So this woke me up the other night:
I stood at the urinal about 9:30. I was the only one left in the building, when the door opened. I couldn’t see who it was from my angle, and whoever it was didn’t step more than a few feet in the bathroom, so naturally I thought, This is how it ends, isn’t it? This dude’s going to shoot me in the back and some midnight maintenance guy is going to find my body laying here unzipped on the floor.
It sounded like he/she just stood there. I didn’t hear a move toward a sink, a stall, nothing.
Sometimes I think the more we realize that death is totally random and can occur at the most inappropriate time in the most ironic of situations, the more we appreciate the very nature of life. Like the guy in Buffalo who stayed home from a family vacation because he didn’t like to fly and then died when a plane crashed into his house. Or the student who just after complaining on the phone to a friend that the person in front of him shouldn’t be texting and driving because he keeps swerving, hit a barrier and died. I’m superstitious enough to think about these things. Like when my at-the-time-young son and I were walking once in a parking garage, and there was a rumble and he looked nervous, so I told him it was just some truck nearby. I said that garages don’t crash in on people, but was actually thinking, Shit, I hope this isn’t it. I can see the headline: “Professor dies in freak accident in parking garage.”
I don’t go through the day thinking like this. I’m not paranoid, I’m not a hypochondriac, and I’m generally not afraid of most situations. In fact, I welcome them in a strange sort of way. They remind me I am still here, I am still engaged in the persistent miracle of life, and I have not yet started to coast along.
In fact, when I do feel the ground move beneath me, it usually wakes me up and places me firmly in the moment. Like the time I fell through the ice on a frozen lake in northern Norway. It was two in the morning, twenty below, and I followed two friends across the snowy ice toward a road on the other side. I heard the ice crack and I stood still, a green band of aurora borealis bent just above us, and I stood still like Wile E. Coyote—suspended for just a moment listening to the ice crack—and thought, “oh, wow, shit,” and went through.
I landed just about ten inches below the surface on another ice shelf. I stood just deep enough for frigid water to cover and fill my boots about calf-high. I waited for the next crack when my friend Joe turned and we froze in fear of us both plunging into the lake. Usually for me a walk on thin ice was metaphorical, but there I stood with icy feet; my heart pounded in my chest ready to plunge into my stomach when nothing happened. It turned out to be a layer of day-melt I fell through to the six-feet-thick layer of ice beneath. I sloshed to shore, took off my socks, and stood at the end of a fjord when across a field six moose walked by. To the north lay nothing but wilderness for a thousand miles; the Arctic Circle sat a hundred miles south. I was soaked in below zero temperatures, green bands of borealis bent above my head, and I never felt so awake, like sleep wasn’t part of the Human idea, like caffeine was a tranquilizer. Awake.
That moment, right then, will never go away.
I’ve been lucky to have had many such moments of being blatantly alive—some good and some scary, and none with regrets. None.
I’m not sure who walked in the bathroom, saw me and apparently walked out before the door even closed, but for a few moments I stood on that ice again, waiting for the ground to fall beneath my feet. In fact, I’ve been skating most of my life, and now I find myself by virtue of countless changes watching the cracks widen and waiting to land somewhere. And I’ve never felt so alive, so conscious of each moment and each step.
It seems I feel more secure when I’m least grounded. Or, another way to think of it is this: life has a way of forcing me to be in the moment, to be present, and that is fine with me, even if it comes at a cost.