I have a cousin about my age who is lucky several times over to be alive. For reasons that will become clear in a minute, I’m not going to identify him. But he’s in the hospital recovering from his latest brush with death. I talked to him for about 40 minutes last night, and for someone who has been in the hospital for five weeks and is likely to stay there about five more, he was in remarkably good spirits. You can be in remarkably good spirits when you darned near died. I know; it once happened to me. But that’s a story for another time.
My cousin might have been involved in earlier death-defying incidents, but the first one I recall took place the summer I was 14 and he was 15, just before I came up for a monthlong visit. He was messing around with firecrackers and had a big one — a big one — that wouldn’t light and wouldn’t light and wouldn’t light … until it went off right in his face. Some of the packing found its way into his eye, and he also had some bad burns. They thought at first he might lose the sight in the eye, but he got it back.
My cousin was a fairly accomplished scuba diver. So accomplished, in fact, that he wanted to dive in the deepest part of a (small) lake. The deepest part, of course, is near the dam. So he went near the dam. So near that he got sucked through the outlet, scuba gear and all, and went butt over teakettle into the rocky stream below. Amazingly, he wasn’t injured. He could have gotten stuck and drowned.
Then there was the time he was at a ski slope and decided to drive his Subaru down the expert course late one night. I can’t remember whether he ever told me why. Maybe he just wanted to see if he could do it. Long story short, he hit a tree (even 4-wheel-drive Subarus can lose traction). Luckily, he wasn’t going quite fast enough to be seriously injured.
Then there’s the current incident. He was up on his roof blowing leaves out of the gutter, something he had done dozens of times before. He needed a little more slack on the cord, which had gotten kind of stuck around one of the corners of the roof. So he gave it a little whip to try to get it unstuck. It got unstuck, but the whip that came back up the cord caused him to lose his balance.
“I thought two things,” he told me last night. “The first thing was, ‘This is not good.’ And the second thing was, ‘This is gonna hurt.’ And that was before I’d even cleared the eaves.”
He fell two stories to his asphalt driveway, shattering both heels and breaking both legs, an arm and a rib. His cell phone undamaged, he called 911. The same volunteer fire department of which he has been a member for more than 30 years was dispatched to help him. After 14 hours in the ER, he went to a room, where he has been since. The heels are the big problem: He can’t put any weight on them at all until they mend. And they take longer to mend than other bones. So there he lies with his feet in the air. He has had several surgeries, including two to deal with postoperative infections. Amazingly, he’s expected to recover fully and resume his active lifestyle.
Meanwhile, friends and family have stopped by and called, his next-door neighbor is keeping an eye on his house, he has his computer and the hospital has wifi, and he has more books than he’ll ever get to before discharge. He still has to pee into a bedpan, but the way he sees it (and the way I see it), things could be a heck of a lot worse. As he put it, “I could have been paralyzed. Or an organ donor.”
His sister told me she wondered if he had a death wish. I pondered that question, too. I think the answer is no, particularly in light of this latest incident, which strikes me as purely accidental.
But his case reminds me in a way of my brother Frank, who had the lousiest luck as a kid. Fifteen of us would be sliding down a muddy bank, and it would be his butt that found the buried pitchfork. We and all our friends played sandlot football; Frank was the one who broke a collarbone twice in six weeks. That kind of thing.
But in terms of cheating death, my cousin has him way beat. So now I’m wondering 1) whether his number is finally up, or 2) I need to get him to buy me a lottery ticket.