41. From the Jaws of Death

In action films and television shows, characters often narrowly escape death through clever maneuvers, split-second decisions, and amazing timing. In real, ordinary life, how often do each of us come within the reach of death’s icy fingers? And are we still alive because of good luck, coincidence, or miracle? Those questions came up recently as my wife and I exchanged stories about our childhoods.

When my wife was about 6 years old, she lived with her family in a New York City apartment. One sunny morning, she was sitting up in bed, still in pajamas, as she recalls. Suddenly, the ceiling over the bed cracked open and dropped in chunks below. Waving away the dust cloud so she could breath, my wife felt pain in her legs but nowhere else. She does not remember if there was blood but she knows that no bones were broken. As surprising as the incident was, she was too small to appreciate how close she came to serious injury, or worse.

In a previous post I related my experiences in a strong earthquake in Italy when I was in my mid-20s. I could easily have fallen into one of the crevices created when the streets cracked open or I could have been crushed by falling awnings or store signs, or sliced to shreds by projectiles of shattered plate glass. Sure, I was scared, but all I could do was hope for the best.

That wasn’t the first time that I had skated to the edge of death. Much earlier, when I was around 5 years old, I was playing with a friend in front of his house. Out of the blue, a corner piece of the roof fascia made of concrete or stone broke off and hurled down. I stood directly below but at the last nanosecond I shifted away. The piece fell beside me and smashed to bits. The near-miss convinced my friend and his parents that I was charmed, maybe even blessed. Me, I didn’t understand the fuss.

Another time, when my wife was 16, she went camping in the woods with a few friends. It was a muggy time of year, and the girls decided to cool off in a lake. My wife did not know how to swim. Somehow she found herself too far out in the water, and she could not get back to the shore. Her friends either did not realize she was in trouble or were unable to help.

My wife says that she held on to the air in her lungs as long as she could. She remembers being concerned, of course, but not panicked. When she was too tired to flail her arms any more, she began to sink under the surface. She could see the lake bottom, with its long, green vegetation billowing gently in the water. She began to let the air out of her lungs as she resigned herself to her drowning. That’s how she described her feeling: surrendering to the inevitable.

Next thing she knew, arms surrounded her and pulled her back to the surface. Someone had a hold of her and pulled her to shore. My wife had no water in her lungs and had already resumed breathing. Seeing that she did not need resuscitation, her rescuer disappeared as quickly as he had appeared. For years, my wife felt badly that she did not have the chance to thank him.

What strikes me about these death-defying stories is how powerless and unprepared we were in the face of danger. My wife and I were either too young to know what was happening or, when we were older, we simply let fate run its course.

We hope that we never face the threat of harm or death from another person or a terrible illness, and we pray for those who have.

Leave without Me – Oahu, Hawai’i courtesy of “Anton”

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