The Golden Hour

golden hour sky

The quality of light makes it easy to see why filmmakers call it the Golden Hour, the time just after sunrise and just before sunset. Put the sky in a photograph, no one would believe it’s anything but a backdrop. The light lining the clouds is too pink, the waves of them too perfect, covering horizon and deepening into a sky the fictionalized color of dreams.
If there is tragedy in this morning light, it’s that no one notices God’s offhand display of beauty. People in Miami rush headlong into their hectic days, oblivious to the beauty surrounding them.
Then there’s me, peddling my bike fast enough to create my own breeze against the heat, trying not to inhale bugs or car exhaust. I zoom down sidewalks like a man confident of where he’ll spend his afterlife, becoming part of traffic when it suits my needs, blowing through stop signs when it doesn’t. Wind whipping across my ears, moving wherever I can regardless of painted lines or pavement, looking into the rising sun, it’s the closest I’ll ever come to flying.
I have to confess something. The old version of me wouldn’t have noticed this sunrise, either. This was the me, two years ago today, who almost died.
I think it’s more accurate to say I could have died. Of course, you could die at any given time. This year, you could be one of 180,000 who will have a heart attack, or one of 3,500 who fall asleep at the wheel, one of 150 struck by a falling coconut. Beyond the speculative, there are the stories we hear every day. The guy came out of nowhere; if I hadn’t been paying attention, I could’ve died. All of the sudden, I starting choking; if I hadn’t coughed up that Peanut M&M, I could’ve died. Turns out I had a staph infection; if they hadn’t caught it in time, I could’ve died. What these stories have in common is a brush with mortality. The people who tell them were going about their day, and then. My story has an airlift to Jackson Memorial Hospital (paramedics call it the “Golden Hour,” the period after a trauma when 75% of lives are won or lost), but that doesn’t make it any more serious or less trivial than other could have stories.
Almost died may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s the wording people like to hear. The way the magic hour turns middle-aged Latin women at bus stops into sepia-toned, dignified photographs, almost died adds weight to my words. This isn’t that story, though. I’ve learned that as bad as you got it, someone always got it worse. Also, the details of physical pain and suffering in the context of an accident are somewhat universal. Let’s just say it was serious enough to infect me with that joie de vivre all survivors get for a time.
I used to tell my mother that when I grew up, I would bike to work every day.
“In the snow?” she asked.
“Where I live, there won’t be snow.”
Living in a town with legendary winters, I thought I was making up such a place. I knew it existed in my imagination, but I couldn’t imagine it existed in reality. Enter Miami.
This morning, with weather like God smiling on my endeavors, I come to the spot where it happened. I bike over it every day on my way to work. After the bed and the walker and the cane and the meds, it’s a victorious feeling. I can’t hate the accident – the pain I had then or the pain I continue to have – because it allows me to begin my days with this small feeling of triumph.
Once I stopped across the street from this spot, just past the bridge. I watched traffic for half an hour or so while the sun went down. It was thrilling and surreal, like visiting my own grave. Yet the spot meant nothing to the cars whipping over it. I could have ended there and the world would have kept going, as surely as I will one day end and the world will move on with barely a nod.
After that day, I could pass over the spot without having a panic attack. Like Tom Waits said, “we’re all gonna be just dirt in the ground.” Before the accident, I never imagined this as a liberating thought.
I pictured honoring the anniversary of my accident any number of ways. I’d post an e-vite to anyone I’d ever met, inviting them for a count down and champagne toast to celebrate life at 9:15 AM at the corner of Red Road and Waterside. There would be a crowd of people, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years, and buckets of champagne on ice, and it would probably turn into a skip-work day instead of a get-to-work-late-with-a-buzz day. Or I could invite a few key people, the friends who had pulled me through. Or I could invite my family, even though most of them still live scattered up North in the snow.
I decided some things are meant to be done privately.
The intersection is at the end of a bridge, just beside a park. Massive rock coral towers mark the edge between South Miami and the moneyed enclave of Coral Gables. It’s shaded by large banyan trees, covered with bougainvillea. There are picnic tables and more rock coral steps leading to a canal. I pull onto the grass, scattering a some ducks that flap and honk at my audacity. I lean my bike against one of the larger banyans and look at the canal for a while. The water is still, mostly covered in algae, and borderline rank. The light manages to give even this some beauty.
I lean against the same tree, facing the road. My hip hurts. Not as a matter of course but because I pushed myself extra hard on the bike, so that’s okay. I’ve come to live companionably with the low, arthritic throb where I used to be broken. Secretly, I hope it never fades completely. I always want the memory as close to me as feeling. I want to know I’m lucky. More mobility would be nice, but if the pain disappears completely, what then? Who’s to say it happened at all?
My ribs are humming, too, partially from the strap of my backpack and partially from the weather. It’s sixty-eight degrees, what passes for a mild cold front. I think my chances of moving back home are slim.
Lying in the grass, back against the banyan, bag between my legs, watching the sparse traffic, I think of my brother. Staying in the frigid north so he can hunt, despite what the cold does to his back, which has had four operations.
I think of my sister, who understands. Smoking gave her a pulmonary embolism that nearly killed her.
I think of my mother with her two titanium knees, my mother who lent me her cane when I needed it. I still have that cane. It leans in the corner of my office, waiting for the time when I’ll need it again, a talisman against an early death.
I think of my grandmother, using a walker for the first time when she turned ninety, the same time I was using mine. We joked about it but it wasn’t the same; I was getting better; she could only get worse.
Biking makes cars seem suicidally fast. It’s as good an excuse as any not to drive any more. In fact, I take everything slowly now. When I walk, I stroll. I wash dishes in the sink rather than the dishwasher. I listen without thinking of how I’ll respond so I can jump in to fill the silence. I think before I speak.
As the traffic increases, I remove my notebook from my backpack. I outline some thoughts which will become what you’re reading now. Later, I’ll add meat. I’m waiting for the time of impact, as near as I can tell from the police report.
Like the first time I watched cars at this corner, it’s easy to name my feelings. There are tears, of course, although I’m not sure why. Fear of death? Fear of squandering what amounts to a second chance? Relief? Waves of nausea, happiness, loneliness, giddiness, euphoria. My thoughts are blank. It’s like staring into a fireplace, or over open ocean. My mind is a static hum while my emotions run wild. I wish I could stand in the street, at the exact spot where I almost left this world, but the traffic is too heavy now.
The light tells me it’s almost time (when I bike this street, a certain angle of light and shadow still stirs something in me that’s not quite a flashback). I take a bottle of Prosecco from my bag, as well as a toasting flute. Since I found this decorative affair of silver and brass at a garage sale back home, the flute has enjoyed various incarnations as décor, candlestick, incense holder, and pencil cup in my various apartments, but never once has it served the purpose for which it was made.
There’s a metaphor in there somewhere for me, finding myself.
I unwrap the foil from the top of the bottle and put it in the side pocket of my cargo pants. Checking the time on my cell phone, I’m surprised by how long I still need to wait. I set a ten-minute count down on my cell phone.
Look it up and you’ll find that when it comes to traffic accidents, this is consistently one of Miami’s top three deadliest corners. The city keeps promising to put a light here but they have yet to get around to it. A few months back, a friend of mine attended a town meeting where they discussed the traffic situation. One of his neighbors played home video footage of an accident. More specifically, the aftermath of one. As my friend looked at the wrinkled, silver banana that had once been car, he realized he was looking at my accident. My car had been pushed across the street, over the sidewalk, and into the bushes. Today, the grass and sidewalk are unmarked, the bushes uniform and unbroken. Any spot could be the one. Any spot could hold the aftermath of someone’s quaint tragedy.
There is no hint of my almost death anywhere beneath the rock coral towers, with the bougainvillea in bloom, the cold air keeping the stench of the canal at bay, and the early morning sun. This intersection is tricky, but it holds its secrets well.
At two minutes, I pop the bottle, aiming the cork into my bike helmet and missing.
At one minute, I fill my toasting flute to the brim.
Although I haven’t asked for the day off, I still don’t know if I mean to have my toast and leave for work, or polish the bottle off myself and walk my bike back home.
When my countdown gets to twenty, I mouth the numbers silently. I’m still sitting, conscious of the looks drivers give me, my glass roughly at shoulder height. Perhaps they think I’m toasting them, or the day, or someone I knew who died. In a way, all of these assumptions would be true.
Time. Two years to the minute.
The taste is just like my first sip as a nine-year-old at my cousin’s wedding, like liquid sunshine. Lately, though, the sweetness of it has proved too sickening. I decide that after I finish this glass, the rest of the bottle is for the ground.
While I drink, part of me thinks I’m dreaming. I will wake up in a hospital bed, wracked with pain. People in white will tell me how lucky I am. They will tell me how much work I have to do, but that I should feel grateful I’m here to do it.
That fear is in everything I do.
I survived but I’m still an invalid, so I better do everything I can before I wake up crippled.
When I die, I’ll be transported back to the accident; I’m living an endless loop but I lose that knowledge when the broken glass falls off my lap.
I didn’t survive the crash so I should squeeze every drop of joy from this living dream before I wake up.
That last one most of all. I’m dead and this is dream, so I better make it a good one.
The toasting flute is empty so it’s time to move on. I pour the rest of the Prosecco onto the ground, watching it bubble at the base of the banyan tree. I toss the empty bottle and the cork and the foil into the trash can at the edge of the park, watching the traffic.
The moment before my toast and the moment after felt the same.
I have recovered, so it’s time for the next thing. My only job now is to be ready when it happens.

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