I had to nearly lose my life to write this essay.
In the back of the ambulance, I kept falling out of consciousness. The medic shouted questions at me, to keep me from fading away. “What is your name?” The urgency in his voice cut through the fog.
I didn’t know my name.
I didn’t know much of anything.
I knew that my arms and legs felt useless. At the best trauma hospital in Seattle, the nurses piled on eight or ten emergency blankets. But nothing stopped the trembling at the core of me. Deep under, I heard the urgent confusion in the nurse’s voices—they wondered why they couldn’t warm me up. From a great distance, a thought arose, “I’m dying.” But the thought vanished, along with any fear of it. My mind didn’t have the energy to care.
In December of 2003, two years ago today, my life spun around after being hit by a car. It could have been worse—people who saw the crumpled car were amazed I survived at all. There was a terrifying day in the hospital, deep in shock and feeling close to death. And a year and a half of medical treatments, debilitating pain, and time for reflection.
Ample time for reflection.
After having survived it, and studied up on it, I know that, in deep shock, all the blood rushes from the extremities to protect the inner organs. That’s why my arms felt so foreign at my sides. That’s why my thinking nearly stopped. That’s why I can only remember it now in flashes of disconnected images.
But the studying didn’t ameliorate the feeling. It felt like death. Or, at least, it feels like that’s what death will be like. I feel it deep in my core. And what did it feel like? Utterly anonymous. Everything that was individual, attached to the world, or what I identify as Shauna? It didn’t exist. It slipped away. And it was wonderfully easy.
There was no struggle. No regret. There was no great epiphany, no white light. I was simply fading out.
Everything in our culture says we have to rush, to accomplish, to be better and bigger than everyone else. We don’t know how to slow down. Nothing like a near-death experience to make you stop rushing, and really live, instead.
While I was in bed for months, recuperating incrementally, I did hours of lying-down meditation. And everything I had studied about Buddhism, concepts I believed deeply before—-letting go; loving-kindness; the illusion of a fixed self; that clinging and expectations cause suffering—-were really only ideas before my car accident. Now, they are in my body.
It has been a bigger blessing than I could ever express.
I’m here now, in vivid colors.
But death has been sitting inside me ever since. And in some ways, that has been scary. Difficult to convey. After all, every attempt with words is a failure.
But in other ways, it has been an enormous grace. This presence has meant that I can’t wrap myself in senseless fear or stress. I know that all those trivial details will slip away someday, so why waste my time with them now?
And there’s a comfort of having gone down to the core, knowing that I don’t have to struggle. Or try to control anything.
What if life isn’t about accomplishing anything? What if it’s just about being alive?
I’m so grateful to have this life, as it is: complicated, quirky, and destined to fade away entirely. Because I know, now, what I am. Not words. Not my memories, my to-do list, or my accomplishments. And not my hopes for the future.
I’m not me.
What am I?
Just life. Breath. Consciousness. The ability to hear the din of noise in a room full of people eating, feel the sudden flush of the oven on my face when I open it, smell the fresh-cut ginger rising to greet me, taste the soft lemon-garlic bite of roasted potatoes, or see the craggy Olympic mountains rising high in the pale blue sky from my kitchen window.
A beating heart. An alive mind. This moment.
The miraculous fact that we are alive, able to take breath, and take in images of the world, is all that we need to connect us. When we truly understand, in our bodies, that every single being shares this, we have no choice but to love each other.
And this knowledge in my body informs everything I do. I know that if I hadn’t been spun around, turned toward death, I would never have been able to accept having celiac disease with such joy. Eating gluten-free, while sometimes an annoyance, and once in a while a loss, is a joyful freedom in comparison to the terrible headaches and nagging pain I suffered for years. And mostly, after nearly losing it, I know, down to my toes, that I want to say yes to life, instead of no.
And so, today, I said yes. To being alive. Friends gathered at my house for a “Hey, We’re Alive” party. A recognition, and a celebration. The house filled with people, many of whom I didn’t know two years ago, and, if circumstances had been different, would never have met. They started arriving in the morning when the sunlight splashed through the kitchen skylights. Lights from my Christmas tree glittered against the darkened windows by the time the last people left. We laughed and talked and sat on the kitchen counters, dangling our legs in happy unison. And of course, we ate. Minestrone soup. Goat cheese marinade. Lovely Thai concoctions with lime and coconut, wrapped in lettuce leaves. Six different kinds of cheese. Roasted potatoes. Chocolate financiers. Flaxseed chips. Lovely bottles of wine. Lime water. Three-bean salad. Lemon meringues. The sigh of ginger. The happy whisper of people filling a room.
The tastes danced on my tongue. I was surrounded by people I love, and I felt alive.
What more could I need?