When I think about my life, indeed any life, I am struck by how life is both fragile and robust at the same time. To illustrate my point, here are some examples from my own life about how the events could have been very different … and my life dramatically changed or very abruptly ended.
The Creek in Oakville
It starts in 1942 when I’m five years old. My mother, older brother – he’s seven – and I are living in Oakville, Ontario, on the Second Line. There is a little creek running through the back of the property and it is full of spring runoff, fast and deep. My brother and his friends have a little sliding game right next to the creek. They have a slippery muddy bit that they are running one foot on, while standing with their weight on the other. I ask if I can play. With some reluctance – they are older than me – they let me try. On my first attempt I am so successful that I slide right into the creek. It is over my head and I remember standing on a large piece of ice on the bottom, looking through the water – it was greenish blue – and being very surprised. Not afraid, not cold, there was no time, but very surprised. My quick-witted brother grabs a small branch from a bush, hooks the hood of my snowsuit and brings me to shore where the boys drag me out of the water. They take me up to the house where, wonder of wonders, I get to stand on the kitchen table, fully clothed and dripping wet, while my mother strips me down and dries me off. I have been living on borrowed time ever since.
Lesson: Don’t play with the big kids unless you are as competent as they are.
Fast-forward about 10 years. I am 15, in Army cadets at high school in Scarborough. A buddy, Joe Czaja, lives on a nearby farm and can drive his father’s stake body truck to cadet meetings in the evening. There are seven of us, three in the front seat and four of us, including me, in the open back of the truck. An inexperienced driver, he tries to take a turn too fast and overturns the truck. Those of us in the back are flung up out of the truck onto the roadway. I land on my hands and knees, roll over and see the truck continuing to roll I’m coming down on me. I roll frantically out-of-the-way, while the truck ends up on its side. Incredibly, no one is injured. We help Joe right the truck, which is a little banged up, and continue home. He doesn’t get to drive us to cadets anymore.
Lesson: Don’t ride in the back of a truck driven by a really inexperienced driver trying to impress his friends.
It is a year later. With a friend on his bike, I am riding my bicycle – a one speed utilitarian model – along Kingston Road east of Toronto. The road is two paved lanes with gravel shoulders. No bicycle lane. It is a weekend and traffic is very busy so I am keeping well over to the right. Suddenly my front wheel slips off the pavement onto the gravel, where the wheel turns sharply left and forces me back, out of control, into the traffic. I hit hard on the right rear door of a passing car. I can see the horrified eyes of the nearest passenger as I careen off the car into the air and fly off onto the gravel shoulder, my bicycle cartwheeling beneath me. I can see all this in slow motion. The car screeches to a halt and they ask if I am okay. Other than a little road rash on my hands and knees, I am unhurt and the bicycle is still usable. A second earlier or later, I would have been between vehicles and would likely have been run over by at least one car.
Lesson: If you are in a collision between a bicycle and a car, the car ALWAYS wins.
Two years later. I am a senior in high school in Scarborough and I am coming home late at night from some event in the back seat of a taxi. It is winter and extremely foggy as we travel west along Eglinton Avenue. There is little traffic. There is a busy level crossing on this stretch of Eglinton. It is the main line between Toronto and Montréal, two parallel tracks cutting Eglinton at an angle and the trains are fast as they cross the road. As we approach the crossing the driver and I both hear the train’s whistle but cannot see the headlights until we are on the tracks. The train is almost upon us, approaching fast from the left, the brilliant light illuminates the interior of the cab space … and there is nothing we can do except keep moving. As the taxi clears the tracks, the train rockets by, buffeting the car. We both think that the train has struck the car, so the driver stops and gets out, as do I. As the train disappears into the fog we see that the taxi is undamaged. We get back in and the driver slowly, carefully, thankfully drives me home. This near miss frightens me. There is enough time to contemplate the onrushing death and there is absolutely nothing that I can do. I have no control and am powerless to change the outcome. I think that I have never been closer to death than at that moment.
Lesson: Sometimes you are just in the wrong place and the wrong time … and you are powerless to do anything about it. Accept whatever fate brings you.