deathwalker

deathwalker

Jennifer Harter Photography, for Agua Bendita: A Prayer to Water

Jennifer Harter Photography, for Agua Bendita: A Prayer to Water

I am reminded that death, like love, is intimate, and that intimacy is the condition of the deepest learning. I am reminded, too, of the simplicity of the true teacher, and the power of story to include us in a web of connection far more profound than the superficial things that divide us.
— Rachel Naomi Remen

****

“Why are you crying?” she asked me, in all innocence, as I stared into her sea-glass green eyes, our faces just inches apart. I crouched down next to her where she sat, legs out-stretched toward the shallow ditch beside the dust-covered jungle along the narrow dirt road that connected her impermanent home, across the 12 kilometer stretch of beach, to my own.

It was one of those days where the timing of everything was absolutely impeccable. In the way you can only recognize in hindsight.

I woke early for an offshore morning surf. I taught a heart-flow hatha practice for the last yoga class of a two-week cycle I was covering at the surf retreat down the street. I ended an 18-hour intermittent fast on the fifth day of my detox cleanse with a quinoa bowl at a healthy spot in town. I had this lovely plan to bring a meal home for my roommate, as a welcome gift after her long overnight flight and holiday re-route dilemma. Life had other plans. Death, it turned out, did, too. Because when I went to order at the café to go, the kitchen was already closed. I stopped in town for groceries at the organic store to replenish my fruit and veggie selection. The cashier took forever, trying my patience. After all, I was meeting my man for sunset to celebrate our year, and the clock was ticking on time.

In line, I ran into a friend who suggested I stop at the local bakery for my roommate – we guessed they’d still be open. I fastened my helmet and brushed celery leaves from my face, weighed down with fresh produce hanging in bags from my body, and began the dusty trek through town. A white 4-Runner drove too fast past me as I reached the north end of town. I slowed to a stop to wait for the dust to settle and cursed the assholes whose reckless dust-spewing carelessness puts us all in danger in this growing tourist community. I watched that same 4-Runner pass another car and a line of motorbikes up ahead before they disappeared from view. As the dust calmed, I parked at the bakery and walked the few steps to the door. Locked. The women behind the counter motioned to me with a hand swipe across their necks that they were already closed. That little pit stop must not have taken longer than 30 seconds. Maybe 25. Like I said, the timing of the day was impeccable. I hopped back on the moto and found joy in the idea of cooking something healthy and homemade for my roommate with the new veggies I picked up in town.

How do we come to be where we find ourselves? Life accumulates, exposes us to opportunities for learning, and if we are lucky, we pay attention…. Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road…. We see that dying is in the life of everything.
— Frank Ostaseski

I should have guessed that the cafés would close early. After all, it was New Year’s Eve. As the sun began to set golden light on 2018, I drove the 30-second stretch from the bakery toward the Seaside Hotel, thinking to myself how strangely peaceful it was to be driving completely alone, no vehicles in either direction, along the dusty road on the busiest day of the year. Eerie, even. Rounding the corner, I slowed as obstacles began to appear in my path. Were they trash bags pulled apart and scattered by the dogs? I wondered.

No.

Soon and slowly, as if in a dream, my mind registered the obstacles now as bodies, face-down and unmoving. Two on one side. One on the other. And motorcycles, two of them, laid sideways and clumsy near their drivers. I parked, searched frantically for my phone. A car pulled up behind me and a man stepped out into the road.

“Call an ambulance!” I shouted to him. “Call 9-1-1!” As I neared the bodies, strewn awkwardly on either side of the road, I noticed they were all breathing. One of them, a young woman, began to stir near the bushes and sat up slowly, rubbing her head. She squinted into the settling dust between rays of golden sunlight, as if waking from a long sleep, trying to make sense of her surroundings.

I heard the man at his car struggling to be heard by the emergency operator. I fumbled for my phone inside my backpack and dialed 9-1-1. I had one tiny bar of cell phone service. One tiny fucking bar for the most important call I would have ever made in my life. It would have to be enough.

“What’s your emergency?” the operator asked casually at the other end of the line.

“There’s a motorcycle accident in front of Seaside Hotel.” I managed full sentences, efficient in urgency. “Three people are seriously injured, two are unconscious, but breathing. Please send an ambulance!”

“I can barely hear you. You’re breaking up. Where are you?”

Send an ambulance!” I was shouting now, obsessed with being heard. “These people will die if they don’t get help. Seaside Hotel. Please. Hurry!”

“How old are the unconscious people? Are they male or female? How many are there?”

“Send an ambulance NOW! These people are DYING!”

I tried to scream in a whisper into the phone so that their unconscious, breathing bodies wouldn’t hear me pronouncing a fate that wasn’t mine to decide.

“I’ve sent the dispatch. Please stay calm. You’re breaking up. How many people are unconscious? How old are they? Are they male or female?”

“They all look around 30 years old. One man maybe older. His leg is bent backwards. He’s breathing. The other man is breathing, his head is bent back. His upper spine looks broken. The woman has a serious leg injury. She is conscious and sitting up. She looks disoriented.”

“You’re breaking up. I can barely hear you…”

Frantic, I passed the phone to a man who seemed to be describing out loud the injuries he saw in a way a doctor would. I squatted low to the ground and set my palms on the dry earth, beginning to pray. A delivery truck slowed at the opposite end of the street, headed toward town. The men came down onto the road and began to move one of the motorbikes so they could pass through.

“What are you doing?” I asked in a yell. “You can’t move that. The traffic police will need to see that.” I reasoned with logic, in sheer disbelief at their intention. “You can’t move that.”

Were they actually just going to move the bike and drive right on by? Dying bodies scattered here and there, bleeding into the dirt, and they could just go about their day? How? That would not have occurred to me in the possible infinity of a million lifetimes. It made me think how many times they might have happened upon a scene like that in their lives in the past. It became viscerally clear to me in an instant how for some, this sort of carnage is every single day. Histories of violent civil wars. Drug cartels. City gangs. Life in Central America. Life in a lot of places, really.

But for me, this was one of the most profound experiences of my 33 year-old life. And there was not a cell in my body that said ‘drive on by.’

***

“Why are you crying?” she asked again. Her eyes were the color of the ocean in summer when you can see all the way down to the sand, sitting on your board, waiting for a pulse of energy to appear on the horizon.  

I’m crying because your knee has a hole in it the size of the entire width of your leg and you can’t remember why. I’m crying because your friend is face-down over his handle bars, still unconscious and turning white and you haven’t even noticed he’s there. I’m crying because the guy ten feet from us is breathing ever so peacefully, eyes closed to the world, drooling from the mouth with his left leg bent back the wrong way. I’m crying because I’m the only one of us beginning to come to terms with exactly how fucked up this whole thing actually is.

All the things I couldn’t say.

“Breathe with me, okay?” I said, instead of answering. “Everything is okay. You’re going to be just fine. My name is Tara.”

“Hi Tara, I’m Bridie,” she said sweetly, as if we were meeting for the first time at the Saturday farmer’s market and not at the scene of this potentially fatal accident in the middle of the dusty road.

“Where am I?” she asked, in what I registered as shock, or concussion.

“You’re in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica,” I responded robotically now for perhaps the thirtieth time. “You were in a motorcycle accident. You’re hurt, but you’re okay.” I repositioned myself on the ground to support the voluptuous weight of her womanly frame from behind. “Let’s focus on our breathing. You can relax your body back into me. I’m supporting you.” As we breathed in unison, heart against heart, chests rising and falling together, I was grateful she didn’t notice my muscles shaking beneath her.

“Was I on the motorcycle?” she looked at me, concerned, again, as if she hadn’t already asked two dozen times or more. “Where was I going? Why can’t I remember? Where am I?”

“You’re in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica. You were in a motorcycle accident. You’re hurt, but you’re okay.”

“I can’t feel my foot.” She began to cry. “Why can’t I remember anything?”

“I know. That’s your body taking care of you. Your body doesn’t want you to feel any pain. Breathe with me, alright? You’re hurt, but you’re okay. You’ll remember soon. Everything is going to be just fine.”

Except nothing was fine. Now the man beside us, who I assumed was her friend and that they had been traveling on his motorbike together, was regaining consciousness in trembling convulsions of sound, saliva, sweat. It was like watching a dead man fighting back into his life. Like the last door round of the temazcal sweat lodge when all you can do is grasp for the earth and groan. Except this was the real deal.  

“Please try not to move,” I spoke to him loudly, confidently, yet calm enough so as not to scare. “The ambulance is on its way,” I prayed as I spoke. I prayed that the spotty connection with the 9-1-1 operator had lasted long enough for her to hear me tell her where we were, that she had sent the message to the proper dispatch, that they had sent an ambulance with adequate equipment, that they would arrive soon. For the love of god, I prayed that they would arrive soon. That I wasn’t just telling lies to people who didn’t even remember why they were fighting for their lives.  

There was a line of cars in either direction. People milling around, walking from wounded to wounded, talking to one another, taking pictures, trying to make sense of the scene. I recognized some of them from town. Nameless faces, now, I’ll never forget. Our collective trauma mirrored in one another’s eyes and disbelieving brow lines. A man spoke German to the woman I held in my chest, asking her about medical insurance. She finally remembered her friend’s name long enough to tell us he was from Argentina and that she was staying at his house, but not long enough to recall that he was the man writhing on the ground next to her, or whether they had been traveling on the motorbike together when they crashed.

Finally, the first ambulance arrived, unprepared for what it found. The man with the backwards twisted leg never regained consciousness, even while they straightened out his knee and gave him a bag full of I.V., all while he was still laying right there in the dirt, all those people crowding around. They splinted the woman’s leg and a friend held up a dusty T-shirt so she wouldn’t have to see the blood while she cringed in pain. The man beside us continued to fight his limbs out from beneath himself until the paramedics were able to set him in a neck brace and lift him into the ambulance. Three men carried the woman from my lap, and into the ambulance beside her friend. I stood to gain composure and walked toward my motorbike, which had been moved uphill with my backpack of belongings and tote bag full of fresh groceries, to allow access for the emergency vehicles. A friend and I hugged. And cried a little bit, together. There was nothing left for me to do.

Soon, two more ambulances brought back-up, along with two police who did little. I told them I was the first to arrive at the scene and that I could give them my phone number if they had questions. They seemed nonplused and didn’t follow-up. Finally, each of the wounded and unconscious was taken in a separate ambulance back toward town. I learned later that the sleeping-breathing man with the twisted leg was from Nicaragua.

I convinced myself that everyone was fine. That they had all survived. The ambulances made it on time; now they would all be healing. Because that’s what ambulances do. Save people. It was traumatic. Not tragic. A story of life, not death.

In the bustle of the moment, I had lost the keys to my motorbike. I spent the next twenty minutes of daylight scouring the dirt for my keyring, to no avail. Soon, my love arrived, relieved to see that I hadn’t been hurt. When I didn’t show up for sunset as we had planned, he knew intuitively that something was not okay. I was grateful to him for arriving just in time, and not earlier when he would have thought I was the one involved in the accident. We stowed my moto at the hotel, worried that someone had snagged my keys in the shuffle, just waiting for me to leave so they could run off with my bike. I hated beyond words the fact that my psyche had grown so practically distrustful of humans, even in the sacred vulnerability of a moment like that.

We went home and found my spare keys. On the kitchen counter, my love had arranged a beautiful surprise display of fresh fruit, loose-leaf tea and raw cacao, gathered with cut hibiscus flowers and an emblem with my name. The love in his thoughtful gift, after what I had been through that day, brought me immediately to tears. 

After all, this New Year’s was our three-year anniversary. 

We showered and rested, dressed for dinner and still somehow made our reservation at a favorite spot in town, busy with lively bodies celebrating the occasion when we arrived. En route, I had held in a gasp and clutched at my love’s dress shirt as we passed a pile of trash bags strewn into the street. From afar it looked like one of the lifeless bodies I had happened upon just hours earlier. Needless to say, my senses were on high alert. My love laughed gently to help calm my nerves.

Three decadent courses later, we headed back toward the beach near our house to visit a friend’s bonfire and ring in the new year. Except two minutes down the road, the back tire on my motorbike went flat. I sat with the owners of the restaurant while my love wibble-wobbled home and brought his bike back instead. As they smoked and drank, we spoke of the accident and the injured, the ambulances and the fragility of life as we knew it.

My love and I journeyed into town to receive midnight beneath a million stars and the loud scattering lights of fireworks on the beach. As my skin jumped with every burst of color, we held eachother and kissed, walked and reminisced.

“Happy anniversary, my love,” I said, grateful to be in his arms, to feel the sand between my toes, alive.

We wandered into the medicine sounds of drums, guitars and beautiful voices, serenading the night beside a roaring fire, blowing sparks in the wind toward the sea. I danced beneath the galaxy and thanked my lucky stars that I could have helped some people in their moment of need. That I might have contributed to the furthering of life here on Earth. That it wasn’t my time to die. That I had stopped at the bakery for the thirty seconds it would have taken me otherwise to reach the accident scene, perhaps in the very instant that the crash occurred. That the cashier at the organic store took her sweet time about my basket. That I had slowed in the dust trail of that too-fast 4-Runner. That the kitchen at the café had already been closed when I went to place my order to-go.

‘Now’ is never just a moment…. The Long Now is the recognition that the precise moment you’re in grows out of the past and is the seed for the future. The longer your sense of Now, the more past and future it includes.
— Brian Eno

Between sober bouts of drum-drunk dancing, I lay down beside my love on a wide driftwood stump, resting my head on his shoulder and kissing him into his neck.

“Have you seen any shooting st---?”

In the long now of that impeccable instant as I nearly finished my sentence, a brilliant star shot east to west across the sky, leaving a trail of light, wild and lasting across the night. I thought of the three people injured in the accident, and offered a silent prayer.

We said our goodbyes and journeyed back home, stopping to hug and kiss the friends we encountered along the way. As we passed the hotel, my eyes lingered on one of the motorbikes from the crash, still laying there in the dirt, resting up against the dust-covered jungle where I had sat for nearly an hour, as the sun set slowly, deliberately, on the year.

***

The next day we savored a slow morning and made a smoothie-bowl breakfast with all the fruit from my love-gift, the vibrant, organic bounty of the earth.

I became obsessed with finding out what happened to the people from the accident. All I saw on social media was a video notice saying that two of the people had been air-lifted to San Jose. My love suggested I detach myself a bit more from the outcome, wanting to protect me from further suffering. He would know the plight of the intermediary better than anyone, after all the happenstance at-sea rescues he’s made. The dozens of people he’s saved. The little girl and her grandmother who had drowned before he could reach them, now a few years back. Despite his salient warning, I would have none of that sentiment of detachment, and argued with him about my empathic entitlement to feeling, instead. My skin holds no steel in the sensitivity of its sheen.

I called the peninsula news agency, but they had no updates. I phoned the clinic who had dispatched the ambulances in attempt to find out more. They had sympathy when I explained I was there at the scene and just wanted to know if everyone was alright. I learned that they had been taken to three separate hospitals the night of the accident. I learned that the Nicaraguan man was still unconscious when they took him so they couldn’t know about the severity of his head injuries. I learned that the Argentine man had broken ribs and suffered a heart valve malfunction, for which he received emergency heart surgery in the clinic, and from which he was said to be in critical condition. I learned nothing more about the German woman, her leg, or her memory.

I learned it was much more serious than I thought. The illusion my ego had created to make everything appear fine in my mind broke into a thousand little pieces in an instant, as I came to terms with the reality that two of these people may very well die. That they may very well already be dead. That the traumatic event I witnessed and participated in, held a world of grief for friends and families, entire communities in three countries beyond this bumpy dirt road and all the people who drive too fast, or just happen to be in the wrong place in the long now of exactly the right time. That while I don’t personally know the people involved, that I hold the trauma and grief of that moment in the center of my heart, just the same.

The naive fantasy of my innocent trust in life prevailing over death shattered to the cement floor in a flood of tears for no one in particular, for every living being on Earth, all at the same time.

****

For most of us, the sacred shows up like a flash of lightening, a sharp inhalation between one unnoticed breath and the next… The nature of life itself is holy. We are always on holy ground. Yet this is rarely a part of our daily experience… We need something larger, something that stops us in our habits of seeing and hearing with more authority, something that challenges our habitual perceptions and ways of thinking in order to recognize the true nature of things. Death is one such doorway. Awareness is the great gift of death. For many people, authentic life starts at the time of death – not our own death, but someone else’s.
— Rachel Naomi Remen

Today, as I write, now two moons after the crash, I still have no concrete answers. Only God, in those golden rays of last year’s light, has any present memory of what happened that day. Rumors abound, yet no one knows for sure how they collided. If the dust from those too-fast cars that passed me just minutes before had somehow impaired their view. If they were speeding. Or perhaps, if a car was involved and left the scene before I arrived. Speculation continues as to whether the Nicaraguan man died, whether the Argentine man is still in critical condition. Where the German-speaking woman with the broken leg has gone, and if she recovered her memory of the event. The uncertainty has taken a toll on my psyche, because it doesn’t allow me to make complete sense of what I witnessed. All the foggy pieces bleeding into the dirt, are still scattered across the wind of my active subconscious. Was I helping people survive? Or was I simply watching them die?

The distance between those realities, the difference between supporting the hope of life and bearing impotent witness to inevitable death, is what keeps me awake at night, ripping at the existential fabric of the guilty humanity we share, simply by being alive. Beyond contemplating the fragility of breath and heartbeat, sweat and the sound of silence, I’m once and for all faced with the morbid consciousness of this flimsy mortality that there may very well be no more meaning to life than absolutely that: Either we are here supporting the survival of life on Earth, or we are here simply watching it die. Or worse, with the dust we stir, the piles of trash we bag, the giant homes we build; with every hurried step, quickened tire tread, unconscious bite and unnecessary overseas flight, we are accelerating the death processes of our more than human community, each and every year, a little bit more, every single day.

Am I here supporting life? Or am I here witnessing and contributing to the slow and certain dying of the world around me as she sleeps and breathes, groans and trembles, convulses, confused, and cries?

At the very best, I believe the answer for most of us is both. We are contributing to life as much as we are creating the means for the quickening certainty of death, bearing guilty witness to the participation in our own earthly destruction.

How can we hold eachother a little closer as we die? How can we give one another a greater chance to survive?

Today, more than ever, the uncertainty in this experience is an indefinite crisis at the core of my being. In fact, I can only describe it as the fight-or-flight difference between life and death. I can’t just drive on by.

And it brings this living I’m doing into microscopic review. The long now of it weighs heavy. Every single perfect second of every single impossible day. I carry it with me. Even when all I can bring myself to do is surf these Bridie green-eyed sea-glass waves and count the blessings in the merciless mystery of all these goddamn shooting stars, hot and wild across the dead-black bleeding sky.

*****

*Out of respect for those involved, names of people and businesses have been changed throughout this story.