In the moments after I was hit by a truck, lying facedown and motionless in the street, my first thought was this:
“I was not inscribed in the Book of Life last fall.”
I thought back to the Jewish High Holidays, almost a year earlier. Our tradition holds that during these solemn days, God judges each person, sealing his fate in the Book of Life. Who will enter this world and who will leave it, who will suffer and who will be at peace….the Book of Life imagery is so powerful that it was the first thought to coalesce in my shocked brain. As if everyone I knew had been invited to a party, but I was not. My invitation had not gone missing in the mail. No, the guest list had been carefully drawn up and I was excluded.
My fate, this fate, had been signed and sealed months before.
10 years ago this month, on an achingly beautiful late summer day, I jumped on my bike and set off under the golden, slanted August light. Death was the furthest thing from my mind as I biked along that morning. I had no idea that I was about to cross the invisible line, which separates the routine from the catastrophic. That line is always there, whether we realize it or not, and if we cross it, we may sense that which is normally hidden.
In the moments after I was hit, I felt a curtain being lifted for just an instant, giving me a glimpse into something that we don’t normally see, that we are not supposed to see. Death accompanies us all the time. We just don’t sense it—that is, until it makes it presence felt on an ordinary day.
As people rushed to my aid, they seemed very far away, as if an opaque bubble separated them from me, as though the air itself was tinted a slightly different shade that only I could see. A paramedic knelt down next to me, and I asked him if I was going to die. Bringing his face close to mine, he said in a sure voice, “Not today.” With those words, the opaque bubble burst, the air returned to its normal color. Back over that invisible line I went- from being a person who believes that death is imminent, to someone who miraculously….lives.
This experience was life altering because it taught me things I could not have learned any other way. During those first days in the trauma unit, when doctors thought it likely that I would lose a leg, the word “injured” was filled with new meaning. I thought I knew what pain was, having given birth to four children when natural childbirth was the norm.
Turns out, I didn’t have the first clue. So many words I learned anew. Devotion? That was the way my husband cared for me. Comfort? The homemade Shabbat dinner that he and our kids slipped into my hospital room. Too sick to take a bite, the light from the (contraband) candles was food for the soul, the only food I needed just then. Community? We were inundated for months with help from family and friends, but also from people we hardly knew. I wondered if I would have done the same for a casual acquaintance. Experience is a powerful teacher.
It took a year to fully recover and regain the ability to walk unaided on two strong legs. Since then, I’ve danced with my husband at three of our kids’ weddings and pushed five grandchildren in their strollers.
Ten years is an eternity that passes in the blink of an eye.
The accident forced me to think about what this close call meant. Well-meaning friends declared that I must have had a guardian angel watching over me that day. Others went so far as to suggest that I was saved for a special purpose. I reject both assertions: I have no answer as to why I was so lucky, when many others are not. I can accept that answers to some questions are simply unavailable to us.
Ultimately the question of why my life was spared is much less important than the question of what I would do with the years that were gifted back to me. How many people get such a second chance?
Soon, the High Holidays will be here. For 24 hours on Yom Kippur, we will neither eat nor drink, nor engage in any sexual activity. The annual ritual is intended to be a dress rehearsal for dying, to focus our minds on the fleeting nature of our lives. Some men will even don a white robe over their clothes, a reminder of the burial shroud they will wear someday. As sunset approaches, people pray with increasing fervor. They beg a compassionate God to forgive their many sins and inscribe them and their loved ones in the Book of Life. The ear-splitting blast of the ram’s horn marks the end of the fast, and returns us to reality. Back to the land of the living we go, hoping that somewhere in that great Book of Life, a merciful fate was recorded for us.
A minority of people celebrate Yom Kippur. Fewer still survive accidents like mine. Nonetheless, the question of what we do with the years that are gifted to us is a question that all of us should ask.