Yesterday I found out that one of the seven hikers killed in the recent flash flooding in Zion was a guy I went to the Academy with. He was a good man, a medal of valor recipient who pulled a guy out of a burning car, twenty years on the job, three kids, grandkids, the whole shooting match. His wife was with him. They died together. I don’t know if that’s better or worse. Probably worse, I guess. I don’t know. Maybe it took their minds off of their own death, but it must have been terrible, completely terrible, to have your life stripped from you so violently.
I knew a couple of Highway Patrol guys who died when a road got washed out and they drove off into a flooded river. Their unit filled up with water and silt and it rolled and rolled downstream. There were indications that it took a while for them to die.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking so much about death lately. Not that I don’t often think about it- it’s always in the front of my mind given my job, but I’ve been thinking about the experience of violent death, the terror and helplessness, the knowledge slowly dawning that you’re not going to get out of this one. I think about the children in those cars that got caught in the flood, how they died. At six years old, what’s that like? I think about my grandkids going through that and it scalds my soul. I think about what Steve and his wife and the five other hikers endured on their way out of this world.
It seems terribly harsh.
They died doing something they loved. That sounds trite because on some level it is trite, but there’s truth in it, too. To me, it’s not that they died doing it, but that they were doing it at all that matters. How many of my days have I spent doing what I loved?
I was thinking about my best friend who had his friends child die in his arms a few years back. Thinking about the many people I know from work who have had their children die.
It’s strange, it fills me with love. It’s uncomfortable, it’s harrowing, really, to open up to all that pain- pain that is always there, that is going on every second of every day, somewhere, everywhere. But when I open up all the way, what’s there is love. Not the love of a hallmark card, but a love that burns the world away, that turns everything to ashes. And then the love that emerges like a green shoot from those same ashes.
Yesterday we were driving over the hill with the grandbabies asleep in the back of the truck- (the beautiful sedative of driving!) and we hit a brush fire that had been burning a little while. Firetrucks arriving, folks pulling over to gawk, and the flames burning along the roadway in three or four places. Not a big fire, but pretty close to home and nothing between it and our own home but open land. Anyway, driving through the smoke and flames was like this tiny taste of death, what it could be like, how it starts for some people, and I could hear the fear in my wife’s voice…
then we drove on through, into the normal world again, and went to The Home Depot for a new toilet seat.
How it goes.
This morning on the way to work I was feeling happy and content. We’d done so much work on the house, redoing the floors, and we moved the living room and dining room back in to the blue house from the studio- our loft bed is next!- and we spent the evening in our spanking new old house for the first time in, well, in years, I guess. And everything was clean and spare and gorgeous and we were spent and exhausted and happy and hopeful. The past, the present, and the future were all sitting with us in that little old house that we’ve been in now more that twenty years. Knowing all that had happened in those rooms, thinking of the future and of the open road, knowing we were going to sell the place soon- everything was all mixed up and yet perfect.
Anyway, I was in the same kind of mood this morning when I came to the north end of Cayucos where the highway meets the sea and it was calm and bright and cool and gorgeous and I was happy. And I passed this homeless crazy man, walking northbound on the shoulder. He was sunburnt and greasy and muttering and the pain that radiated from him was brighter than the sun. I winced when I saw him and started saying a little prayer for him, some ohm mani padme hungs and wishing for a good rebirth for him and just praying for some peace, for some lifting of his suffering.
And as I drove past him I sighed and said, “Fuck it.” and pulled over, whipped around, drove past him the other way, and got out of my car. I was going to give him the twenty bucks that was in my wallet, but what he saw was a man with a gun and badge getting out of a plain wrapped cop car, and he flipped me off and crossed the highway, still muttering. I tried again and got the same response. So I got back in my car and came to work.
Sometimes you want to help, but you just make things worse. That’s how it goes.
Then all that way to work I was listening to NPR and they had this Syrian refugee guy who’d been granted entry to the United States. He told of his arrests for protesting against the regime. They beat him, they tortured him with electricity. They removed his kidney.
He was so happy and thankful to be here.
I keep forgetting how what I have, most people in the world would kill and die for.
I just keep forgetting.
So, I’m happy. Happy and scalded. Awake, tender, exquisitely alive, painfully, radiantly, joyfully alive. For this moment, the only one there is.
May you be happy. May you be at peace. May you and everyone you love have everything you want and nothing you don’t want.
May we all find a way to love each other with the same fierceness that we love our most beloved.
May it be so.