Sliding on the pavement across traffic on your shoulder and hip tends to focus one’s attention. I was watching, with a casual detachment, that a Peugeot had failed to run me over as I slid between it and the Mercedes. Across the yellow lines, a large truck rumbled by and I slid through the space it had just cleared. On I slid until I came to rest directly in the path of a step van, which stopped.
I was 18, embarked on my European cycling adventure. It was 1968. I was exploring the Rhine and Mosel river valleys, staying in the youth hostels, which were fairly often situated in castles, high on the hilltops overlooking the sweeping river below. I don’t recall where this incident occurred, but I suspect that it took place toward the approach to Trier, in Germany. Negotiating a set of switchbacks, or S-turns, I had begun a long descent, wearing cutoffs and a T-shirt.
On my back was a gray rucksack on which I had emblazoned a large peace sign in black Magic Marker. Riding in the right bike lane, turning on a sharp downhill right, the bike slid out from under me. Later on, during the process of retrieving my strewn objects, I saw the oil patch.
It surprised me afterward that a crowd had collected to help me. Yet that was always my experience on that journey: If I kept my heart open, people were always there to help me.
So casually have I always worn the gift of life that only recently have I paused to reflect upon the many times Death that has flown whizzing by my ear, like those very vehicles. Death’s presence is always attended by a certain calm, his arrival always a surprise. And then he chooses. Those quiet moments have, for me, as they have become familiar, become something of a gift … There comes a true freedom and indifference at those moments. But always, my attitude during those moments has been one of detachment, for the outcome was ever of indifference to me by that point. I had, by then, chosen to observe my fate. And if any gift has been given to me in my time on this earth, it has been the gift of observation.
If we are lucky, I suppose, these moments when Death drops by for a casual visit and leaves are moments when the chaff of our lives can drop away and we find we have become surprisingly enriched by the meeting.
And so, over time, these visitations had become a fairly frequent occurrence. It might be said that I had become casual about putting a value on my life. But in most instances it was merely a matter of the chaos of life pausing for a moment and Death stopping for an instant at my door and the events of the universe aligning in a certain way, or not.
But Death wishes us a short memory in these affairs.