The day I should have died was a Tuesday, two days after my 38thbirthday. It was overcast. Muggy, I think. Does that matter…? I am inclined to think now that everything matters and that it keeps on mattering until slowly but surely it matters us down to almost nothing. And then what matters, is how we proceed.
A nurse in bright orange runners whisks aside curtains to negotiate with an alarm from one of the machines beside my bed. Her quiet authority is a comfort, so I ask, ICU? That’s what they said? The nurse nods. Her lips are pressed tightly together and barely move when she speaks. They’ll take good care of you up there.
The sharp line of her uniform and the fluorescent shoes bear striking resemblance to an exclamation mark. I wonder if she knows this. She leans back as the machine settles back into a steady hum.
What is it then? What’s wrong with me? My mouth is dry and my throat raw from 36 hours of vomiting, so I sound more desperate than I’d intended. Her demeanor softens around a terse smile. She is overburdened, but not uncaring. I wonder if she has children, a husband, a mother dying somewhere. A history of depression? A mild Bikram yoga addiction? Does she drink? Smoke?
Well, she begins, it’s nothing we can’t handle at the moment. Her eyes are remarkably clear. She is present. Not a drinker, I decide. She pivots at the sound of another alarm and, shrugging her lips into a frown, adds quickly, You’re lucky to be alive, my dear.
Owen told me a story once about the day he should have died. He’d been struggling to tell it for weeks, actually. Then one evening after work, we were having a beer outside his trailer when he broke off mid-sentence and burst inside. Jus a minit, he hollered. I remembered sumpumn. When he stumbled back into the sun, he held a tattered paperback journal. He eyed it on briefly before thrusting it into my hands. Then he rattled through an ugly cough, and said, That’s the story. He squinted into the sun as he spoke, as if something were happening over that way and he had to keep an eye on it. His voice was grizzled and graceless. I only let three people read it.
He meant for me to understand him and I did (which should have been indication enough that I didn’t). Rather, I wanted to. In the same way I want life to be just and fair and even predictable sometimes. For the past to be a constellation of fixed points, reliable and trustworthy. Not the half-dead gang of refugees it actually is, stowed away behind all the things we expected from life. I wanted to accept him unconditionally, despite the sinister things he’d seen and done. I wanted him to rise up shining. I wanted, on behalf of everyone, to forgive him.
But that was before he gave me proper reason.
Owen scratched out his story in the only journal he’d ever had, which was, many years later, entirely empty except for a few rusty poems, the story of his survival, and a single photograph of a black bear. He wrote the bulk of it at a lighthouse while they waited for the chopper to arrive, his grade 8 education barely noticeable through the quality of his memory. Frostbite had set in five days earlier, so he had to use both hands to hold the pen. Twice the ink ran dry and the lighthouse keeper kept asking him to stop. Rest. Drink the tea. Then gave him another pen.
They capsized on Christmas Day, in water no boat should rightly have been. There were two of them, at least, but no one to know they were missing. Owen’s boot came loose when they went under and he lost it to the undertow. Later, as he paddled them to shore, with one oar, his sock froze solid along with his foot. They managed to start a fire but then passed out from the pain of thawing. They did this hour after hour, and woke up every time to the sounds of their own screaming.
The route they had taken was a summer one and when they prayed, it was for lives they didn’t expect to get back. His words of God were ill-suited to the man I knew. His desperation made me wince. I should have died then, he’d say later. Over and over. Drunk and forgetting and still frozen to the beach. I should have died then. He was amazed. Proud. …But something else too.
For a long time after, the only image that came to mind when I thought of Owen was the one he’d spoken of in his story. He sits crouching, almost punched down, in a cluster of gnarled trees. Their overhanging limbs reach and twist at absurd angles, and rocks the size of basketballs are embedded in trunks and branches alike. They sparkle like Christmas lights behind thin fingers of flame. With his knees pulled tight to his chest and his arms cinched around them, his body is almost invisible. And although most of his face is cluttered by shadows, his mouth is perfectly clear. It hangs open in an “o”, as if he were addressing the fire, or watching to make sure he still breathed. The flames, having caught in a column of wind, roll back on themselves, lending the effect of sheets snapping on a line.
Its beauty is of the desperate sort. Everything reaching. Even Owen, all along the horizon of that long, hollow throat, everything in him, frozen and reaching.
I said I had wanted to forgive him. I said also that I’d wanted him to shine. The obvious fact that he could not, eluded me. When he talked about his life—the fights and betrayal and commonplace insanity—I took it as context, camaraderie even.
I hired him for a large renovation contract I was starting and his work displayed all the valour of a man with self-worth. But when he spoke of his father, or the drugs, or the fights, we were not at work, and within half a beer the change was obvious. His eyes, his speech, his whole body, seemed to wince, and certainly he had reason. It was only much later that I began to understand they weren’t reasons for him anymore. They were the cornerstones of his testimony. All that talent, and beauty, and pride, all that heart, all that love for animals and nature and poetry and craftsmanship, the goodness and loyalty and kindness, all that vulnerability, all the impossible contradictions of this life—they were bearable only with alcohol. He didn’t believe he could ever be cured of himself. It was that simple. It was not understanding that he sought. It was impunity from the consequences of whatever happened next.
The last time we spoke, he wanted money for a job we hadn’t finished yet. He flagged me down on the road to say I had promised to pay him. I was watching his tongue move in slow motion around the truth, sweeping the edges of a snarl, gathering momentum and shreds of loose tobacco. I was watching his eyes go dark, like the night of the moonshine, when he gave me the gift that brings us here today.
So when his spit hit the gravel between us, something uncoiled in my throat and it was not a thing designed for retreat. It exploded like a gas can: pure and indiscriminate. And because I had neither the tools nor the constitution to kill him, I left him in a spray of gravel and regret.
The night of the moonshine, Owen let himself get sucked into the undertow of his own nightmare. I hesitate to leave it sounding as though he’d had options. As if he could have prevented it. Some decisions are not a choice. They’re patterns, and we all have them.
The details of the night, even if I could recall them all, would be an inaccurate representation of what occurred. I will say that for the most part only inanimate things were damaged. No one got beaten. No one got raped. I did wonder several times if he would actually manage to kill us, but he didn’t.
I remember the taste of metal as he launched himself at each window, circling the house like a caged animal.
I remember breathing again when he finally conceded and unceremoniously passed out in a field.
It was nearly dawn by then, and as the idea of light began to flood through the trees, I watched a cluster of moths still battering the porch light. In the center of a dimming halo, something distinctly leaf-ish began to twitch and quiver. It seemed to be moved by a wind at first, but there was none, and then all at once it snapped itself in half and began to wave it’s wiry antennae. Roughly the size of a hummingbird, and comprised almost entirely of wings, its first few steps made me think of a jumbo jet turning onto a runway. Or Dumbo.
As close to impossible as anything could come while somehow still managing to fly, it was a tapestry of pure genius. Perfect in every way. The translucent parts of its wings rolled like fire in the shifting orange light and by the time it hoisted itself into my palm, it was a glowing. The heat of its body vibrated through my hand.
I thought of an Anne Carson poem called God’s Justice. “On the day He was to create justice,” she writes, “God got involved in making a dragonfly and lost track of time…”
We figure it out as we go, is the thing. We make mistakes of all sizes and ruin each other and ourselves with accidents: hunting accidents, boating accidents, airplane accidents, bacterial accidents… It isn’t luck that keeps us alive, and there are no accidents. There is momentum. Everything we do, everything we believe, all the stories we tell—they gather their own.
Apparently, I had contracted a staph infection during a small surgery in the spring. For two and a half months it went misdiagnosed and by the time the infection made its way through the heel of my right foot and into the marrow, I developed a near fatal case of diabetic ketoacidosis—a sort of systemic organ shutdown. On the death certificate, if there’d been one, they would have credited DKA. But in all fairness to death, the honor really ought to have gone to a five-year stint of cocaine-addled decisions and a lifetime of dismissing the obvious.
Beneath the clarity of fluorescent lighting and morphine, the words of the nurse feel tertiary. Not implausible exactly, but not important either. No more important than anything else I’d survived. I should have died a hundred times—
I should have died then. And there it was. You could almost mistake it for regret, until you saw its hands around his throat. Unshakable. It was defeat. He spent five days dying and the next 20 years trying to figure out how to be grateful he’d lived. He wanted to be changed by it, but I imagine he knew all along that it takes a lot more than death to change a man who always survives.
Owen had me read that story not because it was rare and remarkable, but because it best told the story of his life—a brutal, frozen, fight to the death—and a gentler version than could be found elsewhere in his past.
What outshines the calamitous happenstance of our lives? What counter-balances the momentum of abuse? Aldous Huxley once wrote, “There are quick sands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That’s why you must walk so lightly. Lightly, my darling… Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.”
More and more, I think wonder is our only rescue. The tremor of awe that rattles in your throat, shaken by the beauty of it all, what if that was all that mattered? What if that became the pattern? Reverence for the lot of it—the terrible burden of all our miraculous survivals. Each creature, each atom, each raving lunatic: a miracle. Imagine. Each tangerine sunrise. Each time you didn’t die. All the power of the universe, a swirling fire in the palm of your hand.