How a Car Accident and Cancer Taught Me Different Things About Mortality

08/13/2013 04:08 pm 16:08:41 | Updated Oct 13, 2013

On October 21, 1996, I came literally two inches from dying. And it doesn't matter how you look at the physicality of it... two inches separated me from life and the afterlife.

I had been driving my Jeep home from a radio station event when I was hit from behind by a gentleman in a car so new that it still had the temporary license sticker in the windshield. Daisy, my beloved Wrangler, was sent into a violent spin towards the flip wall on I-70.

What occurred next truly cannot be explained away simply by using the laws of physics and geometry, but I assure you with every fiber of my being that it is exactly what happened.

As Daisy spun around and hit the wall, she started flipping. As I held on to the steering wheel for dear life, I inexplicably felt my hands let go and my arms raise up and out of my unzipped window. For lack of a better explanation, I was basically pulled out of the Jeep, mid-flip, by my wrists. In the next instant, I was flying backwards, face up, about four feet in the air... at 60 mph. I was watching my car flip wildly as I rapidly flew away from it.

And a split second before I hit the concrete, a voice popped into my head saying, "Dan, keep your head up." At that moment, I planted my chin onto my chest less than half a second before the first impact of my shoulders against the inner break-down lane of the Interstate.

I would hit the ground two more times, like a rock across a lake. I did not roll or tumble. My body simply skipped. At the third thud, my inertia had ceased. I looked up at the 11 p.m. sky, with a now-stopped tractor-trailer to my left, and the flip wall just to my right. I was in the direct center of the six-foot wide shoulder. If my trajectory had been two inches to my right, I would have hit the flip-wall head-first. Two inches to my left would have meant that I would have been run over by a semi. Had the back of my head been two inches lower, it would have been ripped off my body.

I took all of this in as I stood up. My hip was sore, as was my right shoulder blade. I also had a small bump on the back of my head. These feelings slowly came to me as I walked to my now upside-down baby. The roll cage had collapsed in the front, which meant that if I had stayed in the car, the top half of my body would have been literally crushed.

One of my back wheels was still slowly spinning. "Where Do You Go" by the group No Mercy was still pumping through the subs. "Cashmere" by Led Zeppelin would have been a cooler choice, but to quote Professor Jagger, "You can't always get what you want."

Tim, my co-worker who had been at the radio station event with me, and who had been into his pours, stopped his vehicle. He walked back to me, stared right into my eyes, and then walked towards the car. He got down on his hands and knees next to the window, because he was sure he would find my body in there after staring at my ghost.

I then proceeded to use his cell-phone to call my mother to let her know about my misfortune, and that I was bruised but not broken.

The ambulance came to take me away for testing and observation. They put me on a backboard on the side of the road while I protested, "Is all of this necessary?" The medic looked at the mangled wreck and then back to me.

"Are you kidding me, kid?"

As I lay on a backboard in the hospital hours later, an officer came in and said that it was a miracle I survived, as they had reconstructed that the person who hit me slowed down to just over 100 mph at the point of impact. I distinctly remember the words he spoke as he walked out the door:

"You're here for a reason, kid."

I was a 24-year-old male who had just lived through something that should have killed me ten different ways. I knew my reason for being there: I was invincible.

I was brash, arrogant, and selfish. "I'm here to enjoy my life. I'm here to follow my dreams. I'm here to make me happy. Thanks for sparing me God. I'll look you up at Christmas, and maybe Easter if I'm not too busy."

But like many things in my life, I was dead wrong... no pun intended.

In 2002, my life was exactly how I hoped it would be. I met the girl I thought I would marry, I was actually working in the discipline for which I went to school, I was making okay money, and I had not a care in the world. I hadn't thought of my little fender bender in literally years. Everything was perfect... save for a little back pain.

Of course, who knew that little back pain would turn out to be a tumor the size of a cantaloupe? Certainly not I. But a tumor it was... a tumor that was trying to accomplish what the jackass in a street racer couldn't accomplish six years prior.

Everything happened so fast on that October night. I never had time to think about my own mortality. And by the time I did, I was already fully healed, so the impact of the impact was miniscule.

But this was something vastly different. I had the rare opportunity to really face my mortality, and it put everything I had ever done into question. Had I chosen the right path? Had I made the most of my opportunities? Had I done my best, or wasted my time?

But then the questions changed. They became less about me and more about the world around me. Had I made a difference? Had I been able to help others? Had I done my best...

... or wasted my time?

It was after my diagnosis but before my treatment... or the end of the beginning... that I realized that I could learn a lot from the path I had been pushed on to. I may not have started this journey, but I was going to finish it on my own terms. I was going to look for the good in the bad, no matter how hard it would be. I was going to make the most of every moment I could.

And no, that doesn't mean, "I'm going to make this one of the most successful trips to vomit that I can. I won't be satisfied until puke up the soles of my Tevas! I'm going to upchuck a Brussels sprout... and I haven't had one of those in a decade!"

And while I had an insane will to live, I realized that regardless of the outcome, I would not waste the opportunity of my tragedy.

So I did what any of you would do: I asked my girlfriend to marry me... the day before I started chemo.

And then I made it my mission to completely turn my life around. I started to look for the beauty of life around me. I embraced the goodness in humanity and nature and God, and did my best to ignore the darkness that could envelop me from time to time.

These would prove to be elusive goals, however. And sometimes, I put the first "f" in effort. Sometimes the second, too, when I really loused things up.

But one thing I didn't fail to do was to pay attention to everything I endured, so that I could help someone, anyone, to have a more tolerable experience in their own fight.

During my walk with cancer, I thought a lot about that night in October, and at first I cursed myself for blowing an opportunity so many years ago. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could use it to help others realize that life is a gift that should be lived to the fullest, earnestly and passionately. Life is too short for it simply to happen to us. It is up to us to make the most of it for ourselves, and for others.

And I think I'm a good barometer, as I've been blessed enough to face death twice, in two vastly different circumstances, and I thank God for both experiences.

Because after all: if I don't have them, you're not reading this.

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