Story and Illustration by Joel Vaughn, Staff Writer
Dear Cousin Jack,
when I was twelve you asked if ever had a near-death experience. You must have been only ten or eleven at the time and while you weren’t more than a lanky bespectacled kid your ‘my-bible-my-rifle’ southern machismo was so well-ingrained that you insisted that you had already seen the light at the end of the tunnel. I can’t say I remember what exactly you were so proud of having lived through, Jack, but I can remember the shame of not having my own brush with death to retell at the time.
But now I’ve lived twice as much life and have had twice as many opportunities to die, so now you can hear that near-death story you had so desperately wanted me to share.
Jack, how irresponsible were you at 21-years-old? I know you were probably in the Army by then, and while I have my quibbles with the armed services, I can appreciate that the stress of enlistment is enough to drive the most straight-edge of us to the bottle.
I myself, like most red-blooded Americans, spent half of 21 as a high functioning alcoholic. Of course, I eventually grew out of it. I went from crushing a six pack in grocery store parking lots to sipping a glasses of wine in bubble baths, from guzzling Cinnamon Smirnoff to flinching at the mention of whiskey burn. But most importantly, I went from occasionally driving around like a drunken maniac to only going out when I have the spare change for Uber.
Now, Jack, I urge you to never drive drunk. I’m sure it’s been spoon-fed to you through PSAs so bland they defeat their own purpose, from Uncle Terry and Aunt Cherry’s moralizing mouths, but to break from my story for a moment: the worst and far too likely result from driving fucked up is that you crash, kill yourself, and maybe someone else to. So don’t.
My collision course with death started with a shot glass of Popov hitting the bottom of a pint glass of Coors. That was the first step to dousing myself in the necessary liquid courage to belt out Adele’s Rolling in the Deep with strangers in a karaoke booth. It was a coworker’s birthday with an open bar, so I followed that first boilermaker with a martini, a whiskey sour, and a gin fizz to keep the party going.
Come two a.m. my coworker offered up a couch to crash on that I denied for fear of my car being towed and the assumption that half a pack of cigarettes and vomiting the whole of my stomach's contents would’ve sobered me up. I have to tell you, Jack, no one decides to drive drunk. Typically, an intoxicated driver doesn’t even realize they’re drunk ‘till half way back home.
There I was, on Highway Five, slapping my face to stay awake and alive till I nodded off and possibly died. Looking back on it three years later leaves the details a bit fuzzy, but I haven’t forgotten the sound of my Volvo 240 grinding at 70 miles per hour against a freeway barrier, the wild jerk of my arm on the wheel that sent me swerving on the open early morning freeway.
Now, Jack, you may ask yourself why I’m ruminating on this youthful mishap and your childhood inquires into near-death experiences so many years later. Well it’s cause I might actually be dead. I might have died that night, and I’m penning this letter to you in either purgatory or hell.
Maybe that’s too extreme, but I’m accepting of that option. This, of course, conflicts with my atheism, but what does that matter when I need to accept that I fucked up and might actually be dead. You were too young to realize it at the time, Jack, but that’s what nearing death teaches us.