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.