FACING DEATH, FACING LIFE
Todd Dewett | November 8, 2019
So far, death almost got me three times. If you’ve ever looked death in the face or been with someone who has, you know what I’m talking about. Nothing helps you realize how beautiful, amazing, and precious life is like facing death.
The first time I almost died I was in the third grade. A new kid named Trevor moved into the neighborhood. This was a suburb of Minneapolis at the beginning of winter – snow and ice were just starting to take over. He joined our merry crew of kids walking to school each morning. After a few days of walking around an ice-covered lake instead of over it, Trevor couldn’t take it. He wanted so badly to run out on the ice. It was something he’d never done before. This early in the season we all knew better. We told him not to do it. He didn’t listen.
We yelled at him as he went straight across the ice. Near the middle, the ice caved, as we knew it would, and the freezing water sucked Trevor down quickly. Our group didn’t know what to do. I’m not sure why, but my first instinct was to go get him. So I did. I didn’t follow the expert advice our parents had given us about walking on thin ice. I just ran to the hole, reached his one hand that was still sticking out of the water and pulled him out. Somehow the ice didn’t break. It should have.
Trevor and I survived. I wasn’t sure why. I remember feeling immensely lucky. What did I learn? The new kids don’t know what they’re doing. Even though you want to be a maverick, you have to learn when to listen to the group. There is strength in numbers because sometimes you’ll need a hand. Okay, those lessons weren’t clear for many years. At the time, I just felt lucky.
The second time I almost died I was a freshman in high school. I woke up one day with a pain off to one side below my stomach. It was mild but bad enough that I conned my mother into letting me stay home from school. I lounged on the couch and we watched her soap operas. Within a few hours I was doubled over in extreme pain. My mother freaked out because she knew I could take pain and wasn’t a complainer. I told her we needed to go to the hospital.
I remember nearly passing out from the pain, but the vomiting kept waking me up. A few rapid tests later and the doctor came in and informed me that my appendix was about to explode and had to come out – immediately. I was in surgery minutes later. In the recovery room they told me I was very lucky. I had a particularly bad case of appendicitis. They told me the organ almost ruptured and would have spread nasty bacteria all over the abdominal cavity – and that it is often deadly if not addressed quickly.
The lessons were clear this time. Don’t take your health for granted. Don’t assume you’ve got tomorrow. When you’re in pain, tell someone. I received a cool scar and these useful lessons. As I continued growing through college and beyond, I remembered these lessons. They helped me be more present. They helped me to act now, not later. They helped me remember to ask for help when I need it.
The third time I almost died I was forty-eight years old. I’d been a consultant and a professor, and somehow morphed into a writer and professional speaker. One of my clients held a big event at the Texas Motor Speedway. They asked me to deliver a keynote. They not only agreed to my fee, but they offered me a ride in a real NASCAR race car. Honestly, I was scared and thrilled at the same time.
I put on the big protective suit and helmet and they helped me climb through the open window of a mean looking machine. Five other people who were attending the event were also being helped into cars lined up in front of mine. They strapped me in, my driver bumped knuckles with me, and we took off. The speed was unimaginable and a little frightening. As we hit the second turn, I remember thinking it just seemed impossible to control these monsters while turning at well over 100 miles per hour.
The car twenty feet in front of us spun out. Once, and then twice – slamming into the wall. My driver jerked the car to the left, an emergency maneuver that likely saved our lives. We missed slamming into them by maybe three feet. He pulled off the track, followed by the rest of the cars. Emergency personnel rushed out. The driver was fine. His passenger was shaken up with a gash on her chin, but mostly okay. Believe it or not, an hour later we all went out again for a few more laps – including the injured woman.
For me, this near-death experience was about facing your fears. Trusting someone to do something you can’t do for yourself. It was about bouncing back after a setback to try again. It was about perseverance. I’ve never been a NASCAR person, but I loved the experience. It gave me a few valuable insights that I’ll remember as I continue trying new things in life.
I met a man once after giving a speech who wanted to share his story. Cancer left him with only one testicle. He said losing the other testicle was the greatest thing that ever happened to him. A few years later in that race car I remembered him and his story. I got it. Life is fleeting. It’s also amazing and full of potential far beyond what most of us dream. When you face death and survive, you face life in a new and heightened way – far less likely to take things for granted, more likely to be grateful and live fully. For that, I’m forever grateful.