I’m not scared of death.
That was a commonplace sentiment in my life for… as long as I can remember. My biggest fear was (and is) losing a family member. The mere thought of anything happening to my mother, father, or brother can send me into tears or even a panic attack.
As for my own mortality, however, I was fairly nonchalant, especially after I became more religious in my teens. In what was meant to convey a sense of well-being with my Creator (but what likely looked like a fit of childish self-righteousness), I often noted that I had come to terms with myself and my choices and that, while I certainly liked my life, I was ready to go when the time came. It’s this kind of blind, self-delusion that has made it easy for me to fly on planes and justify most poor decisions to myself.
Then, about a week and a half ago, I fell off a cliff.
Yes, you read that correctly. As I was hiking Olomana, one of Oahu’s more difficult hikes, I put my foot down on what I soon realized was an eroded patch of dirt. I tried to hold on while one of my fellow hikers tried to reach me but, just as he grasped my shirt, the ground dropped from under me, and I dropped down a vertical cliff face. Accounts from my 3 hiking companions vary, but I dropped anywhere from 15 to 25 feet. Save for some brush on the cliff face, and my pack and leg catching some branches, I could have fallen upwards (downwards?) of a thousand feet.
There are a lot of “Thank God”s in this situation. Thank God my hiking companions were 3 strong, young guys who have all been in the classroom, and thus know the meaning of “crisis,” and had the leadership skills to get me a rope and get me up that cliff. Thank God there was a rope near by. Thank God I caught the brush when I did, and that there was a strong tree I was able to shimmy to while I waited for the guys to figure out our exit strategy.
Of course, to say I am “lucky” to be alive is a laughable understatement. The fact that I am not only alive, but suffered only lacerations and a bruised rib is, in my mind, a miracle.
I’ve struggled both talking and writing about this. My dear Frickles (aka Chris), whose ability to make me laugh is only rivaled by his ability to make me think, called me soon after I texted him what happened. After talking for who-knows-how-long, he asked me a delightfully Teach For America question:
“So,” he started, “what are our key takeaways from this situation?”
I laughed, and said probably to watch my footing when I stepped. I knew there was more than that, but it’s been hard to talk about. I lamented to a friend over the weekend that any takeaways I have from this experience will likely be hackneyed before I write them: life is short. Live every day like it’s your last, because it could be. When in tenuous situations, always have 3 in-shape young men at your side (ok, the last one is in question as a life lesson, but I sure am lucky it happened that way).
Originally, that was going to be my takeaway: maybe the obvious life lessons are obvious for a reason. There are some things that you can’t really know until it happens. It might, in fact, take a dangerous situation before you realize, “oh, hey, shit gets real.”
This weekend, though, I ended up spending most of my Sunday in bed. I wasn’t feeling awesome. I felt… oddly fatigued. I didn’t know what was wrong.
My parents, always aware of the medical side of things, were worried that the fall could have caused a very minor case of PTSD. This, when mixed with anxiety attacks, and the fact that I am bad at letting myself feel or remember tough things sometimes (I had not cried or been actually emotional about any of this) can lead to mini-bursts of panic. I had a feeling this might be coming, since it had happened after I was hit by a car last October (oh, you didn’t know that had happened? You didn’t realize that one 5’2 person could have so many near-death experiences in one year? I am truly a special breed).
So, feeling some version of blorft, I plopped down for an anxiety-induced nap. 30 minutes in, I sat straight up in my bed, my arms gripped around me trying to protect myself from the moment I had been reliving in my sleep:
When I was on the mountain, just as the dust had settled and before anyone said anything, I looked down to see what would come next if I did not get back up. I saw a little more brush, and then about a thousand feet of cliff face.
That was what had woken me up: that terrifying silver-second of clarity that, yes, I could die. I sat in bed, my head in my hands as I sobbed, and tried to bring down my heart rate and slow my breathing. Then, I remembered what happened next:
I looked down, then had one of those moments people talk about but you’re never really sure actually happens. In a perfect moment of clarity, in a moment where you are about as certain as a human can be that you are in commune with God, or the Creator, or the Great Spirit, or Allah, or whatever you think is there, I closed my eyes and thought, “Nope. Absolutely not. I am not ready to die. I do not want to die.”
Funny as it sounds, that’s the first time I had really and clearly thought that in… potentially my entire life. For one of the first times, I no longer held on to this notion that I was above life and what it had to offer. As much as it had humbled me about my capabilities as a hiker, my fall had also humbled me about my feelings and desires as a human being. Hanging, splayed out on some trees, I buckled down and decided, then and there, that if someone wants to yank me off this crazy roller-coaster-of-adventure-and-shenanigans I’m calling “life,” I’m certainly going to put up one hell of a fight.
That sounds… horrifically strange, I know. Especially if you know me. I’m certainly a happy person. I’m certainly capable of enjoying my life. That said, I would be lying if I claimed I had never been in that dark place where you wonder if “what’s next” is even worth it. More recently, there have been times where I’ve decided to be a little passive about what I want. “When it’s the time,” I have always assumed, “then it will come to me.”
I’ve mentioned a few times that the journey from 2011 through 2012 has been… interesting. If I did a wordle on it, the key descriptors would be likely be “tumultuous,” “shenanigans,” and “chaos.” Much of the past year has been a major readjusting of my life course.
I feel like I’ve been consistently trying to self-correct that course. That maybe if I worked hard enough, moved far enough, and ran fast enough, I’d somehow find my way back onto the trail I had set for myself years ago, and all the other things would follow.
When I was falling down the cliff, the first thing into my head was a joke my friends and I had been throwing around on the way up. “If you fall,” someone had said, “you should just flail and cling. Flail your limbs, and cling onto the first thing you can.”
While that seems like a ridiculous strategy, it worked. I flailed and eventually clung onto the branches that saved my life. One of my keytakeways is that, perhaps, my life could use a little more flail-and-cling: I have no idea what that “it” I’m waiting for is, but maybe it’s time to stop waiting for it. There is no way I’m going to find anything if I just wait for something to come punch me in the face. I need to stick out my freakin’ arms and grab it.
So, I have no idea what branch is going to catch me, but when I get my hands around it, I will absolutely appreciate its ability to let me do a little more living me on the way down.
Now, is that takeaway hackneyed, commonplace, and a little derivative? Sure. Is that metaphor a little obvious? Yes, in fact, it is. Still, like I said, sometimes those realizations are necessary, and that process has to be undertaken, even if everyone else has already had it and written about it.
Besides, I fell off a cliff, okay? Cut a girl a little slack.