I'm in Arizona right now, going through old family photos and contemplating the meaning of life. Saturday I attended my grandmother's funeral in Phoenix. Thoughts of that upcoming occasion undoubtedly contributed to my feelings of impending doom while hiking and skiing Lone Pine Peak (not that the route needed any assistance in that regard).
We drove out Friday from L.A. to Phoenix, taking the 60. A black car appeared behind us, going extremely fast. They tailgated me for a short while, allowing me to look at the drivers' and passengers' faces--they all looked like kids. And then the car shot past us on the right, and accelerated away at a rate uncommon even for L.A. drivers.
A minute or so later, the freeway backed up ahead, and we slowed to a crawl. It was the black car, in pieces. We drove right through the debris field. Both sides of the freeway were coming to a stop. At the accident site, I saw that face in my rearview now belonging to a body on the pavement. Four people were killed when that car slammed into the center divider. At least one was actually thrown out of the car onto the east-bound side of the freeway. Shortly after that, the freeway was closed for hours in both directions, but we slipped past, unharmed but shaken, headed for my grandmother's funeral.
I think it was at the funeral of my great-grandfather, many years ago, that I first caught a glimpse of the implicit meaning behind funerals. I was still very young myself, but I remember a moment at the service where I was standing behind my father, who was standing behind his father, who was looking at the body of his father. And I sensed that something large and inexorable had just moved--a great wheel had turned, and with it my place in the world had changed. I was one notch closer to something. And what that Something might be was something best not contemplated, at least not then.
Not everyone is lucky in this world, in that not everyone gets to die in their proper place. That car full of kids made for a very different funeral, I'm sure, than the ceremony of my 97-year-old grandmother, a celebration (saddened by her loss, to be sure!) of her extraordinary life, including her achieving a career in Eastern Europe as a dentist in the 1930's (almost unheard of for a woman in that time and place), her fleeing with my grandfather and their two sons to America during World War II, and then her giving up her career to raise two children so that my grandfather could teach himself English, and then pass the medical board exams in this country so he could resume his practice as a doctor.
As a father myself, I now have access not only to knowledge of how we leave this world, but also of how we enter it. I see how impossibly mysterious Life is. Wonderful and horrible and magic and tragic and funny and more than can be possibly described or even hinted at. In my mind, I see my grandmother as I remember her, and then earlier, as a young mother, as a young woman, a little girl, a baby in her mother's womb, an idea in the minds of two people I never met. I see the connection from me through my father through her through time itself, and I am a dazzled and mystified by it.
Time is short. Life is precious. The Great Wheel has turned.
Irene Anna Lewicky
March 23, 1911 - April 1, 2008
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