my motivation for at least a few minutes, but this time I read it with almost euphoric acceptance. I may not have been welcomed as a Ph.D. candidate, but I was alive. “Alive” was something I could work with. The day after, my college friends gave me a call, and my old roommate La started crying shortly after learning of the crash. I could see my brow furrowing and smile melting, reflected in my phone screen. When I asked her what was wrong, she said through her tears, “I didn’t visit you for Thanksgiving last year. What if I’d never seen you again?” It was in this moment that I more fully confronted my own mortality and how close I had come to meeting my end. Historically I had struggled with seeing and feeling the grief of my own death, instead exploring it primarily through a philosophical lens, attempting to accept with grace and dignity the ephemeral nature of existence, trying to make peace with death’s finality. A strange yet relaxed detachment has characterized the times I have danced with death, and it has only ever been through the tortured reactions of loved ones that I have glimpsed the pain and the void that might be left by my passing. Death itself is easier to contend with than its emotional consequences—the collateral damage of one life’s end. Although it was not necessarily intended for me, I took Deneen’s advice in the days that followed the accident and turned toward death, looking for its lessons. In moments of lucidity I assessed my life, my happiness, and my priorities. Was I living, in my own estimation, a good life? I revisited death again and again—my relationship with it and how close I had come to it. If I died today, would I be dying a good death? Two days after the crash, I already feel my grip on these questions weakening as I rebound from imminent death to imminent life. Turning toward death, in my case, is a choice that must be made again and again, shedding fear of the uncomfortable truths it might reveal. “The closer I get to physical death,” Deneen confessed, “the more alive I feel, and the more present I feel, the more real I am.” Death is the destination we are all headed toward, and it is up to us to choose our detours carefully. Far from the darkness we believe it to be, death casts light on our paths, that we may see them—and ourselves—more clearly.

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