In the same moment that I saw the car in front of me swerve I also saw the deer. His steely brown coat rippled for a second in the headlights. I yanked the wheel aggressively to the left and while simultaneously mashing my foot on the brake. This was not something they brought up when I took driver’s ed. a thousand years ago: brake or swerve, but only stunt drivers do both.
I felt the car do a sick fish tail and heard the inhuman keen of squelching breaks. I thought, “What is that?” and then “Oh fuck. That’s me.” It’s true what they say about these situations that it feels like a movie you’re watching until you realize you’re not a spectator, you’re in the starring role. My car spun in what felt like a slow arc and suddenly I was facing backwards and then coasting to a stop in the left-hand breakdown, my car completely stalled. It was 1:15 a.m. Thank God it was 1:15 a.m. and not 5:15 p.m. on this typically busy stretch of highway.
Realizing my car was no longer running, I shut it off and put it in park. “Hazards,” I said out loud as if I were performing a shuttle launch check. I looked to the left and saw the other motorist also in the breakdown lane, facing the correct way, his hazards quietly twitching. I looked to the right and saw nothing but the cool night and the empty black of highway. Had there been even one car in any lane behind me, just one car, writing this would be something of a challenge to say the least. The deer had smartly vanished. A car seemed to come out of nowhere and slowly pulled to a stop on my right. I lowered the window.
“Are you ok?” the guy asked me. He had a southern accent.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, but really not so much.
“Can you start your car?” he asked. I hadn’t even thought about it, I was too preoccupied with not being dead. I gave the key a turn and the car turned over smoothly.
“Ok, I’m ok, thank you sir,” I said and he nodded and waved and got back on the road. The other motorist had jogged over to my car. A young Latino guy, he bounced on his heels. “Are you ok?” he asked and we repeated a variation of the exchange I just had.
“Man, that was messed up,” he said. “Did you see the deer? Messed up!” Messed up was a pretty sound assessment. We parted ways and I got back on the highway, which was still fairly blank, to head home.
I drove in silence. The only sound cutting through was my own voice as I whispered, thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou for what felt like the next hour. A thought pressed itself firmly against my brain: “What if this had been my last day on earth? What would I have left?” It’s easy to play that game when you’re sitting around a friend’s house, drinking wine and stacking the death deck against you saying “Ok, the asteroid is coming to wipe out the planet, what do you do with that last day?” It’s a different story when those final hours spool out in a pathetic ribbon of real time.
Thirteen hours, two hours, eight hours what would I have left? I wasn’t thinking about legacy or accomplishments or even people. I was thinking of the imprints we make minute to minute day in and day out. I was thinking of how we show up or not in each other’s lives on the regular. Did you share laughter with someone? Were you rude to dude working at the post office (So. Damn. slow, dude. C’mon!)? Do your kids know without a doubt you love them, that you like them as fellow humans? Did you let go of that argument you had with your partner, the one you keep having every three or four months, or did you clutch it to you for the rest of the day to add it to the pile of infractions?
Six hours, four hours, twenty-three hours, what would you leave behind? What are the last memories you would gift to someone—love, forgiveness, joy, comfort, or anger, sadness, pettiness, hurt? We can’t always be our highest, best, most well-behaved, evolved selves. As I have said before, that’s why there is only one Mother Theresa, one Dalai Lama. And most people are going to excuse bad behavior or an unflattering last exchange in order to preserve a longer history of good will in the relationship. At least this is what most of us–imperfect, flawed, susceptible to adult tantrums from time to time–hope. Even so, would it be so terrible to throw a little more consciousness into the mix? Would it be so horrible to think more about your imprint and less about satisfying that personal itch to be right, to be the loudest, to hurt because you hurt too?
Several years ago I had the opportunity to do outreach type work with moms of children with chronic, incurable illness. These women were usually the primary caregivers in the family trying to manage their child’s needs while also working outside the home, maintaining a marriage, raising unaffected siblings, and trying to keep up some semblance of a social life. Try all of that backwards and in high heels. I think of these fierce, brave, lovely, incredibly strong women when I am in public and tempted to throw attitude at or judge someone else. The obnoxious woman talking loudly on the phone at Starbucks might be using the only free twenty minutes of her day before getting one kid from soccer practice and taking the other to get his power wheelchair serviced. There are a minimum of six sides to every story, I try and remind myself often.
Three hours, ten hours, fifteen-and-a-half hours, the strips of time seem too narrow to do any serious damage or repair, we might think, which relieves us of responsibility, which assuages guilt. We are so wrong. There’s an ocean of possibility in every moment that we can actually control, that we have choice and agency over. A miracle! Even more so when you live in that moment where control is swiftly taken from you and there are no more do-overs, no more better luck next time.
We’re leaving filthy paw prints all over our lives and the lives of others every sixty ticks to the timepiece. It’s a beautiful thing. We see a life and check it off as “well-lived” based on big swatches of time poured into making families, chasing careers, and collecting experiences. But really, we are so much more powerful when we stop thinking in terms of months and years and the next big thing and, instead, tune in to the two hours, the five hours, the thirty-nine minutes as possibly all we’re given and all we have to give.