Nearly the End
Each human life abides
Between the cheerful question of life,
‘Who am I?’
And the powerful answer of death,
‘I am all.’ 1
Sun blared from a mass of windows and metal roofs. We stared forward in three lanes, hands on the wheel in the hope of a sudden advance, but it did not come. The swallows sliced through empty sky, almost too high to see, taunting us with their freedom. I sniffed through my window for a hint of breeze, but the air was as motionless as the clod of traffic to which I added. Children pressed themselves into gargoyles against other half-closed windows, or fought red-faced with one another. Adults gradually abandoned their cars to squint into the warped heat, or to lie out on the verges. Although some were happier in air-conditioning, we all shared the discomfort of not knowing how long our wait would be. There must have been an accident, so impatience seemed inappropriate. Road accidents made me especially pensive. I reflected on a question whose answer had as yet evaded me: Who am I?
I had dabbled in meditation for eight years, and felt sure I would never be truly happy, or truly me, unless I practised it more sincerely. Silence, stillness and solitude frightened me more than anything though. I suspected any sort of spiritual commitment would be like a colourless concrete cell, leaving me just my failings for company. I was not ready to be thus caged, and yet did not treasure life’s liberty either. The cruelties and complexities of the world bewildered me such that I only sought to escape them or numb myself to them by then, thinking mine was too small a strength to stretch beyond. I travelled through that world like a television channel hopper, impulsively flicking the remote, never finding anything worth my attention, growing only more indolent and disillusioned, baffled and bored by things that seemed to be enough for most people. I was as though half alive: sufficient to function, but no longer to feel.
I could well have spent my time wondering Who is God? That seemed a question at once easier and more complex than the one I had chosen. While I was uncomfortable with the name and preferred not to speak it aloud, it was a tidy label for the definition I had honed in the privacy of my thoughts: ultimate love, limitless power, endless time, boundless creativity; a kindly and terrible force that I had always trusted, yet felt uncertain I could ever know or comprehend. Although God was always a He – only because an It would have been impolite and a She never crossed my mind – I did not subscribe to any specific image: old perhaps, but not necessarily bearded.
I assumed the only way God could wake me from my state of inner inertia would be through a serious car accident. I cannot qualify or explain that further – it was just something I carried with me from the future; the same way a scar records an event from the past. As a last resort I was sure He would take away all signs of outer beauty, and perhaps the use of my limbs, so as to soften my mischief and wastefulness. Then, I promised Him, He would have my full attention. Until then, I would hunt for shallow pleasures, instead of diving deep to where my real happiness hid.
Eventually we inched forward, sun-dazed and dozy from sitting so long on the open griddle of the road. I passed the site of the crash with more than a natural fascination or reverence. Half spectator, half spectre, I surveyed my own potential future. One day that might be me splayed on the hot asphalt, or cut out from metal twisted up like a ball of paper, finally strapped to a stretcher in a whirr of blue lights and sirens. The sticky tyre marks, the shattered glass, the shattered limbs, would then be mine.
I knew only one prayer by heart – The Lord’s Prayer – so I always offered it silently and superstitiously at such a scene. It was my way of telling God I still knew who was boss, that I was merely His wayward child, that no tiny will of mine could defy His – at least not indefinitely. Any time He chose, I knew He could mould me, steer me, or obliterate me, blow me like a leaf from here to Kingdom Come…
…Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven…
That was as far as I got before my own turn came. I was in the middle lane, about to overtake a slower driver, when his indicator winked towards me. I assumed he would wait for me to pass, since there was barely half a car’s length between us. Probably dizzy from the heat and the chaos of children in the back seat, he failed to check his blind spot and pulled in front. As I was moving faster, the gap between us shrank to little more than a hand span. I braked and flashed a glance outwards to find the fast lane clear. Yanking my car into it and fighting hard to straighten the curve, I missed the intruder and the central reservation by inches. He drove on oblivious.
My servant of a vehicle was suddenly a hulking weapon with its own agenda, and I its hapless captive. In a far corner of memory I found that I should take my foot off the brake and steer into the swerve to regain control. I had nothing to lose and no time to question. Puffing hard, I wrenched myself from the clutch of natural instinct and shared my will with that of the machine. The traffic emptied around me, but three lanes still gave too narrow a space. The back end writhed like a fish on a hook, and the car’s strength at last outbid my own.
Other cars had stopped in a straight line, like a drive-in theatre audience. I was centre-stage, turning a perfect pirouette on four wheels, seemingly in slow motion. I have not seen anything similar before or since, and I cannot say I saw it with my physical eyes even then: an ethereal body of light floating before the audience, a bright screen beyond which nobody could pass. Its form was hazy, but the light seemed people-shaped – several figures holding hands, like the paper-chain figures I used to cut out in kindergarten. They mingled with the sun’s force: more powerful, more beautiful than earthly light, yet almost completely imperceptible. I had glimpsed another world that I had only hoped existed until that day. Like the flash of a deer’s tail or a kingfisher’s wing, it disappeared again into its own secret realm, leaving its trace only in memory.
Though I probably turned just three or four times, those tiny seconds were hours to me. I had thought until then that it was a Hollywood invention, but my life did rush before me in that blink of time. Twenty-five years of snapshots flipped in front of my mind like a film on fast-forward. Family and forgotten people, shames and errors, brilliance and victory, fond places and old belongings came tumbling as if from some giant scrapbook.
In case it was the last time we would be together, I peered down at my arms and hands redundantly holding the wheel, my legs and feet poised above the useless pedals, and thanked them for their service. Goodbye hands: pale hands, small fingers that learned to brush a steady line on canvas, that wrote letters of love and curious songs, that sowed dry seeds in the fragrant earth. Goodbye feet: little feet that loved bare sands and shady grasses, stubby toes and narrow fans of bone that bore me out of infancy and danced me into many dawns.
I cannot say I heard it with my physical ears, but I was aware of a conversation then, seemingly above and all around me, as huge as the sky. I had no idea to whom God was speaking; I felt as a child crouching at a keyhole, eavesdropping on my parents, knowing I was the subject of the exchange but unable to catch the words. All I knew was that for now I was really none of my business, and that I would have to wait quietly until a verdict was reached. There was apparently little choice.
Although I carried many petty and irrational fears at that age, in the face of death or disfigurement, I was oddly unafraid. Impatience was by far my strongest impulse in those seeming hours of spinning. The unknown was far more terrible than anything; any outcome would have been bearable if only I knew what I had to face. For almost a decade I had deliberately avoided something important, and was ready to be redirected. I resolved therefore not to sulk or to take the result as a punishment – I had accepted this day long ago. Beyond my human petulance was a thrill that God was so tangibly near, and in absolute control. In my sudden helplessness I felt only safe, like an infant in the cup of His Hand. There was love then. Only love. Inside and all around.
That string of earthly seconds seemed to stretch across a whole afternoon in Heaven’s annex. Waiting. An ear pressed to a keyhole. Eventually a decision was made: one that I had assumed was not even on the list of options. The car crushed itself quite squarely from behind into the central reservation. The front half, and myself in it, remained untouched. The rest was as a soda can, flattened underfoot.
The world drifted back to normal speed, and I back into a very ordinary state of mind. I knew neither joy nor gratefulness for my reprieve; only a single-minded fury at the other driver. Opening my door without effort or obstruction, I hurtled down the middle lane of the motorway, punching my fist in the air and letting out a few choice expletives. It would have been comical to watch, but nobody felt much like laughing.
The careless driver had stopped a quarter mile ahead and was already reversing back up the hard shoulder. I was quite ready to confront him, for all the good that would have done, but luckily some members of the audience were faster runners than I was. Two surfers on their way to Cornwall reached me first, collecting me by the arms and suggesting that turning back might be for the best. Having survived the last few minutes, I had better not taunt fate by prancing down the M5 motorway. We three returned to find the rest of the audience yet more amazed by my mobility than by the whole spinning incident. The front row and much of the second came out to console or congratulate me. Some came only to convince themselves that the heat had not addled them, that I really was alive.
Despite the overflow of my adrenaline, the surfers insisted I was shocked and ought to sit quietly in their car until the police arrived. They left me with my thoughts and some cold lemonade, to recruit more help shunting the wreckage off the road. They would not let me speak to the careless driver when he came. He was obviously a decent fellow, and utterly remorseful, but they did not trust my impulses any more than I did.
The police constable had probably seen too many so-called accidents conjured by the hands of reckless youth. On a holiday weekend he would probably rather be at home with his family and a barbecue than be roasting himself by a motorway in a dark polyester uniform. For the shortened car, a misshapen barrier, and a good deal of rubber on the road, there were two possible culprits. I could not really blame him for his choice.
There was a thirty-something, leaving a wife and two curious youngsters to watch from a sober-coloured saloon. He pushed a brush of sandy hair from behind his glasses, rolled back on his heels and stuffed his hands disarmingly into the pockets of his chinos. Above the tan collar of a polo shirt his face already wore the lines of parenthood: a knowing smile knitted with a frown of concern. Had the constable allowed him a few words, he would have found him assertive and well spoken.
There was a twenty-something, with tightly folded arms – bare to the shoulders except for a swathe of wide bangles and ribbons. Two similarly ribboned plaits danced beside a milk-white face, inlaid with two furious green-blue eyes. Her shortened vehicle had been the only one affordable that morning at her local car rental. It was a model especially popular with teenage boys, in metallic sapphire with go-faster stripes. Had the constable allowed her a few words, he would have found her tempestuous and somewhat childlike.
The constable preferred to hear from the witnesses first, recording much of the story – as told by the surfers – in a little book. I issued barely anything afterwards; uncertain the mere muscles of my mouth would contain my indignation. As the constable lectured me on hogging the middle lane and driving too close to other vehicles, the surfers took turns to interrupt, but he had already prepared his speech. When the chiding was over, all that was left was to see me to the nearest service station, where I could try to resume my journey. As to who would take me, the constable saw no choice: of course I would ride with him in the police car. I looked to the surfers, unable to face any other direction, and felt the first prickles of tears. One opened their passenger door, one picked up my salvaged bag, and we drove into the fading sun. As hopes of making last orders at their favourite Cornish pub were already disappearing with the daylight, they offered to make a detour into Bristol. We stopped at the services so I could call the person I was meeting.
‘Are you crazy or just stupid?’ yelped the other voice ‘Even a five-year-old wouldn’t take a ride from strangers!’
Against all common sense I knew I was still in the Hand of God. I glanced through the phone box window as one of them folded a wheelchair into a car for an elderly lady, and the other passed a paper-wrapped ice cream through the door behind me. They wore board shorts and sandals, all brightly dancing eyes and sunny smiles, framed by golden curls. I had met kindness, as if for the first time.
‘It’s okay,’ I grinned into the receiver, then splitting into laughter at the lavish hints of goodness unfolding around me. ‘I don’t know why, but it’s okay.’
It was then, as my anger dissolved, that I noticed things had changed. Everything had changed, and so radically that it was obvious only I could have changed, while everything else stayed as it had always been. The sweetness of cold air from the dashboard vents, the sparkle of lemon on my tongue, the numbing joy that only ice cream knows, the open arms of the sun as it sang the day’s final phrases, the lazy beat on the radio: all were lines of some unfinished symphony. I wondered if I had ever truly seen or felt anything before.
By night I cried like a newborn, wrung out with shock and relief. Sleep was far away in some unreachable land, so I crept out onto the deck. That I could even walk brought more tears in torrents; every bone and sinew remained whole and moved in synchrony to bear me forward. I had gained a new and pristine life. Each step was hallowed, like venturing onto virgin snow.
Electric light hung in globes along the wharf and in the patches of apartment windows. It peppered the distant streets, and capered along the river’s surface. It mingled in the water with reflected stars: a man-made world under the eyes of the heavens. I had noticed many scenes like it before, but had never really looked. I had heard too the chink of rigging on the masts of tethered sailing boats, but that night it was an orchestra of chimes, enchanted by the breeze. That night, though just like others past, held the most beauty I had ever witnessed.
A lone church bell told midnight. It was Sri Chinmoy’s birthday, August twenty-seventh: soon to become my favourite day of every year. That auspicious fact, unknown to me then, was just one snippet in the paper trail of my fortune.
1. Sri Chinmoy, Twenty-Seven Thousand Aspiration-Plants, Part 4, Agni Press, 1983, #360