I am walking my dog when it happens. The woman does not see me. The woman does not see my dog. The woman points her car my way and guns it, and when I see she doesn’t see me—doesn’t see my bright blue shirt nor my arm waving ‘hello neighbor’ in the air nor my big yellow lab standing at the side of her driveway—I dive to my right and the bumper of her car clips my hip and I tumble down and over the newly-mowed grass of her lawn and the next thing I know I’m lying there, just lying there, pushing to get up and looking at my dog looking down at me with her tail wagging, wagging wagging wagging. The dog licks my hand. We are alive, the dog seems to say. We are okay.
For the last decade I’ve been walking my dogs in a downtown neighborhood, and at least once a week I hear myself screaming, “It’s called a fucking STOP sign!” at some giant SUV with a mom driving her kids to school (coffee in one hand, cell phone in the other), certain that one day this composite character of a mom is going on take me out. And yet it is not until today, this day of me tumbling on the grass, focused on a wagging tail, when I feel the constant anticipation in me. When I start to think about how much time and angst and exactitude and energy I spend laying out blueprints that say: This. Yes this. Surely this is how it is going to happen.
I do not think of myself as a worrier, an anticipator of disaster. In fact, in my fantasy mind of who I am, I am the opposite of this. I am the positive thinker. I am the dreamer. I am the Annie song ‘Tomorrow’. I am the woman who banks on today and hopes all good things for the next, the lighthearted comforter patting shoulders and holding hands, telling those panicking around me, “Relax, really, it will be what it will be. It will all be fine.” I remember telling my mother this when she was dying. “Don’t worry,” I said over and over again. “I’m okay. I’ll be okay. And I will take care of everything.” One night while my mother was sleeping, I was on the phone with a friend whose mother had died the year before. “Watch her feet,” she warned. “We all die from the ground up. If you think your mom is getting close, check her feet. If the bottoms are turning any shade of blue, be ready to call people, to say your goodbyes.” For the next many days I was a vigilant, albeit sneaky, foot-checker, wafting sheets at the end of my mother’s bed when I was sure no one was around. I imagined the possible shades of blue. I imagined the time I would have with her at the end, the people I would call and in what order I would call them, and how fast they would all get there and how we would surround my mother in a giant circle while she passed on.
Of course that’s not how it happened. It was noon on a Sunday. I was sitting there alone with my mother when her breaths became shallow and sporadic, sometimes gasping. She scared me. I backed away and leaned against the other bed in the room. At some point a nurse came in, put her stethoscope to my mother’s chest, listened, waited. Minutes passed. I moved closer. The nurse told me to sit down, though I remained standing. The nurse turned off the beeping machines. Silence. Out in the hall I called my brothers. “Mom’s gone,” I said, “can you come over?” One brother said he would see me later. The other brother said, “Why would I come now if she’s already gone?” I called her husband. No answer. So I stopped calling people. I walked back to my mother’s room and, standing in the doorway, saw that the nurse had pulled away the sheet.
Maybe this is the story. It never happens the way we think it will happen. I am 36 years old. I am 36 and alone with my dead mother and I am wearing the soft purple shirt she gave me that I only pretended to like and that I will put in the trash at my hotel and I am staring at, taking inventory even, of my mother’s naked body, at her open, thick-looking eyes, her shoulders her breasts her stomach her hips her knees, the palms of her hands, open and still. The nurse comes back. I never even make it all the way to her feet.
All that I time I wasted in the planning, in the imagining. All that time, wasted.
I think about the conversations I have in my head that I never end up having with another human being. The constant inner-planning. The scenario staging. My fear of the ever-dreaded surprise. When I was growing up there was no such thing as a good surprise. Lack of planning, lack of proper and thorough anticipation meant falling off a cliff. Surprise meant moving towns or changing schools or the child support check showing up late or wondering if I could afford school lunch. As an adult there is still no such thing as a good surprise, and yet I still refuse to see myself as that person, as the worry wart (what a horrible name), the multi-scenario imaginer of events that I so very often am.
I recall another story told by the friend whose mother had died with blue feet. She and her sister are sitting on either side of their mother’s bed, each of them holding one of their mother’s hands, and as their mother takes her last breath the sister slides Mom’s wedding rings right off and onto her own finger, admiring it, watching it sparkle, then looks at my friend and says, “It’s mine. Mom always wanted me to have it.”
How, I think, could my friend have ever imagined her mother’s last breath would happen like this?
Within minutes of my being knocked to the ground, the woman is out of her car, hand over her mouth in shock, apologizing and sobbing hysterically. I am hugging and comforting her. “It’s okay,” I repeat as I rub her back, “and I’m okay. I really am. I’m okay, see? I’m sorry this happened too, but here we are.” I gesture to my dog, my yellow lab at the end of her leash, panting and smiling, wagging her big yellow tail. “See, we are all okay.”
Eventually I let go and turn to brush grass clippings and leaves from my sweatpants. I check to see if there are any rips or tears, and there are not. I rub the bottom of my leg and feel a hot stinging sensation, a burning, down the side of my calf. But I don’t pull up my pants leg because I don’t want to scare her, to worry her.
Days later, I will be thankful for emails I sent within the hour because once I get over the shock of getting hit by the car, the terror of what it feels like to see a car barreling straight for me, I can barely imagine it. No matter how many times I try to reconstruct the stage, I can’t do it. I am mostly blank. I have what think is a road burn on my lower leg, but it is healing and will probably not even leave a scar. My ass aches a little where her bumper knocked me to the grass, but mostly I feel fine.
More days pass. I simply feel lucky.
The woman calls and tells me she has a confession: she never saw me at all. Never saw me, even though it was 9:30 in the morning on a bright sunny day and I was wearing a blue shirt and waving ‘hello’ and walking a big yellow dog. Unlike me, she never imagined this could happen. She tells me she only stopped because she heard a thud, and it was only when she saw me lying in the grass with my dog that she realized what had just happened. I listen quietly, but what I feel is enraged … not at her, but at her lovely lack of forethought. This is what normal people are like, I think, and this is what I envy: the luxury of true spontaneity. The lack of expectation of impending disaster. How comforting it must be to never imagine and imagine and imagine such an event. The lack of worry and anticipation. The lack of mentally creating and dreading what-might-be.
I think back on all the energy and time I’ve spent imagining such a thing, all the times I’ve screamed at some mom driving her kids to school, imagining a very real someone running me right over, “It’s called a fucking STOP sign!” and I pause. I want to scream, but what’s the point? Maybe it never happens the way we think it will happen. I think about the time I was alone with my mother, and time wasted. I remember my mother’s last day on this earth, my purple shirt, her exposed body lying atop a white sheet, and yet what I remember most clearly, most vividly, are my mother’s hands. Her open, unassuming hands.