Looking at Life Through Near-Death Experiences

I just finished I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell and although the subtitle says it’s about the author’s Seventeen Brushes with Death, I think it’s really about the things that could have happened.

In addition to her illnesses, accidents, and injuries, that did not kill O’ Farrell, we read about many other things that did not happen. It is a memoir of life through these incidents, and so we see past boyfriends, jobs, and places she lived, but that now are gone. We see what she might have been, compared to the person she is now.

I have always been fascinated by the thought of the things that don’t happen. When I see a car speed through a red light and I have not yet turned out into it, I can almost see an alternate reality and it doesn’t turn out good. I also am fascinated with how things turned out for me compared to how I imagined they would.

O’ Farrell’s brushes with death are large and small. Some left me gasping for air such as accidents or injuries that if they had turned out differently, would, and in some cases, have left O’ Farrell with a different sense of herself. In a number of places she even describes the feeling of having death right next to her.

But others are small. They are more like the type of moments we all have when we could have ended up dead, but most likely everything was going to turn out okay in the end. It made me wonder if I could catalog my own near-death experiences. When I spread the net as wide as O’ Farrell did I couldn’t come up with as many, even though I’ve always been a pretty sickly, accident-prone person:

  • A time on the highway when I had looked up just in time to see the brake lights of the car close in front of me and the many others in front of that one. I slammed on the brakes and swerved into the gravel on the right side of the road but hadn’t made contact. As we all moved slowly forward after our abrupt stop, I put my hand on my chest and drove with it there for almost a mile, comforted by the adrenaline pumping there.
  • Turning left to get gas and I pulled out into the intersection where I waited for the traffic to subside. My light turned red, but the traffic kept coming. I saw a truck approaching the intersection and assumed they would stop at the light. Wanting to get out of the middle of traffic, I turned, feeling the impact of the truck on my back-rear passenger door immediately. My car spun around before stopping on the side of the road.
  • Swimming in the Bay of Banderas on the beaches of Puerto Vallarta. I had not been swimming in the ocean since I was a child and forgot how strong the waves are. I was jumping in them with a friend and one flipped me under, dragging me along the bottom, pulling me up, my face scraping along the rocks until I was thrown up on the beach coughing. I have been wary of the ocean since.
  • Traveling on my honeymoon in Morocco My husband and I held on for dear life as our local driver sped through mountain passes, answering phone calls, and playing chicken with oncoming cars. I feel there were many close calls, but one particularly stands out on a switchback as our driver passed a row of drivers going full speed just as a bus rounded the corner. He dodged in between two cars just in the nick of time.
  • My benign brain tumor which was diagnosed when I was 22, but that caused petit mal seizures that I hid for eight years. I have said I had the easiest brain tumor surgery in history but know how lucky I was to have no recurrence and to have no injury and minor effects from what could have been a life-altering or ending diagnosis.

If I had to write a book about it, I’m sure I add others. There would be others I’m sure I wouldn’t even know about. It is an interesting way to examine a life by looking at the places where we were most at risk. If I looked at all the places I’ve been and people that are no longer a part of my life, I might find more.

The experiences you live through while gravely ill take on a near-mystical quality. Fever, pain, medicine, immobility: all these things give you both clarity and also distance, depending on which is riding in the ascendant.

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  1. Karen DeBonis

    I haven’t read I Am, I Am, I Am, yet, but I read an excerpt, and the writing is exceptional, so it’s on my reading list. And I think the way you do about near misses and what-could-have-happened. I’m curious to know about your “easiest brain surgery on history?”

    • Catherine Lanser

      Hi Karen-I learned I had a small brain tumor when I was a 22, just as I was graduating college. I couldn’t have found it more inconvenient. When I learned it wasn’t cancerous and easily removed, I thought “Well, I’m done with that.” Only in the years since, and following a stroke which destroyed my dad’s brain, did I learn what I could have lost. I also know now that no surgery on the brain leaves it the same as it was before. Looking back, I can now see that I experienced personality changes and depression following surgery. I have written a memoir about it and am looking for a home for it.

      I read about your writing and am looking forward to your story and reading your blog.

  2. gerrihilger

    This looks interesting, and quite thought-provoking as we have these types of incidents but seldom store them away, and realize later how different our life and others we know would be except for a mili-second.

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