If we had left the house a minute earlier.
If he hadn’t gone off to fetch the soccer ball instead of getting in the car.
If I had sped down the dirt road instead of slowing to take the icy stretch slower.
We neared the intersection, that one by the entrance to the interstate that they put in a few years back. The one that makes me roll my eyes (why divert the on-ramp through a stop light? If they left it the old way, we could enter the freeway faster).
The stoplight switched to green with plenty of time for our approach. I remembered how my husband laughed last night that he’d timed the light perfectly yesterday morning on the school drive and soared right through without slowing. “That never happens!”
I should see how fast I’m going, I thought as we neared the intersection. To make him laugh if I ended up doing the same.
Then suddenly, twenty feet in front of us, a car from oncoming traffic whizzed through its red light.
Twenty feet from T-boning our car.
Twenty feet from sending us flying.
Twenty feet from a horrible crash.
I hit the brakes and slammed on the horn. How on earth did the driver miss the red light completely? Were they texting? Drunk? Distracted and glancing down at their dashboard? Like I’d done a second earlier.
“Mommy!” My son yelped from the backseat as we merged onto the interstate, my heart pounding. “Why did you honk so long?”
“Because that car almost hit us, sweetie. Or it could have. That driver broke the law and ran through a red light.”
My heart still racing, my mind replaying the scene over and over again, the dark blur of the sedan speeding through the intersection seconds before we crossed its path.
What do you do with the rest of a day?
Instinct kicked in. “Let’s pray, sweetie. We should thank God we were ok.”
We said our morning prayers. Like we’ve mumbled a million times on the same old drive to school, the wintered freeway rolling by grey and brown against a grey brown sky. Boring, rote, routine.
I turned the music up. I turned off the interstate to drop him off at school. I gave him an extra kiss and wave as he turned to go. And then I pulled over next to the school and sat and tried to slow my breath and thought about how different our morning might have been.
If we left the house a minute earlier. If he hadn’t fetched that ball. If I’d gone a little faster.
Moments like this happen to all of us. The ripping off of the veil of normalcy. The startling reminder of life’s fragility. The shock that we are still here when it might have been otherwise in a thousand ways.
As I drove home – cautious, creeping, holding my breath and looking left to right through every intersection – the tired winter world around me suddenly seemed electric and alive.
What do you do with the rest of a day?
Yesterday was the anniversary of Newtown. I couldn’t bring myself to read anything. I only looked at the pictures of those children, first-graders like mine. I tried to pray for their families, their parents, this world that goes madder with each 24-hour news cycle.
But then I remembered what I wrote on that day about my own children. Today I felt the same tingling vulnerability all over again, from one stranger’s reckless speed through an intersection.
The sheer aliveness of right now.
I know I have a porous soul. I know this is part of what makes me a searching believer and a contemplative writer. I can’t help but let in the suffering and the darkness of the world. I also can’t help but search for the hope and the light to find my way out.
And I believe the light in any scare, any near-miss, any brush with death is this:
When we are the ones who come face-to-face with the Really Real, who have the veil yanked off before our eyes, who suddenly savor the precious fleeting fragility of this life because of what people or places or events around us are teaching us about love and loss – we have to be the ones who live the day differently.
We can’t begrudge the ones who didn’t have to slam on the brakes, who haven’t had to hang up the phone shaking after the midnight call, who don’t know the pain of losing in the particular awful way that life has forced us to learn.
The lesson comes for each and all of us. But it doesn’t come all at once.
So today I will hug my children tighter and hug the shoulder while I drive. I will sink into bed next to my husband without a thousand nagging to-dos running through my mind, but with another silent refrain of the grateful prayer I’ve been reminded to pray all day. The prayer that should be always on my lips:
Thank you for the chance to be here.
There is always light to be found in remembering the sheer aliveness. The miracle of existence. The astonishing creation of how each of us came to be and to make our mark on this spinning globe. Thomas Merton wrote, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” I remember on days like this that I know exactly what he means.
And on days like this, I have to be the one to bear the message of dazzling light.
Did God or a guardian angel save us from a speeding car? I don’t know. I’m not sure how divine mystery works, to spare some from suffering at certain times but not others.
What I do know is that still being here matters. It matters more than we can possibly know while we are here. It matters what we do with each day and it matters when we wake up to whatever realization drives us back to the ground of our being.
It matters that I keep searching for light, that I keep remembering the sheer aliveness.
It matters that I keep driving.