Whenever a phase of my life nears its end, I always know the exact moment its time to leave and move on. Almost always a series of little tragedies unfolds before my very eyes, like the universe is validating my decision to move on by forcibly kicking me out of my comfy cozy image I’ve created in my head about what it is I’m leaving behind. Naturally, I usually make the decision to leave first, but the affirmation comes when I have a bad taste in my mouth and all of my hopeful illusions about an experience are thoroughly destroyed.
Yesterday I had the misfortune of arriving to the right place at the wrong time. Or maybe it was just the right time, I’ll never be sure. A friend was in town visiting, so Steven and I decided to take him to a swimming hole we’d just discovered for a relaxing afternoon floating on inner tubes. We hiked our way through the woods and made our way down the steep gorge hill to the man-made lake. The three of us spread out a blanket under a tree and disrobed. I grabbed an inner tube and headed toward the step-off. Mere moments after we arrived to the popular dam and set up our home base, I witnessed a man pull a limp body from the depths of the water and struggle to keep it afloat. Several people jumped from the gorge cliffs to try and help, and it was then that I reacted without fully processing what was transpiring. Steven and Chad jumped in shortly thereafter to help. Swimming toward several people at the edge of the dam, I saw the cyanotic tinge around his mouth and the deer-in-headlights fixation of his eyes. His friends punched violently at his chest and screamed, but it wasn’t doing any good on the glassy sloping surface of the dam wall. It was then that his lifeless weight was miraculously hoisted onto an inflatable mattress, and we seven or so strangers swam hard toward the lowest rock ledge several yards away. A limb was offered to an officer who had just arrived on the scene, and the man’s body was dragged ashore. The CPR that ensued was ultimately unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
The whole scene played out in just minutes, and it wasn’t until I sat down in my sogging bathing suit that I could process what had just happened. The adrenaline eventually wore off and left me with many conflicting thoughts and feelings. I felt hatred, annoyance, grief, anger, despair, helplessness, gratitude, and disbelief all at once. I felt hatred for the brief torture that is life which we all must endure until the inevitable gruesome end. I felt annoyance at the victim and his friends for not being more responsible and ultimately tainting the foreseeable duration of my time in Ithaca. I felt grief for the loss of a life at the hands of a cruel death. I felt anger at the folly of man. I felt despair for my inexorable demise. I felt helpless because no one could save him. I felt gratitude for my own brief and curious existence and for the safety of my loved ones. I was in disbelief that we had arrived at just the right moment to witness a tragedy unfold.
I’m not sure if any good will come of this senseless death, but my hope is that at least one person will read about this incident and take something useful from it. I think upon the countless times that I’ve made a reckless decision realizing only in hindsight that I may have put myself and others at risk. It gives me the chills. I may never know why my friends and I happened upon this tragic event at just the right time to witness it unfold, maybe it was a lesson in life, or maybe it was coincidence. Maybe it was to jolt myself from the comfortable delusion that my own death and deaths of my loved ones will be comfortable and controlled. All I do know is that it’s incredibly difficult for anyone to come to grips with their own mortality through the sudden death of another. It’s hard not to feel like this life is senseless and cruel, but death always reminds me of what is truly important and that is to always show love to one another. Everything else in life is so unimportant, but it’s difficult not to get caught in the illusion that anything else but love matters. So maybe this is a reminder to be kind and loving toward everyone and everything because our reality is so fleeting that everything else becomes extraneous. I will remain hopeful that I won’t always need reminders like this to express gratitude for every single moment of my ephemeral existence.
So, yes, I must take this unfortunate event as a cue that I’m overdue for a change. Among the deteriorating morale of the workplace I will shortly be leaving, the exodus of several friends from the area, the abrupt and life-threatening illness of one of my friends and mentors, the unfolding conspiracy causing the dissatisfaction of my peers at said workplace, and the witnessed untimely death of a young stranger, I feel that the universe is forcibly kicking me out of the cozy little niche I’ve created here. Overall, my time in Ithaca has been a positive learning experience. I’ve met interesting people and made memorable friendships. I’ve grown a lot personally and spiritually; I’ve learned a lot about myself, about life, and about death. I’ve had time to re-prioritize my life and remember what is important. For all of this, and even the bad stuff, I am immensely grateful.