My brakes are locked up on this gravel road and it’s clear that I’m going to wreck. I will my bicycle to round the blind curve, but it takes aim straight across the road for the ditch on the other side. I pray that a car isn’t coming from the opposite direction.
I’m upright now, but by the time I hit the ditch, upright will be a thing of the past. In the three seconds allotted to me before impact, I contemplate all the ways in which I might be injured. Will the bike yawn over on its side, crushing me beneath its old steel frame, ripping through my pants, grinding rocks and gravel into my arm and leg, shredding them? Will the handlebars of this old beach cruiser punch my spleen when I land, or will I launch skyward over them upon impact? All this will be known to me in the next moment. For now I think, this is gonna hurt.
I am in mind of my friend, Mary Kathryn, who a few years ago lost control of her truck on one of the back roads in the rural part of Virginia Beach, south of the developed part of the city. Those narrow country roads have ditches so deep that if they could talk, they would look at the ditch that I approach now, and point and laugh. “You call that a ditch?” they would say. “I’ll show you a ditch.”
And they’d be right. Much of the city of Virginia Beach is less than one foot above sea level. The back roads sport ditches that are four feet deep by four feet across. Ditches that drain the thousands upon thousands of acres of former swamp-now-cropland that have been converted since colonial times. Ditches that carry more water than most of the rivers we find four hours inland, here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. No guardrails. Mary Kathryn told me what she was thinking as the steering wheel lurched beneath her hands. This is gonna hurt.
Her next thought came to her as she dangled upside down from her seatbelt. How do I get down from here? She hung still as a bat from the rafters for a moment, assessing her condition. When she realized that nothing hurt, she extended one long, graceful arm over her head to the roof-turned-floor of the truck and supported herself as she reached across with her other arm and unlatched the safety harness. She crumpled onto her back.
By this time, a woman had come upon the accident and jumped out of her car to see how badly the occupants were hurt. Mary Kathryn, her face covered with the white fire extinguisher-like dust that burst forth from the deployed airbag, climbed out of the open window, resembling nothing so much as a ghost.
As the women stood there, regarding the vehicle upside down in the middle of the road, right next to the water-filled ditch that Mary Kathryn had somehow managed to avoid, Mary Kathryn – belle that she is – calmed the woman, then called for a tow truck.
What will my last words be? Experience, that Zen master, has shown me that it will all depend on how much time I have. A car veered into my path on a two-lane highway once. Sixty miles an hour. No shoulder, guardrail immediately to my right, a line of cars behind the one that was now almost headlight-to-headlight with me. “Shit!” I thought, helpless. Miraculously, the driver jerked her car back into her lane a split second before the head-on impact. ‘Shit’ would have been my last word. Similar incidents indicate that my last word may be even worse than that. A split second of realization, and my final thought will be an expletive. I hate that.
I was on a plane with my colleague, Ridge, a few years back. Ridge is one of the smartest, most huge-hearted people I know. When he talks about what an inspiration it was to work for Charles Robb in the US Senate, he sometimes gets tears in his eyes. Ridge is also one of the world’s most fun people. He’s the guy you want to be in the car with on a long trip because it’s a guaranteed good time. Via con queso, he’ll say to me when he leaves my office. Go with cheese.
He also worries more than anyone I’ve ever met, including me, which is saying something. If his wife, Laurie, is five minutes late, his mind travels to the worst imaginable place. He pictures her in a fiery accident, dead on arrival at the nearest hospital. “Seconds sooner, and we might have saved her,” the sympathetic doctor will tell him. He sees himself at her funeral, standing before her closed casket with his three and five-year old sons in either hand, wondering how he’ll raise the two boys by himself. In reality, she’s always OK. She just stopped to gab with a friend in the parking lot.
Ridge and I were flying back from a conference when suddenly our plane hit an air pocket and dropped several hundred feet. Bang! Our Diet Cokes hit the ceiling and splattered us on the way back down. The door of an overhead bin sprung open and two carry-on bags tumbled into the aisle. Several passengers gasped. “Fasten your seat belts, folks,” the pilot said over the static-filled intercom. “Looks like we’re heading into some turbulence.”
“What would you do if the plane started to go down?” Ridge said.
If there isn’t a law against asking a question like that on an airplane, there should be.
“Gee, I don’t know,” I told him, trying to keep a casual tone to my voice. I had been hoping that neither of us would be foolish enough to wonder aloud what every single passenger was now thinking. “I hope I’d maintain some sense of calm. How about you?” I asked him.
“I’d write a quick note to Laurie to tell her how much I love her,” he said. “And then I’d fold it up as small as I could, and stick it in my mouth.” I raised a quizzical eyebrow. “That way,” he explained, “at least there’d be some chance that they’d find it during the autopsy.” A tear came to his eye.
After that, he told me, he’d tried to make himself as calm as possible. We both agreed we wouldn’t want to be screaming and sobbing at the moment of impact. These are the thoughts that will occupy our minds if we have a few minutes to contemplate the end.
Here on my bike, I have less than minutes, but more than a split second before the crash, and what springs to mind is, this is gonna hurt.
It does. It’s hard now to remember exactly what happened, but it goes something like this: Tires skid on gravel, bike rolls onto its right side. Pedal lodges against my right shinbone, left knee hits the ground. Front tire crosses the ditch and slams into the embankment on the other side, shoving me part way over the handlebars. Neck arches so that head doesn’t imbed itself in the approaching bank. I land front side down, belly bowed into the ditch. I slide to a halt, legs askew beneath my bicycle. For such a small ditch, it packs a big punch.
I lie there and assess. Nothing spurts or even seeps from me at this point. Knee stings, shin throbs, hand aches. Neck is stiffening. But I can move everything and nothing is any more painful than any other of the minor mishaps of my life thus far. Red clay marks each point of contact with the ditch. It cakes my gloved hands. It’s ground into the left shoulder of my sweatshirt, both knees and even my chin, as I will discover later when I look in the mirror. I make haste to collect myself and go about my business. I want very much for a car not to drive by.
There are two types of southern women: The type who swoons – faints to the ground – to attract attention to herself (or to distract from something she doesn’t want you to see), and the type who would rather die than suffer the embarrassment of having fallen in public. I am the latter. I could break both my femurs in half, and I would stand up and sashay away, all bright smiles and waving like a beauty queen, until I could collapse behind a column and lick my wounds, or crawl off to die alone. Here in the ditch, I want to get up before one of the ubiquitous good old boys in a pickup pulls over, leaps out and asks, “Yawright?”
I struggle out from under the metal frame and stand, throbbing, to survey the wreckage. A word about my bike. When I was a kid, this bicycle was my prize possession, a gift from my parents on my tenth birthday. A gleaming two-tone turquoise and white dream with shining chrome fenders and matching turquoise and white striped pedal-covers, Sears and Roebuck produced this bike in 1968. Standard issue coaster brakes and no gears. Like everything else in the 1960’s, this model was named after the space program. Dodge had its Satellite and Sears had its Spaceliner, the name lettered across the chrome chain guard. It was the first bike in the neighborhood with built-in headlights. My friends and I spent so much time pedaling the streets of Hopewell, we could have traded in our frequent rider miles for a ticket to the moon and back with Neil Armstrong the following summer. As a teenager, I forsook the Spaceliner for a lighter, sleeker ten-speed racer and for years, the Sears bicycle sat preserved in my mother’s shed. When she died five years ago, I reclaimed it and now the Spaceliner shuttles me to and from my new job, four miles from our house in Nelson County.
I grab the handlebars and haul it to its feet. Except for some red clay here and a scratch there, it looks just like it always did. Even the chain is still on the sprockets. It’s a tough old bird, built to withstand lunar landings. I’ll see if I can pedal it home where I can take some ibuprofen and ward off the stiffness that is bound to follow. I have almost the entire four miles to go, the first one all uphill, as I climb out of the Buffalo River drainage and into the Tye watershed. If I had to wreck, I wish I had done it a little closer to home.
Today I’ve gotten another glimpse into the universe of possible last thoughts. Tonight when I climb into bed, I’ll take another painkiller and fall asleep with the last thought – not of my life, but of my day – that tomorrow, this is gonna hurt.