Maker’s Marks

In the 1993 thriller Cliffhanger, the opening scene is truly disturbing. Having summited a mountaintop for a little adventure, young climbers suspend a cable across a deep chasm to a nearby peak, then cross the open space one by one in zip-line fashion. One climber, terrified to cross the void, gets caught in the middle of the fraying cable, holding on by her fingers for dear life. Despite Sylvester Stallone’s valiant efforts, she shockingly loses her grip, plunging untold feet into the abyss. I remember envisioning myself as her and thinking, “I’m going to die”.

Almost sixty years into life as I know it, I have three unforgettable, take-it-to-the-grave moments where I thought, “I’m going to die”.  One of them happened two nights ago.

Returning from a Rockies baseball game in downtown Denver, I drove myself and a friend through a long stretch of interstate road construction.  We chatted about nothing and everything as we eyed the late-night traffic around us.  I’ve driven this stretch countless times, so much so my brain moves to a certain degree of autopilot.  However, I was not prepared for one unexpected moment.  As we ascended a rise in the divided two-lane highway, the lane to our right began to disappear without warning.  Orange cones cut across its width too quickly, with no signage or blinking lights to grab our attention.

All would’ve been fine were it not for the well-lit semi-trailer truck already occupying the disappearing lane.  He was just enough ahead of me he wasn’t going to back off.  I don’t think he could even see my car was occupying the lane into which he was about to merge.  Instinctively, I pressed the brake pedal, but not before realizing how much of his trailer was still trailing my car.  How the back of his trailer didn’t merge directly with the hood of my car is beyond me.  As he swung over into my lane there couldn’t have been two inches between his bumper and mine.

This miracle of a no-accident is an example of a “shoulda died” moment.  The semi was at least four times the length of my car (and three times as high).  It’s safe to say he and his truck would’ve survived the collision (me, not so much).  It’s also safe to say providence of a higher being was present at that very moment.

The two other “shoulda” moments in my life are etched into my brain as clear as crystal.  When I was a kid, I once hit a tennis ball over my neighbor’s fence and into their backyard.  It was easy enough to sneak through their side gate and down the side of their house.  Then I ran into their tall grass to the approximate location of the ball.  Just short of it, I leaped instinctively over a fully coiled rattlesnake, ready to strike.  No question, the most terrifying moment of my young life.  I remember yelling and screaming until our neighbor came out and killed the snake.  “Shoulda died?”  Maybe not, but tell that to a ten-year-old who was sure he’d be bitten by a poisonous snake.  To this day I’m convinced there was an angel nearby telling me to “JUMP!” at just the right moment.

My one other “shoulda” happened in my twenties.  Driving back to my college after a road trip, I fell asleep at the wheel in the early-morning hours of an almost deserted divided highway.  My car drove itself into the road’s grass median at 60 mph, where I awoke to the horrifying realization I was completely out of control.  Struggling to get the car in hand, I swerved this way and that until finally crossing three lanes of oncoming traffic, plunging into a ditch, completely rolling the car, and finally skidding to a stop, adding the flourish of a 180° spin.  How was the hospital?  Never saw it.  I walked away from my totaled car with just cuts and bruises, in an understandable state of shock.  Why wasn’t I hit by oncoming traffic?  Why didn’t I perish in the remains of my car?  Another dose of providence, I think.

We all have one or two of these “shoulda” moments in our lives.  They leave an indelible stamp on our memory as if to say, “Nope, not done with this life just yet.”  Now let’s add “coulda” and “woulda” moments.

“Coulda died” moments are all over the map:

I coulda died if I didn’t catch my balance on the edge of that cliff.

I coulda died if I hadn’t been strong enough to swim out of that riptide.

I coulda died if I rode my bicycle on that busy highway.

And so on.

Woulda died” moments are even worse because you know the life-or-death consequences beforehand.  “Woulda’s” are typically fraught with ignorance.  Choosing to drag race down a busy city street.  Choosing to scale the steep roof of your house in shorts and sandals.  Choosing to act on your road rage.  Have I done any of these “woulda’s” myself?  No. I choose to live instead.

Maker’s Mark is a small-batch bourbon whiskey produced in Loretto, Kentucky by the company Beam Suntory. Maker’s marks, by my definition, are those “shoulda” moments where we emerge on the other side, a sweating bundle of nerves, thankful to be alive.

That semi and I had a “shoulda” moment the other night, but divine providence chose to play a part.

Thanks be to God.

Good Times and Laughter Too

My wife and I will attend two weddings this summer; one for friends and one for family.  This week I noticed one of the brides-to-be on Facebook, requesting “songs you want to hear/dance-to at the reception”.  Clever girl, making sure her guests have a say in the music.  My guess is – whether requested or not – the deejay will find room for Kool & The Gang’s enduring party anthem, “Celebration”.  It’s as timeless now as it was when we first heard it in 1980.  And ce–lah–brate-ing good times is as timeless at weddings as it is for the passing of a loved one.

Plucked from another section of the significant-life-events portfolio, my wife and I attended a Celebration of Life this past weekend, for my uncle (my dad’s twin brother).  I label two aspects of my uncle’s passing as “merciful”: 1) He was weakened by a heart condition over the last three years of his life; and 2) One or two of his family members were not available for an immediate memorial.  Because of the first aspect, the extended family had plenty of time to make peace with my uncle’s eventual passing.  Because of the second aspect, what may have been a funeral became a celebration of life instead.

No need to vote on this topic.  Whenever circumstances permit, choose Celebration of Life over Funeral.  Funerals lean to the shock and mourning of a life lost – somber affairs are they.  Celebrations of Life revel in the happy memories of one life, and the joy brought to countless others.  Such was the case with my uncle.  His celebration included a church service, hymns, and a homily (given by the “celebrant”, of course), but what moved me to my core – and what I couldn’t get enough of – were the stories shared by my cousins (my uncle’s children) and my father (his brother).  Those memories included things I never knew about my uncle, such as his talent as a cartoonist and his childlike demeanor with his grandchildren.  I’m even more inspired by the man than I already was.

My uncle’s celebration moved on from the church to a beautiful setting by the San Francisco Bay, where drinks, lunch, photos and memories were shared for several hours.  It was as much a family reunion as a celebration, and my uncle wouldn’t have had it any other way.  Before he passed, he let it be known we should make merry instead of mourn.  And so, …There was a party goin’ on right there; a celebration to last throughout the years.

Whether we celebrate births or birthdays, weddings or wedding anniversaries, Sunday Mass or Christ-mas, we get a healthy dose of festive occasions in our lifetimes.  Perhaps that’s why we’ve come up with so many words to describe them.  Merriam-Webster published one such list here, including Bash (America’s melding of “bang” and “smash”, somehow maturing into “party”); Blast (surely inspired by loud musical instruments and champagne bottles); Rave (actually inspired by a Middle-Ages term for “acts of madness”); Blowout (once defined as a “one-off indulgence”; somehow morphed into “major festive occasion”), and finally my favorite – Wingding (once “feigned seizures”, now “wild partying”).

But enough digression.  Well, almost enough.  My nod to all things “celebration” wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the town in Florida by the same name.  Developed by Disney as a utopian master-planned unincorporated community “created from scratch”, and “a town worthy of its brand and legacy”, Celebration was/is Disney’s nod to New Urbanism: development based on the small towns of early America, with compact downtowns, “walkable” streets, diverse housing stock, and plentiful public spaces. Celebration doesn’t even consider itself a town, preferring instead the label of community, as in “strong spirit, and desire for friendship with neighbors”.  Sounds like a festive gathering to me!

There will be many more celebrations of life before the one that has my own name on it.  I’m okay with that.  Celebrations of life are a unique blend of revel and revere, partying and paying respects – the dual reasons we raise our glasses to someone’s name.  Just be sure it’s a party.  As Kool & The Gang puts it: We’re gonna have a good time tonight… Let’s celebrate… It’s all right.

transcendent

Last week I found myself in a cemetery.  That may sound a little ordinary to you, but my experience was anything but ordinary.  In fact, it was a little surreal.

cemetery

To be clear, cemeteries are not a regular habit for me. In fact, I’ve only visited them a handful of times in my life and most have been the “historical” kind.  Last week’s visit was to a small cemetery overlooking the ocean in Pacific Grove, CA, just south of the Monterey area. It’s a beautiful spot: quiet, peaceful, and guarded by dozens of the area’s native cypress trees. I was there to visit the final resting place of my aunt and uncle, who spent several years living in nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea.

On the drive over, I made a mental list of the things you do when you visit a cemetery.  Flowers, words, a few prayers, some contemplation, maybe a photograph for a keepsake.  That’s my “left-brain” mindset in action, by the way.  I always have to take the logical approach instead of just going with the moment.  To further complicate things I’m not really comfortable with cemeteries.  Notice I use the words “final resting place” instead of “grave”.  Or “cemetery” instead of “graveyard”.  On this day I was even conscious of how I dressed.  Apparently I default to the formal, as if I’m visiting someone’s house for the first time.  Which I guess I am in a sense – it’s just a really tight neighborhood.

I stopped in Monterey for the flowers.  The drive then took me through the quaint central shopping area of Pacific Grove before the road rose up to the coastal bluffs to the southwest.  One final right turn and I had reached my destination.  Passing through the front gates I immediately slowed to the posted 5 mph speed limit, then navigated the loop road to where I thought my aunt and uncle were buried.  I parked and started walking, and I probably looked odd trying to find their plot.  I wandered here and there, up and down the rows, not really knowing what to look for or where to look.  I had to keep donning reading glasses to make out the inscriptions.

Finally I found them.  I was happy to see my aunt and uncle were buried side-by-side, off to the edge of the cemetery, in a quieter area and under the guard of one of those cypress trees.  Add in warm breezes, the afternoon sun, and a view of the ocean in the distance (photo) and it’s quite a place to call “home”.

I spent several minutes kneeling and recalling fond memories. It was peaceful, as there were only a few others on the property and the sounds of the nearby neighborhoods seemed appropriately hushed.  I said a final prayer and took a few photos and suddenly it was time to go.

Here is where my experience took an unexpected turn. As I put the car in gear I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.  Emerging from a nearby stand of trees, a single deer stood not ten yards from my car; motionless. He watched me for a few seconds, cocked his head, and walked very slowly across the road in front of me.  Several yards beyond the road, he paused, looked back once, then once again, before casually disappearing up and over a hill.  Gone, as if he had not even been there at all.  It was a moment – an encounter really – that my brain could not immediately process.

My first reaction was to look around and locate all of the other deer on the property (hello again left-brain).  But there were none, not even as I completed the drive around the loop road and exited the property entirely.  Now that I think about it, the people I saw when I entered the cemetery were gone.  Just me.  And a deer.  And my aunt and uncle.

My wife has shared several experiences where an animal makes an unexpected appearance after the loss of a loved one.  Since I’m all about explanations, I never accepted any otherworldly connection.  Now I’m not so sure. When I was talking to my father later about my visit, he asked “did you see any deer?” He went on to explain that deer are seen frequently in the Pacific Grove cemetery, only too happy to munch on all the flowers left behind by visitors.  But my deer was a lot more interested in me than flowers.  I think he was even trying to tell me something.

There are moments in life that go beyond the expected or the ordinary, and then there are moments that completely defy reason.  My moment was one of those – transcendent – even as I continue the search for a logical explanation.