WHEN DEATH IS BEHIND YOU
“Go check out Pratt, it’s a good place to do business,” the owner of the Inn, had said.
The visit was a short one, weather had interceded and now I did not see the land I had come to love the varied colors of. My eyes could only stare into the rearview mirror at the monstrous cloud, veiled in the drops of rain, dark and gray spinning behind. The road that I traveled upon was straight, straight in front of me. The same could not be said, of the road of life that had brought this moment to be, it had been filled with twists and turns, steep declines, followed by ascents to heights that most should not go—for the air is thin at the great altitudes of life and can cause one to lose the sense for what is and is not real.
The noise from the radio blared. This tone is one that penetrates the ears and stabs at the brain, with an icepick like sharpness. Again and again, the horrible tone screeched and the prerecorded voice warned to take shelter. But on the highway from Pratt to Wichita, there was no shelter. I thought about the flimsiness of our human composition as this warning was repeated. “We are able to build a shelter that can withstand this giant funnel pelting my car with hail, but it takes time, a lot of time, something that you do not have…”
A live voice emanated through the speakers of the truck. “A category 5 tornado has touched down outside of Pratt and is traveling east down Highway 54, at 50 miles per hour.” I looked down at the speedometer, I was doing 70, but the funnel was gaining. “I think it’s going faster than fifty,” I said aloud to the radio, “but of course not the first time you’ve been wrong about the weather…Like this morning when you said this storm wouldn’t get here until 4:00, which would have given me plenty of time…” The voice. “You must find shelter underground, there is no chance of survival above ground if you are in the path of this storm. Again, there is zero possibility of surviving this storm if you are not in a storm shelter, do not delay seeking shelter for any reason, your life is what’s most important, get underground now.” Then more of the shrill squelch…
I turned off the radio and looked ahead, the road was empty; there was peace and the most quiet of quiets. I looked in the rearview mirror and the funnel wrapped in rain was still there, no longer gaining, but in relentless pursuit. I looked at the gas gage, thankfully I had filled up before leaving Pratt, there was plenty of gas; I took an easy breath. A tire blowing out crossed my mind, “That would be the end,” I thought to myself, “game over if you blow a tire.” And it did feel like a game, a strange game of chase, you win you live, you lose you die. The thud of the hail pounding the truck grew louder, then deafening and I wondered if the truck, my modern-day trusty steed, an engineering marvel, could withstand this—I felt bad for the vehicle, as it did its best to keep me from the death that followed so closely behind.
I had never imagined death by tornado. I pondered how little I really knew about them… Growing up in California, they were something seen only in movies. I thought, “Would it just suck me up and toss me down somewhere? Would I die from the fall? Or with all of the other debris it’s picked up, it would probably be more akin to death in a blender. And of course you did just fill up the gas tank, which should make for a nice midair explosion. Blended, exploded, long way down.” I smiled and shook my head. Frankly, I almost burst into laughter; the whole situation for a moment seemed so ludicrous. “A tornado? That’s how Stan Lerner is going to go? Really? What are people going to say at the funeral, ‘He died in a tornado. I told him not to go to Kansas.’”
I picked up my cell phone and called my oldest friend, we had met at Camp Montica, more specifically, playing on the fire engine at Montebello Park—forty-four years we’d been friends. Voice mail, “Hey Rich, it’s Stan, I’m in Kansas driving down the 54, there’s a giant tornado behind me…I’m pretty sure I’ll out run it, but just in case, it’s been really great being friends with you all of these years. If I don’t die in the next little bit, I look forward to seeing you soon. And sorry for this crazy message, but if this doesn’t go well; I just thought I should call. Oh, and please tell everyone to come to my funeral, it would mean a lot to me…And make sure my sister throws a really good lunch afterwards, I want everyone to have one last good meal on me, you know it’s kind of my thing.”
I know it’s morbid to think about one’s funeral, but I’ve always hoped for a good turnout at my own. Of course, I had also hoped that there were going to be many more years to plan for this eventuality.
I dialed Kasey, we had met at the Starbucks Downtown on 11th and Grand, I was with my dear friend Johnny Pena, she was texting some ski instructor in Tahoe. I interrupted and insisted that she shouldn’t waste her time on the relationship. It turned out she had just finished chemotherapy. I told her that she should read my blog Downtown Oliver Brown, that it would make her feel better, the next thing you know—it’s complicated and I’m twice her age.
“Hey what’s up? What’s all that noise?”
“This is going to sound kind of random, but there’s a large tornado behind me right now. So I just wanted to call and tell you how much our time together has meant to me. You really helped me become a better person. And the noise is hail, pounding my car, apparently it kind of comes with the whole tornado experience.”
“There’s a what behind you?”
“There’s a tornado behind me.”
“Are you okay?”
My chin dropped and my head hung lower. “Kasey, what part of there’s a large tornado about to kill me do you not understand?” Of course, I regretted these words and the frustrated tone they were expelled with, the moment I was done speaking them.
“Please don’t cry, I didn’t mean to say it like that.”
“I don’t want anything to happen to you…”
“Everything will probably be okay. I just wanted to call you and tell you that I love you, in case it’s not.”
“I love you too. Please be okay.”
Inexplicably a large cow landed in the field twenty yards up to my right.
“I’ll do my best. I have to call my sister, I’ll call you back as soon as I get away from this thing.”
“Wait, don’t go. Do you remember that time, when I was still really, really sick and the homeless guy walked up and said I looked worse than his old, dying dog and I got really upset, so you took the day off and drove me up the coast to Malibu?”
“I remember. I put the top down so you could get some fresh-air and you fell asleep. You know you were so still, that I reached over and put my hand on your chest, just to make sure you were breathing.”
“When you come back, will you take me up to Malibu again?”
“Yes, I will definitely take you up to Malibu again…”
The call dropped. I looked at the phone and wondered if they’d ever get cell phones to work right. And then I thought about how they had invaded our lives so completely, that even at the time of near death, it was possible to not be completely in the moment—I called my sister.
“Hey Brother, how’s the trip going?”
“Well, pretty good until a little bit ago.”
“Why? What happened? What was that?”
A baseball size piece of hail had just sheared of my passenger side mirror.
“I’m trying to outrun a tornado and it’s making a racket…Look, just in case something bad happens, you know where all of my important papers are at?”
“Yeah, I do. You don’t really think…”
“No, I’m feeling like I’m going to survive this, but you know me, the eternal optimist, just in case I’m wrong, you remember what I told you about my funeral, don’t skimp out, you know put it in the paper make sure everyone knows. Oh, you know not everyone can afford a plane ticket these days, so you might have to buy them tickets.”
A cat and a dog landed on the road in front of me, I swerved to miss them.
I laughed. “Have you ever heard the saying it’s raining cats and dogs?”
“It’s actually raining cats and dogs.”
“Are they okay?”
“Listen, I need to concentrate on my driving. I’ll call you when I’m safe, or I’ll see you on the other side.”
“Be careful, little brother.”
I ended the call and rather than make any others, I decided to let things play out in peace. However, I was surprised that I had begun to grind my teeth, that in fact, I was anxious about dying.
I despise these times. You see I have almost never had an unhappy moment in life, not because misfortune does not befall me, it does, more so than others, yet I do not see misfortune as most do, for I am a true believer in God and as the saying goes, “And this too is for the best.” So while my unhappy moments are few, they are vivid in my recollection. And I should share this insight with you dear friends; fear is the enemy of happiness and the poison that pumps through the veins of those who fail to live life. I have since my earliest ability to remember, rejected fear, but like the unhappy moments, I recall the times I have succumbed, with great detail. That one big wave, it was mine to ride, just a couple of powerful strokes and it would have been the ride of my life, or the ride that ended my life, I’ll never know, because I let my body slide down its back—shame on me, shame on me. I’ve tested myself in every possible way since, but there is no taking back that moment. That moment, in which I was faint of heart.
Had my heart grown weak again? I searched it thoroughly and I compared the tension in my jaw to that moment my arm did not pull with its full strength. No, this was not the moment of the wave, those many years ago; rather it was a new actualization:
It is important to die at the end of the story, woe to the character that does not make it to the end. And I thought back over the many chapters of my life that had been written and read, several would have been a happy ending, I had even contemplated this at each and every time—often with a contented smile on my face. But this moment, of which I write of now, this was still the beginning of something, something very complicated and involved—many breakthroughs and truths were just over the horizon, it was no time to end.
The race down the highway continued and I did all that I could to relax my jaw, I did all that I could to let go of the anxiety of what I perceived of, as an untimely end. And as this time progressed, I decided it appropriate to let my life pass through my mind. Happy times, regrets, love, disappointment, laziness, hard work, vanity, sadness, anger, peace, warmth, materialism, spirituality, sin, righteousness, kindness, loyalty, lies, honesty and so on, all seemed to have moments in my life with a multiplicity of corresponding events. I pondered as to whether or not, I should allow myself to derive conclusions, ultimately this would come to a summation of whether it had been a life well lived, or not…I decided to refrain, because as close to death as I was, I did not feel in my heart that it was imminent.
Just outside of Wichita, the tornado dressed in rain, accelerated and lavished hail upon the truck, with a fury much more severe than previously. This finale, was accompanied by the unwelcome sight of traffic snarled in the distance—humans attempting to save themselves, often turn danger into unavoidable doom. As I slowed the truck and braced for what I imagined would be a most unique experience, the tornado veered south toward the airport. Wasting no time, I navigated through the cars, whose drivers had managed to entangle themselves in a manor that could only be a prelude to further calamity, which indeed, turned out to be so. The tornado having visited the airport a few miles south, had changed course and now headed directly north. I smiled as I glanced out of the passenger side window, had the timing been different, this would be what in a naval battle, would be called a broadside. However, the path in front of me was now clear and I was confident that this force of nature and I would be parting ways—this time for good.
It is not possible for me to say how many minutes the winds of death missed me by, certainly more than one, but less than ten. And I do not have a profound moral of the story to share, other than the obvious, once again, God had allowed my journey to continue—reflecting upon this event, a year gone by now, I’m very happy to have been given this good grace.