I have oftentimes wondered if I am already dead. Perhaps I died many years ago and everything since is merely the frantic imaginings of a dying mind trying to finish the story, or perhaps I’m at a pit stop in purgatory where I get a glimpse of what my life might have been.
When did I die? There’s really no telling. It could have happened in the blink of an eye, as they say, and I just stubbornly continued on with a life that was no longer real. Parts of the story I crafted for myself would make sense: I married one of the only boys I knew as a child, the kid who lived down the street from me. My son is the sort of child I believe my father was, and my daughter is the kind of person I would aspire to be. But then there are all the other things I could never dream up that have entered my story. And yet I dream things all the time that shock or frighten me, things I didn’t even know my subconscious was capable of inventing.
I didn’t have a particularly dangerous childhood. Swimming in a lake with minimal supervision, walking the streets of my town after dark by myself, dancing with an umbrella outside in a thunderstorm. These weren’t uncommon activities when I was young, though not many kids would get away with this sort of behavior today.
When I was about seven years old, my mom called me into the kitchen. “We have to drive up to the Dells because Joe’s car is broken down and he needs a ride home.” Joe was a young man who worked at the same place as my father and was friends with my parents. (Points to my mom for not leaving the seven-year old home alone, right?)
I climbed into the backseat of the car, leaving the front passenger seat free for Joe. “Come sit up here by me,” my mom instructed.
“Why? Why can’t I sit in the back?”
My mom misheard or misunderstood what I was asking. “I’ll tell you when we get there,” was her answer.
I climbed into the front seat and buckled my seat belt. Nowadays kids that age shouldn’t be in the front seat and would probably still be in a booster in the back, but at least I had my seat belt on. We were oblivious to the fact that what we were doing would be considered dangerous by someone.
I sat in the front seat and pondered what her secret was. She’d tell me why I couldn’t sit in the back when we got there. I couldn’t think of a single reason why the backseat was off limits and if it was why she couldn’t tell me now. I sneaked a peek into the backseat but it looked like it always did.
Thirty minutes later we pulled up to the gas station where Joe was waiting for us. I hopped out to give him the front seat and climbed into the back and immediately said to my mom, “Okay, tell me now. Why couldn’t I sit in the backseat?”
“I just wanted your company up front for the drive here,” my mom answered.
“But why was that a secret?” I asked. “Why couldn’t you tell me that until we got here?”
My mom laughed. “No. That’s not what I meant. I just meant that I’d tell you when we got to our destination so that you could get into the backseat.”
That thirty-minute suspense-filled ride with the flop of an ending is one of those curious inconsequential memories that have stuck with me. We all made it to the Dells and home safely. But the perils of children in front seats have now become ingrained in me as it has with most mothers. And this is one instance in my childhood when I remember very specifically that I was doing something that would now be considered “wrong”. It is certainly possible that I could have died that day. But any ride in a car is potentially deadly. That’s just the heartbreaking truth of the world we live and die in.
Joe’s car was repaired and he was back on the road within days. Later that summer he was driving with his girlfriend when she decided she wanted to recline the seat to take a nap. He turned around to move his bow and arrow off the backseat, taking his eyes off the road and inadvertently drifting across the center line into oncoming traffic. He was killed immediately. Sometimes I think of him still living his life in his last moment, images of him getting married and having children flashing through his mind, getting to finish the happy life that he had only just started. Or maybe he is parked in purgatory and allowed to view his story to see how it would all turn out. Then again, maybe he’s still living his life for real because my story is the dream and I was killed in the car that day before we ever picked him up. His accident was just a chapter in the fictional life lived only in my mind.