As I peacefully drove along the Appalachian Trail yesterday, an ambulance raced past me with its siren blaring. I wondered who was inside the vehicle and what their situation was. To be honest, most of the time I don't consider the person inside. Someone once told me that they say a prayer each time an ambulance passes by. That's a nice thought, but I normally pray that there isn't an accident up ahead that will hold me up. This time I somehow felt a strong sense of urgency, and it made me realize how quickly life can change.
Some years back my daughter (then eleven years old) and I met my husband for dinner on his way home from work. My daughter ordered one of the daily specials that the waitress announced (without offering the price). I think it was lobster, and it ended up costing a lot more than we would have normally spent. She couldn't eat even half of the large meal, so we carried most of it home in the back seat of my car where my daughter happily sat with a full belly and her favorite book. We followed behind my husband's vehicle on the fifteen-minute drive home in the pouring rain. It was another one of those days that we all take for granted -- uneventful and ordinary.
Less than half-way home the rain started really coming down -- though it was nothing that I hadn't experienced before. I am a cautious driver, so I slowed down to about forty-five miles per hour, and I put my SUV in four wheel drive just to be safe. I glanced in the rear-view window where my daughter was wearing her seat belt and still reading. Up ahead my husband seemed to be handling his own. Suddenly -- out of nowhere -- a vision appeared that is forever etched in my mind. Two large vehicles (an SUV and a van) appeared nose-to-nose across the width of my side of the highway -- swirling at me at an incredible rate of speed. In the time that I could say: "WHAT THE ... " it was over.
The next thing I remember is waking up to the sound of someone knocking on my window asking if I was okay. I couldn't believe it -- I was alive!!! And my daughter was hysterically screaming in the back seat, so I knew she too was alive. We were taken out of the car and sent to the side of the road where we sat in shock in the pounding rain. To my left was the van which had crashed into the side of the mountain. The driver was still unconscious with her head in the steering wheel. In front of me were my car and the other SUV. There were car parts, glass, and debris strewn about the highway like litter tossed from a dump truck.
My daughter (still screaming) remembered that my husband was ahead of us and became even more hysterical because she was afraid he was involved too. At the same time, he was realizing that there were suddenly no cars behind him on the highway, and he knew something was drastically wrong. He turned around and drove north in the southbound lanes only to arrive at the scene of a horrific accident. What a beautiful moment it was when we were safely reunited. My husband sheltered us from the rain in his vehicle as he went to help the other victims. The ambulances began showing up on the scene; cars began backing up for miles in both directions; and my daughter and I began coming back to the reality of the whole thing.
I felt helpless, powerless, and small, and all I could do that meant anything at all was to pray. So my daughter and I prayed aloud together. That wasn't something that we would normally do back then, but there was nothing else to do at that point other than to thank God we survived and to pray for the others. I sat motionless knowing that my life could have ended right there. I was given the real awareness of how quickly life can end, and I knew some things had to change now. At that time I had been spending a lot of time on a business that I ran from home. Actually - the business ran me, and as I sat there I realized how ridiculously meaningless it all was. Very few things in life have real meaning when death is imminent.
My daughter and I ended up with injuries that would heal in time as did several of the other victims. The unconscious woman that I saw in the van died that day -- probably just driving home like we were. That's how quickly life can change or end -- in an instant -- without warning -- "like a thief in the night" -- or in the middle of the day. We all know this, but we don't live that way. We live with the expectancy of another day, another moment, another meal -- like the one we had prior to the accident -- the remains of which ended up along with my demolished vehicle at the junkyard.
I've said before that I believe we live our best lives in the constant awareness of death. That might sound morbid to some, but it is often not until we have a brush with death that we really start living. Otherwise, we continue doing that which we really don't want to do (thinking it will change in time), or we wait for a future which may never come. One of my favorite quotes has always been this one by Henry David Thoreau: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I have not lived." Let's live our lives deliberately right now. This moment is all we have and can be our last with the blink of an eye.
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