PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Chance Of Life

It’s been an interesting week.

It started last Thursday, when Ian and I were driving to work. I had just passed the Veteran’s Boulevard underpass when I saw what looked to me like a mushroom cloud of dust in my rear-view mirror. I immediately told Ian, and he turned around and saw it as well, and we both commented that something bad had just happened.

Throughout the morning, I kept an eye on my Facebook newsfeed and eventually saw a report that Interstate 94 had closed in both directions due to a crash that involved two semis that had blocked the freeway going both east and west but that no one was injured in the accident.

Satisfied that I had my answer to the mystery of the mushroom-shaped cloud of dust, and thankful that no one was hurt, I put the accident out of my mind.

However, later that night, I saw a report that they had video of the accident, and it was really quite remarkable that there were no injuries. I clicked play and watched with amazement as a semi rolled over on the on-ramp on the eastbound lane, landing on top of another semi and sending that truck hurling into oncoming traffic in the westbound lane.

It was stunning that no other cars were involved, as the car behind the semi braked quickly enough, and there were no cars in the westbound lane of traffic when the other semi went over the median into the other lane.

Then I watched the video again a bit closer and a frightening reality hit me. The car in front of the semi was mine. I timed it out and had I been a second and a half slower, the semi on the onramp would have rolled on top of Ian and me.

A second and a half. Between potentially dying in a car crash with my son or seeing dust rise in our rear-view mirror.

I went to bed saying a prayer of thankfulness for every second of life, knowing that seconds do count.

Fast-forward to last night. Ian, his friend, Jack, and I had gone to the International Refugee Day Potluck at Lutheran Social Services and after we returned home, we stood by my car in the driveway.

At one point, I looked down at my phone to check the updated results of the Georgia 6 election and suddenly I heard Jack yell, “Paula,” and instinctively, having no idea what was happening, I lurched forward. As I did I felt a sudden pain on my arm and heard the sound of something crashing onto the driveway.

I fell to my knees, my arm in pain, and then turned around to see a large dead branch had fallen off the tree next to our driveway, and the thickest portion had landed right where I was standing. Had Jack not yelled my name when he heard the crack of the branch and saw the leaves start to flutter on this windless night, my head would have taken the hit solidly, instead of it being a glancing blow to my arm as I lunged away from where I was standing.

I can’t say with assurance that I would have died, but being hit in the head by something that heavy dropped from that high could have easily altered my life.

So twice in less than I week, I was faced with my own mortality, the fleeting nature of life and capriciousness of time and chance.

My profession makes it hard for me to ignore how quickly life can change. I get phone calls in the middle of the night and have police showing up at my door asking me to go be the bearer of shocking and heartbreaking news.

The truth is, we are all often seconds away from life-altering events. One turn here, one slow beat there, and we could all face imminent doom each day. And sometimes, it goes our way, and sometimes, unexpected and tragic accidents happen. That is the nature of life.

I think it is probably a good thing that we don’t get to see, in the vivid terms I experienced this week, how close we often come to death. Because I believe such knowledge could end up leaving us terrified and afraid to move. Honestly, I haven’t walked into my yard since the branch fell without glancing up at the tree with a great trepidation and more than a little anxiety.

However, seeing first on a video and then in the detritus of a limb of a tree on my driveway, the reality of how I was seconds and then milliseconds away from mortal peril, also gave me great cause to pause and reflect.

Life, at its very core, is both a matter of chance as well as a gift. The fact that the one sperm met the one egg to form you into the very individual you are and me into who I am is both improbable and incredible.

There is so much in life that we absolutely cannot control. Yet, I find myself too often becoming obsessed by those things over which I have no power. Now, more than ever, I find myself focusing my time and energy on what is happening, externally, in the world, without fixing the same energy into changing the world where I can.

I was staring down at the results of a congressional race over which I had absolutely no influence while the bough above me was breaking and coming crashing down on my head. Had Jack not been paying attention to the world around him, I could have been lost to the world around me.

Does this mean I should ignore the news and the effects of what is transpiring right now in our country? Hardly. But there is a difference between being aware and being obsessed. I think it is just as bad to stick one’s head into the news and not engage with the world as it is to stick one’s head in the sand.

So I resolved this week to limit my consumption of social media, cable news and online articles and pour that time and energy into caring for those who are being left behind and those who are around me. I need to look up and watch out for those whose lives are coming crashing down around them as they face a reduction in their health care benefits or changes in their housing benefits and engage in more conversations with people who may not see the world the way I do, to help bridge the great divide in our country.

I need to spend more time listening to the voices of the disenfranchised and sharing their stories than I do to the talking heads on television news. And I need to spend more time living my life rather than watching what is happening when I have no power or control of the outcome.

For me, it wasn’t so much getting hit upside the head that told me that but rather missing getting hit upside the head by a branch.

Life is chance and I have no idea what will happen tomorrow, or what might have happened if I had been a second earlier or a second slower. But in the meantime, I am going to take every chance I get to live life, fully engaged and keep my head up.

2 thoughts on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Chance Of Life”

  • Old Gym Rat June 27, 2017 at 7:32 am

    Twice “you faced your own mortality” but these events occur constantly without your knowledge or attention on them.

  • Tom Coyne June 27, 2017 at 10:56 pm

    Great story, Paula. I’m so glad you are still here to tell it. I’ve had some similar reminders lately, of life’s fragile journey. My mother is 93 and most of her contemporaries are gone. Lately she has been asking me frequently why she is still here. I don’t have an answer. But I cherish our Friday lunches now more than ever. Peace and good health to you.


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