Mortal Decisions: How life can turn in an instant

 

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The warm and sunny February day was not to be denied.  I left my computer and my phone and went for a walk today.  I usually choose the rural direction from my house, quiet roads with no one to see me, but today I decided to walk toward the human race.  I’ve driven Searsburg Road up from town a thousand times, heading to and from home, but realized I had never actually walked it.

One particular spot stopped me cold, I had stood there before.  I was next to a low flat trailer home on the edge of a rise, I turned to take a picture of it.  I didn’t notice a man standing on the porch until he spoke in that slightly defensive tone you reserve for strangers staring at your house.

“Can I help you?”

“I had an accident here a few years ago.”

I had always meant to knock on their door and explain the tire tracks in the snow that went right up to his front wall, so this was a small but welcome closure.  I briefly recounted the accident, one where no one was seriously hurt and how it nearly ended with my Prius in his living room.

“Oh, yeah, I remember, geez we only left the house for a little while and when we came back we were like, what happened here?”

We laughed and shook hands.  His name was Nick.  “Now if you ever do find a car in your living room, you’ll know what happened.”

What happened was that as I was driving home on a very cold fifteen-degree day in January five years ago, black ice on the clear pavement and a wheel grabbing mealy slush on the shoulder, I saw the car in front of me, about a hundred yards away, suddenly swerve to miss an oncoming vehicle that had crossed into his lane.  This Subaru station wagon now headed for me and began to fish-tail as the driver woke up and over-corrected.

As the car got closer, I could see that the driver was a woman, and alone.  I watched her swerve back and forth across the road and my options dwindled quickly.  A Prius is little more than a glorified golf cart, they don’t GO when they need to go and they do not STOP worth a god damn.  There was no way I could slow down enough to lessen injury, if I braked too hard I’d spin myself.  Our closing speed was about 80 mph.  I tried to time my passage by her, between the swerves, but she fish-tailed with her driver’s side broadside right across my lane.  Nowhere to go.

There were trees and a telephone pole off a four-foot embankment to my right—no escape there it seemed.  To pull into the snowbank would clearly pull both wheels into the ditch and I would end up sideways headed straight into a large tree that would take the top of my car off, and my head along with it.

The only reasonable option was to hit the car.  Cars crumple, airbags go off, this would easily be survivable and I might even walk away unhurt.  I resolved to hit right behind her driver’s door square on her passenger door—the soft spot, don’t hit the wheels, don’t hit the driver.  I had just totaled another Prius the year before, because, guess what, the brakes failed.

“Goddammit, I don’t want to total another God damn Prius!  This idea makes sense, but it just feels wrong.  I WILL NOT DO THIS.”

I glanced to my right and saw the last fleeting chance at a trajectory that MIGHT take me between the trees and the pole.  It’s not an easy sell when your brain tries to tell your body, one that spent a lifetime learning to keep the car ON the road, to suddenly fly your car off an embankment and into the midst of big scary trees.  In the fraction of a second left of my fleeting window of opportunity, my thoughts returned to hitting the Subaru’s passenger door.

( “GARY. DO. NOT. HIT. THAT. CAR!” )

“Fuck it.”

Still going 45 mph, I yanked the wheel just past the passing bark of the last tree and aimed for the right side of the distant telephone pole, then felt the wheels leave the ground.  There was a lot of snow, and I honestly thought it would cushion the fall.  It did not.  I lost both bumpers on my little sleigh ride and missed the pole by less than six inches.  Next, I realized that there was no way my Prius was going to stop before going into the house.  In the spirit of “I really don’t give a fuck anymore,” I turn the car sideways intending to stop like a downhill skier after the finish line.  It actually worked.  A Prius will stop…sideways.

The car still ran, and I walked away although my back was pretty messed up.  The young woman, barely past twenty, was in a ditch by now on the other side of the road.  I approached and asked if she was okay as she got out.

“Yeah, I’m fine… I was working late last night and I… I was so tired I…”

“Don’t worry about it (YOUR insurance will pay for everything) as long as you are okay, you need to sit down?”

“I’m okay, I just don’t know what’s supposed to happen now… my dad will be…”

“Don’t sweat it, I’ll call 911, they’ll send a police car, they’ll write up an accident report, you call your dad, he’ll call the insurance company, it will all be okay.  They’ll fix your car, everything will be fine, okay?”

“Okay.”

I peered through her dirty windows into her station wagon.  I could see that one half of her back seat was down and could make out that there was junk all over.

“Hey, it could be worse, ” I said.  “You could have a kid in the back there.”

“Oh, I think he’s alright.  Just got jostled around a bit.”

“…you what?”

She opened the rear driver’s side door, the one I was about to hit, and there was a seven-month-old little boy in a car seat right behind the driver’s seat.  Right in the “sweet spot.”

“…umm… Let’s get him out of there and out of this cold.”

It was cold, but only then did I go numb.  Neighbors came out to let her stay in their house to wait.  I stayed out and directed traffic around her car which was partly in the road and just over a blind rise.

I can tell you, as sure as I am writing this, that I would have killed that baby, had I decided to hit the car rather than taking the harder choice.

Do you know how people who experience tragedies sometimes spend a lifetime asking themselves “Why did I do this”, “Why didn’t I do that?”  They torture themselves with “what ifs” because they know that one tiny decision could have changed the course of their life or that of someone else.  I know that this outcome was a happy one, but those what ifs still make my blood run cold, even five years later.

I never told the girl just how close she came to losing her child, or spending the rest of her life hating and questioning herself (or how close I came to it).  I spared her that.

It makes me think, though, how easily we forget how incredibly powerful we are; how with every passing instant we can change the course of our destinies.  I think about this most in relationships, especially these days, of how if our choices are not genuine and right, or if they are made out of panic and fear instead of love and compassion, how they can injure the lives of those around us, and perhaps rob us of our own best destiny.

Have you ever noticed that the decisions that are hardest, so often turn out to be the right ones?

Do we speak up or hide our feelings?  Do we answer or remain silent?  Do we stay or do we walk away?  One quick turn of the wheel and our lives diverge forever.  Or is there a way to circle around again?  I’d like to think there is, but I am also a dreamer.

I’m glad I met Nick today, I’m glad I chose to walk toward people instead of away, I’m glad I solved his mystery, and I’m glad for my small closure.  I’m glad I turned the wheel on that very cold day.

I can’t explain how connected I feel to that little boy, I think about him a lot.  He would be as old now as my daughter is in this photo.

I would like to meet him someday.

Just to see how he’s doing.

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A Greater Voice: The Power of Our Intention

angel-gabriel-1986When I was five years old I was suddenly tired all the time, then I got a bad cold. After a week in bed, I was taken to the doctors and ended up in the Children’s ICU at a hospital in Rochester, NY. I had contracted mononucleosis complicated with double pneumonia. I stayed there for a month, and I left with not only my health, but also a strange experience and an early lesson I have kept with me.

In my family, you pretty much had to have a limb dangling in order to be taken to the doctor’s. My mother was not big on doctors. When I was thirteen I broke my back playing football. I lived on the couch for weeks before I could walk; Mom never took me to get it checked so I only learned years later that I had broken a piece of my lower vertebra off and that my body had eventually dissolved it.

I had two younger sisters and two very loud older brothers then, so I was very happy for the quiet, and more than a little happy with all the attention. There was only one other boy in the ward; his name was Robbie. Robbie had a tracheotomy, and once he could talk we had many pleasant conversations between nurse and doctor visits and being hauled out for x-rays and tests. I was always better one on one. My bed was right by the door and there was a picture window on the wall alongside it, allowing me to watch the comings and goings in the hall when they didn’t have the curtain drawn.

Robbie left after one week, but I had to stay, having only gotten worse. (I still wonder what became of Robbie; he was a fine fellow.) I was alone the rest of my time there. Funny how you don’t retain the parts that hurt when you are that young. Between painful shots of vitamin C in my butt each day (I remember that part), and a nose so continually stuffed that my upper lip was bloody and blistered from blowing, I had a delightful time of it. I had plenty of attention and felt kind of special; I didn’t get that at home.

The long hours and days were filled with the singular bliss of reading my Little Golden Books! You may remember Little Golden Books, they were a popular children’s book series with cardboard covers and a distinctive gold-leaf spine. Every time my parents visited, they asked me if there was anything I needed, the only reply I remember was, “More Golden Books!” The long days were filled with pouring over them again and again. I amassed quite a stack of them. They lived by my side in my bed at all times. I would wake up a lot during the night, and they were my constant companions.

As weeks went on, my condition worsened. My nose and sinus had gone completely solid. I thought I must have been getting better because I didn’t have to brave the blisters and blow my nose anymore. One day the doctor came in with a bunch of nurses and my mother. He was carrying a length of wire that was glowing red-hot. He explained what he needed to do and promised me he would not touch the wire to my skin, and then proceeded to put the wire up one nostril then the other, straight up into my sinus. It smoked, and it sizzled inside my head. It was not at all comfortable, but true to his word, he never burned me.

Some time after that, the doctor called my parents, who were both visiting together, out into the hallway. I watched them through the window talking, but could not hear what they were saying. I remember noticing that my parents looked very serious, and when they came back in to say goodnight seemed unusually nice, said a lot of nice things to me that I don’t remember, and didn’t seem to want to leave. They promised that they would be back first thing in the morning, and kept asking if I’d be alright. “Why wouldn’t I,” I thought, “I’ve got my books, I’m fine”

Years later, my mother told me that the doctor had told them that I probably would not make it. It must have been a hard night for them, but my night was quite different.

The late nurses were gone, the dim lights were on, and I was completely alone and awake in the middle of the night, my trusty Golden Books by my side, just looking around the room when I heard a voice. It is difficult to describe the sound of it. It was at once the most powerful and the gentlest voice you could imagine; I thought of it as a male voice, but it was neither male nor female, it was every voice; it was a great voice. It was not a voice in my head; it was outside of me and filled the room. It seemed to come from behind and above me, I remember looking to see what was there, but there was only the wall.

It called me by name, and I asked it if it was God. I don’t remember the answer, but my little catholic brain concluded that it must be God. It explained to me that I was very very sick and that I was not getting better. The doctors were doing everything they could, but they could not do it without my help. It said that it understood how comfortable I was here, but that I was not doing my part. The only specific words I retained was this sentence, “It is not enough that you are comfortable, you must try little one, you must try to get better.” It made me promise that from here I would pay attention to this and that I would remember that I must try to get better.

I promised.

I got better.

I was elated and didn’t sleep the rest of the night. I couldn’t wait to tell my mother, that God talked to me last night and told me that I had to get better and that I was going to get better. My mother was a devout Catholic, and I can’t imagine what she must have thought of this; I never got to ask her.

Years later I asked a well-known trance psychic about this during a reading and he said “Yes, call it the Angel Gabriel if you like, there are those who look after us and he is the one who sends us messages when we most need them, this is why he is depicted with a horn.” I am not a devout Catholic, but I practice openness devoutly enough to be certain that there are greater voices to be heard and heeded. Certainly this was. And, to be honest, I kind of like the idea that the Angel Gabriel came down to blow his horn for me.

There have often been times in my life when things worked well enough, and I settled into a kind of complacency that kept me in one place, not happy, only merely content. It is always then that things fall apart, forcing me to remember my promise.

Life will never happen to you without the power of your own intention. Had I not heard that greater voice, I would not be here to tell you this: “It is not enough that you are comfortable, you must try little one, you must try to get better.”

I will try.

I am trying.

I have done.

Letting Go

September 13th: Dead Sibling Day. Before I jet off to Sedona today to sweat in the canyons and consult with Hopi spirits, I thought I would get this done. Not one of my usual posts, but I am deciding to do it because I may have something to say that is cogent for some out there, about letting go; and because one should at least occasionally walk the talk.

My younger sister, Jacqueline Ann Izzo, died about eleven years ago, and today is her birthday. More so than her death date, this is the day I remember her. I had five siblings, and there are now three left thanks to our ‘family friend’ cancer. My brother Kenny died this year in March. Grieving is simple; it’s automatic; in 6-9 months the brain chemicals leech out through your eyes and you’re done. After that comes the really hard part, letting go.

Letting go is hard because it means accepting a new life without that which they gave you and you depended upon. It takes guts, and it feels like betrayal until you understand what letting go really means.

My sister and I shared the middle spot in a family of six kids, so we were close, and she was very, very important to me. Growing up, Jackie was my best friend, my biggest fan, and the reason I am funny. She was the best audience a big brother could have. I could make milk spray out her nose on cue, even when she knew it was coming. On any given day you could walk into a room and find Jackie lying on the floor in tears over something that gave her a laughing jag days ago that just popped back into her head. She laughed at human folly, especially her own, and she never once laughed at anyone’s pain. Mostly though, she was important to me because she believed in me, without ever needing a reason.

Jackie was the first person who taught me that true courage had nothing to do with how afraid and timid you were about life, a lesson I have always cherished. My chronically reticent sister went into the medical profession, and countless people benefited from a strength she reserved only for others. During the years she battled for life, she showed an easy bravery, and when she had fought enough, she had the courage to let go. She died gracefully and well.

I didn’t have that courage, not with her. It wasn’t that long ago that I finally stopped reaching for my phone every time I thought, “I’ve GOT to tell Jack about this!” My daughter’s first name is Jacqueline, because Jackie asked me before she died; we call her Madi, because I knew it would be a long time before I could say the name. It was hardest watching Madi grow up never knowing what an amazing aunt she had missed, though fortunately she has another.

I sucked at letting go.

This year I did let go of Jackie. I cut the cords and finally stopped being the brother missing a sister, a friend, a fan, and a believer. I was very surprised to find out how much better it was. In a way, I got her back. Not really back, because she’s still dead, but there is a clear new voice in my ear, and she sounds very excited for me.

There are two places that I remember Jackie best on Dead Sibling Day, the two of us sitting under the kitchen table, me drilling her on her multiplication tables so she wouldn’t fail a grade, and summers in Nantucket. I’ve been going again since Madi was born, and Jackie is the reason I go. It has been a mixture of memory, tribute, promise, and chore, which has darkened and become heavy over the years. This year, thanks to some cord cutting, all the colors have come back to that place, and they are different.

And this is what letting go does. It makes a space for those things you lost to come from others willing to grant them to you. It is what I would have wanted for her if I had gone first.

I had said that letting go of someone feels like betrayal. It can seem as though you are being asked to disown everything they meant to you, but in truth it is not letting go of them at all; it’s letting go of the “you” you were when you had them, and making new room for others, …and it’s a bitch.

So the moral of the story is: attachments are bad, my friends. And not having them does not mean you are disconnected. Quite the opposite. Remember that, because it is very easy to forget.

I would like to state categorically, that talking about my sister does not make me sad, oh no, not one bit, not anymore. She is remembered not nearly loudly enough. So if you should hear me talking about her and notice me well up a bit, know that it is not sadness, … it’s Presence.

Happy Birthday Jack! I hope you are still saving me a good spot, and don’t mind too much that I’m taking my sweet time. I love you, always have, always will.