The Slippery Slope of Mortality

Nameless Creek
Nameless Creek

I thought I might die. Stupid way to go, really, but not unprecedented–to choke to death, at home, alone.

I could breathe, mind you. It was only a stupid bit of chip I inhaled while laughing (“My Cousin Vinny” I think was the cause) and at first it was only a mild nuisance of irritation just past the point in the back of the throat where voluntary muscles can contract to expel bits bound ominously for the trachea and parts south.

But an hour later, somehow it passed the point of no return, and my gag reflexes would have none of it. I heaved and hacked, choked and gagged–quite disturbing the poor dog. After a bit, I was on all fours, tears flooding my eyes from the general irritation of all parts from the neck up.

And in the end, it might have been a freaking heart attack that would have got me, the reflexes were so violent and unrelenting. I thought there for a while it had happened, but it turned out it was just a rib-sternum strain that got better over time. And the tickle, though I never coughed up the offending crumb, went away.

Maybe that distant brush with the hem of the garment of the Grim Reaper made me somewhat more reckless this morning than I would have otherwise been–to have (in my mind) come close to a stupid, pathetic domestic death indoors when there are many much more glamorous ways and places to go.

This morning out there alone, it could have happened on the slippery rocks. I could have screamed my bloody head off and nobody would have heard me or found me with a broken hip in the ravine for days, my smashed camera lying somewhere in the cold water at the bottom of a boulder.

But I’d have been doing what I loved, surrounded by the mountains to which I belong.

I obviously survived, but it was pretty stupid–especially the climbing up the sides of the gorge to the old road instead of retracing my steps back down the cascades of the creek to where the banks are not so steep. Had to see if I could do it. I could.

Heading home once I’d “clum up” out of the gorge, I soon passed the Four Poplars just past the Sitting Bench. I went back and sat for a few minutes, needing to catch my breath and regroup; I’d left the house on an impulse, after all.

Now it’s not likely to happen because I cannot imagine we’ll be able to afford to keep this place until we’re both gone. But if we do, I have said and at least imagine it happening that my ashes will reside down in the deep cleavage of these four massive poplar trees near my “Fortress of Solitude.” (They’re bigger than they look in this picture.)

It’s a strange thing to think about, but to do so is to give your survivors one less decision to make. So here it is: November_09_0832fourPoplars480

Make it a Mason Jar. And put it right down as deep in that quadfurcation as you can stick the matter that was me that didn’t matter so much in the end as the volatile spirit that once inhabited those ashes.

Come wrap your arms around one of those big trees now and then, and follow their lines up to the sky above. What a good life it was!

Is. Not going anywhere soon, if I have a thing to do with it. And an occasional brush with one’s own mortality–by chance or by choice–isn’t such a bad thing, after all.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Scary Fred – we take our lives for granted – my mum called me last night and told me that she thought she would die in the night – no call yet – and said good bye. In a way any night could be our last and maybe we don’t pay enough attention to life?

    Good to have you here

  2. Something about the melange of the fall season, the dawning of one’s own middle age, and relentless march of aging parents is shifting my thinking a bit from that of explorer to curator…

  3. You do something long enough and it becomes involuntary in a way. Having retired from over thirty years of heavy construction has not lessened that ingrown safety mindedness.

    First thing that hit me: “Dang, Fred! Be careful! That’s a violation!”

    Sure glad you’re OK, Buddy.

    P.S.: By the way, the first question on an Accident Report Form is “What could have been done to avoid this injury?”.

  4. Guess we all need a little Stupid in our lives — feeds our souls in ways that Careful never can. That said, I’m not sure which admonition to offer (but I’ll admit the former is my gut response after reading of your Goose Creek exploits today…):

    Be careful, stupid!
    Be stupid, careful!

    Love you, old man.

  5. Yes, the occasional brush against the thin veil can be a good thing, as you’ve shown us with your beautiful reflection. We don’t welcome it but when it happens and we survive, yahoo. I especially like the Mason jar at the base of the poplars.

  6. I like the Mason jar, and the request that we come and wrap our arms around one of those big trees now and then. I believe I feel about trees as you do, so I think that is indeed the way to be comforted and uplifted.

  7. Egads! So this happened, what, within a day or two of my visit? And I would have been left with the somewhat unsettling thought that, after something like 15 or 20 years’ absence, I finally come to visit you mere hours before your untimely demise from a wayward Dorito! Don’t scare me like that, Fred!

    All kidding aside, I’m glad you’re alright. We’ll take the Mason jar under advisement, but I doubt you’re going anywhere soon. Actually I had a similar experience not all that long ago. At home, all alone in the kitchen, trying desperately to reroute a too-rapidly-consumed cheese cracker, I remember thinking, “Are Kitty and Claire actually going to come home from the barn to find me lying here dead from choking on my lunch? Forty-something years on this planet and THIS is how it’s supposed to end for me? I don’t think so.” I believe I actually punched myself in the solar plexus a few times and finally got it going down the right tube.

    Like you’re always telling us, Fred: slow down. That goes for meals as well. 😉