“Nothing in life,” Winston Churchill once wrote, “is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”
Though I’m a Churchill fan, and though no one’s ever shot at me with or without result, here I must disagree with him. Falling in love, and having that person love you, is surely exhilarating. An inheritance of a couple million dollars or a big-time winning lottery ticket might also induce euphoria.
As for me, escaping death three times in as many years certainly proved exhilarating.
Doe and Heart
A little more than two years ago, I was driving from North Carolina home to Virginia on I-81 at 74 miles per hour when a deer appeared out of nowhere and smashed into the side of my car. Both the car and the poor doe were totaled. Although at another point in my life I might have cursed this piece of ill luck, this time I stepped from my totaled vehicle and silently thanked whatever powers that be for my salvation. Had that deer struck my Honda Accord a split-second earlier, she would undoubtedly have broken through the window shield, separating my body from my soul.
Last September, I had planned a trip back to North Carolina. I had cleaned the house, packed my luggage in the car, and was 20 miles into the trip when I pulled from the interstate into the parking lot of a gas station in Woodstock, Virginia. For a couple of weeks, I had suffered an aching in the left side of my chest, a pressure I’d ignored—I’m often a fool in such matters.
At any rate, I sat for five minutes in the car, contemplating the pain, which seemed worse, and then ordered the fool temporarily banished. I drove back to Front Royal’s urgent care center, fearing the whole way I might drop dead from heart failure. After the staff had administered various tests, including an EKG and a blood pressure check, the doctor informed me I was suffering from costochondritis, an inflammation of the upper rib cage. He prescribed some cheap medication, and I left that clinic with a spring in my step and a smile on my face.
Visit to the ER
In mid-February came the latest travail. Not only had the inflammation returned, but my heart rate and blood pressure had both accelerated, like some race car shooting out of the starting post. Encouraged by two friends, and by the readings from a blood pressure cuff I’d purchased earlier, off I drove once again to the urgent care center. A nurse listened to my complaints, and then advised me to go to the emergency room at our local hospital.
For the next five hours, I lay on a gurney in a room without books or magazines. An attendant gave me the remote control to the television, but I haven’t watched TV in years and didn’t intend to start then. The cubicles around me, rooms with porous walls and in some cases curtains rather than doors, provided some diversion. One man across the way complained of excruciating back pain, a young woman vividly described her suffering from kidney stones, and a poor child in the next room spent three hours crying, whimpering, and intermittently throwing up.
My bed faced the hallway, and as I watched the sick and wounded pass my door, I thought what a sad parade of humanity they made, and even sadder, that I was a member of that parade. I pondered the stupidities I had practiced in my lifetime—smoking at times, drinking too much wine and other spirits, failing to exercise these past two years—and thought, “Well, whatever’s coming down the pike, you have no one to blame but yourself.”
Then once again came the reprieve. The doctor recommended I notify my family physician about the incident and my symptoms, which I had already done, and then ask him whether I needed to begin taking medication to reduce my blood pressure. Otherwise, I was good to go.
Once again came a feeling of exhalation. On arriving home, had it not been for the melting snow and patches of water on the ground, I might have dropped to my knees and kissed the earth.
Many of my readers, I am certain, have undergone similar experiences, times when an illness or an accident might have killed or maimed them. Once averted, these disasters can act as teachers for us, reminding us of the preciousness of life and leading us to see the world through a new pair of glasses.
Many of us, for example, may fall more fiercely in love with the world. Life is short, and all too often we fail to appreciate it. We get so wrapped up in obligations and duties that we overlook beauty: a sunset, the smile of a child, the laughter of a young stranger at the next table in the coffee shop. In the past 10 years or so, I’ve gotten better at appreciating the little things, but the deer and the two health care visitations underscored my need to find even more time for such diversions.
Those five hours in that hospital bed without diversions also made me think of those I cared for or loved. Some of them, I am confident, would miss me were I to hit the dirt rather than sticking around for as long as possible. My daughter and my friend John have already told me they’d be angry with me for failing to take better care of myself. It’s past time to reform some of my habits and aim for longevity. Plus, I have promised a beloved and adventurous 8-year-old granddaughter that when she turns 21 we’ll have a wild party.
Finally, I told myself I needed to get my personal affairs in order. If I were to die suddenly, I would leave behind a huge mess for my children. Bank accounts, life insurance, the phone numbers and emails of friends, funeral arrangements, a will: all these need to be recorded in an orderly fashion, and I will soon have in hand a workbook that will help me in this endeavor.
The morning after my latest adventure, and for no particular reason, the movie “Gladiator” popped to mind. Ridley Scott’s film contains some memorable lines about death, and three in particular seem appropriate here.
At one point, Maximus, a Roman general enslaved and forced to fight as a gladiator, says of his mentor, Marcus Aurelius, “I knew a man who once said, ‘Death smiles at us all. All we can do is smile back.’”
To be afraid of death, which comes to us all, seems to me a fruitless enterprise. I do fear a prolonged fatal illness, one that would make my hours on that gurney look like a stroll in the park, but regarding death itself, I find myself in agreement with a remark made by Giovanni Falcone, the Sicilian prosecutor and hero murdered in 1992 by the Mafia: “He who doesn’t fear death dies only once.”
“When a man sees his end, he wants to know there was some purpose to his life.” So says Marcus Aurelius to Maximus, and the emperor then questions his own purpose and how others will remember him.
Those words set me to thinking. What has been the purpose of my own life? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life and how will others think of me when I am gone?
Big questions, and I continue to mull over the answers.
In the Arena
As Maximus prepares to lead his men into battle against the Germans, he says to them, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”
I believe this to be true. All of us, whatever we do, however long we live, however insignificant our deeds, leave a footprint. That now-unknown Roman foot soldier in the legions of Marcus Aurelius may have fathered children who learned love from him or inspired friends to emulate his generosity and humility. His was but a tiny ripple in the big pond of history, but a ripple nonetheless.
That line from “Gladiator” then led me to recollect Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech. Here is the core of that address:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Every day, I see men and women who enter that arena, who rise from their beds and assume their responsibilities. They go to work, raise children, and perform a thousand small tasks every day.
These people along with heroes from history and literature inspire me to enter that arena as well, no matter my advancing years, to stay engaged and in love with life. Like the aged Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, I have been “made weak by time and fate,” but must push myself, as must we all, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.