My birthday was last week, and as I often find myself doing at this annual life-marker, I look at what others had done by my age and the ole’ “who died at my age” question.
So I’ll tell you:
Pierre Currie, husband to Marie and Nobel prize-winning chemist & physicist, was hit by a horse-drawn wagon on the streets of Paris and died when he was 46.
Oscar Wilde, David Foster Wallace, actor Philip Seymore Hoffman and even John Fitzgerald Kennedy never made it past 46, and Robert Louis Stevenson, Antoine de Saint Exupery, and F Scott Fitzgerald, all died at 45. (So partially it would seem, being routinely known with three names puts you at an unacceptably high risk of death in your mid 40’s)
On average, on this planet, one could expect to live to 71. Of course, that fluctuates widely depending on where you live. In Canada it’s 82 (one of the highest in the world), in Burundi it’s 61 (one of the lowest)
I think a lot of times on my birthday I get hit with a kind of reassessment mentality. I look at what the last year has meant, and often I am tempted to examine what I accomplished. That tends to never end well. Especially when I look at the names like the ones in the paragraph above: accomplished actors, presidents, Nobel prize-winning scientists, writers, scholars, thinkers who have shifted society. They accomplished this before they were as old as I am now. And then I look at what I’ve done. That doesn’t feel super great. Of course, that is an incredibly unhealthy and unhelpful perspective. It reduces human value to human performance, and that’s wrong in so many ways. But honestly, that’s for another post. Today I’m cognisant of something else.
Normally I look at “what have I done when I made it to 46″ and focus on the ‘what have I done” part. This year it’s the second part of that thought: “I made it to 46.”
This birthday, I am painfully aware that I almost didn’t make it another year.
Almost exactly 5 months ago today, as much as it’s still hard to accept, I was almost killed. The reality is, one of the last things I remember before being strangled unconscious for the second time was a man coming at me with an AK-47 machine gun. It was loaded, his finger on the trigger, and when I regained consciousness that beating had left me with muzzle-shaped bruises on my chest, and broken and bruised ribs.
There are events that change you, permanently. Sometimes its things we learn, that open up our minds. Learning to read, is perhaps the most notable of those. Sometimes it’s a tangible marker of a change like getting married. Sometimes it’s an event like the birth of a child.
There are times I’ve come to understand things that have fundamentally changed who I am. There are certain books, or hearing people speak that have allowed me to understand God, or the true nature of forgiveness, or grasped love in a new way.
I’m quite sure that attack will be one of those things, but only the passage of time will show what impact it has.
I have strange memories that are tied to certain images, sounds, smells. Certain smells return me to my Grandmother’s house at Christmas. A certain type of shoelace reminds me of that time used one to repair my 1980 VW in a thunderstorm at night in the middle of nowhere on a prairie highway. I have vivid mental snapshots of the evening my little brother was hit by a car when we were walking to a local church for a kid’s program. Details stuck in my memory that there are no pictures of, no one else noticed, that I still take up space in my mind. Those have been there for almost 40 years since I was in second grade.
Memories are strange things, I can fully remember completely nonconsequential conversations with people. Where we were standing, what we were talking about, 20 years after the fact. Then there are events that people tell me happened, that it seems I should recall, but I honestly don’t. It seems that the more dramatic – or traumatic – experiences seem to get priority in our mind’s storage system.
Our trauma counsellor keeps reminding us, that what we went through was an event of enough significance that we don’t fully understand it. Apparently trauma of a certain level actually rewires the subconscious part of our mind. That’s why despite sleeping well (which is a huge blessing in itself) we are still very often tired and feel worn out. Our minds only have a certain capacity, and right now part of that bandwidth is still used up as our brains try to recover. That’s why despite liking to spend time with people, we feel the drain of being around others. Even though consciously we enjoy it, our minds are likely still reeling from a perceived threat and betrayal that on a subconscious level, our brains are trying to protect us from a repeat. That’s why someone pretending to hit someone else can make my heart jump and give me a mild anxiety attack as just the thought of violence still feels so real that it takes me back.
So five months on, I wish I were further along the path to a full recovery. I wish that my voice/throat still didn’t bother me, or that the scar tissue in my leg still didn’t make my left leg stiff every time I stand up. I wish my kids didn’t have to get through all the things they have gotten through, and are still working on. I can easily get angry that those men chose violence and greed and my family will be paying the price for who knows how long.
However, I am immeasurable grateful.
Here I am. I still get to be Susan’s husband and my kids’ Dad. I’m more aware that as a mere mortal I don’t have control over the number of days I have here. That was always something that I knew to be true, it’s just a lot more real now.
I know people often say things like that after a near-death experience, or when someone close to them dies. I guess now it’s just me who is the one saying it, the one being grateful to be here, instead of the one told to cherish every day.
Of course, there are no guarantees I’ll make it to my next birthday. There never are. There never were. However, I’m more aware of that now, and my prayers that start with “thank you for this day” mean a lot more than they did before.