Picture a step ladder on my front lawn. Now picture me on the top rung. My right hand is extending a hockey stick above my head as far as I can reach. My left arm is dangling outward in a desperate but likely ineffective attempt to maintain balance.
Now picture above me, just out of reach of the hockey stick, a telephone line leading to the house. Draped over the line is the dog’s chew toy. How it got there isn’t important. Next, picture a power line running directly underneath the telephone line.
“I think you need to get higher.” That’s my wife. She’s on the ground. Safely. I look at the top platform of the step ladder. It reads (as all step ladders read) “DO NOT STAND.” I gingerly step onto the platform.
Legs trembling, stretching as far as I can with the hockey stick, nothing around me but air and gravity, I feebly swat at the chew toy, wobbling the telephone wire but amazingly avoiding the electrical wire.
Now picture the dog’s leash on the ground, with the dog attached to the end, close enough that she could easily swipe the ladder out from under me should she decide to chase a squirrel or a cat or a stray blade of grass.
Now you can understand why at that moment I think, “This would be a stupid way to die,” followed by, “although it would make awesome YouTube.”
A few days later, I find myself standing on the ice surface of the local arena taking photos of the new Zamboni. I’m crouching and shooting, filling the frame with the vehicle as it cruises past me. I’m wearing sandals. On ice. Again I think: this would be an embarrassing way to go – run over by a Zamboni. An electric Zamboni at that, which would make it even funnier somehow, maybe because “electric Zamboni” sounds like the name of an eighties breakdance movie.
I didn’t fall. I didn’t get Zambonied. But I could have. Life, after all, is fraught with peril. Death lurks around every corner, sometimes wearing Groucho glasses and floppy shoes.
Death comes for all of us. The suggestion that there’s an afterlife is no real comfort because even the devout can’t be certain what the Judgement Day deal-breakers will be:
God: “Thou art damned for poor recycling.”
You: “What? I was a dedicated recycler!”
God: “Vinyl rain gutters in the bin? Really?”
You: “But they were plastic! I thought…”
God “The road to Hell is paved with PVCs. Next!”
The one undeniable fact of existence is that existence ends. How it ends, though, is the mystery.
Will it be a peaceful fadeout with a final lucid, “Hmm. Interesting…”? Or will it be farce, as it would have been if I had succumbed to fatal food poisoning from that Chinese restaurant, all my loved ones knowing that the offending scallop was in a dish called “Happy Family”?
Or will it be that greatest fear, a terror-filled death, made worse still by stupid randomness. Such a fear – the knowledge that your life can be snuffed out by a stranger in a blur of panic – can paralyze a person. Just thinking about it can shut you away from life.
Let’s not do that.
In a week, Deb and I will leave our middle children home alone while we travel west. I could spook myself by recalling that Katie recently melted a plastic knife on the stove. Or that James, following a soup recipe, misread “add 2 tbsp corn starch” as “add 2 cups corn starch.” I could reasonably extrapolate that our children are doomed without us. And that’s just in the kitchen.
I could imagine all kinds of horrible things happening to them while we’re away and decide our safest bet is not to go at all.
But the worst could happen even if we’re around. More important: it probably won’t. Lightning doesn’t strike. The children don’t napalm the house. You don’t fall off the ladder. You don’t get Zambonied (although you really should rethink the wisdom of sandals on ice).
Random, awful things happen. But don’t arm yourself against the fear. Play the odds. Walk after dark. Jump from a plane. Trust your children. Go to a movie. Know people are good. Use hockey sticks in innovative ways. Eat questionable shellfish. Enjoy each other. Learn the difference between “careful” and “cautious” and live accordingly.
Enjoy life while it lasts. Death will come when it’s ready. Hopefully quietly and not chasing a squirrel.