A couple of years ago, I met a German woman who survived a plane crash in which most passengers perished. I listened in awe as her tale unfolded. We spent the rest of the evening recounting personal stories of survival. We conversed in German, and when it was time to say goodbye, she shared a familiar German expression: “Du bist dem Teufel von der Schippe ausgesprungen.” Roughly, “You have leapt off of the devil’s spade.” Or putting it simply, “You almost died, but you made it!”
I have had several near misses with death, and they feel oddly synonymous with my experiences with raw fear. Fear is one’s natural response to real danger. Our minds, unfortunately, also conjure fear as a reaction to what only feels life-threatening. One early experience with fear occurred when I was about three or four, and discovered I had been following the wrong woman, not my mother, in a red coat in a crowded store. As the stranger turned around, I froze in terror at the thought of having lost any sense of security and safety.
At the age of 18, without intending to spark fear, I foolishly jumped out of an airplane after completing a one-day, extremely unprofessional sky diving course. I can still smell the acrid exhaust from the old twin engine plane, and remember the tears I felt as I was about to let go of the side bar right outside the open plane door. Only a few minutes later, but a world apart, I recall my own uncontrolled laughter that erupted once I hit the ground, my large parachute billowing over me. It was a joy to be safely on earth again, having escaped injury. My mind must have found it hysterical to have tricked death.
I had a brush with death in Guatemala at age 23 when I was in an accident after the front tire of our speeding bus exploded. We veered out of control as passengers screamed…se dio dos vueltas…. the bus took two complete turns down an embankment, and then came to rest on its side. I heard moans, but otherwise things appeared breathtakingly still. I was first to climb out the backside emergency door, one of the survivors of this crash. Some chickens secured atop the roof were crushed, while others fluttered in every direction. In an already slow-moving society, time stood still.
In New York City, several years later, a mugger literally grabbed my bike out from under me, punching me squarely in the face with full force. I was stitched up at St. Vincent’s Hospital, and had to answer questions from two police investigators as I lay on a gurney. I celebrated my 30th birthday a week later at a nice restaurant where my aunt asked the waiter if my food could be pureed.
As I drove home from a doctor’s office in late December 2015, I remember the CD and 3-page written report that said I had metastatic disease. I saw the image of the woman in the red coat; I smelled exhaust fumes from a plane; I heard the flapping wings of injured chickens; and I tasted the warm blood in my mouth that night I was hit in the mouth in New York City. Fear gripped me tightly by the throat, just as it had done before in my 53 years. Moving through rush hour traffic, time again stood still. I felt frozen in the driver’s seat, and remember nothing about coming home except I felt utterly alone and afraid.
I am now two years in remission from what was once a terminal blood cancer. Modern medicine allowed me to survive. I did come close to death just hours after what was to become my final chemotherapy treatment when I developed a high fever, rigors (uncontrolled shaking), and deadly sepsis. I was afraid, but also oddly calm. After several days in the ICU, I recovered, thanks to the miracle of antibiotics and a brilliant team of hospital specialists. Imade direct eye contact with death, and at the same time, collided head on with raw fear.
I do not take my survival for granted, and am determined to live every day in gratitude, even the not-so-great days. I appreciate my good health. I remind myself that cancer changed me in countless positive ways. I probably appreciate being alive more than I ever have. Death is a one per person, one time event over which none of us have any real control. The fear of death is unbearable, but if we live every day with appreciation and wonder, and if we learn to live in the moment, perhaps we can keep fear at bay.