Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Saturday, January 17, 2015

How I Nearly Died, And What I'm Probably Supposed to Learn from This.

This post, albeit mostly about me, has direct relevance to my practice of veterinary medicine. Please bear with me.

Last September, on the day following my birthday, I was driving to Vancouver to work along the Sea to Sky highway. After a few weeks of draught (sic! in the Pacific Northwest) it was raining for the first time. I lost control of my car, slid across the oncoming lane, and plowed through the ditch with a towering rockface to my left and inches away. I still don’t understand how I didn’t crash into the rock. By Hollywood movie standards I felt embarrassingly, disappointingly little. My life did not flash before my eyes, because that’s complete and total bullshit. Do you realize how much time it would take for your life to "flash" before your eyes? I'm guessing no less than ten minutes, by a very generous estimate of an average life. Here is what did happen. The picture of the world ahead of me, what small piece of it I needed to see, became blurred as from a very quick and very close zoom-in, with no time to sharpen the focus. Through a slight haze I saw the rockface coming at me, and I expected to hit it. There was no fear; I guess there was no time for that, and no room. My thoughts were blurred just like my vision; there was so little I needed to think about, but that too was magnified, almost as if the letters of those wordless words were bigger than usual. And this is what they read: Everything Has Changed. I was equally ready to live or to die or to get crushed and mutilated but remain alive; I deserved either of these in equal measure, and nothing depended on me any more. And when I found myself not only alive but utterly unharmed inside a dead and mutilated car that had rolled out of the ditch back onto the highway and had come to a stop at a perfect 90 degree angle to traffic, I was not surprised, because nothing was surprising, and anything was fair game. I remember the smell and spatter of coffee on everything, and I remember feeling embarrassed that people would find me in this pitiful and slovenly state. Before anyone arrived, I already felt squeamish on their behalf. I will never again sneer at a person who asks for a nail trim for their dying dog or cat. These priorities get fucked up for a good reason. We cannot fathom death any more than we can fathom the infinity of the universe. In the presence of death, the only recourse available to us is the ritual and decorum of living, nail trims and all.

Days later, when I crept in my new used car past that cursed turn and studied it, I was surprised to see a signpost only two or three metres across the ditch from the rockface; I don’t remember seeing it as I hurtled through that ditch and have no idea how I avoided crashing into it as I was trying avoid the rock. I say “trying” because I’m guessing that my body was taking measures: my hands must have been steering the wheel, my right foot must have been braking, or staying the hell away from the brake - I’ll never know which one. My body knew what to do. Maybe my eyes did see the signpost and told my hands and feet to avoid it. My left hand was holding a cup of Timmie’s coffee as I went into that turn and lost control, and the hand must have thrown the cup away from me to grab the wheel because that cup ended up on a soaked jumble of papers and a sweater at the foot of the passenger seat. I don’t remember doing any of this, and never will. It’s none of the mind’s business what the body does in such moments. Presence of mind, my ass. If my jittery and meddlesome little mind were allowed to be present, I am quite sure I would be dead.

The wisdom of the animals whose lives I strive to prolong and often carry the burden and honour of ending, is in living by their senses. They are not tormented by the knowledge that they have this disease or that, and as long as they are free from pain and able to enjoy their food and repose, they are happy. We the oh-so fortunate sons and daughters of Western Civilization have been taught by Socrates to despise this unexamined life. But might it not be time to revise that cumbersome and complicated lesson, to learn from our animal companions how to be grateful for the mere absence of pain? Because it takes so little, so wonderfully little to take pleasure in life. After my accident on the highway I have felt the duty to derive some sort of learning from it, but I have yet to figure out what it is I'm supposed to learn. I am fairly certain that an animal would not "think" twice about such an experience, because for them dodging death is business as usual. But I cannot claim the simplicity and innocence of an animal. For a short while it pleased me to think that providence (or God) had spared me so I could go on to achieve something or other. But my temperament is not well suited to religion. In these past weeks I have often felt as if I'm watching a movie about someone who lived and loved and worked and was happy, but is now dead. That someone is, of course, myself. Lately, after years of peaceful sleep, I have found it hard to sleep through the night. It feels exactly like jet lag because that is exactly what it is. I have been catapulted through time to the final moments of my life, and I have felt them without seeing them. I have been released on parole, but the sentence stands. At any moment I can be summoned to finish serving that sentence of mortality. Up until that accident I had lived the naive and blissful illusion that my life would never end. The shattering of that illusion has marked the beginning of the second half of my life. In chronological terms I do not know how long that second "half" will be, but every morning I still enjoy my coffee and I am happy to resume my place among the living. It is not my intention to wallow in maudlin sentimentality but to move past it to a new appreciation of life that no longer rests on the illusion of immortality. A few minutes before the end of 2014 my partner asked me to marry him. I was blissfully happy, and I remain so every day. Every day it is still a wonder to me that another life out there has noticed me and found me to be singificant. This is nothing to sneeze at, because evolution has not prepared us for this. In terms of evolution, one person and all their aspirations mean nothing. But if only one other person in this crazy world of ours thinks we amount to a hill of beans, that is quite something, that is reason enough to celebrate. While I cannot claim the simplicity and innocence of animals, I have experienced the miracle of lighting up the life of other humans. I am amazed that people thank me for nothing more than relating lab results for their ailing cats and suggesting a plan of action. I am amazed and slightly embarrassed by how little it really takes to make a difference in someone's life. All it takes is listening and a kind word, I kid you not. I owe it to my fiancé, to myself, and to the world around me to take my life seriously, and with time I shall find a way to do so.