My van skidded to a stop when the sign by the railroad track flashed red — there hadn’t been any advanced warning light. Seconds later, I felt the impact of the other vehicle crashing into my van, but at first, I didn’t know what had happened. Dazed, I heard the shrill whistle of the train before I saw it.
Still disoriented from the impact of being rear-ended, I hadn’t realized that the SUV behind me had been traveling fast enough to push my van onto the railroad tracks. Then — like something that happens only in movies — I saw the arms of the gates hem me in, and I heard the involuntary scream of terror escape my lips.
There are different pitches to screams. As a parent, you know when the note of your child’s scream means that there is a danger because it’s the kind of cry that sends a shiver up your spine. I have been scared many times in my life, but it was the first time I had heard a blood-curdling scream come from me. I have often wondered if the passengers in the SUV heard me. They must have braced themselves, thinking that my van was going to get pulverized by the oncoming train.
I remember how my scream filled my van. I recall turning to see the train coming toward me and hearing the whistle blaring. I thought, “I have to get out of the van; I am going to die, and my four children are not going to have a mother.”
Thank God, my mind started to work. I came to my senses, realizing that there was room to drive around the guard arm. Less than a minute later, the train passed by as I sat shaking in my seat.
All in the space of a minute, my life flashed before my eye, and for a couple of years, I experienced PTSD when driving.
It was the second time in my life that God had given me another chance. When I was 6, I saw — or imagined — my funeral as I bobbed up and down in the water, leaping up for a breath and a holler for help just before the water shrouded my head again. It was my brother’s friend who finally pulled me out coughing up water and shivering with fright.
Week of second chances
For me recently, this has been a time of meditating on second chances and how God allows close calls to happen to us to wake us up — to give us another opportunity to amend our lives and to stop wasting time.
The terrifying railroad track experience happened in 2014, and I had not thought of it in a long time until this month when two people that matter to me had a brush with death.
On Feb. 9, the father of my eldest daughter, Ella, died and was brought back to life. He and a friend were kayaking in a state park when their kayak T-boned a fallen log and capsized. Ella’s dad was trapped under the water, and by the time his buddy found him and pulled him out of the water, he was blue and without a pulse.
Only six days before, the friend had taken a recertification course for CPR, so he knew what to do. He performed three rounds of CPR before reviving Ella’s dad. The two men — shivering from the frigid waters and the falling night temperatures — waited for five hours on a 1-foot-wide muddy embankment that was up against a 100-foot cliff of granite rocks before a large rescue team finally located them.
Ella was able to be by her dad’s side while he recovered in the hospital. It will take time, but he is on the mend.
Always ready to die
A few days later, on Feb. 11, a friend and colleague of my mine, Leticia Velasquez, also had a brush with death. As she was leaving evening Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Patrick in Norwich, Connecticut, a speeding red sports car barreled toward her as she crossed the street using the crosswalk. Fortunately, the vehicle came to a screeching halt in the nick of time.
“He stopped close enough to me for me to touch the hood of the car while I looked at him in disbelief,” said Velasquez, author of A Special Mother is Born (WestBow Press, 2011).
She added, “There was a news camera team on the corner, and they remarked on what a close call it was. I answered, ‘Good thing I was just leaving church, so I was ready to go to heaven!’”
Speaking with Leticia about how a near-death experience gives one a new lease on life, she said, “I had an Irish grandma who thankfully reminded me that we must always be ready to meet God, so I grew up with eternity in mind, and the urgency of being in a state of grace at all times.”
As I prayed for Ella’s dad — fearing that he could die again — I wondered if God called me home today, was I ready? Have I done enough to make the world a better place? Have I loved unselfishly? Have I put God before myself?
Taking a hard look at myself, I see that I have made some improvements, but I also own the amount of time I waste seeking comforts and living my life vicariously through Netflix and Hulu rather than really living and loving deeply.
Coincidentally — though I don’t believe in coincidences — the morning I decided to write about this topic for my Everyday Miracles column, I received in the mail a review copy of Remembering Your Death: Memento Mori (Pauline Books & Media, 2019) by Theresa Aletheia Nobel, FSP. This book is a devotional designed for use through Lent to Easter Sunday. Memento mori means to “remember your death” and is an ancient practice in the Church too long forgotten by most Catholics.
Sr. Nobel writes about the fruits of contemplating your death:
Even if one does not believe the Christian message of salvation, the rich, ancient tradition of remembering death can bring joy, focus, and fruitfulness to anyone’s life. However, for the Christian, it is a practice that extends beyond the reality of the earthly life and bodily death. In the power of Jesus Christ, the Christian practice of memento mori reaches past the horizon of this life and into the eternal happiness of heaven. The power of the cross amplifies the benefits of memento mori because the practice is fueled not merely by personal discipline but by God’s abundant living grace. As Christians, we remember our death in order to remember our life.
For my Everyday Miracles column next month read how my friend, Sr. Sheila Cigich’s miraculous, documented healing from mental illness inspired her to dedicate herself to God and to form an order for late vocations called the Sisters of Divine Grace.