Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Touch of Death

“Today, I feel irreparable.”

I said that last week, in the midst of a rather serious email exchange. The context doesn’t matter, but it was truly, sincerely, what I felt at that exact moment when I wrote it.

I suppose we all have moments like that, whether we admit to them or not.

Author extraordinaire Anne Frasier recently posed the question, are authors broken? on her blog. Yesterday, Anne Frasier’s blog post titled Broken, part two hit me on a new level.

Something I’d never thought about before. How much death had shaped my life.

Now, I could launch into a discussion about Piaget’s theory of conservation and concrete operations, but I'd just be indulging myself with one of my side interests. Suffice it to say that at the point in my life when cause and effect was coming into focus, there were some significant deaths.

The closest thing I had to grandparent relationships were with my Uncle Ab and Aunt Elma Ruttan. In fact, my Great Uncle and Great Aunt, as Ab was my grandfather, Jack Ruttan’s, brother. Uncle Ab and Aunt Elma lived reasonably close to us. I remember staying there as a child. If you go to my website (the new design will be in place soon, btw) on the bio page there are photos of me as a child, and one is of me reading Bambi with Uncle Ab at his house.

Uncle Ab died when I was pretty young. But not so young that I don’t remember him.

We used to have sleepovers there. And Aunt Elma said that one morning, Ab got up, came to the kitchen, sat down and said, “I’m going” and died.

My Uncle Carl and Aunt Elma Stahls also lived in our town. This would, again, be Great Uncle and Great Aunt, because Elma was the sister of Uncle Ab and Grandpa Jack. When I was young, Uncle Carl engraved a silver bracelet and brooch for me, and a matching set for my sister. I still have them.

My parents used to talk about how Uncle Carl was going to smoke himself to death. So, being smart, caring kids, my sister and I stole his cigarettes and hid them so that he couldn’t do that. Boy, did we get in trouble.

Uncle Carl got lung cancer and we watched that tall, strong man wither away and, eventually, die.
I was ten when I had my most serious brush with death. Oh, I’ve mentioned being hit by a car when I was eight (well, okay, my bike was hit by the car). Landed striking my head on something, requiring stitches. Then, just shy of my ninth birthday I partially severed my right foot and lost a lot of blood.

But it was when I was ten that I really thought I was going to die.

We were camping, and my sister, a friend and I had gone to the falls. We were lying on the rocks on the edge, letting the water cool us. I should dig up a picture of these falls, if I have one. It’s hard to explain. There was the bigger drop at the top, where there was a bridge that connected one bank of the river to the other. Then, a lot of rocks that the water rushed over.

I got pulled into what I’ll call a whirlpool, being sucked straight down. I could see through the water up to the trees that hung over the river from one side. The sky was more grey than blue, at least in my memory.

I almost climbed out on the far side of the river, but wasn’t strong enough. I was pulled back in, this time over a ridge of rock and down, toward the point where the river widened and swept away at a brisk current.

This was when I was pulled out. A group of people on the shore formed a lifeline, and reached in to the water to rescue me.

That’s the facts. Doesn’t quite convey the emotion of the experience.

I think, like most kids, I was scared of death. My experiences didn’t make me want to walk in cemeteries or hang out in morgues. Rather, I obsessed about it in my head, silently. I let fear paralyze me and govern some of my choices. While others were doing reckless, stupid things as a teenager, I was constantly aware of the potential outcome of their bad choices. The idea of going on benders, trying drugs… That was jumping back into the river, for me. I suppose the most critical impact it had was in making me aware of the fact that I wasn’t immortal, as so many teenagers think they are.

I’ve had a few other incidents. Some day, I should tell you our sailing horror story and how we rescued a guy coming in off English Bay, past Jericho Beach (this is Vancouver, for those of you who don’t know the waters there). White-knuckled as I was by the time we docked, I’ll never forget the people who said they’d never risk going out on a day like that, ever.

Well, we had no choice. We’d been moored off the islands for a few days when the winds picked up and we had to come in.

But when it comes to near death, the incident that always jumps to mind is the one that happened in the Sahara. Kevin and I were in a vehicle, part of a group of vehicles. We’d spent the morning watching the sun rise over the Sahara,

then riding camels. Then we were one our way north, toward the border with Algeria. Guess this is where I should mention we were in Tunisia, huh?

Our drivers decided to go over some sand dunes. This wasn’t part of the plan, Kevin and I were on jump seats without seatbelts, there was a couple in their 70s in the vehicle, one of whom had a heart condition. The driver went up over a large pile of sand and sailed over the top, too fast to see the steep incline. We landed on the nose of the vehicle, the whole world turning dark as the sand enveloped us.

We did the audio check. “Are you okay? Are you okay?” Everyone responded at first, and I was reaching forward to help the elderly woman, pulling her back off the floor, when I turned to see Kevin.

Who wasn’t okay.

He gets mad at me if I talk about it, but he was having a seizure. Then he stopped breathing.

I have never in my life been so scared.

It’s one thing to face death yourself. I’m not saying it’s pleasant, but you own your experience. I found it far more difficult to be powerless in that situation, overcome with the fear that my husband was dead.

Why he started breathing again is anyone’s guess. He did. That’s all that matters.

Funny how things can change you. Kevin’s former military, he’s a qualified social worker, he works in the business world.

And chooses to take risks by being with the fire department.

Sometimes, when we look death in the eye we recoil and try to protect ourselves, as I did for a number of years as a teen. I’d say I started getting brave at 18, when I went to Europe, watched the wall come down, stepped out into the world. Flew in an ultralight –wow. Considering I was afraid of flying, that was a cool experience. A liberating experience.

I am not fearless. In fact, I think in what I write, it’s far more about people coming to terms with their fears than anything. Well, in the books, anyway. Now I love to fly. I have sailed off the coast of Vancouver and around some of the Islands of Indonesia. I’ve snorkeled.

I would still say that drowning is a fear of mine. I have faced my fear of the water enough to do many things I once thought I’d never do.

I just won’t swim alone.

Maybe not irreparable after all. Maybe just on a slower road to mending with some things than others.

But I’m still afraid of spiders.

So fess up. Any lingering fears, nightmare experiences? And you should really read Anne’s post. She said in the comments not to feel sorry for her, and that’s something I relate to as well. No matter how challenging one’s life is, it may explain some things but it doesn’t excuse things. It just is.

And in a way, perhaps it’s better to face tough road when you’re younger. It makes everything you do experience something you cherish, instead of something you take for granted.

I got some great jokes (or things to make me smile) yesterday and will share a few. This one, courtesy of Norby

This one is classic. Thanks Kim!
Dear Dogs and Cats,

The dishes with the paw print are yours and contain your food. The other dishes are mine and contain my food. Please note, placing a paw print in the middle of my plate and food does not stake a claim for it becoming your food and dish, nor do I find that aesthetically pleasing in the slightest.

The stairway was not designed by NASCAR and is not a racetrack. Beating me to the bottom is not the object. Tripping me doesn't help because I fall faster than you can run.

I cannot buy anything bigger than a king-sized bed. I am very sorry about this. Do not think I will continue sleeping on the couch to ensure your comfort. Dogs and cats can actually curl up in a ball when they sleep. It is not necessary to sleep perpendicular to each other stretched out to the fullest extent possible. I also know that sticking tails straight out and having tongues hanging out the other end to maximize space is nothing but sarcasm.

For the last time, there is not a secret exit from the bathroom. If by some miracle I beat you there and manage to get the door shut, it is not necessary to claw, whine, meow, try to turn the knob, or get your paw under the edge and try to pull the door open. I must exit through the same door I entered.

I have been using the bathroom for years--canine or feline attendance is not necessary.

The proper order is kiss me, then go smell the other dog or cat's butt. I cannot stress this enough!

To pacify you my dear pets, I have posted the following message on our front door:

Rules for Non-Pet Owners Who Visit and Like to Complain About Our Pets:

1. They live here. You don't.

2. If you don't want hair on your clothes, stay off the furniture.
(That's why they call it "fur"niture ..)

3. I like my pets a lot better than I like most people.

4. To you, it's an animal. To me, he/she is an adopted son/daughter who is short, hairy, walks on all fours, and does not speak clearly.

Remember: Dogs and cats are better than kids because they: eat less, don't ask for money all the time, are easier to train, usually come when called, never drive your car, don't hang out with drug-using friends, don't smoke or drink, don't worry about having to buy the latest fashions, don't wear your clothes, don't need a gazillion dollars for college, and if they get pregnant, you can sell their children!!!

Isn't Tunisia beautiful? I'm so glad we went there.

FYI, I just finished Anne Frasier's new book, Pale Immortal. Full review in the next Spinetingler, but what a great read. Get it on your tbp list!

Okay, hmmmm. Another trivia question...

Email me at sandra.ruttan@spinetinglermag.com and tell me... Oh, I'm going to make this tough.

What is the name of The Bearded Wonderboy?

Clue: He is also the artist responsible for Skeleton Bob!

Tomorrow I will be posting on BSP here and on the Killer Year blog. I've got reader input and you won't want to miss this. If you have any thoughts on the topic, one last day today to email me with your horror stories of BSP you don't like, or BSP that worked for you...


angie said...

Good grief! The blogosphere is turning into the scary confessional.

My husband was in a car accident about 8 years ago. He was late and someone finally came in and told me he'd been in an accident. Evidently the accelerator in the Scout stuck, Andrew tried to shift into reverse & then bounced the truck off boulders. He was ejected. Some poor motorist came around the corner, saw him & stopped. Andrew is a first aid/CPR instructor, so he started telling this guy what to do - as in "I'm in shock, you need to do blah, blah, blah." What he didn't realize is that his head was split open to the bone, the flap hanging down over his left eye. When I got to the hospital & was finally able to see him, I didn't recognize him. His was head wrapped in gauze, his face so swollen and covered in dried blood it didn't look like him at all. I'll never forget holding onto his big toe(the only spot on his body that wasn't bruised or cut or didn't have tubes sticking out of it) while the ER team picked gravel and grass out of his head. Or the wet gray-white of his skull. Thing is, I didn't freak until almost a week later when I helped him take the bandages off. I was so afraid of what he'd think when he finally saw the wound. And then there was the general exhaustion and anxiety of the previous week. So yeah. Ick. Of course, Andrew's mom said when she found out he'd landed on his head she knew he'd be okay. Cause he's hard-headed. At the time I didn't think it was that damn funny.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Angie, I can sympathize with the fear, and also your thoughts on your mil's comment.

It's an example of how people often use humour to cope with extreme tragedy. I said something very inappropriate in the midst of 9/11. Well, we'd watched the events live on the news that morning, actually saw the second plane hit the tower, and I'd been dealing with distraught kids all day. My then neighbours, my best friends, are a nurse and firefighter couple. I called to see if they wanted to watch the news (they didn't have a tv) and made a very flippant remark I regretted.

Although, under the circumstances, I think everyone understood it was the stress.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Love those House Rules for Furries.

I once swam in the Baltic despite three red balloons being out and of course, got hit by a current that swept me offshore. Strangely, I wasn't afraid at all, I just kept swimming and thought, either the Life Guard will get me or I will drown, it really doesn't matter.

They got me in time and were surprised how calm I was.

Maybe deep down, I'm suicidal. It won't be a surprise.

anne frasier said...

aww, sandra. thanks so much for the link and the kind words about pale immortal. and it's nice to know my heavy post didn't scare everybody off. :D i actually don't think of that stuff as dark and depressing, although i know a lot of people do -- and they don't like to talk about it. for me it's always there anyway. it's a part of life.

i loved your near-death story. is that wrong of me??? :D

and i completely get the humor when it comes to those dark moments in life.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oddly enough Gabriele, staying calm probably saved your life. Sometimes, shock makes us numb...

Anne, I don't think it's wrong to be fascinated. The song I want played at my funeral, Long Night, has the line "Death is a mighty uniter, the defeat that comes to every fighter" and the thing about that is, it's the one thing we must all face. We don't remember our birth but most of us will have an awareness of dying. We look to the experiences of others to try to make sense of it, because the unknown is powerful and frightening.

Kevin hates talking about death. We haven't even done wills because he doesn't want to think about it. I can't say I blame him. He lost his brother some years ago, and things like that linger with you.

And in one of my 'duh' moments, it never really sunk in with me that in one of my books I have a dead kid shot in the head. I, uh, should likely never let my mother-in-law read that book. My subconscious working stuff out? Who knows.

angie said...

My mother-in-law is a be-yatch, hence the not funny. What WAS funny was that Andrew had a nasty black bruise right on his tailbone. We joked about him doing the Buddy Epson shuffle for a couple of weeks.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ah, okay Angie. I think I would have been pretty choked if it wasn't a bad joke.

Anonymous said...

I love to wallow in your posts, so much good stuff.

DesLily said...

It's not just dealing with near death experiences that can scare you witless... anything you cannot have one bit of control over will send you into a form of shock.. I felt it when i sat on top of an earthquake.
Also..when i was 9 my Nana (grandmother) died. We did the funeral and I saw my mother lean over and kiss her in the coffin.. we went for a long ride when it was all over (my mother needed to keep focused and driving did that for her).. I fell asleep in the back seat as I always did (otherwise I got car sick) when I woke I had blanked the whole funeral out of my head and asked my mother if we were going to the nurning home to see nana... the mind does strange things in crisis..

Sandra Ruttan said...

And everyone should read yours, Eileen, about handling a crisis. But I consider the compliment high praise!

DesLily, I agree about control. I think that's one of the things about crime - when someone intrudes on your home or your life or your possessions, even your neighbourhood, they've taken control from you, rendered you powerless. That is why crime is so frightening to people. It's beyond their capacity to cope with or address, and really, it's impossible to protect yourself from everything. End of the day, whatever motivates a criminal, it's really about taking power from others...

s.w. vaughn said...

BSP = Big Scary Publisher?

Please pardon my blog-norance :-)

That must have been terrifying, Sandra, to think Kevin wasn't going to make it. I might have had a heart attack myself in that situation.

Fears, huh? Think I can sum mine up fairly easily: People. People scare me. They can be so cruel in so many ways, whether it is small and petty or enormous and too horrifying for words. I don't trust easily (and yes, it does seem hypocritical coming from someone who is somewhat active online, but in real life I am painfully reticent).

Sandra Ruttan said...

Blatant Self Promotion SW!

It might be your reasons are different, but I think I understand what you mean about people, despite having a web presence. Here, you can control the exchange, to some extent. Tears can be concealed, you can be diplomatic despite the fact that you're growling as you type... Nobody makes anyone read my blog. It's a choice, quite unlike standing in front of someone who'd rather be anywhere but there, but feels forced to make polite small talk.

The thing is, people can hurt you. Oh, a lot of things can hurt you, but if you go to the things that hurt the most they're usually tied to feelings of betrayal, being let down. They're usually tied up in feelings connected with others.

I don't trust easily either, yet people consider me very open. And I pretty much am, though perhaps in person not as open as you'd think. I feel fairly certain some people I met recently saw that side of me.

Julia Buckley said...

Wow. I have ever-increasing respect for you and Bill both, and you make my insignificant phobias look like idiocy. Good for you for saying that your tough times make you "cherish every experience." Those are words to live by.

Unrelated note: I love the name Jericho Beach. You should title a book that.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Huh Julia... I never thought of using Jericho Beach. I certainly could, with the Canadian series. I love writing Vancouver. I think it will always be home to me, strangely enough.

But phobias aren't idiocy. Well, except for the chick with the fear of pickles - Anne Frasier supplied that link eons ago and it was hysterical. I mean, a fear of pickles?

I love pickle and cheese sandwiches. Weird or what?!

Anonymous said...

My husband had a kidney stone smashed six years ago and I ended up sitting there in the waiting room forever watching others come and go, with no idea of what was happening to my husband. The doctor had already been out and had told me that the nurse should be out to get me soon, but I swear it was over an hour later before the nurse came to tell me that they had waited because they were concerned about his blood pressure. I don't know if she thought I was going to sit back down after that, but she obviously thought better of it and took me back to him.

As far as my phobias, don't ever plan on me taking a walk outside after dark. Ever. Norby

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Unknown said...

Lingering fears? Oh goodness yes. Most of them came up after having children...I mean you bring children into this world and then look around you and wonder what have i done? My fears:

Planes(vacation from hell a few years ago didn't do anything to change that)

Death ( had a cousin die recently he was only 58...sudden heart attack...and he talked to his daughter a week before he died and said if I should die suddenly here's what I want done for funeral arrangements etc. He was in perfect health but some type of virus went to his heart)

All those diseases they keep talking about on tv - (bird flu, EEE (they are spraying tonight))

Cancer - my mother has had cancer and a good friend has had cancer

Car crashes (our neighbor died in a car crash a few years back and she was only 28).

Some days I feel like barricading myself in the house...it's a scary world out there. And so I read crime fiction...go figure. :)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Norby, I sympathize with you. It must have been awful to sit there, wondering. How horrid.

Andrea, Val McDermid once said (I'm going to badly paraphrase) that crime fiction was a safe way to confront what we feared and one helluva high. I should go dig out the link to the exact quote, but it was a good point.

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anne frasier said...

sandra, after reading your near-death story i can't stop thinking of lars von trier's europa. the visually stunning underwater body scene that is absolutely hypnotic and gorgeous. i don't remember much else about the movie, but that scene was beautiful.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I haven't seen that Anne - I don't know if I should check it out or not. White Squall was a bit harsh for me...

Tempest Knight said...

I almost drown when I was young. I was floating, grabbing nanny's skirt. The surf came and I lost my grip. I didn't know how to swim but I tried. I could see my mother in shore, but I would sink back. Suddenly someone pulled me up. I looked up and it was my aunt. For a long time I was afraid of the sea.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Tempest, I can imagine. It must have been a terrifying experience for you. Thank you for sharing your story.

Anonymous said...

My fear is dissapearing without a trace, or someone I know dissapearing. If I'm ever lost or catch the wrong train and no one knows where I am, I get panicky.

Daniel Hatadi said...

And thanks for sharing your thoughts too, Sandra. :)

My strongest fears are very surreal and hard to explain.

When I was a kid, I had this recurring dream that I was somehow suspended a few metres above the ground, but completely inside out. It was a very strange combination of being two-dimensional and three-dimensional at the same time. But that doesn't adequately explain it.

Hopefully it'll never come true.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Amra, that is a horrid fear. One I can understand. Carry a cell phone everywhere! Maybe get one of those microchips put in your ear! (Isn't it surprising we have them for dogs and not kids?)

Daniel, you've given me the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it. Out damn thought, out...

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