For Dear Life
WEEKENDER | Fri, 12/17/2010 1:29 PM |
Twice, I could’ve died.
The first time, I was about 10 years old, swimming by myself in a public pool in Central Sulawesi, when a boy dived into my space. We were in a pretty deep part of the pool and it turned out he couldn’t swim. He began to struggle, violently moving his arms and feet and gasping for air, his eyes wide open and his face frozen in fear.
I had not even begun to think of what to do when he grabbed hold of my neck, trying to stay afloat by hanging on to me and choking me at the same time. I was a tiny girl, and not a particularly strong swimmer at that time, so he was soon taking me down with him. I tilted my head back, my mouth wide open to breathe, and tried to stay up but his pull was stronger. I found myself hyperventilating in panic.
We were both drowning and I was already inhaling water, when I felt a pair of hands grabbing us. Next thing I remember I was lying on my back by the pool surrounded by people.
The second time was nine years later across the globe in the United States, when I was driving two friends in my beat-up Chevrolet hatchback. We were going for dinner, all in a good mood, laughing and singing along to the music. A traffic light had just turned green and I was turning left onto an uphill road, not realizing there was another car racing toward me.
The other car slammed into the right front side of my car, missing us on the front seats by a few inches and sending my car on what felt like a 360-degree spin. When it finally stopped whirling, my car was headed toward a concrete utility post on the intersection. This all happened within a split second, but it felt as if things were unfolding in a slow motion. As the car rolled toward the concrete post, I braced myself – none of us was wearing a seatbelt – and thought, “Here we go, this is when I die.” I closed my eyes, and felt my body jerked as I heard a loud bang. My car was totaled; I survived unscathed.
There were a couple more incidents in which I could’ve been hurt and or even died, but I didn’t. Call it random luck or miracles; I like to think it just wasn’t my turn.
People are always drawn to stories of miraculous survival. When the 33 Chilean miners were finally rescued after more than two months trapped underground in a San Jose coal mine, the whole world rejoiced, even though most people were not even aware of the disaster before the rescue.
I thought of this as I watched another human drama unfolding in the aftermath of the Merapi eruption in Central Java. After the mountain’s first major eruption, its assigned “spiritual guardian” Mbah Maridjan was found dead at his home along with several other people (including a journalist and volunteer). The 83-year-old’s body was found in a prostrate position, suggesting that he was praying, even as people were evacuating the area en masse.
Although some call this act reckless, I found it honorable: What better way for a person entrusted with guarding the mountain spiritually to die than at the hands of the mountain itself? When many officials and politicians charged with corruption could not even face their own prosecution and feign illness when they get a court summons, he seemed to have confronted his own demise with courage. I wonder if I’ll face my own death with such equanimity.
Death is not exactly people’s favorite subject. I realize this when I get that polite hush when my talk turns (unintentionally) morbid. I’m not sure why. Our lives have an expiration date, and the only way to face up to this fact is to be comfortable talking about it.
Death is as natural as our instinct to seek life, and we could learn this from other species. I watched a National Geographic documentary recently about the heroic migrations some animals make in pursuit of their most basic needs: food, water and reproduction. The terrestrial red crabs of Christmas Island, for example, travel 8 km across the island on a six-month voyage through their habitat in the forest where murderous yellow crazy ants gang up on them, crossing highways where they run the risk of being crushed by passing cars and descending a sheer 15-meter-high cliff, all to hatch their eggs in the ocean. Having survived the epic journey, many will drown while hatching their eggs.
“Life just wants to be,” wrote US author Bill Bryson in his expansive book A Short History of Nearly Everything, explaining how single-celled organisms thrived to form life in the Earth’s early days despite all the odds against them.
Gazillions of years later, multiple-celled organism like us are still fighting for our chances to live, whether in the face of natural disasters or financial crises, in our attempts to be liked in our social circle or in our pursuit of a soul (or bed) mate.
Speaking of the latter, here’s a sweet and true story. One afternoon, my friend Uli was walking along Jl. Thamrin when a big butterfly flew toward her and locked onto her chest. It stayed there as she waited at a bus shelter, boarded the bus and rode all the way to the yoga studio where she teaches. The butterfly was still there when she got off the bus and walked to the studio.
It was still with her about 40 minutes later as she sat in the studio, looking and taking a photo of it with her cell phone. Then, as suddenly as its had appeared, the butterfly moved, unraveled and flew away. One, followed by another! It was then that she realized why it was such a huge butterfly: There were two of them and they were mating.
Now, isn’t that a heartwarming story? If only to let us know that there are still butterflies in the heart of this city and to remind us that life will continue “to be”, whatever the challenges are. Happy New Year and stay grateful everybody.
+ Devi Asmarani