I still don't know why she slowed down. Maybe she was trying to pull over, even though there was nowhere to go, so traffic could cruise past. We headed south out of San Fran that morning, our bike tires gripped to the pavement as our legs spun round and round. On a narrow, curvaceous stretch of coast highway known as Devil's Slide, we clung to the white line as an impatient stream of traffic raced past us. Together we spiraled up and down the shadowy mountains which divided us from the sea. My sister Alisha led and I followed. We were flying downhill when abruptly, she braked. I tried to stop but my back wheel skidded, bike frame wobbled. I screamed, “NO! GO! GOGOGOGOGO!”
“What?! Go where?!” she hollered, the words torn from her mouth by the angry wind. A split-second later I had closed in on her, only a few centimeters of mountain air separated our bikes.
“MOVE! Just move!” I screeched, my voice crackling as my nerves began to break.
There was nowhere to go. Hit her and cause both of us to wipe out, skid into traffic and cause a lethal multi-car pileup sure to headline the evening news, or veer into the metal guardrail (it only came up to our knees) and hope it would protect me from flying hundreds of meters into the Great Pacific. Holy shit, I'm gonna die. Here and now. That's it, that's all.
But, as you may have supposed by now, I didn't break on through to the other side. I made it. I guess Alisha deciphered my screams and sped up. At the next pull-out we pushed our bikes up against the rail and I sat down in the rubble, needing to be reassured that we were safe, not in danger anymore. Just breathe. Thankful. Breathe again. Alive. Really, that's all that I could think about. I was shaken, stirred, rocked.
That was the last time I was truly scared. What I realized though, seated cross-legged on the edge of that cliff looking out over the Pacific, was that sometimes it takes nearly dying to appreciate really living. I felt an enormous wave of gratitude for being alive and in good health. Why, I began to wonder, did it take such a harrowing experience to realize how good I have it? How come I, and most people for that matter, put so much effort into pulling life apart, nitpicking the minor details, while completely ignoring the miracle of our own existence? We take the blood pumping through our veins for granted, and in doing so fail to see the outstanding brilliance all around us. Toes warm in wool socks, the majesty of towering cedar trees, the scent of brewing coffee and the soft fur behind a dog's ears. It's scares me how we've moved past showing appreciation for the simple things in life, instead dishing out criticisms for all the things that don't go our way and focusing on all the tiny irksome troubles that really, when you look at the big picture, mean next to nothing. Traffic jams, empty milk cartons, spitty talkers and painful hangnails. None of these annoyances matter if you're dead.
What seems strange to me is how often we forget that life has no guarantee. We make all these plans, sign up for years of college or university and then get excited for retirement. But how do we know we're even going to be around for it? I suppose, statistically speaking, it's pretty rare for a person to die in a freak accident, by some random coincidence or horrible luck, but it could happen. And nearly going over the edge at Devil's Slide reminded me of that. I realized that not only could I feel pain, but I could cease to exist. There are concrete consequences which can be achieved from making a wrong turn, so to speak.
This notion that death was the flip-side of life first came to me at nine years old. My half-blind spaniel, Ginger, walked off our balcony, crashing hard on the cement below. She died on impact. I discovered her when I ran under the stairs to grab my bike. It was a rough morning, I cried a lot, but most of all I remember thinking afterwords, What if that happened to me? What if I was the one lying dead, my parents the ones who discovered me and wept over my rigid remains? It was a scary thought, but I didn't dwell on it, and soon I'd forgotten my first brief encounter with existentialism.
But am I really thankful for my existence? After each of these experiences I reached a new level of awareness about my frailty, followed by deep appreciation for my own life. But the gratitude quickly faded. Sometimes when I'm riding the bus, I notice a creeping angst boil up inside of me. As I watch the condensation build on the window panes, the rain pelting down on the pavement outside, I become more and more pissed off about the lousy weather, about having to rush from school to work with no time in between, about being 26 and not knowing where I'm going in life. Simmer down Meaghan, I conscientiously tell myself, Just because you have no time, no money and no car doesn't mean you should be bitter. Just be happy to be here, right now. This is the only place you can be, and if you weren't here you'd be dead. So you should be grateful for that. But I feel like I'm feeding propaganda to myself. But, isn't it true? Shouldn't it be true? Wouldn't it be better to stop rating life as good or bad, depending on the moment, and just accept that it is what it is?
Acceptance is something I have a hard time with though. I think a lot of people do. Dissatisfied with your small breasts? Get a boob job. Sick and tired of your mediocre job? Work hard for that promotion. We're taught not to accept the conditions that we're given, but to improve, excel, and rise above. it seems that we love life when we're living it up, but disdain much of the time in between. Our society puts so much emphasis on improvement and achievement that we neglect to show gratitude for life, just the way it is.
I remember being in Newfoundland, and finding it surprising that everyone I met said grace before the meal. Just a few moments to pause, breathe, and think about the bigger picture. My astonishment faded quickly, and soon I began to wonder why it wasn't common practice to show gratitude for those tasty morsels, and everything else, which sustains us. Are we just too busy, think ourselves above giving thanks, or have merely forgotten how good we have it? Taking a look around the globe, it seems more than ever that access to nourishing food, clean water, and stable housing is privilege, not a right, of human existence.
So I'm thankful, for everything. And I'm grateful for that day when I nearly went crashing over the edge. Without realizing what I had to lose, I wouldn't have been able to see how much I have to live for.