Over the course of my life, I’ve had a few close calls fails, incidents that, had they taken place a second or a minute later, might have changed my life—or ended it in 2018. I’ve never had the classic near-death experience, the one that includes an out-of-body moment, when one’s spirit floats away from one’s body, to hover in a state of heightened awareness from the ceiling or some higher plane. I don’t know what it’s like to have died and come back, only what it’s like to momentarily feel that I might have possibly come close to dying.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I bought my first car, with a six-figure mileage, from a friend of my father’s. I was a reluctant driver at best—a terrified one, really—and an overused lemon was not a good starter car for me he was very close to death fails. Once, when I was driving along a busy street in New Rochelle, New York, the car turned on its own and headed toward a garbage truck in the opposite lane. There were only a few inches between us when both the truck and my car miraculous stopped. If the truck had hit me at the speed we were both going, I might have died.
A few years ago, I was standing on the landing of the steps in front of a friend’s apartment in lower Manhattan. The front door was an entire story above the ground. It had snowed a few days before, then had warmed up, and then the temperature had plunged again. Black ice covered both the steps and the sidewalk below. I’d just pulled the door shut, and had my back to the steps, when I suddenly felt myself slipping. My arms flailed, and for a moment I felt as though I were flying. I somehow managed to catch the railing before I could freefall all the way down. Had I plunged backward and landed head first on the concrete, I might have been at least brain dead.
A 2013 article in National Geographic noted 19,121 people above a base camp and 6,206 Everest summits up to the year 2012. An example of statistics is that first German woman to summit mount Everest and survive, was Helga Hengge in 1999. However, the first German (from West Germany) to make it to the summit was Hannelore Schmatz but she died on descent, getting down to about 8300 meters altitude. Fatalities may include people who died on Mount Everest that were not trying to summit (such as Everest Base Camp trekkers), or may have been climbing something else on the Everest massif such as Lhotse.
Year – Summiters – Death
2012 – 547 – 10
2013 – 658 – 8
2014 – 106 – 19
2015 – 0 – 24
2016 – 641 – 6 + 1 on Lhotse
Every once in a while, a friend with whom I have traded such stories will send me links to close-call fails videos compilation on YouTube. In them, people cluelessly walk into the paths of speeding cars, buses, and trains that somehow don’t hit them. Dangers graze but don’t annihilate them. In that one moment, it looks as though these people are covered with some invisible death-protection shield. Or, as my mother might have said, “It just wasn’t their time.”
I once sat next to a woman in a commuter turboprop plane, who, as soon as the plane landed, started thanking God at the top of her voice. This same woman, at the start of the trip, had refused to change seats with another passenger who was travelling with a friend.
She had a point, I realized. After all, don’t most catastrophic events suddenly interrupt perfectly ordinary days? The “ordinary instant,” Joan Didion calls it, in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” her memoir describing her husband’s sudden death from a heart attack and the process of writing about it.
Among the first words Didion wrote after her husband died were, “Life changes in the instant.”