I was 20 when I saw American History X. We watched it and spent the next few hours processing what we had just seen – a story of hope and tragedy – but what I didn’t tell anyone was the premonition that came over me as we watched the film. And from the moment, I knew – KNEW – that I was going to die (probably violently) before I turned 30. I didn’t really know what to do with that feeling, and I felt a little weird telling others about it, so I just put it on a shelf to come back to at a later date. Over the next 10 years or so, the memory of that feeling would haunt me every now and then. My mind knew there was nothing to it – but my heart wasn’t really sure.
Fast forward 11 years later – I am turning 31 today, and I am still here – and oh so thankful for the gift of life.
A friend posted 32 near-death experiences for his 32nd birthday… Sadly, I don’t have that many – but the ones I do have remind me once again what a gift it is to be alive, and how I cannot take it for granted.
The first time I almost died I wasn’t even two years old. My parents were travelling cross-country, and as they stopped on the median to check a map, I was pulled out of my car seat to spend some time on my mom’s lap. Minutes after they placed me back in my car seat, as they prepared to get back on the road, they were rear-ended by a pick-up truck. Their car was totalled. My mom’s glasses, which were resting on her lap (the exact same place I had been minutes before), were ejected from the car and never found. I didn’t even realize it.
Fast forward a few months later – Peru, a hotel, a room on the 8th floor. My parents leave me in the custody of a the daughter of another missionary couple. When they come back, they find me playing on the balcony, head between the bars, seeing if I can fit through. I can, but they get to me in time to stop me from trying to climb down.
When I was about 9, we lived in a red zone (declared a no-go area by the US embassy) because of the Sendero Luminoso guerrilla movement. The judge down the street had a car bomb explode outside his home. Every week bombings would take out electrical towers and power plants. We got to be able to distinguish between the big fireworks and the bombs by sound alone. Probably the most frightening thing were the extortion letters my parents got, threatening to kidnap and kill their children if they didn’t pay a ransom.
16 year old me was riding to the movies in a taxi in Lima with some friends of mine when a car swerved in front of us, slammed on the brakes, and out got 2 men with machine guns and two others holding pistols. This was in the heydey of the MRTA (a different guerrilla movement that, just a few months before, had succeeded in storming the Japanese embassy, taking hundreds of people hostage, and holding them for months). As they walked toward our car, we were sure we were going to die, but the armed men (we later found out they were police – not necessarily a good thing when the government killed as many people as the terrorists) pulled the driver out of the car next to us and waved us on.
There was the night we spent sleeping on the streets of Rome (a bad idea – even though the steps of the Pantheon will provide a dry place to sleep during a rain storm).
There were countless run-ins with the police, drug-dealers, gang members, boys and girls who lived on the street and could get high and violent. There were the fights we broke up before they could really escalate – the times standing up to corrupt cops who were looking for ways to abuse their power. There were the times of running from tear gas and the armored cars, ducking into cover with the neighbors as shots rang out, and deciding that maybe today wasn’t the best day to go to the beach. There were multiple times being searched at gunpoint. There was the time I was stuck outside the community I lived in, and my neighbors and I waited for a lull in the shooting so we could get home quickly before they started fighting again. We made it. All part and parcel of living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
Even in February, I had my accident where I flipped my car, rolled it across the median, slid through three lanes of oncoming traffic, and came to a rest on the far median without a bruise or a scratch on me or anyone else.
And I know I am not unique. Each person has 5, 10, 20 stories like this. We have stories of how our lives could have ended, how fragile they are, and what a gift life truly is. So today, on my birthdae, I’m going to rejoice. I’m going to go sit outside on the porch, open up my Magnum ice cream bar, watch the moon float overhead, and celebrate life, for as long as I draw breath. It’s worth celebrating.