Choosing Life

I would like to tell you about something very dramatic that happened to me in my childhood. It happened one morning while I was riding to school.  Being late at Milton was never an option and I was making good time with no need to rush. It was a fine warm morning. From a nearby treetop a grey crested Lourie yelled its defiant dismissal, “Go away!”

The road, canopied by iridescent jacarandas in full blossom, was deserted. On either side countless bees droned purposefully amid the earthy aroma of the fallen flowers that carpeted the pavements. The only sounds at odds with serenity were the muted early morning buzz from distant arterial routes.

As I cycled along Park Street (in the suburb rather prosaically called “the Suburbs”), in my home town of Bulawayo, the growl of a diesel engine began to penetrate the stillness.   A few seconds later, a refuse truck clattered exuberantly around the corner behind me.  For the next few minutes the truck and I played hopscotch with me passing it each time it stopped to ingest with loud clangs the contents of metal bins placed at gates along the street; the truck roaring past in turn as it sped to the next collection point.  The cheerful attendants worked to a well rehearsed drill, alternately clinging to the truck and leaping off with boundless energy to collect the bins, all the while whistling instructions to the driver and calling to each other in Matabele, their mother tongue. The era of disposable plastic garbage bags was still light years away. Then it happened.

From the opposite direction came grey Morris eleven-hundred — for those of you who remember them . . .  The driver, a local resident heading for work, wasn’t speeding.  Actually, in today’s parlance she was positively crawling.  Then, at the precise moment that this car passed the refuse lorry one of the ebullient workers leapt from the truck  . . . directly into its path.  Obviously he hadn’t seen the car.  I don’t think he ever did.  The impact was shocking.  Death was clearly instantaneous, but I’ll spare you the details.  I don’t remember the driver’s face, to be honest.  It was too long ago.  I recall only the gaunt look of horror. 

Such unexpected encounters with death are never welcome. They bring to mind —however momentarily— the inevitability of our own mortality. Most of us think in terms of our own demise as something that will happen at a far-off time, a life-path view reminiscent of an artist’s perspective of a highway, broad in the foreground with visible detail, then narrowing and eventually disappearing completely into an ethereal blue haze on the distant horizon of the future.  But whatever our own perspective of the matter is, it’s beyond doubt that the hapless refuse worker never dreamed that the Matabeleland dawn he woke to on that fateful day in 1972 would be the last he’d ever see.

Given that most of us don’t expect to die any time soon, it may be tempting to ‘postpone’ thinking about the Big Question, that is, what happens to us after we take that last breath.  But what if it happens suddenly . . . sooner than we expect? 

To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.[1]

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[1] Hamlet, Act 3, scene 1